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    In Brief: Microsoft Buys Minecraft for $2.5 Billion

    Microsoft today announced that it has acquired Mojang, the Stockholm-based game developer that created and publishes Minecraft. The deal is valued at $2.5 Billion. To date, Minecraft has sold more than 54 million copies across multiple gaming platforms, and Microsoft says that it intends to keep to keep developing and supporting the game in platforms outside of the Windows and PC ecosystem. Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft's Xbox division, reassures Minecraft fans in a public statement, and Mojang's post about the acquisition answers some looming questions. The founders of Mojang, including Notch, are leaving the company, and the status of Mojang's other project, Scrolls, is up in the air. Plenty of editorial opinions on the deal all over the internet.

    Norman 6
    Haswell-E PC Build and Testing Preview

    Will's gone this week to Portland's XOXO conference, so no Mystery 3D Print this week. Instead, Norm invites you back to his home office to preview a new PC build he's working on for testing. It's a system based on Intel's new high-end Haswell-E processor, which introduces a new chipset and our first encounter with DDR4 RAM!

    This Is the Best Budget Laptop You Can Buy

    This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter. Read the original full article below at TheWirecutter.com

    After considering all the major laptops in its price range, I decided that if I had to buy a Windows laptop for $600 or less, I’d get the ~$580 version of the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 2 14.

    It’s not perfect—because all budget laptops have trade offs—but it’s the best of its kind. And for its price it succeeds in a lot of the most important areas: it’ll easily handle day-to-day tasks, it’s light enough to carry around, and it has enough battery to last you an entire work day.

    Our Pick

    For $580 you get a dual-core Haswell Intel Core i5-4210U processor, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, and a 500GB hybrid hard drive with 8GB of cache, which is to say that it is fast enough for most tasks that don’t involve gaming or heavy photo or video editing.

    As we configured it, the Flex 2 14 also has a 14-inch multitouch panel with a decent 1366x768 resolution, 7.5 hours of battery life, a good enough keyboard and trackpad, and all the ports you’ll want: HDMI, Ethernet, USB 3.0, two USB 2.0 ports, a card reader, and an audio jack. The cache will make it feel a little speedier than a regular hard drive, but not as fast as an computer with a solid state drive (otherwise known as an SSD).

    At 0.8 inches thick and 4.4 pounds, it’s lighter and slimmer than most 14-inch laptops in its price range. It's possible (but not easy) to upgrade the hard drive and RAM (if you’re into that kind of thing) so you can squeeze more life out of the machine later.

    It’s a great basic machine that we settled on after a lot of consideration and testing.

    In Brief: Intel Launches Haswell-E CPU, X99 Chipset

    Late last week, Intel officially launched Haswell-E, its ultra high-end Desktop CPU based on its Haswell architecture. The follow-up to Ivy Bridge-E is Intel's first eight-core desktop CPU, as previous Extreme Edition desktop CPUs topped out at six cores while eight and more cores were reserved for the server market. To run the Core i7-5960X, Intel also launched the X99 chipset, which is its first to support DDR4 memory. Yep, DDR4 is finally here to desktops. Built on the same 22nm process that existing Haswell chips use, Intel's new $1000 CPU has a modest base clock of 3GHz and turbos up to 3.5GHz, though overclocking well into 4GHz is possible. We met with Intel on Friday at PAX to learn about the new CPU and chipset and will be testing it in the near future, with a specific interest on video encoding performance as compared to GPU-accelerated video processing.

    Norman
    Tested In-Depth: Microsoft Surface Pro 3

    Will and Norm sit down to discuss the new Microsoft Surface Pro 3. We compare it to previous Surface Pro devices and how it fares as both a laptop and tablet alternative. The one thing we like the most about it: note-taking with the pen digitizer is a lovely experience.

