Microsoft Shares New ‘Xbox Series X’ Details


Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft’s Xbox division, has published a new blog post on the company website with fresh details on the Xbox Series X. Most of the high-level specs are things we’ve already covered — 12 TFLOPs of GPU power, 4x the processing power of an Xbox One, ray tracing, and so on — but there are some details on backward compatibility and how Microsoft is treating its cloud-based Xbox Game Pass that are new to the conversation.

Microsoft has already said that the Xbox Series X will be compatible across four generations of Xbox hardware (OG, 360, Xbone, XBX). When it comes to future compatibility, games that can play on both the Xbox One and the Xbox Series X will be delivered using a service Microsoft calls Smart Delivery. Thanks to Smart Delivery, you’ll only need to buy a game once to play on either an Xbox One or an XBX. When you trigger the install, the appropriate version of the game will be downloaded to your hard drive or SSD.

Microsoft has committed to using Smart Delivery for “all our exclusive Xbox Game Studios titles,” and states that third-party developers “can choose to use it for titles that will be released on Xbox One first and come to the Xbox Series X later.” Microsoft uses the example of Halo Infinite as a game that will ship for both platforms. Buy it once and you can play it on either system, though there may be restrictions to prevent you from playing on both consoles simultaneously.

The Xbox Series X. The system will mount in horizontal or vertical configurations.

The one question we have is whether Microsoft plans to continue to support the Xbox One for all that long following the launch of the Xbox Series X. According to Xbox Addict, there were 100 Xbox 360 games released in 2006, 189 in 2007, and 224 in 2008. By 2011, this was up to 262 games a year. Once the Xbox One was impending, however, the number of Xbox 360 releases went into sharp decline: 143 in 2013, 61 in 2014, and five in 2015. It would be nice to know if services like Smart Delivery are intended to extend the life of the Xbox One, or just to provide a more convenient way to buy games on that platform while it remains in development.

Microsoft is emphasizing backward-compatibility in the Xbox Series X generation like never before, with declarations of seamless support for titles going back to the original Xbox and the ability to use controllers and peripherals from the Xbox OneSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce era with the new console. Games like Halo Infinite will launch simultaneously on Xbox Game Pass and in retail, demonstrating that Microsoft views its streaming service as a first-tier launch platform rather than a place to dump games after their initial release window.

Life in the Cloud

About three weeks ago, Spencer declared that Google and Amazon, not Sony and Nintendo, were the company’s biggest rivals for game streaming. On the face of it, this was a nonsensical claim, given that neither Google nor Amazon are current gaming rivals to the major console players. I raised the question of whether Microsoft was repeating the mistakes of the Xbox One launch, when a complete misunderstanding of what its own customers wanted led to a disastrous unveil and early press cycle.

One explanation for this framing that I alluded to in that article is that the cloud-first idea may be part of an effort to justify the existence of Xbox under Satya Nadella. Nadella has demonstrated that he views Microsoft as a cloud-first, cloud-centric company, and that all of Microsoft’s business efforts are expected to align with that perspective. Spencer’s blog post kicks off by mentioning streamers and game streaming, anchoring the concrete hardware of the Xbox Series X alongside a discussion of cloud gaming more generally. There are prominent references to games being provided via cloud services, either via Xbox Game Pass or Microsoft’s Project xCloud. Backward compatibility and Smart Delivery are major launch features. So far, Microsoft is putting more emphasis on the cloud’s ability to deliver backend infrastructure as opposed to fundamentally different gaming experiences, which is probably a smart move.

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ET Deals: Amazon Renewed Roomba 960 Only $320, Extra $120 Off Roborock S5, Up to 50 Percent Off Networking Devices From Linksys, Netgear, TP-Link


iRobot’s Roomba 960 is one of the best selling robot vacs on the market. It offers powerful suction and an easy-to-use smartphone interface. Today, you can get one of these renewed robo vacs with a hefty $130 discount.

iRobot Roomba Model 960 Vacuum w/ Wi-Fi Connectivity – Renewed ($319.99)

This smart robot vacuum is here to make your home life a little easier. It has sufficient power to clean difficult messes such as pet hair, and it supports an intelligent navigation program that allows it to carefully work its way through your home. It also supports Alexa voice commands and can be controlled via your smartphone. A new one of these vacuums can cost as much as $649.99, but right now you can get a renewed unit for less than half that price at just $319.99 from Amazon.

