Europe enters race to build world-class supercomputers

Supercomputers are a crucial research tool for medicine, aviation, robots and weapons, but there are only three dominant players: The US, Japan and China. Europe has had enough of that situation, however, and announced plans to spend up to $1.2 billion to develop its own technology. The aim is to develop its own exascale machines (that can do a billion billion calculations per second) by 2022-23. “It is a tough race and today the EU is lagging behind,” said EC comissioner Andrus Ansip.

To give you an idea of how far behind, China has the world’s fastest supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight, with 93 petaflops (93 million billion floating point operations per second) of computing power. The nation is also working on the Tianhe-3 (below), the world’s first exascale machine with over ten times the power of TaihuLight, and expects to have that up and running by 2020.

Other top ten machines are located in Japan, US and everywhere but Europe (other than Switzerland, which is not part of the EU but an “associated country.”) The only large European player is Atos SE, which built the Bull Sequana shown above. The machine, 55th in global supercomputer rankings, is the first phase of a 25-petaflop computer that will be used by the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.

The Sunway TaihuLight Supercomputer (Li Xiang/Xinhua via AP)Right now, weather, space and other government agencies in Europe, along with private Euro companies like Daimler, Airbus and GlaxoSmithKline must rent supercomputing time on US or Japanese machines. That poses a risk that sensitive personal information, trade secrets and other data could leak or be stolen. If a dispute or crisis happens, Europe could also lose access to those machines.

Buying and developing supercomputing technology is crazy expensive, with exascale machines expected to cost up to a half billion dollars. To buy and develop them, Europe will spend $486 million itself, with the balance of the $1.2 billion coming from member states. It plans to first acquire machines that can compete with current top supercomputers, then develop its own exascale machines by 2023.

UK researchers have contributed expertise to the supercomputer project, but with Brexit, it’s not clear if it will sign on in the future. “Brexit has thrown a lot of uncertainty around the UK’s participation and it is really unfortunate and causing delay and confusion,” University of Bristol’s Simon McIntosh-Smith told Bloomberg.

The PC market recently grew for the first time in six years

There’s been a discouraging trend in computer shipments recently; year-to-year growth has declined steadily over the last six years. But now, IDC has a bit of good news: It looks as though the PC market actually grew 0.7 percent in the holiday season of 2017. This contradicts IDC’s forecast, which predicted a 1.7 percent decrease in shipments.

The first holiday season growth of PC shipments in six years is certainly worth nothing; the team at IDC believes that, while the computer market is still weak, it’s beginning to stabilize. Overall, the year’s shipments were down 0.2 percent, with a total of 259.5 million units shipped. A decline, sure, but better than 2016’s 1.5 percent decline.

The top PC performer in 2017 was HP, with a market share in the US of 34 percent. Lenovo followed, with Dell in third place. Apple remains in fourth place, growing its shipments 7.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017. ASUS and Acer were tied for fifth place.

It’s good news for the PC market generally; in 2015, it made its steepest drop in history, falling 10.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015 and 8.3 percent overall. It looks like IDC’s prediction that the market is finally evening out is indeed coming to pass.

Hackers stole information from 1.7 million Imgur accounts in 2014

If you were an Imgur user in 2014, you might want to consider changing your password. Yesterday, the photo-sharing site revealed (via Engadget) that it learned of a security breach in 2014 that compromised the e-mail addresses and passwords of approximately 1.7 million users.

Imgur’s Chief Operating Officer, Roy Sehgal, confirmed that the breach occurred in 2014. Sehgal explains that Imgur doesn’t collect names, addresses, or phone numbers from its users, and that only user e-mails and password information was leaked. According to ZDNet, Troy Hunt, who runs the notification service Have I Been Pwned, obtained the data, and turned over the information to Imgur.

The company says that it’s still investigating the incident, but that it believes that hackers cracked the older algorithm that was used at the time with brute force. The company upgraded its encryption in 2016.

The best Chromebook you can buy right now

Buying a Chromebook has always been a little confusing. At first, we had to wrap our heads around the idea that this was a laptop that just ran a browser. Then, we had to figure out how much something like that should cost. Now, we have to think about whether the addition of Android apps — which are still in beta — could take these browser-only computers and turn them into something that can truly compete with Windows and Mac computers.

So let’s simplify it: Yes, Chromebooks are still mostly “just” Chrome browsers. You can run Android apps on a select few, but it’s not a great experience yet and it’s anybody’s guess as to when that will change. But the web-based apps available for Chrome itself are often remarkably powerful, and many can work offline. So when you buy a Chromebook, you can and should just focus on the things that make using Chrome OS itself a good experience: a fast processor, a good screen, long battery life, a nice keyboard, and a reasonable price.

That last one can be particularly hard to parse, because pricing can vary from $150 or so for devices meant for the education market all the way up to northwards of $1,000 for top-of-the-line models. But at the end of the day, you should avoid spending more than five or six hundred dollars on a Chromebook, if only because you can get Windows machines that are pretty darn good at those prices.