    In Brief: USB Promoter Group Finalizes Design of Next USB Connector

    Arstechnica reports that the USB Promoter Group and the USB Implementers Forum have completed the design and spec for the next-generation of microUSB connector. Dubbed the Type-C, the plug will be similar in size to the current MicroUSB 2.0 connector, but will support the USB 3.1 spec with speeds up to 10GBps and power delivery up to 100W. The design is also reversible, much like Apple's Lightning plug, and is designed to be upgradable and scale with future USB spec changes. The USB Promoter Group promises that adapters for existing Type-B plugs will be readily available. And there's no word of changes to the venerable "standard" A plug--the end on desktops and laptops--which is really the one that needs to support reversibility.

    Norman
    The Best SSD Today

    If I bought a solid-state drive (SSD) today, I'd get the 512GB Crucial MX100 for about $220. It's not the fastest SSD you can get, but it's close. More importantly, it has the best combination of price, performance, and capacity. Additionally, Crucial makes its own NAND flash memory and its SSDs have a history of reliability. It's about $30 cheaper than the 500GB Samsung 840 EVO and has the best price per gigabyte of all those we looked at, so it's the best choice for most people who are upgrading a laptop or desktop today.

    If anything goes wrong, the MX100 has a three-year warranty. And it includes TCG/Opal full-disk self-encryption, if that matters to you. There’s no shortage of great SSDs these days, but some are better values than others, as we learned after spending more than 30 hours of research coming to this conclusion.

    The MX100 is one of the best, but if you can’t get the MX100, the Samsung 840 EVO is still good and is our overall runner-up. (It is, after all, our previous pick for this guide.) It’s cheap and fast, just not as cheap or fast as the MX100. It’s also still your best choice for a 1TB drive, since the MX100 only goes up to 512GB.

    If you’re a video and photo editor or 3D modeler, consider a step-up option like the Samsung 850 Pro. It has a 10-year warranty and higher write endurance rating. Its quoted speeds aren’t much different than the Crucial’s, but it can be nearly twice as fast (373 MB/s vs 190 MB/s) in some high-intensity benchmarks like AnandTech’s “Destroyer.” It’s the fastest SATA SSD you can get, but it’s not worth the price increase for most people.

    The Best 4K Monitor Doesn't Exist Yet

    Like 1080p before it, 4K is the new, ultra-high-resolution format that promises better detail and greater image clarity due to the huge number of pixels packed into your screen. “Buttery-smooth text rendering and wonderfully detailed photos,” promises MakeUseOf. Just consider the quality differences between Apple’s Retina Display MacBooks and its standard MacBooks: it's the same pixel-increasing principle.

    That said, we don’t think it’s the right time to buy one.

    While most 4K monitors are still very expensive, we’re starting to see a growing number priced under $1,000: Samsung’s $700 U28D590D, Dell’s $700 P2815Q, and Asus’ $650 PB287Q are already available. Intel and Samsung even recently announced a partnership where they’ve pledged to try and push high-quality, 23-inch 4K monitors to a super-low price of $399. We think it’s worth waiting for some of that to pan out rather than pushing for an expensive early-adopter monitor right now (though you’d be foolish to buy a 24-inch 4K display, we can only hope that Intel and Samsung’s ambitions can push down prices on larger displays).

    Even expensive 4K monitors struggle with the same major weaknesses right now: outdated display connections, beefy hardware requirements, and lack of OS/application support. Cheap 4K monitors can have all those problems and more, sacrificing image quality in order to cut costs.

    In Brief: How Long Should a Consumer SSD Last?

    The computer you're using now will not last forever. The most you can hope is that by the time you're ready to replace it or swap out parts for upgrades, those components won't have already failed. But some components have longer expected lifespan than other. We know that hard drives, with regular use, are guaranteed to eventually fail--a Backblaze study pinned median lifespan for a modern spinning drive to six years. But what about SSDs? TechReport has been running an endurance test on six SSDs since last August, continuously writing to those drives until the NAND cells wear out. 10 months later, three of those drives are still running, having processed over a petabyte of data. That's far beyond the manufacturer-rated lifespans of these drives (Intel rates its drives for 20GB of writes per day for three years). TechReport's analysis of their endurance test explains why SSDs will inevitably die, and why most consumers shouldn't have to worry about abrupt failures. In fact, the three drives that did die didn't even significantly slow down near their end-of-life. (h/t Arstechnica)

