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    12 Days of Tested Christmas: Anker 5-Port USB Charger

    For the fifth day of Tested Christmas, Will shares his solution for charging all his mobile devices at his desk and nightstand. Instead of using multiple wall warts and chargers, he uses a single 5-port USB charger that can power phones tablets, and other USB devices at their fastest charging speeds.

    Testing: Google Nexus 9 Android Tablet

    Google's Nexus 9 is a big departure from past Android tablets in several ways, not least of which that it has a 4:3 aspect ratio. It's also a 64-bit tablet with a more premium price point. There's no followup to the 2013 Nexus 7 with its low price. A lot of the early reviews were mixed, but does the N9 seem better after a few updates? I've been living with the Nexus 9 as my main tablet for the last few weeks, so let's figure it out.

    Design and Build Quality

    You've probably heard it said many times that the Nexus 9 bears a striking resemblance to a scaled up Nexus 5. Well, that's definitely true. The back is made of the same soft touch plastic as Google's 2013 flagship phone. The rim around the edge is made of aluminum, though. It seems like there's some variation in how that plastic back sits. Some units have a little bit off give as the plastic pops out from the frame in the middle. This isn't an issue in my unit, and I suspect it won't happen on newly manufactured tablets. Even in the worst cases, it doesn't seem like a structural issue, just annoying.

    The buttons are positioned on the right side (in portrait mode) and they aren't awesome. I'm not sure why so many OEMs have trouble getting buttons right, but it happens all the time. The N9's buttons are mushy and have low travel. On some units, they are almost flush with the side of the tablet. Mine isn't that bad, all things considered. It could be better, though. It's sounding like newer tablets aren't suffering from this particular defect.

    The question you have to ask is, does the Nexus 9 feel premium? The unsatisfying answer is "kind of." The device itself is solid and doesn't flex. It feels dense, but not too heavy. The buttons are definitely a sticking point and the back will be divisive. I really like soft touch surfaces, myself. I'll take a soft touch plastic device over metal any day--they're just easier to hold. It does get fingerprint-y, but that's the price you pay.

    Google says the nexus 9 is 7.95mm thick, but I feel like that might be a tiny bit generous. It's still definitely under 10mm and it seems better balanced than most tablets. Overall, the Nexus 9 doesn't quite feel like a $399 tablet. That's not to say it feels lousy, or anything.

    Tested In-Depth: Apple iPad Air 2

    Apple has two new iPads out this year, but only one of them is a significant update to the last generation. Surprisingly, it's the iPad Air 2, which improves on last year's model in both size, weight, and performance. We sit down to discuss in-depth the differences between the current slate of iPads, and show you where GPU improvements are most noticeable.

    Tested In-Depth: Amazon Kindle Voyage

    How much more improvement do current ebook readers need? We sit down to show off all the new features in Amazon's latest Kindle, the $200 Voyage, and compare it with the Paperwhite model. We discuss whether the high-DPI screen makes a difference for reading books, and if exisiting Kindle owners should upgrade.

    In Brief: iPad Air 2 Has Tri-Core CPU, 2GB of RAM

    The first reviews of Apple's new iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 went online yesterday, and they're looking mostly positive. The consensus on the Mini seems to be that it's not worth the $100 premium over the now-$400 Mini 2, just for TouchID and the gold color option. But the improvements made to the iPad Air line is pretty significant. iPad Air 2 is Apple's first tablet with a tri-core SoC, the A8X. It's not just a clock speed bump over the iPhone 6's A8, and synthetic benchmarks peg performance far above the latest iPhones in both single-core and multi-core usage. iPad Air 2 is also Apple's first iOS device with 2GB of RAM. According to some reviewers, it's as fast an old MacBook Air (at least for web browsing). Those devices aren't really comparable, since their core users buy them for very different reasons and usage scenarios. While I'm not excited for the new Mini, nor am in the market for a new full-size iPad, I think it looks promising as an upgrade for my parents' 3rd-generation iPad (the heavy one that got the Retina display). They can't stand the small screen of the Mini, and will appreciate the sub-1 pound weight of the new Air 2. But the best thing for them is that they will be able to get 128GB of storage at the previous 64GB price--essential for photos. They're the kind of people who use their iPads as their sole computers, and never delete or move photos off of them. My guess is that there are a lot of iPad users who fall into that category too.