That advice may change if and when Google releases real improvements to the Android app system on Chrome OS. Rumors are pointing to a new, top-tier Chromebook Pixel getting released in October. Even though we expect that to cost more than what most people should spend on a Chromebook, we’ll definitely update this article when we find out more information.

In the meanwhile, the best Chromebook you can buy right now is the one that does the best job showcasing what the Chrome browser and its apps can do, with a bit of support for Android apps as future proofing.

The best Chromebook right now: Asus Chromebook Flip C302

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

The competition for the best Chromebook is a little tighter now than it used to be, thanks to excellent devices from a bunch of manufacturers like Asus, Lenovo, and Samsung. But the best of them hits all the features you should care about on a Chromebook without any major flaws.

It’s the Asus Chromebook Flip C302, which in our review we called the new “standard.” That’s because it hits those basic notes: nice hardware, a good screen, a fast Intel processor, a backlit keyboard, and good battery life. It also has support for Android apps if you need them; they were just added to the “stable” version of Chrome OS for the C302 recently.

The only real downside to the C302 is its price, which often hovers around $500 on Amazon. But the problem with buying a much cheaper Chromebook is that you’ll end up compromising on one (or several) things that will ultimately annoy you. The biggest one is performance. The C302 can handle a dozen or more tabs, while cheaper Chromebooks can bog down when you get more than eight and usually make you look at crappy screens while you wait.

The C302 is also relatively futureproof, not only because it supports Android apps but because it can also be flipped around into a tablet mode. That mode can be useful for watching video and means that as Google continues to improve Chrome OS for touch, the C302 will be able to take advantage.

If I’m honest, I prefer the hardware of Samsung’s Chromebook Pro, which is slightly better looking and comes with a stylus. However, the Chromebook Pro lacks a backlit keyboard, a mystifying omission. The C302 has a good, backlit keyboard but no stylus — which isn’t a huge loss given the state of the software for styli on Chrome OS.

8.1 Verge Score

Asus C302CA

Buy for $469.00 from Amazon Buy for $469.00 from B&H

If you need Android apps: Samsung Chromebook Plus

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

If Android apps are essential on your Chromebook, the best way to run them is with Samsung’s Chromebook Plus. It’s an excellently built machine that’s thin and light. It uses a custom, ARM-based processor called the OP1. ARM processors are similar to what you have on your phone, so on Chromebooks they usually end up being slower and more frustrating that Intel processors.

On the Chromebook Plus, that’s not totally true. While a proper Intel processor will give you better performance using the Chrome browser, the OP1 is surprisingly fast. It performs better than any comparable ARM-based Chromebook we’ve tried, even though it’s not quite as fast as the C302.

Running an ARM processor means that most Android apps require less “translation” work to run well on Chrome OS. Games are less likely to stutter, and overall the experience is better. And though it lacks a backlit keyboard, it does come with a stylus. Even though the software for the stylus isn’t great, it is convenient to have it when you need to quickly mark up a screenshot or document.

The Chromebook Plus is a little more expensive than we’d like, at $449 retail, but if you really need Android apps, it’s your best bet.

8.3 Verge Score

Samsung Chromebook Plus

Buy for $424.00 from Amazon Buy for $419.00 from B&H

(Note: yes, you may have noticed that the Chromebook Plus has a slightly higher review score, though it’s very close. We still recommend the C302 for most people. The Plus’ score reflects its abilities with Android apps and its surprisingly good performance for a slightly cheaper price.)

The rest

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Quality on Chromebooks can unfortunately vary widely once you get below $400 or so. It’s possible to find something pretty good if you’re willing to forego features like a touchscreen or a backlit keyboard, but you should definitely try them out in person before buying if at all possible. That’s because, by and large, the money savings come from cutting corners on both build quality and the processor.

Like The Wirecutter, we like the Thinkpad 13 Chromebook as a basic option — but only if you are sure you’ll never want a touchscreen for tablet mode. Although the Acer Chromebook 14 for Work seemed promising, we managed to crack the screen without that much abuse because the top of the laptop flexed too much. Acer’s Chromebook 15 is an option if you must have a gigantic screen, but the rest of the laptop disappoints. The Lenovo Flex 11, which is inexpensive at under $300, surprised us with its durability and quality screen for the price, but of course the processor is only good enough for the most basic of tasks.

HP Spectre x2 review: more imitation than innovation

Imitation is a form of flattery. Great artists steal. You can choose whatever cliché you prefer, but the truth of the matter is that many of the products we use today are copies of, or at least inspired by, something that came before it. In the laptop world, Apple’s MacBook Air was the inspiration for countless Windows laptops for more than half a decade. In more recent times, Microsoft’s Surface Pro lineup has been the muse by which many PC makers have designed their two-in-one devices.

