Sony Xperia XZ2 review: New design struggles to deliver the flagship goods

Sony smartphones have sat just below the top tier for a while now, so the new Xperia XZ2 has a lot to prove. At £699 (inc. VAT) it’s more affordable than the £730 Samsung Galaxy S9, but is pipped by the Huawei P20 which is £100 less at £599 (the P20 Pro comes in at £799).

With its emphasis on camera capability, including 4K HDR video recording, and strong audio-visual performance this is arguably a handset aimed more at entertainment than productivity.

Sony’s industrial design has never really appealed to me: the blocky, monolithic appearance of the company’s handsets seemed a bit awkward and characterless, although of course that’s a matter of personal taste and there are doubtless many fans of the traditional Xperia look and feel.

Whatever your own view, that design aesthetic has been shelved, and the Sony Xperia XZ2 is a curvy, shiny, slippery thing. Its glass back is extremely reflective and very smooth to the touch. It isn’t my preferred look — but again, others will like it. The glass feels good in the hand but it attracts finger smears very easily, and I found it slippy to grip, accidentally dropping it back into my bag on a few occasions. Still, if this handset gets dropped in more perilous conditions, its IP68 rating for dust and water resistance should be a comfort.

Sony’s 5.7-inch Xperia XZ2 has a more rounded look with a glass back. The dual-SIM runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 chipset with 4GB and 64GB of storage, with MicroSD expansion available.


Images: Sony

The 198g Xperia XZ2 is quite slippery to hold, and the precise location of the rear-mounted fingerprint reader takes some getting used to.


Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

My blue review sample looked relatively demure — the black variant will share that characteristic, while the silver and pink versions are rather brasher in appearance.

I had a problem locating the fingerprint sensor on the back of the handset: it’s closer to the midway point of the chassis than usual, so that I had to crook my forefinger to find it; it’s also almost flush to the backplate rather than recessed. No doubt I’d get used to the sensor’s position in time, but for something that’s supposed to be intuitive the hassle was a little irritating.

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The Xperia XZ2’s glass back gives it a propensity to slip and slide on smoother surfaces. The back is also curved, which means its long edges are raised quite significantly from a desk’s flat surface. These two factors mean that prodding and poking at the screen can make the phone tip and twist on a desk. It’s the devil’s own job keeping it stationary, and I found this most annoying — in fact, it would be a deal-breaker for me.

Overall this is quite a thick phone too, measuring 11mm thick down its central spine, tapering to 6mm at the edges. It’s 72mm wide and 153mm tall, and weighs 198g.

The Xperia XZ2’s curved glass back makes it awkward to prod at the screen with the handset resting on a flat surface.


Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Sony uses the USB-C slot for audio output rather than providing a 3.5mm jack, but an adapter is provided in the box. One design feature I rather like is access to the SIM tray, which uses a small fingernail-accessible notch in the tray rather than a separate tool. Well done Sony, for finding a design solution that’s obviously more ergonomic than the incumbent option.

The SIM tray has room for either two SIMs or one SIM and a MicroSD card. In general, I’m not in favour of having to sacrifice memory expansion for a second SIM. The Xperia XZ2 has 64GB of internal storage, so users who like to store a lot of content on their handsets may well need to use the MicroSD slot.

The 5.7-inch 1,080-by-2,160 screen has the popular 18:9 format. It extends almost to the very edges on the long sides of the handset, although there’s a bezel of around 10m at the top and 12mm at the bottom. These are thinner than past Sony bezels, but still look like landing strips in comparison to minimal-bezel handsets like Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus.

The screen’s 424ppi pixel density isn’t the highest and it lacks the brilliance of AMOLED displays, but it’s still very good. Video content automatically pops into HDR, which makes for very satisfying viewing. You can tweak the white balance and contrast, selecting presets and making granular adjustments, so there’s scope to get things just how you like them.

The ‘smart backlight’ control keeps the backlight on while you’re looking at the handset, regardless of the sleep settings. There’s also a ‘night light’ mode with reduced blue light. This can come on automatically at a set time, or you can configure it manually. It’s great for late-night ebook readers like me. Neither features are new, but they are both nice to have.

The other side to a great audio visual experience is the audio, and here things are superb: the front-facing stereo speakers deliver good-quality sound, with comparatively rich bass tones for a handset.

Sony adds a third element to the enjoyment of ‘content’ in the shape of its Dynamic Vibration System (DVS). Basically an enhancement of the standard vibration system, DVS can be brought into use when playing games or listening to anything with an audio component. It’s quite weird. Providing feedback by trying to mimic the beat of a tune didn’t work very well: it simply didn’t match the beat of tunes I listened to. The random haptics delivered while I watched a movie were frankly off-putting. I had better luck with gaming, but even there it’s not really a must-have new feature.

Fortunately the volume control provides a slider to change the intensity of DVS — or turn it off completely.

And so we come to the cameras. A dedicated camera button is a rarity on handsets these days, but is something long championed by Sony. It works best when you’re shooting in landscape mode; its location towards the bottom of the right edge in portrait mode is a bit awkward to reach.

Pressing the button starts the camera app, whereupon it becomes the focus and shoot controller — depress it a little way to focus, then all the way to shoot. Annoyingly, the focus point is set in software and you can’t touch the screen to tell the camera where you want to focus.

The single 19MP rear-facing camera uses Sony’s Superior Auto system to identify what kind of scene is being shot, and make settings accordingly. It throws a little icon on-screen towards the bottom left of the framing window, which you can tap to alter white balance and colour saturation if you don’t like the automatic settings. It’s extremely simple to work with, and the end results are pretty good.

The Bokeh effect lets you adjust blurring after shooting, and there’s an AR effect that lets you throw dinosaurs, fairies and facial adornments onto photos; SoundPhoto adds captured sound to a still, plus there’s a panorama shooting mode and an effects mode that offers kaleidoscopic, hand-drawn, fisheye and other imaging distortions.

The ability to record 4K video is welcome, but you’ll need something 4K-capable to review it on and there may be some juddering if you move the camera lens about too much. When you select 4K mode there’s a warning that the camera will shut down if the device temperature rises — a sure sign that this shooting mode really hammers the processor.

Super slow-motion is arguably more fun, capturing Full HD (1080p) resolution at 960fps. The resulting video is smooth and impressive, but clips are very short and I struggle to see how this would be a real boon in any practical situation. Still, this is arguably the bigger win here, not least because it takes just a single screen tap to throw a slow motion episode into a standard-speed recording.

