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CES 2015: Quadcopter Combat with "Game of Drones"

Will and Norm battle in the desert with quadcopters--or at least do their best--at a Game of Drones event during CES. We learn about the rules of safe quadcopter combat and chat with Game of Drones' founder to discuss the reasons for building a more durable quadcopter airframe. (This video was shot with a Sony PXW-X70 camera, which we're testing. Thanks to B&H for providing us with gear for CES!)

CES 2015: Parrot's eXom Aerial Mapping Quadcopter

In the quadcopter space, Parrot may be best known for its AR.Drone and mini quads, but they're also behind two initiatives to use unmanned vehicles for aerial mapping. SenseFly and Pix4D are two departments making those vehicles and the 3D mapping software, and we learn about their latest quad at this year's CES. (This video was shot with a Sony PXW-X70 camera, which we're testing. Thanks to B&H for providing us with gear for CES!)

In Brief: Long-Term Testing Hard Drive Failure Rates

Backblaze, the backup service that I currently use, employs over 40,000 hard drives in its data centers. That's a huge sample size for which to do some analysis about hard drive lifespans and failure rates. Backblaze's previous studies on its petabytes of storage have given us really useful information about drive longevity, and its latest report comes with a useful recommendation about which drives to trust. In 2014, the failure rate of Seagate's 3TB drives jumped to a staggering 43 percent, compared to 7 percent for a WD 3TB drive. Surprisingly, Backblaze still recommends Seagate drives--the company's 4TB model ended up only failing 2.6% of the time, and that was with over 12,000 in use. You can get one for under $140.

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Microsoft Unveils More Windows 10 Details

After a preview at last September's BUILD conference, today Microsoft hosted a press event in Redmond to show more of what to expect from the next version of Windows, and a few more things to boot.

First up, pricing. Describing Windows as a service, Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for Windows 8 users. Windows 7 users will have one year to upgrade to Windows 10 for free, as well. (Microsoft said they would clarify later what the upgrade options would be for Windows RT and XP/Vista users.) While there was some initial confusion about what this actual meant, in a post-conference Q&A session, it was explained that this isn't a change in business model for Windows--don't expect user subscriptions for the OS, although I wouldn't be surprised to see Microsoft push Windows users harder to sign up for Xbox Live Gold-style subscription-only upgrades and enhancements to the OS, including additional storage space on One Drive and the like.

As originally shown at Build, Windows 10 will integrate the two disparate halves of Windows 8, the Start Screen and the traditional Desktop. You'll be able to run Modern-style Start Screen apps inside a window on the Desktop, the task switching utilities will be unified, and things like system settings applets will be available on both interfaces. That means that things like settings to control Windows will all be in one place, not split willy-nilly between the Desktop-only Control Panel and the Start Screen PC Settings app.

At the same time, Microsoft is promising a more unified Windows across devices, including both mobile and large-scale collaborative touchscreens. In addition to syncing your files between devices using OneDrive, Microsoft claims that universal applications will behave in a standard, expected way across platforms. Microsoft is leading this initiative with its own for the OS running as universal apps. They demoed the Outlook app running on phone and a PC. While this sounds good on paper, the actual execution requires deftness that Microsoft didn't show on the Windows 8 side, so I'm waiting to see this in person before I render judgment. If the Desktop versions of universal apps are just reskinned versions of the mobile apps, without the added functionality I expect on a Desktop app, I'd be disappointed.

Microsoft also showed its voice assistant, Cortana, running on multiple platforms, including Desktop Windows. Along with information similar to Google's Knowledge Graph, Cortana seems to learn from your behavior. If you ask the software to track an incoming flight, it will let you know if that flight conflicts with other events in your calendar. If you ask it about something that you mentioned in a written note, it will reference that info in its answer to you. The on-stage demo was a bit rough around the edges, so I'm interested in seeing this in person too. It seems odd that we're moving toward a world where I'll have three or four voice agents running in my presence at any given time.

Tested: Blade 350 QX3 AP Combo Quadcopter

Note: Although, the 350 QX3 has numerous beginner-friendly features, I consider it an intermediate level aircraft. My recommendation is for aspiring multi-rotor pilots to start out with a mini quad and/or a simulator. Once you become competent and comfortable with the basics of piloting, your odds of success with an intermediate quad are much improved.

It has only been a few months since I reviewed the Blade 350 QX2 AP Combo. I liked the flying qualities of the quad and the stabilizing effect of the 2-axis camera gimbal, but the included CGO1 camera wasn’t up to par. Well, the multi-rotor industry gathers no moss. A new version of this quad is already on the market, the 350 QX3 AP Combo. This new ship has a different (better) camera on a 3-axis gimbal and several other improvements that I didn’t even know it needed! I've been flying it for a while to test, and here are my thoughts on this $1000 RTF quad.

What’s Included

As before, the AP Combo includes everything you need to go flying: prebuilt quad, camera/gimbal unit, transmitter, battery, and charger. It also has a few extras not found in the previous version, such as an 8GB micro-SD card for the camera and a USB programming cable for configuring the onboard firmware. As before, you’ll also find a spare set of props in the box.

Blade includes a quick start guide that covers the basics of operation. You’ll want to download the full manual to keep as a reference. I found the video tutorials on Blade’s YouTube channel to be especially helpful.

What’s New

The 350 QX3’s new camera is an eyeball-like unit called the CGO2. The camera is an integral part of a 3-axis gimbal. This gimbal stabilizes the camera in the pitch, roll, and yaw axes, but only the pitch (tilt) of the camera can be commanded by the pilot. The camera is capable of 16MP stills and 1080p video at 60fps, which is a significant boost over the CGO1’s 1080P frame rate of 30fps.