HP’s Spectre x2 is one of those devices. It’s a detachable two-in-one tablet that purports to replace your laptop. The x2 is basically HP’s take on the Surface, and it borrows many ideas and features from Microsoft. The latest version, which came out this summer, is closer to the Surface than ever before: HP upgraded the display and changed its shape to match the Surface; the speakers have been moved to the front bezel of the screen; and the whole package is thinner and lighter than before.

The main area where HP differs from Microsoft is in pricing: at $1,299.99, as tested, the Spectre x2 offers a more powerful processor and more storage than the Surface Pro. And unlike the Surface, which doesn’t include a keyboard or pen, the Spectre x2 includes both items in the box. A comparably equipped Surface Pro will run close to $1,830 when you add in the keyboard and pen, making the real-world cost difference between the two devices a not insignificant $500.

That’s a big price gulf, so unless HP really dropped the ball with the Spectre x2, it seems like the obvious choice, right? After using the Spectre x2 for over a month, and comparing it directly with the new Surface Pro, I’m not so sure that it is.

The Spectre x2 looks like an obvious clone of the Surface Pro, but it has a more understated, business-like appearance. In place of the light gray frame and colorful, fabric-covered keyboards of the Surface, the x2 is a dark charcoal with a matching dark textured keyboard cover. The only pop in the design is the shiny coppery-gold HP logo and kickstand on the back.

At 1.68 pounds (2.49 pounds with the keyboard attached), and 7.7mm thick, the x2 is right in line with the size and weight of other computers in this class. It’s a very portable and light laptop replacement, but it’s still a bit heavy and unwieldy as a tablet. The kickstand is rigid and sturdy and the keyboard snaps to the bottom of the tablet in the same manner as Microsoft’s. This makes it no worse on the lap than the Surface Pro, but it’s no better either. HP’s kickstand design is a little better when pushed down to its full 165-degree range, and it is more stable to write on than Microsoft’s when using a pen on the screen.

The x2’s display is very similar in size, resolution, and shape to the Surface Pro’s. It’s a 12.3-inch, 3000 x 2000 pixel panel with a 3:2 aspect ratio and pixel density of 293 PPI. I love the squarer shape; it allows for more of a website or document to be displayed without scrolling compared to a wider, 16:9 display, and it’s easier to get work done on it as a result. The screen’s brightness (32 percent brighter than the prior model) and viewing angles are also excellent.

HP trimmed some of the bezel surrounding the display compared to the earlier x2, but it’s still large and I’d love to see it reduced further. I have the same complaint with the bezel on the Surface Pro and on similar computers from Samsung and others: once you get used to the lack of bezels on an Dell XPS 13 or other laptop, you want them on every computer you use.

On each side of the x2 is a USB Type-C port; there’s not even one on Microsoft’s computer. Neither jack supports Thunderbolt 3, but either one can be used for charging or outputting to an external display. The x2 lacks a standard-size USB port — the only other connection is a headphone jack in the upper left corner — so you’ll have to use adapters and dongles to connect most peripherals to it. (A USB C to A adapter does come in the box.) The lack of USB ports doesn’t surprise me too much — it’s definitely in line with 2017 laptop trends — but I wish they weren’t mounted so high up on the frame, which makes anything plugged into them hang from the side of the computer in an unsightly manner.

HP’s keyboard attachment for the x2 is first class: the backlit keys are well spaced and have good feedback when typing, and the textured backside feels durable and looks classy. I’m less impressed with the ultra-wide trackpad; it’s smooth and glassy, but performance is a bit erratic. It’s also not a Microsoft Precision trackpad, and consequently, does not support all of the multi-finger gestures that the Surface’s trackpad offers.

The Spectre’s included pen is not as nice or as well-specced as the Surface Pen, but I’m not an artist and it works just fine for jotting down quick notes. I just wish it had an eraser on the top as Microsoft’s pen does. There is a handy loop on the side of the keyboard to store the pen.

The Spectre x2 that I’ve been testing has a Core i7 processor, Intel’s Iris Plus graphics, 8GB of RAM, and a 320GB SSD for storage. You can get the x2 in a number of different configurations — some with lower specs, some with higher — but this model is the one that’s available in stores and will likely be the most popular. Those specs make the x2 a capable computer for day-to-day work in a browser, Microsoft’s Office suite, or other productivity apps. But the x2 isn’t a great computer for heavy lifting, and I was able to bring it to its knees on multiple occasions during video conferences or just in my daily workflow of using a lot of browser tabs and switching between a dozen open apps. It’s definitely not a computer I’d want to rely on for processing hundreds of RAW photos in Adobe Lightroom.

Likewise, even with the upgraded Iris Plus graphics, the x2 is not a gaming machine and won’t work well for anything but the lightest gaming needs. (Think Hearthstone rather than Overwatch.)