    Norman 1
    Microsoft Announces Surface Pro 3

    Only eight months have passed since Microsoft announced the second-generation Surface devices, and Panos Panay once again took the stage at a press conference in New York to unveil a Surface Pro refresh. This time the differences and upgrades feel a little more meaningful, or at least more focused for Surface's intended users (students and professionals). Surface Pro 3 was the only new product announced today, and it's not just a spec bump from the Pro 2. This is still Microsoft's laptop replacement--an x86 device (running Windows 8.1 Pro, natch) meant to compete with Apple's MacBook Air. To that end, its LCD screen is now bumped up to 12 inches, with a 3:2 aspect ratio and a native resolution of 2160x1440. That's a pretty significant bump from the 10-inch 1080p screen of the previous Surface Pros, with the change in aspect ratio the most meaningful difference for multi-window and portrait orientation use. The capacitive Windows Start button is now moved to the short edge as well to encourage portrait orientation when used without a keyboard.

    Speaking of the keyboard, Microsoft has also updated the Type Cover with magnets so it can stick to the screen when, you know, used as a cover. It also has a larger trackpad. The Surface kickstand gets not just one new angle, but is now "continuous", meaning it can stay rigid at many more angles--the example Microsoft gave was a "canvas" mode for drawing. It's reminiscent of the flexibility of Lenovo's Yoga laptop, but hopefully with more stability at low-angled orientations. What will also help is the weight of the Surface Pro 3, now reduced to 800 grams (1.76 pounds) without any accessories. Decidedly a two-handed device, if used as a tablet. Battery life is pegged at 9 hours for web browsing, according to Microsoft.

    This Surface Pro still includes a pressure sensitive digitizer pen, as well as a USB 3.0 port and microSD slot. Microsoft also chose to stick with Intel's 4th-gen mobile Haswell chips, with the Core i5 model being the Core i5 4300U processor with HD4400 graphics. The entry-level Surface Pro 3 will run on the Core i3 processor (as yet unspecified), which allows Microsoft to set the base price to an attractive $800. My guess is that this was a last-minute decision to respond to Apple's MacBook Air price slashing earlier this month, and would recommend that you look closely at the specs. The $800 Surface Pro 3 has 64GB of storage and 4GB of memory, with the 128GB SSD model bumping the price to $1000. People who are going to use the Surface Pro 3 as their primary computer will likely want the Core i5 model with 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM--which starts at $1300. Ad is the new Type Cover ($130) and that's $1430 for a well-spec'ed system before tax. That's the one I would get if I was in the market for a Surface Pro 3 as my daily carry.

    Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 goes on sale tomorrow online and at Microsoft stores. We're most interested with what users can get with the starting price of $800, and will likely be testing that model. Clarification: Pre-orders for the new Surface begin May 21, and only the i5 models will start shipping on June 20th. The other configurations, including the $800 i3 model, will ship in August.

    The Best Business Laptop Today

    If I had to get a no-BS, reliable laptop for everyday work—and an ultrabook just wouldn't cut it—I'd get the Lenovo Thinkpad T440s. It's fast, durable (military-specification certified for ruggedness, among other things), highly configurable, and user-serviceable. And it has ports and features that business people need and ultrabooks generally lack. But if you don't need all the ports, the hot-swappable batteries, or the bulk of the ThinkPad, consider the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. If you dig ThinkPads, want something smaller, and our main pick is no longer available, we also like the ThinkPad X240.

    How we picked/what is a “business laptop” anyway?

    For most people, an ultrabook like the MacBook Air or the Acer Aspire S7-392 is the right laptop. Most people don’t need hot-swappable batteries, upgradable components, a VGA port, a SmartCard reader, or any of the other mainstays of business laptops. Unless they do, in which case our regular ultrabook picks just won’t cut it. They need something else, something we’re calling a “workhorse” or business laptop. (We discuss more on this later in the “What makes a good workhorse laptop?” section.)

    Workhorse laptops are for road warriors and business people who need decently equipped laptops they can count on.

