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    Tested In-Depth: PCIe Solid State Storage

    How fast do you need your desktop storage device to be? We sit down this week to discuss the state of PCIe solid state drives, like Intel's new 750 Series with the NVMe controller. This 1.2TB drive delivered incredible bandwidth and benchmark performance, but you should know a few things about this technology before thinking about upgrading.

    Testing: Asus Zenbook UX305 Laptop

    Intel's Core-M laptop processor has been getting a lot of attention of late, and not under the best light. Even though these ultra-low power CPUs were released late last year in a bunch of Windows notebooks, the platform got a ton of attention when Apple put it in the controversial new MacBook line. As we've found in our tests, Core-M effective made the MacBook Apple's slowest Mac device--mid-range performance at a high-end price. And on the PC side, our experience with Core-M hasn't been much better. Performance throttling of Core-M on the Lenovo Yoga Pro 3 made it a step backward for that series of laptops. Manufacturers clearly get the appeal of a fanless laptop design, but they're putting Intel's chip in premium systems that tax it too far.

    It's not until the Asus Zenbook UX305 that I've finally found what looks like the most appropriate use of Core-M: a fantastic mid-range system that costs just $700. After using the UX305 for a few weeks, I'm convinced that this is the best laptop you can buy for the price.

    In discussing my testing of the UX305, I have to acknowledge that it was research into the MacBook that lead me to this laptop. Many Windows users in tech forums pointed to it as a counterpoint to Apple's new laptop, citing its use of Core-M. But aside from that shared CPU architecture, these are actually very different systems, made for very different users. In fact, the more apt comparison would be with Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air.

    Just look at the size and dimensions of the Zenbook. It's not a design that was whittled away to be as thin and light as possible--and that's totally OK. The generous bezel space around the screen and keyboard areas makes this more a traditionally designed ultrabook than a Dell XPS 13. And with its 13.3-inch screen, the Zenbook is still thinner and lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air at half an inch (12.5mm) thick and 2.64 pounds. I've never lived with a 13-inch MacBook Air long-term, but the UX305 is a very comfortable size for a daily carry or walking around with at the office.

    Under the hood, the UX305 uses Intel's Core-M 5Y10 processor, which is actually clocked at .8GHz and turbo boosts to 2.0GHz when needed. The CPU is supported by the standard Intel HD5300 integrated graphics chip, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of SATA-based solid state storage. I'll talk about real-world performance in a bit, but want to note that the amount of stock SSD storage is exceptional for a laptop of this price. It's not a PCIe-based storage system, but that's totally fine for a laptop that's not meant for heavy photo or video work. Storage was also divided into two partitions, but it's easy to merge the two when first setting the Zenbook up.

    On the sides of the laptop are three USB 3.0 ports (one that supports fast charging for smartphones), headphone jack, power port, micro-HDMI, and an SD card reader. The USB ports were as fast as any I've tested, but the SD card reader transferred files from my Sandisk Extreme Pro card at around 40MB/s, which is on the low side of built-in readers.

    The Best SSDs Today

    This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a list of the best technology to buy. Read the original full article below at TheWirecutter.com

    If I were buying an SSD to replace a mechanical hard drive or an SSD that's running out of room, I'd get the 500GB Samsung 850 EVO. It has one of the best combinations of price, performance, and capacity of any drive you can get, plus easy-to-use software and a long warranty, and it comes from a company that makes excellent SSDs (and all their components).

    Who's This For?

    Replacing your boot drive with an SSD is one of the easiest ways to make an older computer feel newer and faster. If you've never used one before, you'll be amazed.

    Solid-state drives are three to four times faster than mechanical drives when reading or writing large files, and hundreds of times faster for the small random read and write operations your computer makes most during normal use. Since SSDs don't have any moving parts, they use less power, put out less heat, and don't vibrate. The one downside is that they're more expensive than traditional hard drives, but that price gap is dropping fast.

    You should get an SSD like the 500GB Samsung 850 EVO if you have a laptop or desktop that boots from a mechanical hard drive or a cramped, outdated SSD. It's also a good way to save money on a new laptop. You can usually save several hundred dollars by buying a laptop configured with a mechanical hard drive or small SSD and replacing or augmenting it with a high-capacity SSD. Most people should get the highest-capacity SSD they can afford. Right now 500GB is the sweet spot.

    Tested In-Depth: Apple 12-Inch MacBook (2015)

    We've been living with Apple's new MacBook for a few weeks, and sit down to discuss in-depth its technical merits and interesting design choices. Even if you're not interested in Macs, the use of Intel's Core-M chip and USB Type-C give insights into the future of mobile computing. Here's how the retina MacBook fits into Apple's laptop lineup, and how this pricey device compares to other Core M-based computers.