One of the biggest improvements Microsoft made with the latest Surface Pro was greatly reducing or, in the case of the Core i5 version, completely eliminating fan noise. Sadly, HP was not able to replicate this feat: like many of HP’s computers, the x2 has loud, obnoxious fans that spin up frequently and aggressively. Even with the fans spinning most of the time, the x2 also gets hot, which you don’t notice when it’s in laptop mode, but can be felt when you hold it like a tablet.

HP claims up to nine hours of battery life with the new Spectre x2, but in my experience, it typically lasts between five and six hours before giving up. That’s comparable to what the Surface Pro with a Core i7 achieves, and it doesn’t make the Spectre x2 an outlier in this class of computers. It’s just not as long as I’d like from an ultraportable laptop replacement. On the upside, HP does include a charger that restores up to 50 percent of the battery’s capacity in just 30 minutes, so it doesn’t take long to get back up and running.

At roughly $500 less than a comparably equipped Surface Pro, it’s hard not to like the Spectre x2. It provides most of the same performance and a very similar experience at a significant cost savings.

But it’s the little things that add up and frustrate me on the x2 that make me want to just pay for the Surface Pro. It’s the trackpad that isn’t as pleasant or efficient to use, the loud and annoying fans that always seem to be spinning, and the feeling that the x2 is just getting overwhelmed when I try to do more than a few things at once with it. Even though the Spectre x2 is considerably less expensive than the Surface Pro, it is by no means a cheap computer, and I wouldn’t put up with many of these issues on computers that cost half this much. And it’s not like HP can’t provide a great experience: the Spectre X360 laptop is one of the best on the market and one of my favorite computers I’ve tested over the past year.

But right now, the Spectre x2 is no Surface killer.

MacBook vs. MacBook Pro: how to pick between Apple’s two $1,299 laptops

I badly need a new computer. The last time I bought one was in the summer of 2011, not long after the MacBook Air’s first (and only) redesign. It was perfect timing: my last MacBook, the white plastic kind, had wiring literally sticking out of it after taking a spill. And Apple had just dropped the Air’s price down to $1,299 — the same price I believe my original MacBook had cost.

It’s now six years later, and Apple is hitting that pricing sweet spot again in a big way. Not only does the super-slim MacBook start at $1,299, but so does the new MacBook Pro. And since the MacBook Air, still selling for $999, is woefully out of date — with a low-res screen that’ll look bad next to any current smartphone — $1,299 is essentially the starting price for a modern Mac laptop. So I’ve been wondering: if I want to spend $1,299 again, which one should I get?

I’ve been testing both laptops for the past few weeks, and while I don’t think there’s an easy answer for everyone, what’s impressed me the most is just how capable the tiny little MacBook has become. If you’re heading off to college or just want a great laptop for typical laptop tasks — watching YouTube, browsing the internet, working at a coffee shop — this is going to be an excellent choice.

But the MacBook Pro is subtly better in a number of ways: it’s better for watching movies, better for editing movies, and is just generally a bit more flexible and future proof. I’m surprised by just how much the entry-level MacBook Pro can handle — but how far that’ll get you depends on how serious of a workload you intend to throw at it.

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017

First I want to talk about the MacBook, because it’s changed the most since I last spent some time with one. This year’s model has the exact same design as the prior two versions, but there’s nothing to complain about there. It’s so small and light that I’m constantly surprised when picking it up, as though I’m cradling some special device that expands into a real computer when I open it.

The MacBook has a 12-inch screen, and, at $1,299, comes with a 1.2Ghz Intel Core m3 processor (of the latest generation, Kaby Lake), 8GB of RAM, Intel’s integrated HD Graphics 615 GPU, and 256GB of flash storage.

Ever since the current MacBook debuted, there’s been concern around its use of low-power processors. The upside is that they’re better for battery life and mean the laptop stays cool and doesn’t need a fan — perfect for watching videos. But the downside is that the MacBook tends to operate slower than the laptops we were used to, getting sluggish when trying to do too many things at once.

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017 USB-C ports

I’m happy to say that’s no longer the case. Or, at least, it hasn’t been in the time I spent with the latest MacBook. I’ve had Slack, Tweetbot, Airmail, TextEdit, and Chrome all open at the same time and occasionally had a second monitor hooked up while working at the office, and the MacBook never felt sluggish. I’ve even been able to use Photoshop (I put one dog’s head on top of another dog’s head, to prove a point to a co-worker), edited some large RAW photos in Lightroom, and was even able to cut up a short 4K video in Premiere. Photoshop was as smooth as I could ask for, and Lightroom — always a heavy app — responded with only occasional hesitation. Premiere ran surprisingly well, though playback broke down with each adjustment I put on top of the clip.

My biggest gripes with the MacBook — and I wouldn’t necessarily characterize them as “big” — are around the movie-watching experience. The 12-inch screen is just fine for doing work, but it felt noticeably smaller when watching videos after years of sitting in front of a 13.3-inch laptop. The screen’s colors are a bit duller than the MacBook Pro’s, too, though I don’t think you’d notice unless you have the two computers side by side. The bigger problem is the MacBook’s stereo speakers, which sound less like stereo speakers and more like a single center channel fired straight up into the air. It’s workable, but sometimes distracting.