To power all this camera capability, and the rest of what’s on offer here, Sony uses Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 845 chipset with 4GB of RAM. I had no complaints at all regarding this setup: the Xperia XZ2 is very responsive. There’s 64GB of internal storage, as noted earlier, of which 15.54GB was used right out of the box.

Sony adds its own software on top of Android 8 Oreo. Sony is a bit heavy-handed with its extras, adding things like its own PlayStation app, music player and image viewing app, as well as a range of third-party apps that, frankly, should be left for the user to install. These include AVG, Kobo, and no fewer than four from Amazon — Shopping, Prime Video, Kindle and Prime Photos. None of these can be uninstalled.

The Xperia XZ2 has a 3,180mAh battery, and it could probably do with something a bit larger. I did manage a day’s usage off a full charge, but on other occasions — when using the camera a lot and that Dynamic Vibration System with some audio and video content — the battery barely got me past the middle of the afternoon.

The handset supports Quick Charge 3.0, which at least means you can boost the battery quickly, and if you invest in the £58 accessory you can take advantage of Qi wireless charging.

Conclusions

The redesigned shape and styling of Sony’s flagship Xperia XZ2 handset will appeal to some, but I found it slippy to hold and prone to wriggling around on the desk. The camera promises much, but it’s tricky to get the most out of 4K video or the super slow-motion mode. The Dynamic Vibration System is something of a mystery to me, and I found it uninspiring. Sony’s insistence on including non-removable third-party apps is irritating. Finally, battery life is underwhelming.

All these factors add up to a handset that seems to promise more than it delivers. Sony won’t be challenging the market leaders with this outing.

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Adonit Ink Pro, First Take: More affordable and more capable than Surface Pen

Lots of Windows tablets and convertibles work with digital pens, but not all of them come with one in the box. The Microsoft Pen Protocol (MPP) is an attempt to get over the confusion between two incompatible pen technologies, from Wacom and N-trig (now owned by Microsoft and used in Surface devices), and it means we’re seeing more third-party pens on the market that work with any MPP device. Adonit is well known for its capacitive/Bluetooth iOS and Android styluses; the Ink Pro is the company’s second active pen, and it has some interesting extras.

Adonit’s £79/$89.99 Ink Pro comes in black or white.


Images: Adonit

Like the £99.99 (inc. VAT, or $99.99) Microsoft Surface Pen, the Ink Pro is an active pen that needs battery power to work as a pen and adds extra features via Bluetooth. Unlike the Surface Pen, it’s rechargeable. It’s also a little longer and sleeker than Microsoft’s stylus, and more comfortable to hold because it doesn’t have the annoying flat side to attach to a tablet.

As soon as it’s charged, the Ink Pro will work as a pen with any MPP device. That means any Surface except Surface Pro 2, and a range of PCs from Acer, Asus, Dell, HP and Sony but not Lenovo — and definitely not an iPad. You use the double button on the side of the pen for right-clicking and erasing in software with suitable support; there’s a third button that turns on a laser pointer.

The pen tip is smooth, so it slides freely over the screen and sounds quite clicky as you touch and tap the screen. The Surface Pen has a little more friction, which actually makes writing on-screen feel a little smoother because the tip doesn’t slide as much. It’s worth trying out both devices to see which style of tip you prefer, but the harder Ink Pro tip may let you write faster.

Ink in the Windows 10 Sketchpad. The Ink Pro produces smooth, flowing strokes, but Microsoft’s Surface Pen shows a wider range of pressure sensitivity: when you press as hard as you can, the Surface Pen strokes are thicker.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

The feel of the Ink Pro is very different on-screen from the feel of the Surface Pen, but the ink they produce in OneNote is very similar. The vertical lines at the bottom of the page show the only time palm rejection wasn’t completely accurate while we were trying out Adonit’s pen.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Strokes were smooth and well formed, but the pressure sensitivity isn’t quite as extensive as with the Surface Pen. We could get much thinner and thicker strokes in painting apps using the Surface Pen, as well as more brush-like marks as the pressure tapered off at the end of a stroke. That makes the Ink Pro a better choice for business use cases such as writing and marking up documents than for artwork, where fine pressure control is more important. Palm rejection — where you can lean your hand on the screen without worrying about that showing up as unwanted ink — was generally excellent, although we did see some odd extra lines of ink in OneNote in one writing session.

When you also pair the Ink Pro to your PC via Bluetooth you get extra features, like the ability to double-click to launch an application of your choice (including the Windows Ink Workspace). The pairing instructions are minimal, because all you have to do is tell your PC to look for a Bluetooth pen and it’s immediately discoverable.

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The Surface Pen uses the eraser button on the top as the shortcut button; the Ink Pro doesn’t have a button on the end because that’s where it fits into the charging dock, so the shortcut is a double-click on one end of the double button on the side of the barrel. Pressing either of the double buttons when the pen isn’t touching the screen acts like pressing Page Up or Page Down, so you can sit with your pen in your hand, scrolling through a long web page or Word document — or jumping from page to page in a PowerPoint slide deck — that works both in authoring and presentation mode, so it’s handy for reading and reviewing slides as well as presenting. This is comfortable and convenient; it’s a bit like having a multi-button mouse without having to worry about finding a flat surface to use it on.

Double click the other end of the double button and Cortana starts listening on your PC, so you can ask her to do a web search, create an appointment, set a timer, check the weather, get your diary for the day or do any of the other handy voice-assistant skills like controlling Hue lights or searching for and replying to email. This is a new Cortana skill that lets you see recent unread emails or ask if you have new mail from a specific person and reply to it by dictating a message.

The Ink Pro produces clean, smooth ink in apps (like Paint) that don’t support pressure sensitivity.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Having a physical trigger is a nice way to avoid having Cortana listening all the time, which uses more battery power. You could use the keyboard shortcut for turning Cortana voice input on, as long as you have a keyboard attached and are close enough to tap it — at which point you might as well type in your question. As with the Page Up and Page Down buttons, it’s nice to be able to sit back or even trigger Cortana from across the room. In a London flat with brick walls, we found the range was enough to reach across the room, but not to trigger actions from another room — which wouldn’t be very helpful as you wouldn’t see or hear Cortana’s response, which is displayed on-screen and spoken if you have your sound on.