    Testing: Apple's 12-Inch MacBook (2015)

    We'll be shooting and publishing our MacBook (2015) review later this week, but I wanted to jot down some thoughts from my testing and experience living with it for the past week and a half. Consider these testing notes a preview of my impressions on the laptop, and an opportunity for you to ask specific questions about it.

    For context, prior to the MacBook, I've been using Macs as my primary work computers since 2008, starting with a 15-inch MacBook Pro. In 2011, I switched to the 11-inch Air, which was a maxed-out Core-i7 model. I really loved that formfactor and a balance between portability and performance--it was lightweight and yet had near performance parity with the 13-inch Air and even the entry-level MacBook Pros. At the office, I would plug it into a 24-inch 1080p display and peripherals, while also able to use it while traveling as a full-fledged work computer for writing and photography.

    In 2013, I upgraded to the first Haswell model of the 11-inch Air, which had longer battery life and a zippy PCI-E SSD. Performance on that machine has been very satisfactory over the past two years, and I've even edited a few short videos on it in Adobe Premiere. The speed and usability of that stalwart machine is what I'm primarily basing the new MacBook on today. Just in terms of portability, the new MacBook and the refreshed 11-inch Air are the nearest competitors. Whether or not the differentiating factors warrant the significant price delta is what we'll be discussing in-depth in our review video. We'll talk about price last.

    So in terms of that differentiating factors, the features I'm most interested in are as follows: screen, performance, battery life, keyboard, and the single-port form factor. We'll start off with the display, since that's the one area where I think the new MacBook has a clear-cut advantage over its Air counterpart.

    How I Turned Raspberry Pi 2 into an Audiophile Music Streamer

    I was all set for for a Raspberry Pi Model 2 server experiment until somebody asked me if HRT's dSp would work with a Raspberry Pi. Good question. The dSp is a DAC: a Digital to Analog converter. It turns the zeros and ones that make up a digital audio file into the analog signal a pair of headphones or speakers pump into your ears. A good DAC is a critical step in making your audio files sound amazing, and some third-party DACs are much better than the ones built into your smartphone or even your PC.

    That's when I remembered the cable hanging off the back of the amp and speakers in the warehouse. Nothing wrong with plugging that ⅛" jack from the amp directly into a phone or audio player, especially if it meant not using the cheap Bluetooth adapter that's usually plugged in there. But hey, what about turning the Pi 2 into a badass audio box that anybody on the network could use to stream their tune to the big speakers?

    Suddenly, I had a project! A D-I-Y SONOS, if you will. (I love the SONOS system, we run three of 'em at home, I'm just not ready to buy one for the office speakers!)

    And I have DAC issues. Or at least I could spare a DAC for a while. Within arms reach I've got a HeadRoom Micro DAC and Amp ($650) I used for headphone testing for several years, a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 for recording podcasts, the AudioQuest DragonFly 1.2 ($150) that replaced the HeadRoom DAC for testing, along with the headphone jack on my laptop. I've also, as of late, received that HRT dSp for testing, and, because I was curious, ordered a $42 HiFiMeDIY Sabre USB DAC to see how it compared to the DragonFly, which, rumor has it, features a Saber DAC.

    The differences from a the headphone jack on your PC and one of these USB DACs can be subtle. Beat-up earbuds that came with your phone, low quality streaming audio (or those 128 Kbps MP3s you got off your uncle's old laptop), the sound of the bus engine coming through your feet--all of these things make it difficult to hear the goodness that an excellent DAC can bring. But when you can actually hear it, it's like being in the room where the recording engineer placed the microphones. That's a good thing.

    The audio built into the Raspberry Pi model 2 (or 1) is not that impressive. The hot ticket for serious Pi audio geeks is an i2s card that plugs into the pins on the Pi, but I figured USB DACs I already had (and could use for something other than a Pi) would have to work.

    In Brief: Google Announces Chromebit Computer-On-a-Stick

    In addition to announcing a slew of new entry-level Chromebooks, Google today revealed the Chromebit, a $100 HDMI stick made by Asus that runs Chrome OS. Like the Chromecast, the dongle plugs into any display via HDMI and gets its power over USB (a full-sized USB port instead of micro), and turns that monitor into a Chrome OS device. Peripherals connect over Bluetooth, and the stick runs on a Rockchip RK3288 quad-core SoC with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. It'll go on sale this summer for $100, and Google is partnering with other PC makers to make Chrome OS sticks as well.