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017

It’s also worth remembering that, aside from the headphone jack, the MacBook only has a single USB-C port, which also has to be used for power. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s an occasional frustration that means you’ll absolutely need to buy an adapter or two for any peripherals you might own. (You’ll even need one to charge your iPhone.)

During my testing, battery life averaged out to a bit under six and a half hours. That’s a little lower than I’d like (and much lower than Apple’s estimated 10 hours of battery life), but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone using the MacBook mostly for handling notes and emails, and not watching too many videos, was able to eke another hour out of it. (Using Safari instead of Chrome would probably help, too.) Either way, I suspect it’ll last long enough to get through a day of classes.

To me, that’s what this laptop feels the most suited for. If you’re heading off to college, the MacBook seems like it should get you through four (or, hopefully not, five) years of work without issue. Going for the lighter computer is always a good call when you’re moving around a bunch, too. I still noticed the MacBook’s two pounds of weight when carrying it in my messenger bag, but it never got to be a problem during my commute.

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017 speakers

Then there’s the MacBook Pro, which is maybe the more traditional and versatile of the two laptops. It’s much more in line with the MacBook Air’s legacy: it has a higher-power processor, multiple ports (though two out of three of them are still USB-C), and a bigger screen. It’s not really a “pro” machine, it’s just a laptop that’ll ensure you get by when doing somewhat more demanding tasks.

There’s really a lot to like about the MacBook Pro. It’s smaller than the Air, despite having the same 13.3-inch size screen. And while it isn’t as remarkably tiny as the MacBook, it’s small and light enough to not really feel like a “pro” machine (which, again, I’d argue it’s not). The bigger screen also feels significantly roomier after coming from the 12-inch MacBook. Its colors are ever-so-slightly more vibrant, too, and the laptop’s speakers are a big improvement over the MacBook’s. And while this model of the Pro doesn’t include Apple’s fancy new Touch Bar, I don’t consider that a loss; the feature just isn’t that useful yet. The only thing you really miss out on with this cheaper model is Touch ID for logging in and buying things from iTunes, the App Store, and the web.

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017
MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017 side view

For $1,299, the MacBook Pro comes with a 2.3Ghz Intel Core i5 processor (also Kaby Lake, but not ultra low power), 8GB of RAM, Intel’s integrated Iris Plus Graphics 640, and 128GB of flash storage. Yeah, just 128GB: to get the price down on the Pro machine, Apple cut down its storage, so there’s only half as much as you’d get from the MacBook. Having lived with a 128GB MacBook Air for the past six years, I’ll say that putting up with this tiny amount of space is doable (especially thanks to cloud storage) but occasionally headache inducing. If you’re trying to cut costs, living with a 128GB drive is not the worst trade-off. But you will absolutely hit that limit at some point, so you’d better get comfortable with deleting apps and offloading files to storage drives or the cloud.

To me, the bigger downsides to the Pro are hits to its portability: added weight and reduced battery life. On weight, it’s about the same as a MacBook Air — three pounds — and while that’s not exactly heavy, I started to feel it over my shoulder much sooner than the MacBook, which is a full pound lighter. That’s not a problem if you’re mostly going to use your laptop around the house or office, but it’s a bit more of an issue for students or anyone frequently on the go.

The Pro’s battery life is even more of a problem. I got an average of just over five hours — compared to almost six and a half for the MacBook, while doing the same exact tasks. The longest battery life I got with the Pro was about six and a half hours, and that really felt like the upper limit for me. That’s far beneath the 10-hour average that Apple estimates the computer will get. If you’re going out for a while, plan on bringing a charger.

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017 keyboards

Of course, part of the reason for the bigger size and reduced battery life is this computer’s higher-power processor. In theory, it’s much faster than what’s in the MacBook. And its graphics unit should be more capable, too.

In practice, though, these things aren’t all that noticeable. Perhaps they would be as the two computers aged a bit more. But at the moment, I’m not seeing any big distinctions in the two computers’ day-to-day tasks: browsing the web, watching videos, answering emails — nothing was any faster on the Pro. The only difference was that, occasionally, the Pro’s fans would start to blare.

Where the processor’s improvements do come into play is during more intensive work, such as photo and video editing. Lightroom was snappier — though it still showed very slight delays when touching up photos with the brush tool — and Premiere was able to deliver smoother previews of the short 4K test clip I was editing.

But I’m not confident that the processor and integrated GPU in this laptop will be enough for bigger projects. And I’m quite sure that actual pros won’t be able to get by with a $1,299 machine. Which kind of makes me wonder: who is this entry-level “pro” machine for?