The microphone in the Ink Pro isn’t quite as high quality as the array microphone in a Surface or Surface Book, but you’re likely to be holding the pen closer to you. We found most words were recognised just as well as with the Surface microphone, although not everything was recognised perfectly. One thing is slightly awkward: the Ink Pro uses the Bluetooth headset profile, which means it’s automatically set up as the default microphone and speaker for communications; if you’re listening to music or watching video on a web page, or just getting system notifications, they’ll play through the PC speaker normally. But you’ll have to switch the speaker and microphone for communications apps like Skype back to something other than the Ink Pro before you can speak and hear in conversations. (That’s not an option for Skype in a web browser, so you’ll have to manually change the settings in control panel each time.)

The charging dock means you won’t lose track of the Ink Pro on your desk (a strong magnet pulls the pen into place for charging); it also means you won’t have to keep a stock of tiny batteries to power your pen. The promised 80-hour battery life from a 15-minute charge (or 24 hours if you’re using it non-stop) is certainly shorter than the promised year before you have to replace the battery in the Surface Pen, but you also don’t have to crack open the pen to replace the battery.

To keep the battery life up, the Ink Pro turns itself off if you don’t use it for 15 minutes — it turns back on instantly when you tap the button on the side, and even carrying it around in a bag for a week didn’t turn the pen back on for long enough to run down the battery. Replaceable versus rechargeable batteries is always a matter of preference, but Adonit has done a great job of making recharging fast and convenient.

Pressure sensitivity controls how paint is laid down on the page in painting apps like Fresh Paint, which simulates oil paint. Surface Pen, on the right, produces a little more texture in the paint and the difference between gentle and firm strokes is much more distinct. The Ink Pro doesn’t have quite the same pressure range, but still lets you achieve a range of effects.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Conclusions

At £79 (inc. VAT, or $89.99), Adonit’s Ink Pro is both cheaper than the Surface Pen and more capable. The laser pointer is a rather twee, old-fashioned feature that burns battery if you press it by accident. We’d rather see a model without the laser pointer and the space used for two distinct buttons (Adonit’s earlier Ink model doesn’t have the laser pointer but it doesn’t have the extra features either). The feel of the stylus point on-screen is also a matter of personal preference. We really like the page navigation and Cortana control buttons, and the charging dock is as well thought-out as the pen itself.

The Ink Pro is well worth considering, especially if you use a Windows tablet without a keyboard attached all the time.

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Huawei P20 review: A smaller, sleeker Mate 10 Pro with camera enhancements

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ZDNet’s Sandra Vogel recently published her full review of the Huawei P20 Pro, which I also have in hand and am using to test out its imaging prowess. Over the last week and a half I have also been using the Huawei P20 that offers much of the same as the P20 Pro for EUR250 less.

Apple usually perfects features and technology that is first seen in Android smartphones, but last year’s iPhone X launched with a display that extended to all four edges of the front with a notch for sensors, a speaker, and the front-facing camera. In 2018, we are seeing Android manufacturers (and Google with Android P) embrace the notch. Huawei’s new P20 and P20 Pro devices are some of the first to launch with the notch.

The P20 is the successor to the P10 with some design changes, including a glass back, removal of the 3.5mm headset jack and microSD card slot, and an expansive front display with a notch. It retains the lower front oblong fingerprint scanner, dual rear cameras with Leica branding, and more.

Specifications

  • Processor: Huawei Kirin 970 octa-core with NPU
  • Display: 5.8 inch 2244×1080 pixels resolution LCD (428 ppi)
  • Operating system: Android 8.1 Oreo with EMUI 8.1
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Storage: 128GB internal
  • Cameras: Rear dual cameras; one 20 megapixel f/1.6 aperture monochrome cameras and one 12 megapixel RGB f/1.8 camera. Front 24 megapixel f/2.0 aperture
  • Battery: 3400 mAh with SuperCharge fast and safe charging technology
  • Dimensions: 149.1 x 70.8 x 7.65 mm and 165 grams
  • Colors: Black, pink gold, champagne gold, midnight blue, and twilight

The Huawei P20 stacks up rather well with the Mate 10 Pro with both having the Kirin 970 processor and NPU for AI and other advanced functionality. The Mate 10 Pro is larger, has more RAM, and is priced higher than the P20 while the P20 has newer generation rear cameras and a higher resolution front-facing camera. The Mate 10 Pro may be for those who need a phone to easily go a couple of days while the P20 may be more amenable to the masses with its smaller form factor, higher screen-to-body ratio, lower price, and more advanced cameras.

Huawei P20 vs P20 Pro

The Huawei P20 and P20 Pro have a similar full screen display with a notch and metal/glass design, but there are also some key differences. As you look at Sandra’s Huawei P20 Pro review and this review, here are some key differences between the two phones.

Hardware

Huawei is known for its stunning hardware and the Huawei P20 is no exception. Let’s start with the front of the device and the expansion of minimizing bezels from just the sides to the top and bottom. Along the bottom we see a shrinking bezel height, but with the oblong hardware fingerprint scanner there is a limitation as to how far down Huawei can go.

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Unfortunately, the oblong button is just above the curvature of the glass and is not in any sort of natural ergonomic position. Everything about the Huawei P20 screams 2018, except for this oddly positioned fingerprint sensor. One has to make a conscious effort to reposition your hand to hit it with your thumb and this means holding the phone down near the very bottom or holding it in one hand while the other hand uses this fingerprint sensor.

Huawei has some of the fastest responding, perfectly positioned rear fingerprint sensors on many of its other smartphones and should have implemented that on this phone for it to be a true champion. It’s not clear what might have prevented that placement, but hopefully it was a technological challenge and not just a design decision. You can do more than unlock the phone with this sensor, as discussed below in the software section.

At the top of the display, we have the new notch. The P20 notch is about a third the width of the iPhone X notch and contains a round handset speaker, 24 megapixel front-facing camera, sensors, and an indicator LED. I am perfectly fine with the notch on the iPhone X and the notch on the P20 is also acceptable. Huawei even gives you the ability, in the settings, to choose to hide the notch with black on the display or keep it on by default. It’s a handy trick, but I just keep the default enabled.
























The power and volume buttons are found on the upper right side. It’s cool to see a red line in the center of the power button as Huawei adds a bit of color to the phone. A mic opening is on the top and the dual SIM card tray is on the upper left. A USB-C port and one speaker (right side) are found on the bottom. The single speaker is quite loud, but I use a headset the majority of the time so am fine with the single speaker.