    Workhorse laptops are for road warriors and business people who need decently equipped laptops they can count on. A good workhorse should have enough battery life to last you an entire cross-country flight. It should be rugged enough that you don’t need to baby it, but portable enough that you don’t feel like you’re weighed down. It should be fast enough to deal with normal office workloads—no gaming and minimal video editing required. This means we’re looking for a current-generation Haswell ULV processor with integrated graphics, 8GB of RAM, and as much solid state storage as we can get.

    It needs a high-quality, high-resolution screen—1920×1080 is the sweet spot—and a rock-solid keyboard and trackpad. It should have fast, reliable Wi-Fi. You should be able to plug it into an external monitor, an Ethernet cord, a USB 3.0 flash drive, or a projector without hunting around for an adapter. Basically, it has to be good at everything. Ideally it’d have a 13- or 14-inch screen and weigh less than four pounds.

    In Brief: Intel's Haswell Refresh is Underwhelming

    When we saw Apple's refreshed 2014 MacBook Airs late last month, it wasn't a big surprise that this was the least exciting hardware update to the lineup in a few generations--the $100 price drop was the most notable change. That's because Intel hasn't had its major chipset upgrade for this year. We didn't see a generational shift like we did with Sandy Bridge/Ivy Bridge/Haswell. Intel does have a new 9 Series chipset that they're currently rolling out this week, but the CPUs that come along with it are Haswell refreshes, boosted by 100MHz. As ArsTechnica reports, this release is relatively underwhelming because Intel had to delay its Broadwell CPUs until the second half of this year, due to complications in Intel's new 14nm manufacturing process. Broadwell is supposed to bring along a significant Iris GPU update, as well as up to 30% increased power efficiency. Based on Anand's tests, the new Haswell desktop CPUs are the ones to get if you're looking to build a new PC today, but I would hold off until the end of the year and see what the Broadwell "tock"-release looks like.

    Norman
    Tested: Gigabyte Brix Pro Mini PC

    The Brix Pro is a tiny, nearly cube-shaped PC sold by Gigabyte. Inside is an Intel Core i7 4770R running at 3.2GHz and including Intel Iris Pro graphics. I love this little PC. I also hate this little PC.

    Before I talk about the duality of my testing experience with Gigabytes slick little design, let’s talk about its unique design elements.

    The Brix Pro is just 4.3 inches x 4.5 inches and just 2.4 inches high.

    Brix Pro: Outside and In

    The $650 Brix Pro is similar to Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) concept, but just a bit bigger. Gigabyte’s goal was not to build the smallest possible PC, but to build the smallest possible, high performance PC. That laudable goal dictated some of the key design elements.

    Size. The Brix Pro is pretty small, at 4.5 x 4.3 x 2.4 inches. It’s bigger than Intel’s NUC, however, which is less than 1.4 inches tall.

    Components. The highest end Brix Pro ships with an Intel Core i7 4770R CPU, with four cores and supporting eight threads. It runs at 3.2GHz, as opposed to the 2.5GHz Core i5 Intel uses in its NUC. The 4770R includes Intel’s Iris Pro GPU. The Iris Pro is a GT3e GPU, in Intel’s parlance, which includes two full graphics “slices.” This translates to 40 execution units. Since each EU contains 8 shader cores, that’s 400 shader cores. The “e” in GT3e refers to the 128MB of high speed, off-chip cache that’s built into the CPU package. The GT3e can run at speeds up to 1.3GHz.

    This is where a potential problem crops up, as we’ll see shortly. The GT3e itself is rated at over 50W TDP by itself. The entire Core i7 4770R is rated at a 65W TDP. While relatively low power by Intel standards (the desktop Core i7 4770K is rated at 84W), that’s still a lot of heat to dissipate in such a tiny box.

    Show and Tell: Intel's NUC Mini PC

    For this week's Show and Tell, Will tests Intel's NUC "Next Unit of Computing" small form-factor computer. This tiny box is a full-fledged PC, running on Intel's current-gen Haswell processor and integrated graphics. With low power consumption and the ability to mount of a back of a television, it can be a great home theater streaming PC or light gaming machine.

    Tested Explains: What Makes a Supercomputer?