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017

Even after three weeks with these computers, I find choosing between the two of them to be difficult. If you must have the technically better and more capable computer, the $1,299 MacBook Pro is the way to go. You’ll appreciate the extra screen size and its added vibrance, the better speakers, and the extra power. You’re on your own with the whole 128GB of storage thing, though.

But if you’re planning to regularly move around with your laptop, I don’t think any of the MacBook’s shortcomings should hold you back from picking it up instead. Having twice as much storage will make using it a bit easier, since you’ll spend less time managing files; the computer’s processing power has caught up in a big way; and its battery life is significantly better.

For someone really serious about editing or graphics work, I’m not sure that either of these computers will be right for you. You’ll probably want to spend more on a MacBook Pro, or else look to Windows where there are often better deals. In fact, if you’re not tied to the Mac, Microsoft’s very good Surface Laptop offers similar specs to the MacBook Pro, but with twice the storage, for $1,299. And for $100 more, Razer offers a laptop with a faster processor, four times as much storage as the Pro, and twice as much RAM. (Though, in all cases, you’ll still have to spend more to get better graphics.)

For me? I’m leaning toward the Pro, but I’m not sure the entry-level model is the one I’ll get. And I have a strong suspicion that’ll be the case for a lot of people: if you want a $1,299 Mac laptop, pick up the MacBook. But if you’re looking at the Pro, you may find yourself wanting a bit more — and ultimately, spending a bit more to spec it out.

Asus Chromebook Flip C302 review: standard issue

Using the Asus Chromebook Flip C302, you can almost see how Chrome OS devices are going to stop being education machines or backup couch computers and become something different for a lot of people. Just computers (or, well, maybe just tablets).

It’s a “premium” Chromebook, which these days basically means it’s well-built, has a fast processor, and costs around $500. That puts it in the same class as the Samsung Chromebook Plus and forthcoming Samsung Chromebook Pro. The C302 is all of those things, but to me it’s a sign that both Google and its manufacturing partners are stretching to redefine how you typically think about a Chromebook.

Google, for its part, is working feverishly to make the Android app on Chrome OS viable (they’re not ready yet). Asus, for its part, produced the excellent machine I’m reviewing right now. It’s rare to use a Chrome OS laptop that genuinely feels fast, well-built, and worth more than the $300 asking price that most Chromebooks cost. But if all those companies are going to succeed at this, it can’t be rare anymore, it has to be standard.

And the C302 sets the standard — for now.

First and foremost: the C302 is fast enough for most tasks you’d imagine doing on a Chromebook, and perhaps fast enough for some stuff you wouldn’t consider, like photo editing. It has an Intel Core M3-6Y30 processor paired with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. I regularly use it with 15 or so tabs and web apps, and often more, without any problems.

Android apps, however, are still in beta and are as much of a mess today as they have been for the past few months I’ve been trying it. When they come out of beta (presumably next month), I’ll be eager to see if they are any better. Don’t get the C302 for Android apps until we see what they really look like.

The C302 does a better job at nailing most of the physical aspects of a good laptop than other devices you’ll find in this price range. It’s got a thin aluminum body (just over half an inch thick), and weighs just over two and a half pounds.

There are some nice, subtle touches like a magnet in the base that secures the screen more firmly when you use it in tablet mode. To get to that mode, you just rotate the screen on its hinges, which are firm enough to stand up to tapping the screen when in laptop mode. The screen is 12.5 inches with a max resolution of 2400 x 1350, but you need Superman-like vision to handle the size of text at the native scaling, so most people should settle for something less extreme.

On the whole, I’m happy with the keyboard, which is full sized and has long key travel. I find it a bit mushier than I’d like, but it’s backlit like a keyboard really should be (unlike Samsung’s Chromebooks). The trackpad is a little on the small side, but it’s accurate and doesn’t suffer from mis-taps.

Battery life is really good, too, cracking the 10-hour mark in our looping website rundown test and hitting seven or eight hours in heavier day-to-day work. In between, you’re charging over USB-C — and though people will gripe a bit about that, I’m over it: it’s the port every laptop is going to be using from here on out. Plus, I love that there is one port on the left and one on the right, so you can plug in on either side. Expandable storage is via microSD.

But there are compromises: for example, though the screen is good, it doesn’t get nearly bright enough to use outdoors. Even inside, I find myself ratcheting up the brightness up to 80 or 90 percent most of the time. The speakers are astonishingly weak for a computer this size, which is disappointing when you consider one of the use cases for a convertible is watching Netflix in Tent or Tablet mode. Oh, and I already managed to nick one of the squared-off edges just through normal use.

The obvious comparison to the C302 are Samsung’s two new Chromebooks, the Plus and the Pro. (In fact, when I reviewed the Plus so many people asked about the C302 that I felt like I had to try it out.) So lots of people just want to know which is better and I don’t have definitive opinions. I slightly prefer the Plus: it’s a bit cheaper and has a bit nicer hardware (minus the backlighting on the keyboard) without too much reduction in speed.