It is also interesting to see that Huawei continues to release its flagship Mate and P series devices with 1080p displays. As I’ve stated on the MoTR podcast and written here on ZDNet, 1080p is perfectly acceptable to me for smartphones and going to higher 2K resolutions doesn’t improve my viewing experience while it does have an impact on battery life. The LCD screen on the Huawei P20 looks great.

The review unit I have came in a retail box that is labeled black, but the curved edges are silver and I after looking in various lighing conditions, this is actually the midnight blue model. I see on the Huawei website that the black model has black edges. It is extremely glossy, looks like a mirror on the back, and has a different hue to it as I move it in various lighting conditions. The entire front is black.

The Kirin 970 chipset and EMUI 8.1 help the P20 perform flawlessly. I haven’t seen any stuttering, slowdowns, or app crashes since I started using it. I am also seeing very solid RF reception on T-Mobile, based on watching the Android signal status meter in the settings. The P20 has actually been showing better dBm readings than the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Samsung smartphones usually beat everything else I test out.

The Mate 10 Pro and P20 Pro have also shown me some incredible performance when it comes to RF strength and ability to have functioning internet and make phone calls in areas where other phones lose data and cellular connections. I would not think this possible with these devices that are not necessarily tuned to US wireless carriers, but the P20 does have support for many bands so that T-Mobile performance has been verified as rock solid.

According to Phone Arena the Huawei P20 supports the following bands. FDD bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/9/12/17/18/19/20/26/28/32 and TDD bands: 34/38/39/40. The P20 does not support the new T-Mobile 600 MHz frequency (Band 71) that is actively rolling out, but it does support the other key T-Mobile and ATT bands. These main bands include 4 and 12 for T-Mobile with band 17 for ATT. Thus, GSM performance in the US should be great. LTE Cat 18 is also supported on the P20.

The Huawei P20 upgrades the Leica dual-lens experience with improved low light performance and stabilization performed through AI. The two cameras are on the upper left of the back in a raised housing with the flash positioned below them. It is interesting to note that Huawei and Leica branding text is oriented for landscape so that the phone looks more like a camera than a phone when in shooting mode.

The 12 megapixel RGB sensor has a 1.55 µm pixel size for improved low light with software that helps you obtain some rather stunning results. Like the Samsung Galaxy S9, you will also find 960 fps super slow motion support on the P20. You can check out this short video of a water feature in super slow motion. Advanced portrait options are also available. The camera software has also been improved significantly, as discussed below.

Software

EMUI has come a long way since it first appeared on Huawei phones and is now one of my preferred user interfaces, in large part for its support of the Google feed as a home screen panel which is something you usually only get with the Google launcher. Most of the EMUI customization on the P20 is present in the settings area where you can fully customize the device to your preferences.

Others who have lamented EMUI are also now writing reviews that do not slam the user interface as it looks more and more like a stock Android experience. There are some Huawei specific elements still present, but these do nothing to slow down the device and I find they improve the experience over vanilla stock Android.

I continue to be pleased with the presence of the Huawei gallery application and image editing tools that help you develop some creative images to share with family and friends. HTC used to have its own custom gallery and editing tools, but switched to Google Photos. Google Photos is fine for backup and photo management, but a custom gallery with high-powered editing tools provides for a much better experience. The color splash option is my personal favorite on the Huawei P20.

Other apps included by Huawei include: a file explorer, flashlight, Huawei Health, Huawei HiCare (service app), Music (media player), Notepad, Themes, Recorder, Email, and Weather. I am using a review device provided by Huawei, but for some reason am unable to get Google Pay working with the phone. That is the only issue I have seen with the software though.

The Huawei P20 also supports knuckle gestures so make sure to try them out in Smart assistanceMotion controlKnuckle gestures. Taking a screenshot with a single knuckle tap to the display is handy and drawing a line for split-screen mode is very efficient.

Enterprise users will also be interested in knowing the P20 supports easy projection so you simply plug in the USB-C to HDMI and out to a monitor to use your phone as your computer.

While I think the fingerprint sensor is placed too low, there are some interesting options for the way you navigate on the P20. There are four system navigation options to choose from: off-screen navigation button, onscreen navigation button, virtual navigation button, and navigation dock. I like the off-screen option that turns the fingerprint sensor, and area to the right of it, into your navigation system with presses and swipes. The onscreen option puts a small bar just on the bottom of the display that you manipulate like you would with the fingerprint sensor. The virtual navigation option is the default Android approach with three buttons on the bottom and on the P20 you can have up to four buttons and in a sequence you choose. I’ve tried the last option, navigation dock, that places a single virtual button on the display that you can move wherever you like, but I kept messing it up and gave up on this option.

The camera software has been given a complete overhaul on the P20 and P20 Pro. When you launch the camera app (try double pressing the volume down with the display off to jump right into the camera app) you are taken into auto photo mode. Like Apple, and Samsung with the S9/S9 Plus, you now switch common modes by swiping left or right with the mode highlighted in orange text at the bottom of the viewfinder. By default, available modes are aperture (let’s you adjust the aperture in software), night, portrait, photo, video, pro (manual), and more. When you select more, then an interface of shortcut icons (similar to the previous camera interface) appears and includes slow-mo, panorama, monochrome, light painting and many more. These include more modes that you can download too. You can change the order of these in the more menu, but you cannot bring these modes to the main navigation bar.

We saw Huawei enhance the auto mode through artifical intelligence and this provided some interesting results. While AI was helpful, you had to switch to pro mode to take photos without the AI applying its influence. On the P20, the master AI can be enabled or disabled in the settings. In addition, if it is enabled, then an item is identified and the AI shows you what it will do in the viewfinder. If you do not like what the AI provides, simply tap the small X next to the AI prompt and normal auto mode will appear.

There were 13 AI items on the Mate 10 Pro. We see 19 on the P20, including cat, food, group, natural colors, close-up, night shot, text, greenery, portrait, dog, fireworks, blue sky, flowers, stage, document, sunset, snow, waterfall, and beach. These can be interesting and helpful, but with the P20 Huawei also gives you full and complete control over the image capture experience so you can spend hours exploring all of its capabilities.

I found it very helpful for switching automatically to portrait mode in auto photo while capturing pictures of people. I was not expecting the P20 to take things this far, but it is nice to let the AI help you out and is something I have been looking for these smartphones to do for us for quite some time. Smartphones are powerful tools and they should be doing some of this heavy lifting for us to move the bar forward.

AI is even built into the pro (manual) mode where the software will offer intelligent layout suggestions to help you improve your photography skills.