    Norman
    Amazon Announces Kindle Voyage, Updates to Kindle Family

    Well these new Kindles arrived much sooner than expected. Fresh on the heels of the Kindle Voyage leaks on Amazon Germany and Japan--which indicated a Nov 4th release date--Amazon has announced the new generation of Kindle e-book readers. A whole lot of them. On the e-ink side, there's a new entry-level touch model that starts at $80 (with no paperwhite, but a new processor), an updated Paperwhite with double the storage starting at $120, and of course the leaked Kindle Voyage, which starts at $200.

    Voyage has a Paperwhite lit screen, with a high-resolution 300ppi display that's flush to the bezel. Early hands-on reports indicate that text does indeed look much sharper on the Voyage than the 212ppi Kindles. Of course, resolution is only part of the story--readability has a lot to do with typography chose and font rendering techniques. Voyage's front-lighting is also now adaptive based on ambient light (as well as being 40% brighter), and the reader comes with a free 3G connection for downloading books.

    On the Kindle Fire Android-based tablet side, Amazon has again lowered the floor for pricing with a $100 6-inch model, a $140 7-inch model, and kid-friendly models starting at $150. A new high-end HDX model starts at $380, but has a 2560x1600 8.9-inch display that's lighter than the iPad Air and adaptive backlighting to better simulate the effect of reading on paper. These Kindle Fires run a new version of Fire OS, dubbed Sangria, based on Android KitKat.

    We've pre-ordered the new Kindle Voyage and Paperwhite models and will be testing and reviewing them when they arrive in late October.

    In Brief: Amazon May Launch New Kindles on Nov 4th

    For the past six years, Amazon has followed a pretty regular annual schedule of updating its popular Kindle e-book reader. The past few updates, including two generations of Paperwhite, have brought relatively minor improvements--faster processors for page turning, higher contrast in its e-ink display, and lighter formfactors. We've been waiting for a big leap in Kindle, and that may not come this year. The Verge is reporting that Amazon has accidentally listed this year's Kindle refresh on its German site. Dubbed the Kindle Voyage, it would still be a 6-inch black and white e-ink reader, but with a higher resolution display reaching 300 ppi (up from 212 ppi). A leaked page on Amazon Japan shows the new reader's dimensions and weight to be smaller and lighter than the Paperwhite 2 as well. Still no color display.

    Norman
    Testing: Surface Pro 3 and Shield Tablet's Styli

    Two things struck me while testing the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and Nvidia's Shield Tablet, devices I ended up really liking. Both are ostensibly tablets, but the way I used each of them differed from how I used my iPad Mini. First, I rarely used held either of them like a notepad, with one or two hands gripping the sides. Most of the time, I had the Surface propped up in its "canvas" position using its kickstand on a flat surface, and kept the Shield Tablet propped up on a small makeshift kickstand as well. They were tabletop computers, not handheld ones. Second, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed using the stylus on each of these devices, and not necessarily as writing instruments. For both the Surface and the Shield Tablet, the stylus actually became a second navigational tool, used to swipe through the home screen and browse the web. These use cases became as intuitive as touch pointing and gestures--still the primary physical for iPads. And it made me think about how much Apple is limiting the potential of its iPads by staunchly sticking to touch.

    Let's start with the Surface Pro 3, which has an active stylus. As I said in our video, my limited digital drawing abilities don't allow me to discern the difference between the Wacom-based digitizer used in the last Surface Pro and the N-Trig one used here. What matters to me isn't degrees of pressure sensitivity, it's accuracy and latency. And the Surface Pro 3's stylus was completely sufficient for note-taking in OneNote--my chicken scratch handwriting looked on-screen like they would have on paper. The ability to manipulate those scribbles as vectors and use the stylus to crop/copy/paste images with annotations made those notes more useful than the ones in my paper notebook after having made my jots.

    But my favorite way to use the Surface Pro 3's stylus was actually as an extension of my fingers on the touchscreen. On the Windows desktop, the stylus became a proxy for my mouse cursor. Even with Windows' improved touch tracking for tapping small buttons, the one thing that touch can't facilitate is a cursor hover. With the active stylus, I could hover the tip over the screen and see where the cursor is before making a pinpointed tap. Even when I had I mouse connected to the Surface, I would use the Stylus in combination with my fingers to browse the web--tapping Chrome's UI and scrolling with the pen and easily still pinching to zoom on pages with my fingers. That complementary use of fingers and stylus felt completely natural. Much like how I've found touchscreens to be a delightful complement to the primary keyboard and mouse interface on a laptop, I've found the stylus to be an intuitive complementary input method to finger touch on tablets. You can have the cake and eat it too.