The Chromebook Pro might be my favorite of the three, but I haven’t had a chance to review the final devices that consumers will be able to buy. If you can wait until next month to buy a Chromebook, I probably would, just to see how it compares.

If all goes well, this C302 is just going to be an anonymous member of a vast horde of high-quality, near-identical Chromebooks with good screens, Android apps, and enough speed to do 90 percent of what you expect from them. They’ll be a little more expensive than you’re used to, maybe, but they’ll deliver as much value as a comparably priced iPad or Windows PC — if not more.

We’re not there yet, and so the highest praise I can give Asus is that this fairly innocuous and forgettable computer is innocuous and forgettable in the best ways: it looks good, it works well, and I don’t have to worry about it. It’s a great baseline for future Chromebooks to either match or try to beat. It’s not necessarily the best one, but it’s a solid starting point for what you should expect. It’s standard-issue.

Acer Spin 7 review: underachiever

  • When you first pick up and open the Acer Spin 7 laptop, you’re probably going to be pleasantly surprised. This very thin, well-designed laptop doesn’t try to wow you with its design — instead it’s unassuming. It looks like the platonic ideal of a Windows 10 touchscreen laptop: simple, black, well-made, light, and just ready to quietly get out of the way and let you do your thing. And the emphasis is on “quietly,” because the Spin 7 doesn’t have any fans.
  • Even with its hefty asking price of $1,249, it still makes a very good first impression.
  • Sadly, if you’ve been paying attention to laptops for the past six months you know that there’s going to be a “but.” Because with the possible exception of the new HP Spectre x360, every new laptop these days has one or several critical flaws that keep it from reaching its potential. In this case, it’s several.

The closest analogue to Acer’s Spin 7 isn’t some other Windows laptop, it’s actually the 2016 MacBook. Like the MacBook, the Spin 7 is focused on being hyper mobile and almost tablet-esque in its design. That means that there are no fans here, just wonderfully quiet, appliance-like computing. It’s less than half an inch thick and weighs just over two and a half pounds.

It’s trying to be a Windows version of the MacBook

Comparing them head to head, I actually can’t say one is better designed overall than the other. Where the MacBook is thin to the point of ridiculousness, the Spin 7 has squared-off edges that give it that sense of solidity without much weight. It’s not festooned with garish treatments to the case: it’s just matte black almost everywhere. The only flourish is a silver border around the surprisingly large touchpad. The Spin 7 is made of aluminum which looks great until you put human hands on it, at which point it becomes a showcase for fingerprints and palm prints.

Both computers also share the same processor, an Intel chip that’s underpowered compared to other computers but might just be powerful enough for most of your regular computing tasks. Neither is necessarily slow for stuff like chatting and web browsing, but do too much on either machine and they’ll bog down. (I could go on a rant about how Intel’s decision to rename this Core M processor to Core i7 is some real dissembling garbage, but I will leave that for another time.)

The comparisons should end there, though. Because even though the Spin 7 is more directly competitive with Apple’s ultra-mobile laptop than anything else I’ve seen, it still deserves to be taken on its own terms. Mainly because it has a touchscreen on a hinge that can wrap all the way around. And just as the overall design is simple and reserved, so is this hinge. It works, you won’t have to think or worry about it.

But now the buts, and they are myriad. The most egregious is battery life — it is not good. In our looping website test, the Spin 7 conked out at a little under six hours, which is well below what’s acceptable for a laptop in 2016. And real-world usage mirrored that result for me, I found myself filled with battery anxiety constantly, quitting apps and riding the screen brightness toggle down well before lunch on most days.

The Spin 7 uses USB-C ports for everything (well, there is a headphone jack). Like the Yoga 910, Acer has used two different variations of USB-C so that only one can drive a display, but thankfully either can be used for power or USB things. And Acer did us the favor of including both a USB and HDMI adapter in the box. There isn’t an SD card slot and it doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3, but I’m not too worked up about either thing in an ultra-mobile computer in this class.

Battery life is bad, the trackpad is buggy, and there’s no backlight on the keyboard

The keyboard has much better key travel than new MacBooks, but Acer made the mystifying decision to omit backlighting on the keys. It’s great to type on, but backlighting a keyboard is expected these days, especially for a computer that costs north of $1,000.

The trackpad, as I mentioned, is very large. Mousing around on such a wide surface is great. Sadly, Acer didn’t do the necessary work on the drivers. Its palm rejection is downright atrocious, for one thing. For another, I find that sometimes when I switch between tablet and laptop modes the touchpad straight up doesn’t start working again. There’s a mysterious button on the keyboard for toggling the touchpad on and off. When I first saw it I wondered why the heck Acer would bother including such a button. Having experienced those two issues, it seems obvious to me it’s a kludge kind of fix to deal with those two issues.