Roborock S5 Wi-Fi Robotic Vacuum ($379.99)

This high-powered robot vacuum has 2,000Pa of suction power and a large 5,200mAh battery that enables it to run for up to 150 minutes on a single charge. The Roborock S5 also supports Wi-Fi and can be controlled using a smartphone app and Alexa voice commands. Right now you can get it from Amazon marked down from $599.99 to $379.99 with promo code ROBOROCKS5.

Linksys WHW0303 Velop Mesh Router 3-Pack ($279.99)

Linksys engineered these wireless network devices to work together to extend a Wi-Fi signal to cover an area of up to 6,000 square feet.  The system can also broadcast on three bands simultaneously to reduce latency and improve performance. Right now you can get this system from Amazon marked down from $499.97 to $279.99.

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Analyst Predicts Apple Will Launch an ARM-Based Mac in H1 2021


Prominent analyst and Apple-watcher Ming-Chi Kuo has told investors that he believes the Cupertino-based company will launch a system based on its own silicon rather than any chip from Intel in 1H 2021. Such an SoC would use an ARM architectural license and presumably be closely derived from the company’s various mobile efforts.

We periodically hear rumors that Apple is planning just this kind of departure. The first time I hit the topic was in 2014, but we had multiple leaks in 2018 and 2019 as well. As the years have passed and the performance of Apple’s SoCs have improved, it’s gotten easier to imagine the company launching new hardware built around ARM products rather than Intel. Intel’s 10nm woes and delays are a further example of why many people think Apple wants to go this route. The company would simplify its ecosystem, capture a larger share of the MacBook’s profit with its own manufacturing, and be able to enjoy the prestige of “crossing over” from mobile to desktop with a chip that could theoretically compare with the best Intel (or AMD) have to offer.

Kuo has been right on a lot of Apple predictions before — enough to make it worth taking him seriously on this one — but he’s also been wrong on some of the timing. In 2018, Kuo predicted that Apple would be launching such a system in 2020. Now it’s been pushed back to 2021. But in this kind of situation, being wrong on the timing isn’t the same thing as being wrong about the effort. There is any number of reasons Apple might delay formally launching a product built on silicon that’s very much in development, including wanting to wait until it has all the features it intends to introduce up and running at the performance it wants them to offer. The company could also have chosen to wait and deploy hardware until specific software features or capabilities are locked in for a given timeframe.

Apple’s 2019 16-inch MBP refresh.

In 2014, the idea of Apple switching away from Intel was ludicrous given the state of the company’s CPU technology. In 2020, it looks a lot more plausible. While it’s difficult to compare performance between ARM SoCs running iOS and a Windows PC, the performance comparisons that have been made show Apple outpacing every other ARM SoC vendor in per-core performance and having closed the gap with Intel and AMD desktop CPUs.

The Emulation Problem (or Maybe “Problem”)

The big problem (maybe) for Apple is that software emulation isn’t a terribly effective way to offer effective performance in software written for a different architecture. Apple’s greater level of control over its own ecosystem would help it here, but the company can’t force third-party software developers to release new software versions for its ARM hardware or to release them on its own schedule. In the past, when Apple has made this kind of switch, it always switched to a much higher performing CPU design. Currently, the A13 Bionic is roughly on-par with desktop chips from AMD and Intel, but it’s not dramatically faster. It’s also not clear if Apple would be allowed to offer a 64-bit x86 compatibility layer — Microsoft’s own Windows 10 emulator lacks this feature.

The biggest question for Apple? How much it cares. The biggest difference between Apple in 2005 versus Apple in 2020 is that the Macintosh is a much smaller percentage of the company’s earnings. Apple may look at the x86 compatibility question and not care if the end result is less market share for Macs if it can capture a larger share of the profits per system. It might also be willing to take a hit on sales immediately after the switch (because reintroducing compatibility issues likely would hit sales), with the bet that it would win those customers back long-term with superior CPU engineering. Or, it may believe it can paper over the issue with the right emulation solution plus a good-enough ARM CPU core.

If Apple’s goal is to introduce a CPU core that competes across mobile, desktop, and workstation, it matters whether the company can build a chip to match 28 cores worth of Xeon. If it decides to pull back from those efforts or to only target part of that market, it doesn’t.

Here’s the full note, courtesy of MacRumors:

We expect that Apple’s new products in 12-18 months will adopt processors made by 5nm process, including the new 2H20 5G iPhone, new 2H20 iPad equipped with mini LED, and new 1H21 Mac equipped with the own-design processor. We think that iPhone 5G support, ‌iPad‌’s adoption of innovative mid-size panel technology, and Mac’s first adoption of the own-design processor are all Apple’s critical product and technology strategies. Given that the processor is the core component of new products, we believe that Apple had increased 5nm-related investments after the epidemic outbreak. Further, Apple occupying more resources of related suppliers will hinder competitors’ developments.