THE CGO2 CAMERA IS INTEGRATED INITO A 3-AXIS GIMBAL WITH TILT CONTROL. IT CAN SHOOT 1080P/60FPS VIDEO AND 16MP STILL PHOTOS.

Power for the camera is provided by the flight battery, so you don’t have to worry about managing a separate battery for the camera. Other than tilt of the gimbal, the camera functions can only be controlled via the CGO2 app on a smart phone or tablet with 5.8 GHz Wi-Fi.

The only other obvious change to the 350 QX3 is the relocated GPS antenna. It is now on a flip-up mast on the top of the quad. This new location helps to isolate the antenna from electronic noise created by other components which could negatively impact GPS reception. Some Go-Pro Hero3 users have indicated that the camera’s wi-fi system can affect GPS reception on multi-rotors. Although the CGO2 negates the use of a GoPro on the AP Combo, other versions of the 350 QX3 will accept it. Time will tell if the hinged mast is a structural weak point.

CES 2015: Hands-On with the Avegant Glyph Prototype

Head-mounted displays have received a lot of attention for their potential use as virtual reality devices, but most are still LCD or OLED panels strapped to your head. We saw Avegant's "virtual retinal display" prototype last year--a HMD that uses DLP mirrors to project images directly into your eyes. Checking in with Avegant at CES, we look at their latest prototype chat with them about their final product plans. (This video was shot with a Sony PXW-X70 camera, which we're testing. Thanks to B&H for providing us with gear for CES!)

On the End of the Google Glass Explorer Program

As an early Google Glass user and a regular user of Glass for about half of 2013, I've got mixed feelings about Google's announcement that they're killing the Glass Explorer program and moving Glass out of Google Labs to work on the next iteration of the product. While the initial versions of Google's head-mounted display had some obvious problems--bad battery life and a sub-par camera--the technology was promising and surprisingly useful. The problems with it were mostly social, and could have been avoided had Google taken more considered approach to Glass' rollout.

The simplest change that could have allayed the privacy concerns about Glass would have been to add an indicator light on the front of Glass to show when the camera is recording. When it put a camera on an always-on device like Glass, Google should have expected people to be creeped out by it.

However, adding a camera indicator would just be a salve for the larger problem--the Explorer program itself. I think Google sowed the seeds of eventual failure at the very beginning of the Glass Explorer program. In order to buy Glass, you needed to apply, your application needed to be accepted, you had to fly to one of a handful of cities in the US for a fitting, and you had to be willing to pay $1500 (plus potential travel costs) for the privilege. When you arrived at your fitting, you were treated like a VIP, with snacks and champagne, a Google rep took a few minutes to walk you through the basics (getting fit right, connecting your phone, etc), before he or she took you on a tour of the Google campus. Once you were in the program, you also gained entry into a private community for Glass owners, who Google called Explorers. What started as a good place to share information with other Glass users ended up taking a weird turn toward obnoxious entitlement.

But before we go further, I want to share a brief overview of my experience with Glass.

Testing: Dell Venue 8 7000 Tablet

Last week, I wrote about some of the products that we missed seeing at CES, but would get hands-on time with to test soon. One of them was Dell's new Venue 8 7000 tablet (terrible name, agreed), which attracted a lot of attention for its thin-bezel design and use of Intel's latest Atom processor to run Android. This tablet was actually released alongside CES, and I received mine late last week. While I'll be using and testing it for several more weeks before we shoot a video review, I wanted to share some initial thoughts, as well as get some feedback from you guys who also use Android tablets.

So first, the design of this tablet. Ever since the very first iPhone was released in 2007, users and device designers have been trying to figure out what to make about the bezel around a touchscreen. It's generally considered that the narrower the bezel around a screen the better, though the absence of a sizeable bezel changes the way you can hold a phone or tablet. Case in point, the slimmer bezels on the iPad Mini change the practical ways to comfortably orient and grip that tablet as compared to the full-sized iPad. With the Venue 8 7000, Dell's designers have decided that an 8-inch tablet can work best without much bezel on three of its sizes, and an extended "chin" to pack hardware at the bottom. It's a striking design for sure.

Compared to the iPad Mini, the Venue 8 7000 looks futuristic. The 8.4-inch 2560x1600 screen has a 16:10 aspect ratio, so it's actually less wide than the Mini's. Even including its left and right bezel, Dell's tablet almost fits within the confines of the Mini's screen. The "forehead" bezel of the Venue is the same width as the sides', and the uniformity of bezel space around the top of the tablet is very visually pleasing. While reading a Kindle book, flipping through photos, and browsing webpages, I felt a little more connected to the content on the Venue than on the iPad--the tablet feels more like a window for digital content than any other smartphone or tablet I've previously used. It's a peculiar distinction, but that's the psychological power of thin bezels.

Ergonomically, the Venue 8 7000 is comfortable to use, too. I was afraid that the thick "chin" at the bottom would limit how I could hold this tablet--and it does, in that it's best used in portrait orientation with the fat bezel at the bottom. But its size and weight made holding the tablet with one hand or gripping with two at the bottom very usable. At 6mm thick and .66 pounds, it's very comparable to the iPad Mini--the slight thickness advantage isn't all that noticeable. The only complaint I have so far is that gripping the bottom of the tablet, as when for thumb typing, can obscure part of the speakers--which aren't great to begin with. The headphone jack is on the bottom left, which is what I used for most of my time with the tablet so far.

CES 2015: Test Riding the Acton RocketSkates

Here's something we didn't expect to test at CES. Acton's RocketSkates was a Kickstarted invention to put electric motorized wheels on your shoes. Will puts on a pair of these futuristic skates to try to learn how to move around in them, and then chats with its inventor to learn how this idea came about. (This video was shot with a Sony PXW-X70 camera, which we're testing. Thanks to B&H for providing us with gear for CES!)