    The only thing I wish is that Microsoft could have found a better way to store the stylus to the Surface Pro 3. In past versions of the Surface Pro, the stylus stuck magnetically to the side of the device, attached to its charging port, actually. It wasn't particularly secure, and meant that you had to remove the stylus to charge the Surface. On the Surface Pro 3, the stylus has no docking port--only a sleeve on the type keyboard accessory to slip into. I realize that given the thickness of the stylus and the densely packed design of the tablet's guts, there's no space for a recessed stylus dock. It's the problem that Steve Jobs bemoaned when mandating a touch-only interface on the iPad, but not an impossible task. Lenovo's ThinkPad 2, for example, is a hybrid device with a built-in stylus dock.

    Tested In-Depth: Nvidia Shield Tablet and Wireless Controller

    Nvidia's first Shield device was a good showcase of the Tegra 4 processor, but was limited as a dedicated gaming device. We test the new Shield Tablet and wireless controller, and show off its gaming and productivity features. We also evaluate the stylus, Nvidia's new Grid Beta, and Shield's built-in Twitch streaming capabilities. This ends up being one of our favorite Android tablets, with few compromises for all of its features.

    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.

    Hands-On with Nvidia's Shield Tablet

    Nvidia's first Shield was a dedicated gaming handheld, but its new model is a high-end tablet with gaming accessories. We spend a little time with Nvidia's new Android gaming tablet, compare it to the original Shield portable, and give our thoughts on this device's appeal to PC and mobile gamers.

    Tested In-Depth: Adobe Ink and Slide Review

    Has anyone ever used a good stylus for the iPad? We sit down to discuss the fundamental problems with writing with a stylus on the iPad, and what tricks hardware companies use to make writing and drawing on the tablet feel as natural as possible. Plus, we test Adobe's new Ink and Slide hardware tools, as well as their new drawing apps.

    Why Are Apple's USB Chargers Are So Expensive?

    You probably don't think too much about power bricks, but you probably should. After digging deep into a wide variety of power bricks, Ken Shirriff wanted to see why Apple's 10W iPad charger costs $20 when there are counterfeits that are widely available for around $3. The result is worth reading, but Ken's evidence indicates that not only will the official brick charge your devices faster, the counterfeit he opened up is downright dangerous. (Thanks to @SolrFlare for the tip.)

    Will 10
    In Brief: Analyzing the Pixel Density Race

    Really love this piece of technical analysis by Anandtech's Joshua Ho regarding the technical merits of increasing pixel density on phone and tablet screens. Joshua dives deep not only on intrinsic manufacturing and energy costs of building increasingly high-resolution displays for phones (Samsung's next Galaxy smartphone is rumored to have a 5-inch 2560x1440 screen), but also the limits of human perception--which aren't as clearcut as they seem. Several things jumped out at me from reading the piece. First, that PPI as a standard for screen quality is relatively useless, as pixels per degree (PPD) and sub-pixels per inch (SPPI) are arguably better metrics that take into account qualitative use cases and screen manufacturing technologies. Second, that there is an important difference between the technical limitation of human eye acuity and a person's perceptual capabilities, because the brain does some interpolation in its processing of photons. And third, that this may be the beginning of a shift away from PPI (a concept Apple bought into the mainstream) as a talking point for consumers. It's really interesting to follow along as users (and reviewers) get more informed about the minute technical aspects of new devices, and to see the salient marketing points that manufacturers push to the public shift along with it. We've seen that in smartphone displays (a shift from screen size to pixel dimensions to pixel density) as well as consumer cameras (shifting from megapixels to sensor size to lens ecosystem). As users become more tech savvy, the marketers have to find new ways to spin their tech talk and try and pull wool over our eyes.

    Norman 1
    CES 2014 Impressions: Samsung's Pro Tablets

    This was bound to happen. With the very aggressive pricing on great Android tablets like the Nexus 7, manufacturers are looking for ways to sell tablets to consumers without sacrificing their profit margins. Apple has been able to use the strength of the iOS ecosystem and Apple fanbase to keep its full-size iPad line at above $500, but even they've admitted that they had to lower their typical margins for the iPad Mini--which still is $170 more expensive than the Nexus 7. On the Android side, Samsung needs to differentiate its Galaxy Tabs and Note tablets from the Nexus 7 and 10 (which they make), and they're doing it this year by introducing a Pro line. Bigger screen, high-resolution, and made with the latest tablet hardware. And even though pricing hasn't been announced, I'm willing to bet that it'll be on the high-end as well. It's what many people had speculated Apple would do with its iPad line, and I bet that's coming later this year.

