Microsoft

Microsoft Dismisses Consumer Reports' Surface Complaints, But Doesn't Offer Much Evidence 66

Microsoft has publicly responded to Consumer Reports, saying that it disagrees with the publication's Surface reliability findings. But the company hasn't offered much in the way of evidence. In a blog post, Surface chief Panos Panay writes: In the Surface team we track quality constantly, using metrics that include failure and return rates -- both our predicted 1-2-year failure and actual return rates for Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book are significantly lower than 25%. Additionally, we track other indicators of quality such as incidents per unit (IPU), which have improved from generation to generation and are now at record lows of well below 1%. Surface also ranks highly in customer satisfaction. 98% of Surface Pro 4 users and Surface Book users say they are satisfied with their device, and our Surface Laptop and new Surface Pro continue to get rave reviews. Long-time watcher Paul Thurrott writes: Does changing the time frame from "by the end of the second year of ownership" to "1-2 year failure rate" skew the results because more failures happen later in a product's lifetime? Also, he introduces the notion of "return rates" here. By definition, the feedback that Consumer Reports receives is from product owners, not those who have returned products. If someone is almost two years into device ownership, they are not returning the product. They're just using it. And dealing with it. So consider the issue muddled, in just one carefully-constructed sentence. Which I believe was crafted to confuse the issue. But there is more. "Additionally, we track other indicators of quality such as incidents per unit (IPU), which have improved from generation to generation and are now at record lows of well below 1 percent," Panay offers. It's not possible to understand how an "incident" relates to a "failure." Mostly because he doesn't explain the term. Likely because doing so would betray that this is an apples to oranges comparison. [...] I will point the reader to Welcome to Surfacegate, my description of Microsoft's feeble attempts to ignore and then slowly fix endemic issues with those exact two Surface models. And anecdotally, I'll point to the fact that the three Surface Book models I've used have all had reliability problems. But the biggest issue I have with "customer satisfaction" is that it's kind of a bullshit measurement when it comes to premium products.
United States

Hearing Loss of US Diplomats In Cuba Is Blamed On Covert Device (bostonglobe.com) 224

bsharma shares a report from The Boston Globe: The two-year-old U.S. diplomatic relationship with Cuba was roiled Wednesday by what U.S. officials say was a string of bizarre incidents that left a group of American diplomats in Havana with severe hearing loss attributed to a covert sonic device. In the fall of 2016, a series of U.S. diplomats began suffering unexplained losses of hearing, according to officials with knowledge of the investigation into the case. Several of the diplomats were recent arrivals at the embassy, which reopened in 2015 as part of former President Barack Obama's reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Some of the diplomats' symptoms were so severe that they were forced to cancel their tours early and return to the United States, officials said. After months of investigation, U.S. officials concluded that the diplomats had been exposed to an advanced device that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences. It was not immediately clear if the device was a weapon used in a deliberate attack, or had some other purpose.
United States

US Product Safety Commission Warns That Some Fidget Spinners Explode (cnn.com) 97

An anonymous reader quotes a report from CNN: Fidget spinners are supposed to be calming and fun, especially for students struggling to focus. But after some dangerous incidents involving the popular gizmos, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued new fidget spinner safety guidance for consumers and businesses. There have been a handful of choking incidents reported with the toys, as well as two instances of battery-operated spinners catching on fire and another incident in which a fidget spinner melted, the agency said. No deaths have been reported. The agency also issued safety guidance on battery-operated fidget spinners. Consumers should always be present when the product is charging, never charge it overnight and always use the cable it came with, the statement said. Users should unplug their spinner immediately once it's fully charged and make sure they have working smoke detectors in their home.

"As the agency investigates some reported incidents associated with this popular product, fidget spinner users or potential buyers should take some precautions," Ann Marie Buerkle, acting chief of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said in a statement. "Keep them from small children; the plastic and metal spinners can break and release small pieces that can be a choking hazard; and older children should not put fidget spinners in their mouths." Fidget spinners should be kept away from children under the age of 3, the statement said.

Security

Scientists Create DNA-Based Exploit of a Computer System (technologyreview.com) 43