The Huawei P20 supports the front fingerprint scanner for security, but also has facial recognition to more quickly unlock your device without having to use the awkwardly positioned sensor. I have been able to get facial recognition to work most of the time to unlock the P20, but like Samsung implementation this is only good for unlocking your phone and not for secure websites or services.

Pricing and competition

The Huawei P20 price is £599 (EUR649) for 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The Huawei P20 Pro, with three rear cameras and a slightly larger OLED screen, is priced at £799 (EUR899).

The iPhone X, 64GB model, is priced at EUR1149 so you get quite a bit more in the P20 at a significantly lower cost than the iPhone X.

The Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are the primary Android flagships of 2018 and cost EUR849 and EUR949, respectively. Again, the P20 remains the lowest priced option for Android smartphone fans.

Daily usage experiences and conclusions

Unfortunately, people in the US will have to find a reputable importer in order to purchase a Huawei P20 or P20 Pro due to US government concerns over the company and Best Buy’s move to stop selling Huawei phones in its stores. I see that Huawei sells the P20 EML-L29 for $647 (black) and $749 (blue and pink) on Amazon so it is affordable for US customers too. The P20 and P20 Pro may be the best smartphones of 2018 though so you may want to check out more reviews and consider buying at Amazon or through another vendor.

Reception has been fantastic, the camera is a blast to use and results are outstanding, the phone fits well in a pocket and looks stunning, and you can customize the P20 to your preferences. The Kirin 970 flies and the potential for the NPU and AI is there to make the overall experience even better.

The Huawei Mate 10 Pro is a long lasting solid smartphone and the P20 brings all of those experiences in a slightly smaller form factor. However, the Mate 10 Pro has that excellent rear fingerprint sensor and a larger battery so it may be a better choice for the enterprise. In either case, you can pick up an excellent competitor to Samsung for $650 to 750.

Meizu M6 Note hands-on: Good performance and camera from an entry-level smartphone

I have been looking forward to trying the Meizu M6 Note since it was released last autumn.

Its newest M6 device is the entry-level M6 Note. Meizu said that the Note is the first international Meizu phone that features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 octa-core ARM-A53 processor running at up to 2GHz and an Adreno 506 GPU.

Read also: Who’s hurt by the ZTE ban? US consumers and businesses

Meizu carries two smartphone models in its range: The PRO, and M-series. So far, it has released just under 30 smartphone models, which makes it the 11th-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world in terms of unit sales.

This is a nice phone that looks like a top-end model, yet it’s only around $300 for the 64GB version. It comes with 4GB of LPDDR3 RAM and has up to 32GB or 64GB of internal storage.

The phone runs Flyme OS version 6.1.4 on Android 7.1.2, and its Wi-Fi supports both 5GHz and 2.4GHz frequency bands.

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The Meizu M6 Note comes equipped with Sony IMX362/Samsung 2L7 dual cameras — the first in the M-series to feature two cameras.

The front camera has a 16-megapixel sensor. The rear camera has a 12-megapixel sensor for the primary camera and a resolution of 5-megapixel for the secondary camera and Quad LED flash.

It has an ƒ/1.9 ultra-wide aperture and 0.03 seconds Dual PD focusing mechanism, which is quite an impressive a camera experience for an entry-level smartphone. The camera also shoots panoramas and continuous images.

It has Arcsoft camera algorithms, including a dual camera blur to give a bokeh effect, which is a nice-to-have trick for a low-cost device. Bokeh images look really good on the M6 Note.

For selfie addicts, there is a large range of photo adjustments to give the perfect image. The dual-color temperature, 4-LED flash provides fill-in light and has five Flyme-specific flash effects. It also comes with noise reduction for fairly good images in low light.

The device screen is a 5.5-inch full HD display with a contrast ratio of 1000:1 and a resolution of 1920 x 1080 with 403ppi. Screen real estate is good with edge-to-edge cover.

Meizu has continued its top and bottom bezel — for its fingerprint sensor at the bottom and camera and speaker at the top of the screen. The aspect ratio is good.

For a slim phone, it has packed an impressive 4,000mAh battery into its body, whilst still staying light at 173g. This will give you 10 hours of gaming, or enable you to watch up to 34 full HD TV shows.

Read also: The 10 best smartphones of 2018 (shame about Huawei)

Its dimensions are 154.6 x 75.2 x 8.35mm. The battery uses mCharge fast-charging technology, which can charge with an electric current of up to 18W.

There are no extras or gimmicks inside the box — after all, this is an entry level phonemainly aimed at the consumer market.

It is perfectly adequate for corporate rollouts, too. Device administrators can be added, as can certificates, multiple fingerprint unlocks, and device privacy options.

This is a phone that spans both the consumer and corporate world without problems and sits well in both.






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Huawei P20 Pro review: Three rear cameras, and a lot more

Huawei’s new P20 and P20 Pro are this year’s updates to the well-received P10 and P10 Plus. The main pre-launch talking point about the P20 Pro was its three-camera setup at the rear which, along with AI features, delivers exceptional photography performance — particularly in low light.

Smartphones — particularly top-end handsets — are often described as being ‘all about the cameras’ these days, but there are plenty of other differentiating features, and this £799 (inc. VAT) flagship handset has a lot more to offer than three rear cameras.

The glass backplate isn’t my favourite style as it’s reflective, attracts fingerprints and makes the handset quite slippery to hold. Smaller hands, like mine, struggle to grip the handset tight for one-handed use, and the phone too easily slides off soft surfaces like chairs and sofas. Just as well, then, that the P20 Pro has an IP67 rating for dust and water ingress.

Despite the fuss about them, the rear cameras aren’t particularly visually arresting. Arguably the most notable feature is the way the main pair of lenses protrude significantly from the back of the 7.8mm-thick phone.

Huawei’s flagship P20 Pro runs on the AI-optimised Kirin 970 chipset with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage. It’s a dual-SIM IP67-rated handset with a 6.1-inch 1,080-by-2,240-pixel screen, weighing 180g.


Image: Huawei

The lenses for the 40MP RGB and 20MP monochrome cameras protrude significantly at the back.


Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The edges of the Huawei P20 Pro are unremarkable, apart from a welcome flash of red on the power button, on the right-hand side. Twin speakers sit on the bottom edge and deliver good sound quality, even with the volume turned up. The speakers flank a central USB-C port, and Huawei provides USB-C earphones plus an adapter for headsets with a 3.5mm audio jack. The SIM slot, on the left edge, will accommodate two SIM cards, but there’s no option to use MicroSD in place of one of the SIMs. Still, there’s a generous 128GB of internal storage, which should be plenty for most use cases.