    Of the Pro tablets in Samsung's lineup, the 12.2-inch Galaxy TabPro and Galaxy NotePro stand out. They're essentially the same models, but the NotePro includes Samsung's digitizer stylus--another premium product differentiator. 12.2-inches is massive, even with a 16:10 aspect ratio (2560x1600 resolution across the board). My initial impression was that this was finally a tablet that accurately display digital books and comic books at 1:1 scale, and could work as a large canvas for artists using the S-Pen. But when picking it up at Samsung's booth, all I could think about was how heavy it was. The 12.2-inch models weigh 750 grams, more than that of the original 2010 iPad (even with 3G!). After using the 2013 Nexus 7 and iPad Mini with Retina, my definition of premium prioritizes weight over screen size.

    The other thing that didn't feel right during my short time with the Galaxy NotePro was Samsung's new Android home screen replacement, called Magazine UX. The panes were packed with high-density information and live widgets, but was surprisingly sluggish for Android 4.4 running on a 2.3GHz quad-core SoC. I'm not talking about the original Galaxy Tab levels of sluggishness, but it definitely was less responsive and stuttered more than the smooth home screens of the Nexus 7 and 10. Running four apps in segmented panes noticeably affected responsiveness, and popping a Chrome "window" out onto the home screen made things worse. I'm just not sure Android and current ARM processors are meant to display so many apps at once.

    The smaller Galaxy TabPro 8.4 was much easier to hold and use with one hand, and its 2560x1600 screen looked fantastic. Other than the size of its screen, it's exactly the same as the 12.2-inch model--responsiveness on its Magazine UX home screen wasn't any better. And keeping with the premium spirit, all of Samsung's Pro tablets have faux leather backs. That's not suede, mind you--it's plastic formed to feel like leather, with fake stitching and all. And if pricing ends up being much higher than the Nexus series and other aggressively-priced competitors, Samsung's going to have to do a lot more to impress on the idea that its premium tablets are worth it.

    What Nvidia Tegra K1 Means for Mobile (and PC) Gamers

    Nvidia's 2014 refresh of its Tegra system-on-a-chip, announced on the eve of this year's CES, marks some major changes from the Tegras of years past. Tegra K1 succeeds last year's Tegra 4 with a pair of configurations: one a quad-core Cortex-A15 CPU, and the other a custom 64-bit ARMv8 Nvidia CPU. Even more importantly, K1 uses the same architecture of Nvidia's desktop GPUs, and future GPU designs will grow from mobile into desktop hardware. This leaves us with a couple important questions: How big a deal is K1 for mobile users? And how much will it influence the future of Nvidia's desktop graphics cards?

    Anandtech's breakdown of Tegra K1 gives us a good overview of the technology. The custom 64-bit Nvidia CPU making its first appearance in K1 is Project Denver, which Nvidia's been working on for years; the company first announced it in 2011. Like previous Tegra SoCs, K1 includes a fifth low-power core for battery saving. Anandtech points out that Cortex-A15 has seen some improvements since last year, primarily in energy efficiency. The move to 28nm and a max clock speed increase from 1.9GHz to 2.3 GHz means the Cortex-A15 version of K1 will be about 20 percent faster than last year's model.

    Photo credit: Nvidia.

    That's not a significant difference, even if it means some battery life improvements for Tegra devices. The Cortex-based K1 devices will be shipping in the first half of 2014. In the second half of the year, Nvidia plans to roll out Project Denver with dual-core, not quad-core, 64-bit processors. There's no low-power companion core in this configuration. The CPU is clocked at 2.5GHz, which Anandtech believes is to account for some very specialized software designed to make K1 more efficient.

    Nvidia hasn't revealed all the details about Project Denver--or most of them, really. Anandtech speculates Nvidia has built a chip capable of out-of-order execution that will make it more power- and performance-efficient, and a lot of that work is done in software. If Denver's design lives up to its potential, it could signal a major shift away from piling on CPU cores in favor of much more powerful dual-core designs, something Apple has likewise done with the iPhone.

    Photo credit: Nvidia.

    The Denver CPU is new territory for Nvidia, but the changes it's making to its mobile GPUs may be an even bigger deal for anyone who buys Nvidia hardware, be it mobile or PC. "All architectures will start as mobile designs and then be adopted to fit other, higher power segments," writes Anandtech. "Kepler makes the move into mobile largely unchanged. This is a full Kepler implementation with the same size register file, shared L1 and is 100% ISA compatible with its big brother. It turns out that Kepler, as it was originally designed, was pretty good for mobile."