I could go on with everything else there is to know about the Spin 7, like the 1080p HD screen or the included software or whatever else. But the poor showing on battery life and the inconsistent trackpad have put me off this machine, and it will do the same for you.

It’s too bad, too, because if you asked me in the abstract what I would want out of a Windows 10 laptop, I would describe this machine almost exactly. There is a market for a super thin, light, and elegant touchscreen laptop out there. One that is just powerful enough to get the job done, but not so powerful you have to deal with reduced battery life or fans.

When you’re designing computers, diligently paying attention to the details matters just as much as having the right ideas. The Spin 7 is the kid in class who is really smart but waits until the last minute to do his homework, and the result is a disappointing mix of brilliance and sloppy work. You know the kid could pull off an A, but you shake your head and write “not working up to potential” at the top of his report before ruefully marking it with a big, red C.

Psychedelic toasters fool image recognition tech

Toaster

A team of Google researchers has created psychedelic stickers that can fool image recognition software into seeing objects that are not there.

Using a toaster as an example, the team produced colourful computer-generated patterns by sampling hundreds of photographs of the appliance.

When the patterns were put next to another item, such as a banana, many neural networks saw a toaster instead.

The team said the method could be used to “attack” image recognition systems.

“These adversarial patches can be printed, added to any scene, photographed, and presented to image classifiers,” the researchers said.

“Even when the patches are small, they cause the classifiers to ignore the other items in the scene and report a chosen target class.”

The researchers said their trick had worked because the computer-generated pattern was more “salient” to image recognition software than real objects.

Rather than changing the appearance of items to disguise them, the researchers found their toaster-inspired patterns “distracted” image recognition software.

“While images may contain several items, only one target label is considered true, and thus the network must learn to detect the most ‘salient’ item in the frame,” they wrote in their research paper.

The pattern consistently tricked image recognition software when it took up at least 10% of a scene.

By comparison, a photograph of a real toaster was much less likely to distract the software from another object in the scene, even at larger sizes.

Rush to fix ‘serious’ computer chip flaws

Computer chip

Tech firms are working to fix two major bugs in computer chips that could allow hackers to steal sensitive data.

The bugs are an “absolute disaster” and need to be fixed promptly, according to one cyber-security researcher.

Google researchers said one of the “serious security flaws”, dubbed “Spectre”, was found in chips made by Intel, AMD and ARM.

The other, known as “Meltdown” affects Intel-made chips.

The industry has been aware of the problem for months and hoped to solve it before details were made public.

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said there was no evidence that the vulnerability had been exploited.

According to the researchers who found the bugs, chips dating as far back as 1995 have been affected.

Some fixes, in the form of software updates, have been introduced or will be available in the next few days, said Intel, which provides chips to about 80% of desktop computers and 90% of laptops worldwide.

“These bugs are an absolute disaster,” said Matthew Hickey, a cyber-security expert at Hacker House.

While some computers can be patched quickly, others faced a longer wait, he explained, giving virtual hosting systems as one example.

“You may find that patches aren’t yet available or are not adopted from the Linux patches yet,” he told the BBC.

Microchips are the basic electronic systems behind many devices such as computers and mobile phones.

In order to do their work, they must move data around, using different types of memory to temporarily store it.

In many cases, that information is supposed to be secure from attempts to snoop on it, but these two bugs mean that it could in fact be accessed by a third party.

The first reports suggested that a bug affected solely chips made by Intel, but it has since emerged that a separate flaw, Spectre, has been found in Intel, ARM and AMD chips.

“Many types of computing devices – with many different vendors’ processors and operating systems – are susceptible to these exploits,” said Intel.

ARM said patches had already been shared with its customers, which include many smartphone manufacturers.

AMD said it believed there was “near zero risk to AMD products at this time”.

Security updates

On a conference call for investors, Intel said researchers had shown that hackers could exploit the Meltdown vulnerability, gaining the ability to read memory and potentially access information such as passwords or encryption keys on devices.

Microsoft, which uses Intel chips said it would roll out security updates on Thursday, adding it had no information suggesting any data had been compromised.

Apple’s latest macOS, version 10.13.2, is safe from the Meltdown bug and the firm is working on updates for earlier versions of the operating system on its laptops and desktops.

  • Computer chip scare: What you need to know

As for Spectre, however, experts believe that it will not be possible to patch it directly, but various software tweaks could help stop it being exploited.

Google published a blog detailing what some customers may need to do. It said Android phones with the latest security updates were protected, and that Gmail was safe. It will be releasing security patches for users of older Chromebooks, while there will also be a fix for users of the Chrome web browser.

The NCSC said it was aware of the reports of the potential flaw and advised that all organisations and home users “continue to protect their systems from threats by installing patches as soon as they become available.”

When asked whether hackers will make use of the bugs to attack computers, experts advised caution on the issue.

“It is significant but whether it will be exploited widely is another matter,” said Prof Alan Woodward, from the University of Surrey.