The competitors in the last sentence are much more likely to be other smartphone SoC developers like Qualcomm rather than AMD. Qualcomm and Apple now compete to be early adopters, while AMD has been following on semiconductor tech. Apple, for example, will introduce 5nm hardware this year, while AMD will launch 7nm refreshes of existing products. By the time AMD is pulling the lever on 5nm, TSMC’s yields will be higher and Cupertino will itself be eyeing the next node.

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This Microsoft Excel Certification Training Bundle Is On Sale For 96 Percent Off


Over the past three decades, over 1.2 billion people have used Microsoft Office. While not all have used Microsoft Excel, it’s safe to assume plenty of people have scoured the depths of the venerable spreadsheet program for uses no one has ever fathomed before.

Like creating a full service drum machine. In Excel. In a spreadsheet.

We’re going to assume your Excel needs are probably more traditional than that, but with The Ultimate Microsoft Excel Certification Training Bundle ($34, over 90 percent off), you’ll have the expertise to not only handle stats and raw data with ease, but truly customize Excel to meet your specific needs.

This collection gathers together six courses, each burrowing deep into a unique yet vital section of Excel’s data-manipulating acumen.

Microsoft Excel from Beginner to Advanced gets first-timers started with basic Excel formats and operations before Microsoft Excel: Advanced Excel Formulas & Functions starts moving users beyond number organization into deeper analytical waters.

Next, Microsoft Excel: Data Analysis with Excel Pivot Tables gets into that powerful Excel component for exploring and analyzing raw data quickly; while Microsoft Excel: Intro to Power Query, Power Pivot and DAX explains the basics of data modeling with Excel.

The ability to fully express numerical findings visually is captured in the Microsoft Excel: Data Visualization, Excel Charts and Graphs course. Meanwhile, Master Microsoft Excel Macros and Excel VBA helps users customize Excel controls to create macros and other automations to streamline your workflow while achieving better results.

This course package, typically a $945 value, is now hundreds of dollars off that price, only $34 before this deal runs out.

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Sony’s PlayStation 5 Controller Might Monitor Your Heart Rate, Sweaty Palms


Each new console generation takes controllers to new places. Over the years we’ve gotten analog sticks, rumble, and wireless connectivity. With the PS5, Sony is reportedly looking to completely overhaul the controller experience. In a newly unearthed patent, we see Sony has developed a system by which your game controller can measure your heart rate and perspiration. That turns it into a little handheld polygraph. 

According to the patent, Sony wants to use your heart rate and sweat production as “biofeedback” signals in games. The patent says this could lead to a more immersive experience. Presumably, a game could plug into the stats collected by the DualShock 5 to adjust the gameplay. As you get more anxious or excited, a game could ramp up the action. Or if you’re exceptionally calm, a game could throw something surprising at you. 

The patent uses a typical DualShock 4SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce to illustrate the design, but we believe this is all about the DualShock 5. The controller has special “sleeves” on the grip portions to act as electrical sensors. The controller is therefore capable of measuring electrodermal activity (EDA), sometimes known as galvanic skin response. The same sensor modules could also record your heart rate. Essentially, Sony is turning its controller into a polygraph. As we should all recognize by now, lie-detectors don’t actually detect lies — they measure the subject’s emotional state. That’s not great for confirming a lie, but it might help developers tune the experience to a player’s state of mind. 

Sony also notes that virtual reality is becoming increasingly popular, and immersion is of even greater importance in such games. This same biofeedback system could make VR titles much more intense. Imagine a virtual world that knew how stressed you were. 

Along with previous leaks, it appears Sony is spending a lot of time designing its new controller for the PS5. We’ve already heard about the inclusion of more precise and powerful haptic feedback rather than simple rumble functionality. The company has also apparently been working on finger tracking for VR that could do away with the controller entirely (in some situations). 

We expect to hear more about the PlayStation 5 and its fancy new controller later this year. Although, rumor has it that Sony is struggling to keep costs down. We could be looking at a much higher price tag than the last few console generations.

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Sony Announces 5G Flagship Xperia 1 II and Midrange Xperia 10 II


Sony has never been a major player in smartphones, but it makes enough money from other ventures to keep at it. In fact, it has a habit of releasing multiple flagship phones every year. Its latest is the Xperia 1 II, and it’s accompanied by a new mid-range device called the Xperia 10 II. The names are terrible, but you could probably guess these are updated versions of the phones Sony launched in its last update cycle. 