    Nvidia called the K1 Kepler GPU a 192-core GPU, which just means it had 192 CUDA cores. For reference, the GTX 780 has 2304 CUDA cores, but you wouldn't call it a 2304 core GPU. Nvidia also claims that their mobile version of Kepler will deliver 1.5x the performance-per-watt of Apple's A7 and the Adreno 330 GPU. And if there's a major advantage to Kepler's mobile miniaturization, it's APIs.

    "In one swift move NVIDIA goes from being disappointing in API support to industry leading," Anandtech explains. "Since this is a full Kepler implementation (just a lower power/performing version) Tegra K1 maintains full API compatibility with NVIDIA’s flagship GeForce products. OpenGL ES 3.0 is supported but so are full OpenGL 4.4, DX11 and CUDA 6.0."

    Desktop PC users likely have nothing to worry about when it comes to Nvidia GPU architecture--the company isn't going to abandon the high-end market as it designs its GPUs to work well on mobile. But K1 is potentially a very, very big deal when it comes to mobile gaming and living room gaming. Nvidia claims it now delivers enough raw performance with K1 to outperform the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Whether or not that turns out to be completely feasible in practice, Tegra K1 is at least close to that level of performance, making an affordable, mobile-based Steam Machine a likely reality.

    "NVIDIA had a port of Serious Sam 3 running on Tegra K1 demo hardware just fine," Anandtech writes. "Any games that are prepped for Steam OS are very easy to port over to Android. Once you make the move to OpenGL, the rest is allegedly fairly simple. The Serious Sam 3 port apparently took a matter of a couple of weeks to get ported over, with the bulk of the effort going into mapping controls to an Android environment."

    This video shows off Nvidia and Epic talking about how amazing the K1 will be for mobile gaming. These promises and prototypes rarely end up mirroring the reality of full games on upcoming hardware, but it goes to show how much the gaps between mobile and console and PC continue to narrow.

    If Nvidia's got hardware powerful enough to run Xbox 360 games in a smartphone form-factor, small living room boxes may not be far behind. And if easy Android ports convince more developers to support SteamOS, K1 could be a great thing for gamers.

    Testing: Pencil Bluetooth iPad Stylus

    Going to get straight to the point with this one: FiftyThree's Pencil Bluetooth Stylus isn't worth $50. It may be one of the best styli you can buy to use on an iPad--or at least the most comfortable--but ultimately disappoints as a viable alternative to writing or sketching with an actual pen or pencil on a sheet of paper. The problem isn't that Pencil fails to achieve what its creators wanted it to do, but that it, along with every other capacitive stylus for the iPad, is trying to address an unsolvable problem. The capacitive touchscreen of the iPad--and corresponding iOS finger-detection software--simply was not made to work well with a stylus.

    If you want to buy a stylus to draw or write longhand on your iPad, you have two basic options. The first is a "dumb" stylus that's essentially a pen with a rubber tip (or nib) that activates the iPad's capacitive sensors, just like your fingers. Studio Neat's Cosmonaut is a good example of this kind of stylus, but you can find alternatives in all shapes and sizes, and often at very lost cost. In this category, what matters are the ergonomics of the stylus body and the rigidity of the nib--which determines how much "feedback" you get when pressing the stylus against the screen. Many artists stand by these simple styli and are able to doodle and actually work with them.

    The other category of iPad stylus has electronics to communicate with the tablet to better simulate the pen and paper experience. These typically pair with the iPad over Bluetooth, using that connection to enable features like palm rejection, pressure sensitivity, different "brushes", and even erasing. But in order for these smarter styli to work properly, they have to be used in apps that recognize their capabilities. That's how Pencil works.

    FiftyThree (the team that worked on Microsoft's canned Courier tablet project) created Pencil to work in concert with its Paper app. We've talked about Paper before, and not much has changed since its release last year. It's still an elegant drawing app that's really simple and fun to use, with either a stylus or finger. Five different virtual brushes are available (one is free, the others are $2 each), and Paper's innovation is that it uses the speed of your brush stroke to determine the width of the line drawn. The idea is that the faster you move your finger across the screen, the less weight you're theoretically applying to the stroke; pressure is extrapolated from speed.

    That's ostensibly the reason the Pencil stylus doesn't have pressure sensitivity like other Bluetooth connected styli like Pogo's Connect or Wacom's Intuos Creative Stylus. For some digital artists, that's a deal-breaker, since Pencil won't work as well on pressure sensitivity-enabled apps like Autodesk Sketchbook Pro and Adobe Photoshop Touch. But that's not the reason I was disappointed by Pencil. The problem is latency.