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    Testing: 4K Gaming on GeForce GTX Titan X GPU

    We're at a place in PC gaming where buying a top of the line video card is starting to look interesting again. A few things made that happen. First, 4K monitors finally became a reasonable purchase for desktop users, with the release of 60Hz IPS panels like the Dell 2715Q I've been using. 1080p 60Hz gaming doesn't require a $500 GPU, but the horsepower is welcome when gaming at 4K or 1440p at 144Hz. Second, we know that impending virtual reality gaming on the PC is going to require fast graphics--90Hz is the baseline for both Oculus and SteamVR, and we're expecting displays of at least 1080p from both. For high-end gamers, performance is a practical need once again; extra frames aren't just for show.

    Nvidia's GeForce GTX 980 card seemed to address that need. It's both powerful and power-efficient, thanks to its second-generation Maxwell GM204 core, and its launch was well received by reviewers and gamers alike (aside from the GTX 970's recent memory revelations). And while I still think that the GTX 980 is a great buy for anyone building a new high-end PC, it's no longer the best option available. That title now belongs to Nvidia's new Titan X, which goes on sale this week. I've been testing one for the past week for 4K gaming.

    The GeForce Titan X

    I'm not going to dive into the deep technical attributes of the Titan X; what you should know that it's on paper a 50% bump up from the GTX 980. There are 50% more CUDA cores (3072 vx 2048), 50% more texture units, and 50% more transistors. Essentially, it's a fully loaded Maxwell GPU (GM200), and Nvidia even packed 12GB of GDDR5 memory in thing for future-proofing. That's more than enough for future ports of next-gen console games (surpassing the PS4's 8GB of GDDR5).

    As with previous Titan class GPUs, the packing of so much CUDA cores into a single die offsets the need for a high core clock--Titan X starts at 1000MHz and boosts to 1075MHz, compared to the GTX 980's 1216MHz at load. That's necessary to keep the thermal load at a "reasonable" 250 watts, which is in line with past Titan cards and the power hungry Kepler-class GTX 780. That means that you don't get as much overclocking headroom with the Titan X as you would the GTX 980, which sits at a comfortable 165W TDP. And with the same cooling design as the GTX 980, the Titan X is just as quiet at idle as its sibling, and only very slightly louder at load. Maxwell's efficiencies don't go to waste here. The upshot is that Titan X relies on more cores instead of higher clock speed for performance. It's a scaled up version of the GTX 980's GPU--the largest Nvidia's made so far--to squeeze out frames needed for smooth 4K gaming. It also costs almost twice as much as a GTX 980 at $1000.

    So let's take a look at some benchmarks and see what a thousand dollars of video card gets you today.

    Hands-On: Crytek's 'Back to Dinosaur Island' VR Demo

    We try a new virtual reality demo developed by Crytek, the makers of the Crysis series of games. Speaking to an engineer of CryEngine, we learn how they're implementing VR for compatibility with headsets like Oculus' Crescent Bay prototype.

    Apple Announces New MacBook, Apple Watch Release Info

    Will and I are both out of office today, but wanted to give you guys a place to discuss the Apple product announcements from this morning. At the "Spring Forward" event, Apple first announced a price cut for the Apple TV--same hardware now $70, down from $100. That's price competitive with Roku and Amazon's boxes, and far cheaper than something like Nvidia's upcoming $200 Shield console. HBO Now, a $15/month subscription service, will launch in April on AppleTV, though will make it to other platforms in the indeterminate future.

    Apple upgraded its existing Macbook Air and Pro lines. The Air lineup (11" and 13") get Broadwell-U processors, as well as Thunderbolt 2 connectors. The 13" MacBook Pro also gets Broadwell-U and Thunderbolt 2, as well as a new Force Touch trackpad with pressure sensitivity--no more clicks. The 15-inch MacBook Pro won't get an update until mid-2015 when quad-core Broadwell-U chips are available.

    In addition to those MacBooks, Apple also announced a new MacBook series and design--one that's actually more suitable for the MacBook Air moniker. The new MacBook line is built off of a 13.1mm thick fanless chassis, running Intel's Core M processors (like the ones we saw in Lenovo's Yoga 3 Pro late last year). It also has a 12-inch 2304x1440 display (non-touch) and the new Force Touch trackpad. A new battery arrangement allows these laptops to be significantly thinner than the MacBook Air (at their thickest point), and weigh 2 pounds. Apple claims nine hours of battery life. These MacBooks come in three colors, start at $1300, and go on sale April 10. We'll be testing this for sure.