The Xperia 1 II (read as “Xperia 1 mark 2”) has all the flagship phone features you’d expect in 2020. There’s a triple-camera array with standard, ultra-wide, and telephoto lenses (all 12MP). There’s also a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 865 inside along with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. 

All 865-based phones have to include a 5G modem, which makes this Sony’s first 5G phone. However, it only has antennas for sub-6 signals. That makes sense considering Sony devices sell best outside the US. Most of the world relies on sub-6 5G signals, which aren’t quite as fast as millimeter-wave but can cover more area. It’s just the US that is focusing on millimeter-wave 5G rollouts. 

Instead of going with a display notch or hole-punch, Sony is sticking with the classic slim bezel design. The Xperia 1 II sticks with the company’s unusual 21:9 aspect ratio, which makes the phone extremely tall. Like its predecessor, it has a 4K OLED display and powerful front-facing speakers. Between 4K and the 5G support, the 4,000mAh battery might be a little taxed. Sony has added something everyone can appreciate, though. This phone brings back the headphone jack. 

The Xperia 1’s mid-range counterpart has gotten an overhaul, too. The Xperia 10 II looks like a shrunken-down version of the Xperia 1 II. The screen is centered instead of shifted toward the bottom, which was a bizarre quirk of last year’s Xperia 10. The 6-inch OLED is only 1080p, but this is still Sony’s first mid-range OLED device. The Xperia 10 II has also gained water-resistance. 

The Xperia 10 II isn’t a 5G phone — it has a capable but not overly impressive Snapdragon 665 with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. It does still have a triple camera setup like the Xperia 1 II, but the resolution of the ultra-wide and telephoto are only 8MP. 

Sony says the phones will begin launching in select markets toward the end of spring. We don’t know where or how much they’ll cost, though.

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China’s Yutu-2 Rover Spots Unexpectedly Young Rocks on the Far Side of the Moon


China’s Chang’e-4 lander made history when it completed the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon in January 2019. After the landing, Chang’e-4 deployed the Yutu-2 rover to explore the surface in greater detail. Now, the team has spotted some very unusual rocks scattered around Von Kármán crater that appear to be much younger than surrounding formations. This could point to previously unknown elements of the moon’s geological history. 

The moon today is a static environment, but it was not always so. Most experts agree the moon formed after a large object collided with the primordial Earth. It took millions of years for the moon to cool after that, but the surface today is heavily eroded. That’s why the rocks (the “trail” to the right in the above photo) spotted last month were so perplexing. 

On the moon, most rock formations have been heavily eroded over millions of years by microscopic meteorite impacts and extreme temperature change. As a result, the surface has a largely uniform color and texture. The Von Kármán crater flooded with lava several times in its past, leaving most of the area smooth and dark (a basalt patch). These objects are different — they’re lighter in color and they poke up from the surface. The shapes are similar, so it’s reasonable to assume they share an origin. 

The Chang’e-4 lander.

Dan Moriarty from Goddard Space Flight Center speculates that the mysterious rocks have a higher content of light materials from the lunar highlands crust. They might be “regolith breccia” that were formed by an impact in the region after the one that formed Von Kármán crater. Alternatively, they could be primary crustal rock excavated from below the surface by an impact. They could be as young as 10 million years or as old as 2 billion — we need more data to know for sure. 

The Yutu-2 rover has reportedly approached the rocks to take more detailed images. It also used its Visible and Near-infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VNIS) instrument to scan the rocks. However, it completed this task on Lunar day 13, the data from which has not been released publicly yet. 

China designed the Yutu-2 rover to last about three months on the moon, but it’s already well past that. The next phase of China’s lunar exploration will kick off later this year with the launch of Chang’e-5. This lander will carry a sample return vehicle that will return lunar regolith to Earth. If successful, this will be the first sample of lunar material collected since The Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976.

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Man Wanting to Prove Earth Is Flat Dies in Homemade Rocket Crash

Credit: Justin Chapman

There are reasons why it’s a bad idea to try to become a DIY astronaut. Space, as the saying goes, is hard. When NASA, SpaceX, or the ESA plans a launch, they deploy dedicated teams of engineers and technicians to pour over every inch of the preflight rocket in an attempt to ensure that nothing goes wrong. Despite these precautions, things do go wrong. Sometimes, as with Boeing’s Starliner, the team on the ground is able to correct for these issues during the mission. Sometimes they aren’t. When that happens, the best result is typically the loss of an incredibly valuable mission or spacecraft. At worst, multiple people lose their lives.

