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Computing

Hands on with HP’s Omen X 2S 15: The world’s first dual-screen gaming laptop

Amid a growing crowd of super-thin, super-light and super-fast gaming laptops, HP’s Omen X 2S 15 just jumped above the noise.

Sure this sub-five-pound laptop features an 8-core, 9th-gen Core i9-9880H CPU and a GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q GPU—those specs are a given on any high-end laptop. But all those other laptops don’t have a six-inch touchscreen in the keyboard deck. The Omen X 2S 15 does.  

dscf0029 final Adam Patrick Murray

The HP Omen X 2S 15 features an 8-core 9th gen Intel chip with factory-installed Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut liquid metal, along with a GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q GPU.

Dual-screen laptops aren’t new, but they’re rare. Lenovo tried it way back in 2009 with its beefy W700ds, with a screen that slid out from behind the main screen. Asus did it recently with the ZenBook Pro, which integrated a screen into the trackpad. Add in any number of dual-screen attempts along the way, such as Acer’s 2011-era Iconia 6120, and it’s a pretty old concept.

None of those are gaming laptops, though, which lets HP claim the mantle of being the “World’s first dual screen gaming laptop.” (You can exclude 2014’s Razer Blade Pro because the second screen wasn’t an extension of the desktop display, technically. And no, Razer’s three-screen Project Valerie was never sold.)

dscf0015 final Adam Patrick Murray

The new HP Omen X 2s 15 features up to a Core i9-9880H and GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q, yet it weighs just five pounds and is relatively thin, too.

But that short list of dual-screen laptops should also tell you just how precipitous the concepts are. After the early “oohs and ahhs” died down, dual-screen laptops mostly cratered.

With the Omen X 2S 15, HP hopes to make its concept actually usable with some pretty cool software tricks. The six-inch secondary screen is essentially a 1920×1080-resolution LCD that Windows sees as a second display. You can push a button and have the active window moved from the main display (a 1920×1080 240Hz G-Sync panel) to the secondary display. This will let you watch your favorite YouTube show or monitor Slickdeals.com for breaking PC deals. You can also monitor the laptop’s vital statistics, such as CPU or GPU temperature. 

Why the dual-screen matters

Those aren’t exactly hot gamer tasks, though. HP takes its dual-screen approach further with a nifty feature called screen mirroring that lets you zoom in on a portion of a game and show it on the second display. This is critical to the success of the Omen X 2S, because very few games today are designed with dual monitors in mind. HP gets around it by basically making it work in any game.

HP’s nifty utility lets you, for example, take a map from Counter Strike: Global Operations, or the mini map from World of Warships or a track map from any racing game you play, and display it on the six-inch screen.

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AI

Alphabet’s Loon hands the reins of its internet air balloons to self-learning AI

Alphabet’s Loon, the team responsible for beaming internet down to Earth from stratospheric helium balloons, has achieved a new milestone: its navigation system is no longer run by human-designed software.

Instead, the company’s internet balloons are steered around the globe by an artificial intelligence — in particular, a set of algorithms both written and executed by a deep reinforcement learning-based flight control system that is more efficient and adept than the older, human-made one. The system is now managing Loon’s fleet of balloons over Kenya, where Loon launched its first commercial internet service in July after testing its fleet in a series of disaster relief initiatives and other test environments for much of the last decade.

Similar to how researchers have achieved breakthrough AI advances in teaching computers to play sophisticated video games and helping software learn how to manipulate robotic hands in lifelike ways, reinforcement learning is a technique that allows software to teach itself skills through trial and error. Obviously, such repetition is not possible in the real world when dealing with high-altitude balloons that are costly to operate and even more costly to repair in the event they crash.

So Loon, like many other AI labs that have turned to reinforcement learning to develop sophisticated AI programs, taught its flight control system how to pilot the balloons using computer simulation, with help from Google’s AI team out of Montreal. That way, the system could improve over time before being deployed on a real-world balloon fleet.