The front of my black review unit — the P20 also comes in midnight blue and ‘twilight’ — was dominated by the 6.1-inch OLED screen. The long edges are nearly bezel-free, while the top edge that has a slightly larger bezel with a central iPhone X-style ‘notch’ for the front-facing camera and speaker.

If the notch for the front-facing 24MP camera and speaker annoys you, it can be hidden in settings.


Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Top ZDNET Reviews

The bottom edge has a relatively large bezel — all of 9mm, according to my ruler. Still, the near absence of a top bezel means the handset isn’t oversized at 73.9mm wide by 155mm deep by 7.8mm thick. It’s reasonably light at 180g too — Sony’s Xperia XZ2, by contrast, comes in at 198g for its 153mm by 72mm by 11-6mm dimensions.

The large bottom bezel houses a home button that incorporates a fingerprint sensor — not my favoured location for the latter device, as it’s tricky to hit when working one-handed. It’s far more ergonomic to have the fingerprint sensor on the rear, as it is on most recent flagship handsets.

Authentication is also available using face recognition, but the P20 Pro consistently refused to recognise my face so I couldn’t test this feature. I’ve not encountered this problem before, so maybe a software update will sort it out.

The OLED screen is stunning. It’s slightly taller and slightly narrower than the 16:9 aspect ratio screens that are becoming standard, having an 18:7.9 aspect ratio. That provides capacity for the screen to stretch almost to the top of the handset and wrap around the central camera at the top. That little bit of extra screen height means the overall resolution is 1,080 by 2,240 pixels (rather than the 16:8 standard of 1,080 x 2,160).

It’s not something that makes a massive difference to usability, and if the camera-hugging cut-out is irritating, it’s easy to ‘hide’ it in settings, which uses the space to the left and right for system notifications rather than the display itself. That turned out to be my preferred setting.

There are plenty of other ways to customise the display, including fiddling with the colour temperature, and filtering out blue light. Keeping up with the Joneses of the handset world, the Huawei P20 Pro supports HDR10, and it will stream HDR content where you can find it, such as on Netflix. Even without taking advantage of HDR10, video looks great — and given the quality of the audio subsystem, this handset is well suited to mobile gaming too.

You can adjust the OLED screen’s colour mode and temperature, and schedule a reduced-blue-light ‘eye comfort’ setting.


Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

We’ll be doing a deep dive on the P20 Pro’s camera performance elsewhere, but will note here that the three-camera system with Leica optics on the back of the handset is extremely impressive. The two main cameras are a primary 40MP RGB sensor with an f/1.8 lens and a secondary 20MP monochrome sensor with an f/1.6 lens. Between them, these cameras ensure that photos are crisp and detailed, delivering particularly good results in low light conditions. The third camera has an 8MP sensor with an f/2.4 lens, delivering 5X hybrid zoom (only available in the default 10-megapixel shooting mode).

The ‘PhotoGenius’ AI system has a go at identifying the subject and adjusts settings accordingly. I found this to be pretty effective, and although a photography purist armed with a real camera would produce shots of the same subjects that look rather different in terms of light and colour, results from the P20 Pro will keep many users happy. And anyone who does a lot of low-light shooting should be particularly pleased with what they see here.

The multitude of shooting options, and the range of tweaks that can be made to settings when you move from auto into ‘Pro’ mode, are made accessible thanks to a scrolling bar that sits beneath the viewfinder area. This makes it more likely that regular users will actually try the pro-level features. It might encourage more people to try the bokeh effect that can automatically kick in if you select portrait mode, for example.

According to Huawei, only the 8MP telephoto camera has optical image stabilisation (OIS), but iFixit’s teradown analysis found OIS hardware on the other two rear cameras as well. Video enthusiasts will appreciate the P20 Pro’s support for 720p footage at ‘super slo-mo’ 960fps.

The front camera is worth an honourable mention too. It has a 24MP sensor and an f/2.0 lens, and takes a very nice selfie indeed. It should suit the narcissists among us well.

The P20 Pro comes in black, midnight blue and ‘twilight’.


Images: Huawei

As usual Huawei couples its own EMUI overlay with Android — in this case Android 8.1 Oreo. Huawei does tend to add a lot of bits and pieces to Android, and that’s the case here. Some of this will appeal, and some may not. Among the many apps added in a Tools folder is a sound recorder and torch app — the latter unnecessary, really, given that a torch setting is accessible from the home screen with a single downward finger swipe.

Tools also contains an app called Mirror, which puts a photo frame around photos and videos. You can blow into the microphone and the screen mists up like a mirror in a steamy bathroom, ready for you to write something on the ‘glass’ with your finger. Bizarre.

Much more useful, in my view, is Smart Controller, which allows you to bring the IR blaster on the top edge of the phone into service as a remote control.

There are lots of other tweaks and touches to be found. Long press an app icon and a series of options appear, making it very fast to add a new calendar event or alarm, or start a timer for example. Generally, my experience with these tools suggests they’re not quite as expansive as those you get with the OnePlus 5T, for example. Still, they should prove useful.

The Huawei P20 Pro performs well, its Kirin 970 processor and 6GB of RAM handling anything I threw at it without delay. The 4,000mAh battery is among the biggest you’ll find on a flagship handset, and it easily got me through a day’s use. Hardened gamers or those into streaming media for hours might have a different experience, but I didn’t take the battery below 50 percent in any full day during the test period.

Conclusions


Image: Huawei

Huawei’s P20 Pro is a superb handset, with its triple rear camera setup the clear headline-stealer. Elsewhere, performance is great and battery life is among the best I’ve seen in recent times. The IR blaster coupled with TV (and other IR device) software is a real winner — I don’t understand why this isn’t standard on more handsets.

Most of the negatives are a little picky, the exception being the fingerprint sensor location. This really should be on the back and not beneath the screen, where it’s very awkward to find one-handed. The lack of MicroSD card support may disappoint some people, but 128GB of internal storage is plenty for me. Reliance on USB-C for the headset connection could irritate too, but Huawei does provide a 3.5mm adapter. I don’t like the glass back, but others will disagree.

Overall though, this might be my flagship handset of the year so far.