Archeron writes: It seems that scientists at University of Washington in Seattle have managed to encode malware into genomic data, allowing them to gain full access to a computer being used to analyze the data. While this may be a highly contrived attack scenario, it does ask the question whether we pay sufficient attention to data-driven exploits, especially where the data is instrument-derived. What other systems could be vulnerable to a tampered raw data source? Perhaps audio and RF analysis systems? MIT Technology Review reports: "To carry out the hack, researchers led by Tadayoshi Kohno and Luis Ceze encoded malicious software in a short stretch of DNA they purchased online. They then used it to gain 'full control' over a computer that tried to process the genetic data after it was read by a DNA sequencing machine. The researchers warn that hackers could one day use faked blood or spit samples to gain access to university computers, steal information from police forensics labs, or infect genome files shared by scientists. To make the malware, the team translated a simple computer command into a short stretch of 176 DNA letters, denoted as A, G, C, and T. After ordering copies of the DNA from a vendor for $89, they fed the strands to a sequencing machine, which read off the gene letters, storing them as binary digits, 0s and 1s. Yaniv Erlich, a geneticist and programmer who is chief scientific officer of MyHertige.com, a genealogy website, says the attack took advantage of a spill-over effect, when data that exceeds a storage buffer can be interpreted as a computer command. In this case, the command contacted a server controlled by Kohno's team, from which they took control of a computer in their lab they were using to analyze the DNA file." You can read their paper here.
AMD

AMD Ryzen Threadripper Launched: Performance Benchmarks Vs Intel Skylake-X (hothardware.com) 121

Reader MojoKid writes: AMD continues its attack on the desktop CPU market versus Intel today, with the official launch of the company's Ryzen Threadripper processors. Threadripper is AMD's high-end, many-core desktop processor, that leverages the same Zen microarchitecture that debuted with Ryzen 7. The top-end Ryzen Threadripper 1950X is a multi-chip module featuring 16 processor cores (two discrete die), with support for 32 threads. The base frequency for the 1950X is 3.4GHz, with all-core boost clocks of up to 3.7GHz. Four of the cores will regularly boost up to 4GHz, however, and power and temperature permitting, those four cores will reach 4.2GHz when XFR kicks in. The 12-core Threadripper 1920X has very similar clocks and its boost and XFR frequencies are exactly the same. The Threadripper 1920X's base-clock, however, is 100MHz higher than its big brother, at 3.5GHz. In a litany of benchmarks with multi-threaded workloads, Threadripper 1950X and 1920X high core-counts, in addition to strong SMT scaling, result in the best multi-threaded scores seen from any single CPU to date. Threadripper also offers massive amounts of memory bandwidth and more IO than other Intel processors. Though absolute power consumption is somewhat high, Threadrippers are significantly more efficient than AMD's previous-generation processors. In lightly-threaded workloads, Threadripper trails Intel's latest Skylake-X CPUs, however, which translates to lower performance in applications and games that can't leverage all of Threadripper's additional compute resources. Threadripper 1950X and 1920X processors are available starting today at $999 and $799, respectively. On a per-core basis, they're less expensive than Intel Skylake-X and very competitively priced.
Hardware

Consumer Reports Pulls Microsoft Laptop Recommendation (go.com) 126

The breakage rate for Microsoft's Surface devices is significantly worse than for other manufacturers' laptops and tablets, Consumer Reports said, adding that it was removing its "recommended" designation for Surface products. From a report: The consumer advocacy group said Thursday that it can no longer recommend Microsoft laptops or tablets because of poor reliability compared to other brands. Microsoft said the findings don't accurately reflect Surface owners' "true experiences." The consumer group says Microsoft machines have performed well in laboratory testing. But a subscriber survey found start-up and freezing problems. The devices losing their "recommended" status are the Surface Laptop (128GB and 256GB versions) and Surface Book (128GB and 512GB versions).
Software

Researchers Build True Random Number Generator From Carbon Nanotubes (ieee.org) 144

Wave723 writes: IEEE Spectrum reports on a true random number generator that was created with single-walled semiconducting carbon nanotubes. Researchers at Northwestern University printed a SRAM cell with special nanotube ink, and used it to generate random bits based on thermal noise. This method could be used to improve the security of flexible or printed electronics. From the report: "Once Mark Hersam, an expert in nanomaterials at Northwestern University, and his team had printed their SRAM cell, they needed to actually generate a string of random bits with it. To do this, they exploited a pair of inverters found in every SRAM cell. During normal functioning, the job of an inverter is to flip any input it is given to be the opposite, so from 0 to 1, or from 1 to 0. Typically, two inverters are lined up so the results of the first inverter are fed into the second. So, if the first inverter flips a 0 into a 1, the second inverter would take that result and flip it back into a 0. To manipulate this process, Hersam's group shut off power to the inverters and applied external voltages to force the inverters to both record 1s. Then, as soon as the SRAM cell was powered again and the external voltages were turned off, one inverter randomly switched its digit to be opposite its twin again. 'In other words, we put [the inverter] in a state where it's going to want to flip to either a 1 or 0,' Hersam says. Under these conditions, Hersam's group had no control over the actual nature of this switch, such as which inverter would flip, and whether that inverter would represent a 1 or a 0 when it did. Those factors hinged on a phenomenon thought to be truly random -- fluctuations in thermal noise, which is a type of atomic jitter intrinsic to circuits." Hersam and his team recently described their work in the journal Nano Letters.
Android