“While the promise of RL (reinforcement learning) for Loon was always large, when we first began exploring this technology it was not always clear that deep RL was practical or viable for high altitude platforms drifting through the stratosphere autonomously for long durations,” explains Sal Candido, Loon’s chief technology officer and co-author of a paper on the new flight control system published this week in the scientific journal Nature, in a blog post. “It turns out that RL is practical for a fleet of stratospheric balloons. These days, Loon’s navigation system’s most complex task is solved by an algorithm that is learned by a computer experimenting with balloon navigation in simulation.”

Loon says its system qualifies as the world’s first deployment of this variety of AI in a commercial aerospace system. And not only that, but it actually outperforms the system designed by humans. “To be frank, we wanted to confirm that by using RL a machine could build a navigation system equal to what we ourselves had built,” Candido writes. “The learned deep neural network that specifies the flight controls is wrapped with an appropriate safety assurance layer to ensure the agent is always driving safely. Across our simulation benchmark we were able to not only replicate but dramatically improve our navigation system by utilizing RL.”

In its first real-world test over Peru in July 2019, the AI-controlled flight system went head-to-head with a traditional one, controlled by a human-built algorithm called StationSeeker, that was designed by the Loon engineers themselves. “In some sense it was the machine — which spent a few weeks building its controller — against me — who, along with many others, had spent many years carefully fine-tuning our conventional controller based on a decade of experience working with Loon balloons. We were nervous… and hoping to lose,” Candido says.

The AI-controlled system handily outperformed the human one by consistently staying closer to a device the team uses to measure LTE signals in the field, and that test paved the way for more experiments to prove the efficacy of the system before it formally replaced the one the team had spent years building by hand. Loon now thinks its system can “serve as a proof point that RL can be useful to control complicated, real world systems for fundamentally continual and dynamic activity.”

In his closing remarks, Candido touches on the concept of whether this type of AI is worthy of the name, because of how specialized it is and how closely it resembles a traditional but not self-learning, automated system like the ones that operate heavy machinery or control elements of mass transit.

“While there is no chance that a super-pressure balloon drifting efficiently through the stratosphere will become sentient, we have transitioned from designing its navigation system ourselves to having computers construct it in a data-driven manner,” he says. “Even if it’s not the beginning of an Asimov novel, it’s a good story and maybe something worth calling AI.”

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Computing

Hands on with Microsoft Surface Pro X, a bold new direction for Surface

Microsoft’s Surface Pro X adds a formerly missing piece to the Surface lineup: an always-on, always-connected device that enables productivity wherever you go. 

What it changes on the inside—especially the custom Snapdragon 8cx-based processor that Microsoft co-designed with Qualcomm—is reflected by dramatic changes on the outside: a pair of USB-C ports, a rechargeable pen tray…and the unfortunate removal of the headphone jack, USB-A, and the microSD slot. There’s also a SIM slot for connectivity, though it’s well hidden.

The 14-inch Surface Pro X tablet is priced from $999 to $1,799 (from Microsoft.com) and will ship on November 5. That base price is a few hundred more than the cheapest $799 configuration of the Intel-based Surface Pro 7. As shown below, users will get to select from various memory and storage options, as well as consumer and business versions. A new Surface Slim Pen and Surface Pro X Signature Keyboard are also specific to the platform. Both the Slim Pen and keyboard appear to be sold separately, though we don’t have prices for either.

Microsoft Surface Pro X Mark Hachman / IDG

Folded up, Microsoft’s Surface Pro X looks normal…

A bold new look for Surface

It’s sort of hard to believe that the first thing worth highlighting is the Surface Slim Pen, but it absolutely is. With the Type Cover inclined, there’s absolutely no indication that anything’s changed. Detach the Cover, though, and a small cubby is revealed: a new, flattish Surface Slim Pen! That recharges when tucked away! That launches the Whiteboard app! And that won’t get lost!