    On the Apple Watch front, Apple demoed new apps for their upcoming watch, which will go on sale April 24th (pre-orders on April 10th). Pricing was also announced, with $50 differences between the 38mm and 42mm models, and the aluminum Sport edition starting at $350. The steel watches will start at $550, and the limited edition solid gold Edition starts at $10,000.

    Hands-On: Razer's OSVR Hacker Dev Kit at GDC 2015

    Razer's approach to the virtual reality headset space is interesting: they're not making the best VR HMD, but one that can be modular for developers to experience with different features like augmented reality and third-party controller compatibility. We try the latest dev kit prototype at GDC 2015, and chat with Razer about why they're making a VR product at all.

    SteamVR (HTC Vive) Prototype Hands-On + Impressions

    We test the most talked about virtual reality demo at this year's Game Developers Conference: Valve's SteamVR prototype. Made in collaboration with HTC, the Vive VR headset will be released later this year and features an incredible positional tracking system. We chat with Valve's engineers about the technology in the headset and share our demo impressions. This is the real deal.

    How To Build a Home Server Using FreeNAS

    I've been running home servers in one form or another for about a decade. For me, the server has shifted from a convenience--a place to store files that I want to access anywhere and an easy way to stream music to the office for free--to a necessity. Today, my home server is a place to back up my family’s computers and the home for all of my media--a few hundred ripped DVDs and Blu-rays plus my family’s music collection and all of the photos and home videos we’ve shot. Like any other server, it also serves as a good place to store the files I need access to all the time, as well as host any services that work better when they’re always running—stuff like dynamic DNS, streaming servers, and game servers.

    My first home server was simply an old gaming PC that I repurposed by installing Linux and setting up a few shared folders and an FTP server so I had access to files at home when I was at the office or travelling. For the last five or six years, I’ve been running a lightweight Windows Home Server v1 machine packed with hard drives. The WHS box had some real advantages—it’s novel filesystem made it so simple to add storage that I eventually ended up with about 8TB of available space. Unfortunately, its ancient Celeron processor was woefully underpowered to stream 1080p video, and the OS has been effectively abandoned by Microsoft.

    Photo credit: Flickr user kwl via Creative Commons.

    When I decided to build a new server late last year, the first thing I did was figure out what I wanted to use it for. Easy backups for a handful of Macs (and one PC) across the network was a must. I also wanted a machine that would be able to stream all of my media--using Plex Media Server to stream ripped movies and TV shows and Subsonic to stream my music collection. I needed a safe and secure place to store my personal media--photos and home videos I've shot. Finally, I wanted to offload the heavy lifting of DVD and Blu-ray transcoding from my main desktop PC, and the ability to add new stuff to the machine that I haven’t even thought of yet.

    When I was deciding what operating system to use for my next home server, I investigated a handful of Linux options, briefly considered Windows Home Server 2011, and finally settled on FreeNAS, which is a customized version of FreeBSD. FreeNAS makes it relatively simple to set up a multi-purpose machine that can run headless—that is, without a video card or monitor connected. After taking FreeNAS for a test drive in a virtual machine, I was sold. As an added benefit, FreeNAS’s native filesystem, ZFS, makes it easy to add multiple hard drives to a single volume, and even supports using a SSD as a smart cache for the volume. And yes, if you want, you can even add redundancy to the system (I don’t recommend it, but we’ll get into that later).

    Figuring out the hardware for the FreeNAS machine was tricky. While you can buy dedicated network-attached storage devices that come pre-configured with FreeNAS, none of the options in my price range had the kind of high-powered CPU I was hoping for. After spending the last two years wishing my server was faster, my goal is to make this motherboard and CPU last at least five years, maybe more. Knowing that, the option I was left with was to build a machine and install FreeNAS on it myself.

    First, I had to figure out the hardware part.

    Building a Home Server for Backups and Ripping Blu-Rays

    For the past few months, Will has been researching a build for a new home server for personal backups and media streaming. In addition to housing terrabytes of data, the server Will ended up building also doubles as an efficient DVD and Blu-ray ripping machine, automating heavy transcoding tasks. We discuss the build and give software and hardware recommendations for anyone looking to build their own! Read more about the project here.

    RC Transmitter Guide: The Basics of Computer Radio Systems

    Once the RC bug has bitten and you know that you’ll be in the hobby for a while, buying a good quality computer radio system is one of the best investments that you can make. These radios have onboard processors that enrich them with many features not usually found on “dumb” units. The benefits of some of these features are self-evident, such as the ability to use the same transmitter for multiple models. Other features found on computer radios are a bit tougher to grasp. Consequently, many modelers simply ignore them—and forfeit some very useful capabilities.