If you came of age at certain times in America, memories of the Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia disasters may be the first memory of world events that you possess. We remember these because they demonstrate how human error (and sometimes hubris) can be lethal and what the consequences of that hubris can be for the people left behind on the ground.

Some folks fail to internalize the message. Flat-Earther “Mad” Mike Hughes died over the weekend when his homemade rocket slammed into the desert. From the footage of the rocket launch captured by journalist Justin Chapman, it looks as though the parachute intended to slow the rocket’s fall was torn away at launch. The steam-powered rocket flew as high as propulsion could take it — and then returned to Earth at terminal velocity, thanks to that pesky force of nature known as gravity. We last covered Mike back in 2018, when the prominent Flat-Earther declared his intent to fire a homemade rocket into the sky to prove the Earth is flat. (NOTE: This link shows both the launch of his rocket and its unintended high-deceleration lithobraking experiment. If watching someone die in an impact on-camera bothers you, don’t watch it.)

Mike Hughes in 2017. Credit: Waldo Stakes/HO courtesy of Mike Hughes via AP

One of the known effects of gravity, since we’re chatting about it, is that it naturally rounds objects above a certain size and density. A single asteroid might theoretically be of any shape, but as planetesimals accrete to each other, the object begins to assume hydrostatic equilibrium and becomes rounded under its own gravity. Other important features in planetary geology, like a differentiated interior (core, mantle crust) are associated with hydrostatic equilibrium, though this is not absolute. The smallest world known to be in hydrostatic equilibrium with a differentiated internal structure is Ceres, at 945km. This post on the Astronomy Stack Exchange board notes that perfect hydrostatic equilibrium is a spherical cow, but it’s a very important characteristic that defines a planet, including the one we stand on.

“Mad” Mike didn’t believe in gravity. Most Flat-Earthers don’t. “Objects simply fall,” reads the Flat Earth website, because the best way to demonstrate scientific validity is to declare your conclusion before giving any of the data that validate it. It continues, “Some attempt to explain this with use of mechanics like electromagnetism, density, or pressure. Others make use of traditional mathematics, such as the infinite plane model, and others a new look at the problem – such as the non-euclidean model.”

Pro Tip: If you cannot create a scientific model of a phenomenon that accounts for all observed characteristics of that phenomenon and convinces your fellow “scientists” (as well as actual scientists), you haven’t actually explained anything to anyone.

In this case, Mad Mike wanted to build a steam-powered rocket to loft him high enough into the air to prove the Earth was flat, discounting the fact that, well, it isn’t, based on the combined scientific observations of everyone from Eratosthenes (276 BC – 195/194 BC) to the eyes-on observation of astronauts today. That’s not a problem for Flat-Earthers, because they generally either don’t believe in outer space or don’t believe we’ve traveled to it. The reason they don’t believe this is because the data coming back from NASA, the ESA, Russia, and any other nation capable of putting a satellite in orbit doesn’t support their theory that the Earth is flat.

When you explain that this is the literal definition of confirmation bias, you’ll get a lot of ranting about conspiracies and the importance of doing the science for yourself. While the idea of confirming the opinion of learned people over the past 2,000 years is appealing on some levels, the concept presupposes that the person doing the proving has a basic grasp of geometry, logic, and the scientific method. The fact that there are a handful of Flat-Earthers with a significant level of achieved education says more about how humans can be quite intelligent and still fall prey to remarkably stupid theories than it does about the accuracy of the flat Earth model.

Some people may feel I’m being a bit harsh. They are correct. I won’t even pretend otherwise. When you climb aboard a homemade rocket because you intend to prove long-established and objectively proven facts aren’t true, you are, at best, a moron. When you do it repeatedly and in complete rejection of observation and research conducted by thousands of people over millennia you are an arrogant moron who believes his own failure to understand the reasons why he’s wrong means those reasons are false. People have a right to be morons. They don’t have a right to be remembered as heroic or respected figures who defied the scientific status quo.

“‘I don’t believe in science,” said Hughes back in 2017. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.’”

In science fiction, Asgard beaming technology, Star Trek transporters, the Force, an Iron Man suit, a passing Voltron Lion, Moya, or the inexplicable appearance of Gully Foyle may save the day. In science, not having a parachute attached to a rocket means ballistic reentry, which means death.

The astronauts who have given their lives in the pursuit of human understanding of our universe are heroes who tried to push back the frontiers of human understanding. Mike Hughes was a crackpot too invested in his own conspiracy theories to recognize reality when it stared him in the face. I genuinely regret the impact on his family and hope his mistakes serve as a warning to others.

Here endeth the lesson.

Top image credit: Justin Chapman/video still

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