Microsoft Surface Pro X Mark Hachman / IDG

But when unfolded, Microsoft’s Surface Pro X reveals the rechargable Surface Slim Pen in its dedicated charging dock.

Yes, exclamation points are absolutely demanded here. As an occasional inker who has at one time or another touched almost every Surface tablet in existence, a literal handful of Surface Pens live in the bottom of my backpack. A safe, secure place to store a digital pen is absolutely worth applause, though I’m a teeny bit concerned that it will vampirically steal away power from the Surface device, which I consider more of a priority. Securing the pen has been a problem that’s demanded a solution for years. While Dell’s Inspiron 7000 Black Edition laptops got there first, Microsoft earns second place for the Surface Pro X.

The Slim Pen is flattish, rather than perfectly cylindrical as the regular Surface Pen is. It felt comfortable in the hand and inks with 4,096 levels of pressure, which is pretty standard for competitive styluses. The stylus is apparently not compatible with the recently announced Universal Stylus Initiative, unfortunately, although it is usable with other Surface devices. It’s a whopping $145, though. 

Equally appreciated: not one but two USB-C slots on the left side of the tablet. Microsoft will still use the Surface Connector to power the tablet, but it sounds like USB-C might be an option in a pinch. Each port can supply 15W of power.

Microsoft Surface Pro X Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s Surface Pro X reveals a pair of USB-C ports on the side.

After years of ignoring USB-C, it’s sort of hard to believe Microsoft jumped into it with both feet, but it certainly did. Three ports that you’d expect to see in a Surface—the USB-A port, the microSD slot squirreled away under the kickstand, and the headphone jack—have all disappeared. It’s a plus for all those who have made the leap to Bluetooth earbuds, but ditching so many legacy ports so quickly is disconcerting.

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Computing

Hands on with the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3: Gorgeous reworking, inside and out

Even before you can start talking about the new 15-inch Surface Laptop 3, or AMD’s custom Ryzen inside of it, you simply have to admit: Microsoft’s new all-metal Surface Laptop 3’s are gorgeous. 

Full disclosure: I’m typing this on a Microsoft Surface Book 2, so there’s some justification for my love of shiny metal. And that’s where the Surface Laptop 3 starts: with metal options in Sandstone, plus Matte Black, Cobalt Blue and the traditional Platinum. Yes, the Alcantara fabric is still an option, but if you want a Surface Book-like option without the price, Microsoft has you covered.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Mark Hachman / IDG

The new 15-inch and the existing 13-inch form factors of the Surface Laptop 3, in metal and the traditional Alcantara fabric.

The Surface Laptop 3 ships in two options: the traditional 13-inch form factor, and the new 15-inch option. But while the original Surface Laptop may have been priced affordably for students, the Surface Laptop 3 soars into higher budget ranges. The base prices are $999 for the 13-inch version and $1,199 for the 15-inch. A tricked-out 15-inch laptop costs a whopping $2,799—the same price as the MacBook Pro. However, both the memory and storage in the top-tier Surface Laptop 3 exceed the MacBook Pro’s.) The most expensive 13-inch Surface Laptop 3 is $2,399, $400 more than the most expensive MacBook Pro. Daaaaamn.

Is it worth it? Aesthetically, we’ve already told you that we’re a sucker for pretty notebooks, and both are lighter than you might expect. More objectively, when you look at the spec list, there’s a lot to like.

Microsoft surface laptop 3 configs Microsoftt

Surface Laptop 3 configuration options. Note that the most expensive option is either sold out or just unavailable.

It’s worth noting that though the Surface Laptop 3 is designed for consumers, there will be a business option that allows corporate buyers to purchase a 15-inch Surface Laptop in an Core (Ice Lake) configuration, with Windows 10 Pro. 