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Best 2-in-1 laptops, convertibles, and hybrid laptops for business 2018


Images: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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In biology, there’s a phenomenon called hybrid vigour, where certain traits are enhanced in the offspring of genetically-dissimilar parents. Something analogous has happened in recent years in the business laptop market, which was traditionally characterised by dull corporate workhorse devices — seemingly untouched by the hand of a creative industrial designer — capable of running email, a web browser, Microsoft Office, and not much else.

Then the climate changed thanks to consumerisation and BYOD, the corporate laptop met the consumer tablet, and the modern convertible hybrid was born.

Before long, analysts’ PC shipment reports and forecasts were mentioning premium ultramobiles — including these 2-in-1 hybrids — as a beacon of growth in an otherwise gloomy picture of long-term decline.


Data: Gartner / Chart: ZDNet

What is a hybrid laptop?

Hybrid laptops come in various guises, but all have a touchscreen and can function both in traditional ‘clamshell’ mode and, by folding the keyboard section out of the way or removing it altogether, in tablet mode. The former are usually called ‘convertible’ laptops, while the latter are known as ‘detachables’.

Early convertible solutions used a hinge that swiveled around a single point, but these days the preferred design is a multi-point hinge that can support the screen at any angle from laptop mode (around 120 degrees) to full 360-degree tablet mode (with the keyboard facing outwards). In between, there are orientations that manufacturers characterise as ‘tent’ and ‘presentation’ modes.

Four modes of the 360-degree convertible-screen laptop: Presentation (top left), Laptop (top right), Tent (above right), and Tablet (above left). The device shown is Lenovo’s Yoga 920 with its distinctive ‘watchband’ screen hinge.


Images: Lenovo

Detachable designs fall into two categories: tablet-first devices — exemplified by Microsoft’s Surface Pro– with relatively flimsy add-on keyboards (optional in the Surface Pro’s case) and kickstands; and laptop-first devices — exemplified by the Surface Book 2 — with a proper keyboard base and a hinge capable of supporting the system in traditional laptop mode (without a kickstand).

Top: Microsoft’s ‘tablet-first’ Surface Pro in Laptop, Studio and Tablet modes. Above: the ‘laptop-first’ Surface Book 2, which comes in 15-inch and 13-inch versions.


Images: Microsoft

Choosing a hybrid laptop: Laptop-first or tablet-first?

Your first decision when choosing a hybrid laptop is whether you want a laptop-first or tablet-first device. Basically, the more time you spend creating content at home or in the office versus consuming content in mobile situations, the more likely a laptop-first device — probably a convertible — will prove suitable. Convertible laptops are generally sturdier and have better keyboards, but are heavier and more awkward to use in tablet mode; on the other hand, detachable laptops give you the flexibility to leave the keyboard section behind and just use the tablet part if the use case permits.

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Before you start looking at detailed internal specifications, make sure you’re clear about factors relating to the display: as well as screen size (13-, 14- or 15-inch) and resolution, consider the sturdiness of the hinge mechanism or keyboard attachment, and also things like bezel width and the quality of the touchscreen’s palm-rejection technology when used in tablet mode.

If you’re going to use your hybrid laptop outdoors or in challenging environments, don’t forget to examine the touchscreen’s brightness and ascertain whether it can be used with gloved hands. Some hybrids support stylus input, so check on that if it’s important to your workflow. And if you’re going down the rugged route, check out offerings from Dell and HP among leading vendors, and specialists like Panasonic, Getac, and Xplore.

Other industrial design factors to consider are: the variety and placement of ports and slots; the camera and audio subsystems (particularly if you’re going to be doing regular video calls); estimated battery life; and security features such as authentication (via fingerprint and face recognition or smartcard); and disk encryption. Mobile broadband (4G LTE) is available on some, but not all, hybrid laptops, so don’t forget to check for that if it’s important to you.

All of the above factors will affect the price, but of course a major cost driver will be the system’s basic specifications — processor, RAM, graphics, and storage. Let’s look at typical choices for entry-level, mid-range, and top-end hybrid laptops:

Hybrids have recently extended into workstation territory with HP’s 14-inch detachable ZBook x2 G4, which packs a 2.8 or 3.9GHz Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, Nvidia Quadro M620 graphics, and a 512GB Turbo Drive SSD. We’ve also seen the first detachable Chromebook, also from HP: the Chromebook x2.

Best hybrid, convertible and two-in-one laptops H1 2018

Here’s ZDNet’s current list of the best hybrids — running either Windows or Chrome OS — on the market.

Check back later in the year for an update.


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Dell XPS 13 9370 (2018) review: A superb small-format laptop, with one drawback

This latest version of Dell’s XPS 13 has some hard acts to follow, including the 2-in-1 version of the XPS 13 I reviewed last year — which itself followed on from earlier iterations that had all impressed. It’s hard to lead from the front, so what has Dell done to refine what was already a top-notch laptop — apart from moving to 8th generation Intel Core processors?

Dell’s ambition with the XPS 13 has always been to put a powerful laptop inside a small chassis, and to make the resulting hardware light and portable. That has always been achieved, and here the aim is more about refining previous benefits rather than doing anything radically different.

So, the outward appearance of the Dell XPS 13 9370 is very recognisable.

The 2018 XPS 13 has almost identical dimensions and weight to its predecessor and a minimal-bezel screen that results in a suboptimal camera placement, beneath the screen. The new model is powered by 8th-generation Intel Core processors.


Image: Dell

The first version of the XPS 13 was lauded as the world’s smallest 13.3-inch laptop. This was followed by an updated model with an InfinityEdge screen bezel measuring 5mm on the sides, 13mm at the top, and 18mm along the bottom. Later came the XPS 13 2-in-1, which was lighter and slimmer than its predecessors, measuring 302mm by 199mm by 11.6mm, and weighing 1.2kg. The new XPS 13 9370 matches these dimensions almost exactly, the only difference being a starting weight of 1.21kg.

Dell has managed to reduce the screen bezel even further, bringing it to 4mm on the short and top edges. All of this is remarkable, although this design’s one drawback remains: minimal bezels mean that the cameras — for video calling and Windows Hello — have to sit beneath the screen. The resulting unflattering ‘up the nose’ view may be enough to put frequent video-call users off this laptop. That’s a shame given the XPS 13’s many good points.

The machined aluminium chassis is sturdy and tough. I was able to flex the lid a little, but not enough to worry about, and the base is very tough. I’d certainly be happy carrying this laptop in a bag without a protective sleeve.