T-Mobile To Launch Its Own Branded Budget Smartphone (cnet.com) 16

In a throwback to a time when carriers differentiated themselves by branding and selling exclusive phones, T-Mobile announced Wednesday that it's launching its very own budget Android smartphone called the Revvl. CNET reports: The Revvl, which runs on Android Nougat, offers pretty basic specs: a 5.5 inch HD display, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera a 5-megapixel front-facing camera. But it also throws in a fingerprint sensor and will cost T-Mobile customers just $5 a month with no down payment through the company's Jump! upgrade program. It goes on sale Thursday. In a blog post, T-Mobile COO Mike Sievert said the company is catering to those who want the latest smartphone technology but can't afford to pay for high-end devices.
Privacy

Disney Sued For Allegedly Spying On Children Through 42 Gaming Apps (washingtonpost.com) 40

schwit1 shares a report from The Washington Post (Warning: may be paywalled; alternative source): The Walt Disney Co. secretly collects personal information on some of their youngest customers and shares that data illegally with advertisers without parental consent, according to a federal lawsuit filed late last week in California. The class-action suit targets Disney and three other software companies -- Upsight, Unity and Kochava -- alleging that the mobile apps they built together violate the law by gathering insights about app users across the Internet, including those under the age of 13, in ways that facilitate "commercial exploitation."

The plaintiffs argue that Disney and its partners violated COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal law designed to protect the privacy of children on the Web. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California, seeks an injunction barring the companies from collecting and disclosing the data without parental consent, as well as punitive damages and legal fees. The lawsuit alleges that Disney allowed the software companies to embed trackers in apps such as "Disney Princess Palace Pets" and "Where's My Water? 2." Once installed, tracking software can then "exfiltrate that information off the smart device for advertising and other commercial purposes," according to the suit. Disney should not be using those software development companies, said Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "These are heavy-duty technologies, industrial-strength data and analytic companies whose role is to track and monetize individuals," Chester said. "These should not be in little children's apps."
Disney responded to the lawsuit, saying: "Disney has a robust COPPA compliance program, and we maintain strict data collection and use policies for Disney apps created for children and families. The complaint is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of COPPA principles, and we look forward to defending this action in court."
Power

Mass Market Hopes For Battery-free Cell Phone Technology (reuters.com) 102

Mark Hanrahan, writing for Reuters: Researchers in the United States have unveiled a prototype of a battery-free mobile phone, using technology they hope will eventually come to be integrated into mass-market products. The phone is the work of a group of researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle and works by harvesting tiny amounts of power from radio signals, known as radio frequency or 'RF' waves. "Ambient RF waves are all around us so, as an example, your FM station broadcasts radio waves, your AM stations do that, your TV stations, your cellphone towers. They all are transmitting RF waves," team member Vamsi Talla told Reuters. The phone is a first prototype and its operation is basic - at first glance it looks little more than a circuit board with a few parts attached and the caller must wear headphones and press a button to switch between talking and listening.
Robotics

AI Factory Boss Will Tell Workers and Robots How To Work Together (fastcompany.com) 54

tedlistens writes from a report via Fast Company: Robots are consistent, indefatigable workers, but they don't improvise well. Changes on the assembly line require painstaking reprogramming by humans, making it hard to switch up what a factory produces. Now researchers at German industrial giant Siemens say they have a solution: a factory that uses AI to orchestrate the factory of the future, by both programming factory robots and handing out assignments to the humans working alongside them. The program, called a "reasoner," figures out the steps required to make a product, such as a chair; then it divides the assignments among machines based their capabilities, like how far a robotic arm can reach or how much weight it can lift. The team has proved the technology can work on a small scale with a test system that uses just a few robots to make five types of furniture (like stools and tables), with four kinds of leg configurations, six color options, and three types of floor-protector pads, for a total of 360 possible products.

Siemens's originally gave its automated factory project the badass Teutonic moniker "UberManufacturing." They weren't thinking of the German word connoting "superior," however, but rather of the on-demand car service. Part of their vision is that automated factories can generate bids for specialty, limited-run manufacturing projects and compete for customers in an online marketplace. "You could say, 'I want to build this stool,' and whoever has machines that can do that can hand in a quote, and that was our analogy to Uber," says Florian Michahelles, who heads the research group.