While we’ve said before that both Surface Laptops are surprisingly attractive, they’re also unexpectedly light: 3.4 pounds for a 15-inch laptop is an unexpected bonus. They’re as sturdy as ever, steadfastly refusing to flop around. As noted earlier, there are several color options from which to choose. The Sandstone option looks particularly attractive.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Mark Hachman / IDG

A new USB-C port now appears on the Surface Laptop 3.

Aside from the obvious differences in size, though, neither of the Surface Laptop 3’s are visually different from the other. They each have a Surface connector and a USB-A port, the same as before. Now, however, the microDisplayPort of previous generations has been replaced with a single USB-C port. None of the new Surfaces, including this one, enable the USB-C port with Thunderbolt I/O. Nevertheless, there’s enough bandwidth to power a 4K display, we’re told.

Though the Surface Pen can be used with the new Surface Laptop 3, that’s not really the point. They can also be used with the Surface Dial, though it’s a bit awkward to use while in laptop mode.

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Computing

Hands on with the Microsoft Surface Pro 7: Ice Lake looks promising

Most of the improvements in Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7 are tied to an Intel “Ice Lake” microprocessor upgrade, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Admittedly, we’ve dinged prior Surface tablets like the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 because they have largely remained static over the past few generations. We can’t quite say the same for the Surface Pro 7, for two reasons: One is that chip, and the other is the addition of a more modern USB-C port.

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7 starts at $749, and is available in either black or platinum. (The existing Type Covers have several different color options, including black and the red color shown here.) That price can quickly climb to $2,299, though, with higher-end . A corporate version running Windows 10 Pro is available as well.

Here are more details about the primary specs: 

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 Mark Hachman / IDG

If you’re familiar with the Surface lineup, you’re familiar with the Surface Pro 7. Behind it is the familiar kickstand, which still reclines to 165 degrees. The optional Type Cover and Surface Pen are still here, too.

The USB-C port is a change that looks to the future. In the new Surface Laptop 3, for example, the miniDisplayPort port was removed and replaced with USB-C. On the older Surface Pro 6, USB-C was added to the mix of ports, which still includes the miniDisplayPort. (That was somewhat of an odd choice, if only because the Surface Pro tablet has less physical volume to play with than the Surface Laptop. But who knows?)

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 Mark Hachman / IDG

There’s a new USB-C port in addition to the Surface Connector and USB-A port.

Microsoft is also touting the dual far-field stereo mics. They figure into the enhancements Microsoft is making to digital assistants within Windows, such as placing them on the lock screen in the upcoming “19H2” release of Windows 10. I didn’t have a chance to test those.

Internally, the addition of the Intel Ice Lake processor is the most meaningful upgrade. Recall that the Surface Pro 6 was built upon Intel’s Kaby Lake-R chip, which is now two generations removed. Ice Lake itself doesn’t apparently offer much of a performance uptick, but the Iris Plus graphics does, to the tune of 40 percent in our Ice Lake preview. 

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Tech News

Pixel 3a hands on: Who should buy this phone?

Holding the Pixel 3a XL in my hand, it feels indistinguishable from the Pixel 3 XL I’ve been using since October. Yeah, as a phone reviewer, you almost want a budget phone to feel different, but despite the fact the 3a has a plastic body instead of aluminum, its tactile feel remains unchanged.

The Pixel 3a XL also includes all the same computational photography tricks as the more expensive Pixel, including Night Sight, which renders impossibly dark environments as if they were shot in daylight. And despite boasting a slower Snapdragon 670 processor, the 3a’s software experience doesn’t feel any slower than my Pixel 3’s (though, granted, comparisons like this are risky—I’ve been using the original 3 for months now, so it’s possible it’s grown a bit laggy over time). 

So since these phones look and feel so similar, are there any other compelling reasons to buy the cheaper phone? For starters, the Pixel 3a is solidly a full-fledged Pixel phone—at a friendly $399 for the 5.6-inch model, and $479 for the 6-inch model. This means all of the cool next-generation Assistant features that Google announced on the I/O stage today will almost certainly hit the Pixel 3a and 3a XL when they launch later this year.

pixel 3a back Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Yup, that’s a headphone jack on the Pixel 3a.