    How do engineers build today's supercomputers, and how are the world's fastest computers ranked? We visit the Texas Advanced Computing Center, home of one of the world's top supercomputing clusters, to learn about and how researchers tap into petaflops of processing power. We're talking about a system with 270 Terabytes of RAM and 14 Petabytes of storage!

    Designing and Building an "Open-Hardware" Laptop

    Notable hardware hacker bunnie Huang is building a completely open laptop, and you may be able to buy one too. Novena, which was first announced to the world in December 2012, is designed to be open from the ground up--the design of everything from the CPU to the PCB to the batteries are documented to be as transparent as possible. It's the most ambitious attempt yet at a fully open hardware platform.

    Says Huang on the project's site: "Novena is a 1.2GHz, Freescale quad-core ARM architecture computer closely coupled with a Xilinx FPGA. It's designed for users who care about open source, and/or want to modify and extend their hardware: all the documentation for the PCBs is open and free to download, the entire OS is buildable from source, and it comes with a variety of features that facilitate rapid prototyping."

    The Novena project launched on Crowd Supply on April 2nd and will run until May. In the blog post announcing the campaign, bunnie wrote, "Originally, this started as a hobby project to build a computer just for me and xobs – something that we would use every day, easy to extend and to mod, our very own Swiss Army knife." But enough people were interested in the prospect of a fully open, hackable computer that they decided to crowdfund a small run of components. The Novena project has already raised over $200,000 of the $250,000 goal, with just over three weeks left to go.

    Photo Credit: Make

    But how realistic and practical is an open-hardware laptop? What does being open-hardware even mean? We dive into the technical details of the Novena project and chat with bunnie about his ambitions and where the project is so far.

    Testing: Logitech G502 Proteus Core Gaming Mouse

    Wait, wasn't it just one year ago that Logitech released the G500s, the rebirth of its venerated G5 line of gaming mice? Hold on for just a second while I check my review. Yep, that was just last March. But here we are, with another new high-end gaming mouse, the G502. And this year, Logitech's given it a fancy moniker: the Proteus Core. I'm not sure if that's meant to evoke a certain StarCraft faction in gamers' minds, or simply a take on the SAT-friendly word 'protean', meaning versatile or adaptable. The latter's likely the case, given the G502's ability to be calibrated for different mousing surfaces (glass and mirrors notwithstanding). Regardless, Logitech's new flagship is an aggressive product, an $80 mouse that not only succeeds last year's G500s, but revamps the design of Logitech's gaming mouse line. That curvy G5 design that I was so hot on last year has once again been retired (at least temporarily).

    I've been testing the G502 for about a week, in first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and lots of desktop imaging work. I'm not a MOBA player, so my perspective may not reflect those playing the dominant PC gaming game type today. And as I've said before, a gaming mouse is an accessory that most people rarely change--they find the one that works for them and stick with it. If you like the Razer DeathAdder, Mad Catz R.A.T., or even Logitech's own previous G-series, mice, there's really not a lot of reason to spend another $80 on a new gaming mouse unless your current one breaks. Gaming mice technology has really reached a point where every new generation of product offers fewer new benefits; product engineers really feel like they're reaching when they push the boundaries of sensor DPI or add more configurable buttons. And the G502 has plenty of those new back-of-box features, for sure. Let's run through them and evaluate whether they truly add any benefit to your gaming experience.

    Arguably the most important component in a gaming mouse is its sensor, and the G502's optical (IR) sensor was apparently designed from the ground up to introduce two notable features. The first is DPI (dots per inch, or technically counts per inch) sensitivity that ranges from 200 to 12000. You read that correctly: this mouse is sensitive to past 10,000 DPI, which I believe is a first for a gaming mouse. (Consider that the G5, circa 2005, topped out at 2000 DPI). At that maximum setting, the tiniest flick of the wrist will send the cursor all the way across a 1080p panel; it's meant for gamers who want to make extremely large movements quickly, or desktop users running multiple monitors spanning many thousands of pixels wide. Of course, high DPI doesn't denote accuracy, just sensitivity. A mouse set to 10,000 DPI isn't useful if it isn't accurate at that "resolution"--the trick is testing the mouse's accuracy at the sensitivities that you find most useful.