    A COMPUTER RADIO PROVIDES MANY OPTIONS FOR TAILORING HOW THE SYSTEM PERFORMS. NO MATTER WHICH BRAND YOU CHOOSE, IT IS A WORTHWHILE INVESTMENT FOR SERIOUS MODELERS.

    Today, I will cover a few of the basic features that are afforded by computer transmitters: what they are and how/when they are helpful. I won’t be covering any specifics on how to program these features on your particular radio--that’s what the owner’s manual is for. My focus will be on radios for aircraft, but surface computer radios (for cars and boats) share many of the same features!

    How Many Channels Do You Need?

    Most computer radio systems have six or more channels, with 6-channel models being very popular among rookie hobbyists. Up until recently, I would have endorsed that decision. Now I suggest going with no less than seven channels – preferably eight. The reason for my change of heart is that the average flying model is evolving into an ever more complex machine.

    A 6-CHANNEL RADIO MAY NOT BE ENOUGH IF YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN COMPLEX MODELS SUCH AS THIS WARBIRD. CONSIDER BUYING MORE RADIO THAN YOU NEED NOW TO HEDGE YOUR BETS.

    Powered aircraft need no more than four channels to fly (pitch, roll, yaw, & throttle). Additional operations (retractable landing gear, flaps, lost model alarms, lighting systems, sound systems, gimbals, gyros, bomb releases, etc.) are becoming much more prevalent in off-the-shelf models, and they require additional channels to make them function. These add-ons aren’t necessary to fly, but they sure are fun. So why should your radio keep you from enjoying them? I know several flyers who initially purchased a 6-channel radio, only to upgrade a few months later. Consider where your RC interests might lead and invest in a radio that will accommodate those needs.

    The Best Budget Gaming Laptop (So Far)

    This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a list of the best technology to buy. Read the full article below at TheWirecutter.com

    There’s no such thing as a perfect budget gaming laptop, and every one we’ve tested so far has at least one serious flaw. But after 40 hours of research and testing, we determined that the $1,000 Asus ROG GL551JM is the budget gaming laptop we’d recommend for most people because it has the best gaming performance and best build quality among the competition, and for the lowest cost.

    The GL551 has uncommonly good build quality compared to nearly everything else in this category. Plus, it keeps the most important parts of a gaming laptop at a reasonable temperature—which cannot be said for the competition—and has a comfortable keyboard.

    Who’s this for?

    Expensive gaming laptops aren’t for everyone. Desktop computers offer better gaming performance per dollar, and ultrabooks are slimmer, lighter, and have much better battery life. Budget gaming laptops are a good fit for students and others who want to play games but have a tight budget and need a portable PC.

    How did we pick what to test?

    First, we determined the best possible combination of components that fit in our budget. Our ideal budget gaming laptop costs under $1,200 and has an Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M graphics card or better, an Intel Core i7 4700HQ CPU or higher, 8 to 16 GB of RAM, and at least 500GB of storage. We looked at every gaming laptop currently available, tested three finalists ourselves, and concluded that the Asus ROG GL551-JM DH71 is the best for those on a budget.

    Tested In-Depth: LG Ultra-Widescreen 21:9 Monitor

    Will reviews a new ultra widescreen computer monitor from LG--the first we've tested that's both a 21:9 display and also curved. We discuss what you can do with that extra screen real estate, software that helps manage your desktop, and what movies and games look like at that aspect ratio.

    In Brief: Raspberry Pi 2 Announced and Available Now

    Earlier this morning, the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced the second generation of its micro computer platform, the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B. The $35 computer has the same formfactor and price as the Model B+ released last year, which means it has the same four USB ports, 100mpbs Ethernet port, video I/Os, and microSD storage as the previous generation, but gets a significant boost in processing power and memory. The new Model B runs on a 900MHz Broadcom Cortex A7 SoC, with 1GB of LPDDR2 RAM (shared with video). An update to the Raspbian operation system is also released, which will be backwards compatible with the first-gen Pi. But with the increased processing capability, the new Raspberry Pi will also support versions of Ubuntu and Windows 10. 100,000 units are available at today's launch, but the US distributor's site is hammered and it's sold out at Adafruit. Users hoping for an upgrade to the $25 Model A will have to wait, but Raspberry Pi reps told Ars Technica that it's being worked on, with RAM being the next likely upgrade.

    Norman
    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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