And of course Pixel phones get Android security and OS updates as soon as Google releases them, for at least three years. Getting the most cutting-edge Android experience has always been the strongest rationale for buying a Pixel, and now you can have that at a budget price. Indeed, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL still cost $800 and $900, respectively. 

But for some, simple price savings may not be the only reasons to buy. Indeed, the new budget Pixels have features that don’t appear anywhere on the more expensive models, and two features in particular erase some controversies.

First, both the Pixel 3a and 3a XL boast a 3.5-inch headphone jack. I migrated to Bluetooth earbuds eons ago, but wired earbud users remain steadfast, and the 3a is now ready to fight their fight. So if you want a Pixel 3, and insist on wired headphones, one of the 3a models is your only choice.

pixel 3a no notch Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

If you hate the Pixel 3 XL’s notch, you’ll love the Pixel 3a.

Second, the notch. The dreaded, endlessly ridiculed display notch. It remains big, bad, bouncy and beautiful on the 6.3-inch Pixel 3 XL, but on the 6-inch Pixel 3a XL it’s… just not there. The 3a’s resolution is 2160×1080 versus the 3 XL’s 1440×2960, but display quality remains excellent—and, hey, no notch!

Oh, and do you care about paint jobs? The Pixel 3a comes in a new color called Purple-ish. It looks almost white, but its subtlety notwithstanding you won’t find it on the Pixel 3.

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Tech News

Asus ZenFone 6 hands on: Flipping the script to take on the OnePlus 7 Pro

Even if they hadn’t released within days of each other, it’s impossible not to compare the Asus ZenFone 6 to the OnePlus 7 Pro. They both have Snapdragon 855 processors, funky selfie cams, and near-stock Android skins. And they’re both a whole lot cheaper than their premium counterparts.

But while we expected the OnePlus 7 Pro to stand out in the field, the Asus ZenFone 6 may be one of the most surprising phones of the year so far. Where last year’s ZenFone 5z was an iPhone imitator with an ugly notch, forced AI camera gimmicks, and a heavy-handed skin, Asus has completely reimagined its smartphone experience for this year’s model: The camera cutout is gone, the AI scene detector is little more than a toggle, and ZenUI has been all but jettisoned. It’s a refreshing change that makes the ZenFone 6 feel more like a reboot than a annual refresh. That’s exactly what Asus needs to take on OnePlus 7 Pro, the ZenFone 6’s most obvious competitor. 

asus zenfone 6 back Christopher Hebert/IDG

The back of the Asus ZenFone 6 is glass, but there’s no wireless charging on board.

Let’s start with the specs. The ZenFone 6 is an incremental upgrade over the 5z, but Asus has added enough to keep pace with OnePlus’s upgrades:

  • Display: 6.4-inch FHD+ LCD
  • Processor: Snapdragon 855
  • RAM: 6GB/8GB
  • Storage: 128GB/256GB
  • Camera: 48MP, f/1.79 + 13MP ultra wide (125 degree FOV)
  • Battery: 5,000mAH

While the ZenFone 5z had relatively standard dimenseions of 153 x 75.65 x 7.7mm, the ZenFone 6 is slightly larger, measuring 159.1 x 75.44 x 9.1mm. The girth is especially noticeable, though the ZenFone 6 has a slightly tapered design that brings it down to a respectable 8.4mm at the edges. When you hold it, however, you can definitely feel that it’s substantially thicker than other phones. At 190 grams, the ZenFone 6 weighs a good deal less than the 206-gram OnePlus 7 Pro, but the uneven weight distribution makes the ZenFone 6 feel heavier and more cumbersome.

asus zenfone 6 front Christopher Hebert/IDG

The Zenfone 6’s 6.4-inch LCD screen isn’t nearly as bright or balanced as other OLED phones.