Transportation

You Can Trick Self-Driving Cars By Defacing Street Signs (bleepingcomputer.com) 272

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Bleeping Computer: A team of eight researchers has discovered that by altering street signs, an adversary could confuse self-driving cars and cause their machine-learning systems to misclassify signs and take wrong decisions, potentially putting the lives of passengers in danger. The idea behind this research is that an attacker could (1) print an entirely new poster and overlay it over an existing sign, or (2) attach smaller stickers on a legitimate sign in order to fool the self-driving car into thinking it's looking at another type of street sign. While scenario (1) will trick even human observers and there's little chance of stopping it, scenario (2) looks like an ordinary street sign defacement and will likely affect only self-driving vehicles. Experiments showed that simple stickers posted on top of a Stop sign fooled a self-driving car's machine learning system into misclassifying it as a Speed Limit 45 sign from 67% to 100% of all cases. Similarly, gray graffiti stickers on a Right Turn sign tricked the self-driving car into thinking it was looking at a Stop sign. Researchers say that authorities can fight such potential threats to self-driving car passengers by using an anti-stick material for street signs. In addition, car vendors should also take into account contextual information for their machine learning systems. For example, there's no reason to have a certain sign on certain roads (Stop sign on an interstate highway).
Intel

Intel's 8th-Gen 'Coffee Lake' Core CPUs Will Be Revealed During the Great American Eclipse (pcworld.com) 98

Brad Chacos, writing for PCWorld: Intel's response to AMD's disruptive Ryzen processors is soon to get its time in the sun. Well, sort of. On Tuesday, Intel announced plans to livestream the launch of its 8th-generation "Coffee Lake" processors on August 21 -- the same day that the great American solar eclipse casts its shadow across the United States. Intel's throwing shade. Eighth-gen Coffee Lake chips will be built using a revised version of Intel's 14nm process technology for an unprecedented fourth time, following in the footsteps of Broadwell, Skylake, and Kaby Lake architectures. You'll probably also need a new motherboard to use them. But most notably, Intel claims 8th-gen Core chips will be up to 30 percent faster than today's Kaby Lake processors in some applications. Intel chips haven't seen a performance leap like that in years. Beyond that, little is officially known about Coffee Lake, though the churning internet rumor mill thinks that Intel will up the core counts this time around to combat the threat of Ryzen.
EU

Massive Solar Plant In the Sahara Could Help Keep the EU Powered (digitaltrends.com) 257

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Digital Trends: In the global race to ditch fossil fuel reliance for more renewable energy sources, Europe is already making some impressive strides. That is likely to ramp up considerably thanks to a new European Union plan to build a large solar plant in the Sahara desert -- with the ability to generate enough power to keep much of Europe juiced up. In all, the enormous solar farm aims to produce 4.5 gigawatts of power, which can then be transmitted across the Mediterranean from Tunisia to mainland Europe. TuNur's proposed solar farm utilizes an enormous quantity of mirrors to reflect sunlight onto a central collector, which uses molten salt to store the energy as heat. Three HVDC submarine cables will then transport the power to Europe. The first cable will link Tunisia and Malta, the second will link Tunisia to central Italy, and a third will link Tunisia to the south of France. "We are opening a new energy corridor to allow Europe to import cheap solar power from the Sahara on a massive scale," Daniel Rich, Chief Operating Officer of TuNur, the company behind the project, told Digital Trends. "This will help Europe meet its Paris Climate Agreement emissions reduction commitments quickly and cost effectively. It also will give a much-needed boost to the Tunisia economy through significant investment into the country, creation of thousands of jobs, new tax revenues, and the establishment of a new solar industry that can help support their future domestic demand."
AMD

Preview of AMD Ryzen Threadripper Shows Chip Handily Out-Pacing Intel Core i9 (hothardware.com) 180

MojoKid writes: AMD is still days away from the formal launch of their Ryzen Threadripper family of 12 and 16-core processors but OEM system builder Dell and its Alienware gaming PC division had an inside track on first silicon in the channel. The Alienware Area-51 Threadripper Edition sports a 16-core Ryzen Threadripper 1950X processor that boosts to 4GHz with a base clock of 3.4GHz and an all-core boost at 3.6GHz. From a price standpoint, the 16-core Threadripper chip goes head-to-head with Intel's 10-core Core i9-7900X at a $999 MSRP. In early benchmark runs of the Alienware system, AMD's Ryzen Threadripper is showing as much as a 37% percent performance advantage over the Intel Core i9 Skylake-X chip, in highly threaded general compute workload benchmarks like Cinebench and Blender. In gaming, Threadripper is showing roughly performance parity with the Core i9 chip in some tests, but trailing by as much as 20% in lower resolution 1080p gaming, as is characteristic for many Ryzen CPUs currently, in certain games. Regardless, when you consider the general performance upside with Ryzen Threadripper versus Intel's current fastest desktop chip, along with its more aggressive per-core pricing (12-core Threadripper at $799), AMD's new flagship enthusiast/performance workstation desktop chips are lining up pretty well versus Intel's.

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