    The Best Portable Hard Drive Today

    After 30 hours of research and nearly 40 hours of testing, we determined that the 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim is our new favorite portable hard drive. It’s slimmer, lighter, and faster than our previous pick, the WD My Passport Ultra. However, you should not buy the 4TB version, also known as the Seagate Backup Plus Fast. Though it may seem like a better value, it’s not as reliable (more on this later).

    The 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim weighs just 0.33 pounds and is one of the thinnest portable drives out there, measuring .48 inches thick. The Slim also bests our previous pick, the WD My Passport Ultra, in speed, and the drive’s plastic case doesn’t flex or creak under pressure like the WD’s case. The 2TB model is less expensive per terabyte than the 1TB and 500GB models, making it the best value aside from the 4TB Seagate Backup Plus Fast, which you should avoid.

    Photo credit: Flickr user linsinchen via Creative Commons.

    But the WD My Passport Ultra is still a solid alternative should our new pick go out of stock. If you’re in need of a ruggedized drive, our previous recommendation, theSilicon Power Armor A80, is still the best shockproof and waterproof option available. And for professionals or those who know they need a Thunderbolt connection, we still recommend the LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt.

    Who should(n’t) buy this

    If your external hard drive is just going to sit on your desk all the time and never budge, you’re better off with a desktop external because it’s faster and you can get more storage for less money. For example, our desktop pick—which isn’t the fastest desktop hard drive out there—has faster read and write speeds by about 30 megabytes per second and is about $20 cheaper per terabyte than our portable recommendation at the time of writing.

    You’ll be paying more per terabyte and sacrificing some speed, but a portable hard drive can be the perfect backup solution for your laptop.

    But if you need an external drive that can be (carefully) tossed in a bag and used on the go, a portable hard drive is just what you’re looking for. You’ll be paying more per terabyte and sacrificing some speed, but a portable hard drive can be the perfect backup solution for your laptop or a way to store photos and other data while traveling or commuting.

    Most portable externals use 2.5-inch hard drives, which are powered entirely by the USB or Thunderbolt connection. This means that portable hard drives don’t need an additional power adapter, unlike desktop external drives, and are consequently more convenient to use while traveling. Portable hard drives are usually much smaller and lighter than their desktop counterparts.

    However, most portable hard drives have smaller platters and slower rotation speeds, which translates to slower read and write times and longer waits for file transfers. The 2.5-inch HDDs typically found in portable drives currently max out at 2TB, compared to 3.5-inch desktop external drives that go up to 4TB. So if you need more than 2TB, you’ll be stuck buying multiple portable externals versus a single desktop drive. Again, portable hard drives are also generally more expensive per terabyte than desktop options.

    The Problem with High-PPI Windows Display Scaling

    High-resolution screens are getting more and more common. You can get a pretty good 27-inch 2560x1440 screen for $300, and cheap 4K displays are on the horizon--although you shouldn't actually buy one yet. And of course there's all those 13-, 14-, and 15-inch laptops with high-resolution screens, from 2560x1440 screen available on the Acer Aspire S7 and Toshiba Kirabook, to the 3200x1800 displays on the Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus and Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro. And, of course, the Retina MacBook Pro, the granddaddy of the genre, with its 2560x1600 13-inch and 2880x1800 15-inch form factors.

    These high-res ultrabooks are beautiful when they work properly, but I don't think you should actually buy one. Especially not one to run Windows desktop applications.

    At 27 inches, a 2560x1440 display is amazing, because you can use it without scaling the Windows UI at all. You can comfortably fit two 1280px-wide windows side-by-side, which means you can get the benefit of two smaller monitors in one. Here's what that looks like. There's so much room for activities!

    But that's 2560x1440 at 27 inches, or about 109 pixels per inch. Cramming the same number of pixels (or more!) into a 13.3-inch screen ups your pixel density to 221PPI. It's a much sharper image, but if you leave Windows display scaling at 100%, the desktop user interface becomes unbearably tiny--just look at those taskbar icons.