Asus has given the ZenFone 6 a near-all-screen design, with slim bezels and a dramatically reduced chin. The blue Asus logo stands out nicely against the black or silver glass back, as does the only other splash of color: a metallic blue rim around the power button. It even has a headphone jack. All in all, it’s a solid design that departs from the excesses of the ZenFone 5z. 

The ZenFone 6’s 6.4-inch display may be only a touch smaller than the 7 Pro’s 6.67-inch one, but the chasm between OnePlus’s Fluid AMOLED technology and Asus’s NanoEdge couldn’t be wider. The inherent differences between OLED and LCD are obvious, and the 1440p screen on the OnePlus 7 Pro is crisper and far more vibrant. The ZenFone 6’s display is substantially dimmer than the OnePlus 7 Pro’s, and what brightness it has isn’t nearly as uniform. When looking at a solid color, it’s easy to spot dark areas, especially near the edges. 

New dog gets new tricks

But the screen and the size may be tradeoffs most buyers will be willing to make to get the ZenFone 6’s flagship features: the camera and battery. While the OnePlus 7 Pro has a respectable 4,000mAh battery, the ZenFone 6 ups the ante to 5,000mAh, besting even the Galaxy S10 5G.

We’re still running tests, but Asus estimate up to 2 days of “non-stop use,” with 21 hours of Wi-Fi web browsing and 33.2 hours of talk time. For comparison, Apple estimates that the iPhone XS Max gets up to 13 hours of Internet use and 25 hours of talk time. So the ZenFone 6 will likely top the list as the longest-lasting of its Snapdragon 855 peers.

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Tech News

Hands on with the THX-powered Razer BlackShark V2 gaming headset

Razer on Thursday announced the next version of its venerable BlackShark gaming headset, the BlackShark V2, leveraging a partnership with THX to provide spatial-audio profiles for gaming using positional sound.

The $100 wired headset can be used as a “standalone” wired headset via its 3.5mm jack. But the V2 also ships with a USB soundcard that the headset can plug into, which adds additional filtering capabilities to the headset’s built-in mic. A second, $60 budget option, the Razer BlackShark V2 X, does away with the sound card but provides a similar driver and the same mic as the more expensive version.

Both headsets ship today, though Razer won’t be able to provide the THX spatial-audio profiles until August 6, the company said. On that day, you’ll be able to download specific profiles for eighteen games, such as Valorant, Apex Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and more. 

As you might expect, controls for most of the headset’s functions can be adjusted using the Razer Synapse utility software. A new version of Synapse will add the THX gaming profiles, Razer said.

For competing devices, check out our roundup of the best gaming headsets.

razer blackshark v2 hands on shot Mark Hachman / IDG

Razer’s BlackShark V2, seen with its USB sound card detached

Hands on with the Razer BlackShark V2

Razer provided a review sample of both headsets to PCWorld. While we’re not ready to provide a full review, we’ve tried it out enough to provide our early impressions. (Keep in mind that while the BlackShark V2’s 3.5mm jack allows it to be used with phones, Xbox controllers, and more, the pluggable USB soundcard is designed for Windows PCs only.)

Here are the BlackShark V2’s basic specs:

  • Frequency response: 12 Hz – 28 kHz
  • Impedance: 32 Ω @ 1 kHz
  • Sensitivity (@1 kHz): 100dBSPL/mW,1KHz
  • Drivers: Customized Dynamic 50mm Driver
  • Inner ear cup diameter: 65 x 40 mm / 2.56in x 1.57 in
  • Connection type: 3.5mm with USB sound card
  • Mic frequency response: 100Hz-10KHz
  • Mic Signal-to-noise ratio: 60dB (unidirectional)
  • Cable length: 8m / 5.91 feet
  • Weight: 262g / 0.6 pounds

My first thoughts when the cans hit my ears were: soft…and light

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