The 2018 XPS 13 adds a model with a rose-gold lid and a white wrist-rest area.


Image: Dell

Top ZDNET Reviews

The brushed silver finish to the lid is reasonably attractive, and is coupled with a hatched finish on the carbon fibre palm rest. It looks very similar to last year’s 2-in-1 model. For those who want something a little more stand-out there is an option with a rose gold lid and a white glass-fibre palm rest.

As ever with Dell laptops there are multiple configurations available. Not all screens are touch-responsive and getting that feature is an upgrade on the entry-level price. At the starting price the screen resolution is 1,920 by 1,080, but this rises to 3,804 by 2,160 in some models — including my touchscreen review unit. Watching video on this screen is an absolute pleasure; the near bezel-free surround is a boon to anyone who places a premium on multimedia.

Moreover, it isn’t necessary to ratchet up the brightness to get the best out of this laptop. I found the default 40 percent setting for working on battery perfectly adequate.

Sound output is great too. Speakers sit on the left and right edges of the base, where they can propel sound outwards to deliver reasonable stereo effects. Listening to music and watching a movie were all satisfying, although there is a little distortion at top volume.


Image: Dell

The keyboard is a pleasure to use. The keys are large, and very well sprung. There’s barely any click when they are pressed, which means working in a quiet environment won’t annoy other people. The trackpad is wide to match the screen’s aspect ratio, and is smooth under the fingers and responsive. There’s a two-level backlight that’s easily managed on a Fn key.

The power key looks a little strange: it’s an unmarked circle sitting top right of the keyboard that incorporates a fingerprint sensor. It’s an unusual setup, but it works well enough, and is a great way to minimise visual clutter. A similarly minimal approach has been taken with the battery charge light on the chassis; it sits, glowing white while the laptop is charging, on the front centre edge of the chassis, unobtrusive but useful.

In another neat touch, there’s a battery power indicator on the left edge of the chassis. Press a tiny button with your fingernail and up to five lights illuminate to let you know how much charge remains. If only all laptops had such a user-friendly feature.

Minimalism also extends to the laptop’s connections: there are two USB-C ports with Thunderbolt and one with PowerShare, plus an audio jack and a MicroSD card reader.

Preconfigured versions of this laptop all run either Windows 10 Home or Ubuntu Linux, on Intel’s 8th generation Core i5-8250 and Core i7-8550U processors. You can have either 4GB, 8GB, or 16GB of RAM, with SSDs ranging between 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB. My review configuration married a Core i7-8550U CPU with 16GB of RAM, a 3840-by-2160-pixel touchscreen, a 512GB SSD, and Windows Home, and its list price is £1,699 (inc. VAT; £1,415.83 ex. VAT).

See also: New equipment budget policy

Battery life is very good. In one sample session I used the laptop in everyday conditions — writing, browsing, and streaming — for five hours and depleted the battery to 56 percent. This was on its recommended battery power mode, tweaked so that the screen never went off, and with the screen brightness set to 40 percent. On this basis, with my real-world usage pattern, all day computing on battery power is certainly a possibility.

The power brick is relatively small and light, so carrying it is not too much of an additional weight burden.

Conclusions

The latest incarnation of the Dell XPS 13 is a very impressive laptop indeed. I’d go as far as to say it is currently the best small-format laptop I’ve seen. The near bezel-free screen is sharp, bright and a pleasure to view, and sound output impresses too. The keyboard is beautifully weighted, and battery life impresses.

The only thing that would put me off is the camera location: I’d sacrifice some upper screen bezel for it to be moved there.

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Listening In, book review: Security, privacy and the role of government

Listening In: Cybersecurity in an Insecure Age • By Susan Landau • Yale University Press • 221 pages • ISBN: 978-0-300-22744-4 • $25

Tufts University professor Susan Landau has a long and distinguished background in computer security and policy that includes several books on wiretapping and surveillance. She has repeatedly argued that damaging our security by embedding holes for law enforcement — whether that’s wiretap equipment inside ISPs or exceptional access (that is, special decryption capabilities in encryption software) is a dangerous approach. Encryption is not sufficient to guarantee cybersecurity, but it is essential.

In Listening In: Cybersecurity in an Insecure Age, Landau considers the changing world in which law enforcement must operate with exceptional clarity. She begins with a brief history of cybersecurity. The first known cyberattack was in 1986, when Clifford Stoll began trying to understand a 75-cent discrepancy in computer time; he told the story in detail in his book The Cuckoo’s Egg. The next, and the first proper internet attack — although it wasn’t really intended as such — was the 1988 Internet Worm. Despite these early warnings, Landau writes, quoting from a US government report, “security lost to convenience in the 1980s. And then it kept on losing”. It wasn’t until 2008 that cyber-threats began to be taken seriously.

Throughout the 1990s, credit card theft, online bank robbery, and other financial crimes were growing. By the mid 2000s, the targets were expanding from corporate servers to nation states. In 2007, a DDoS attack on Estonia lasted nearly a month. In 2009, Iran began noticing problems with its nuclear centrifuges; in 2012, the reason was identified as Stuxnet, which brought cyber-attacks into a new era.

It was against this background that the ‘First Crypto War’, which pitted law enforcement against privacy campaigners, took place. In 2013, Edward Snowden’s revelations swung the pendulum back toward privacy, while the terrorist attacks in London, Paris, and San Bernardino swung it away again. When the FBI sought access to the iPhone belonging to San Bernardino shooter the court case reopened all those old wounds.

Going dark

What does law enforcement need? It complains about ‘going dark’ because encryption limits access to content, but equally can take advantage of many more kinds of data than ever existed before — and most of it is never deleted. In one case Landau cites, a cryptic text message unraveled an insider trading case; in an earlier era, it might have been destroyed before law enforcement ever saw it. Linked databases, communications metadata, and analytics from companies like Palantir all play their part in helping law enforcement do its job, as does properly warranted legal wiretapping and hacking.

But during this time law enforcement has ceased to develop its own technical capabilities. Landau argues that a reversal is essential, and that law enforcement needs 21st century capabilities to conduct investigations that match those of its enemies and attackers.

Landau ends her book with the 2016 and 2017 attacks on the US and French presidential elections. Government’s role, she concludes, is to provide security — but not to prevent individuals from maintaining their own. It should, in other words, be helping us.

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Dell Precision Workstation AIO 5720 review: A professional-level all-in-one with excellent GPU performance

Like Apple, Dell has been steering its AIO range towards professional users in the last year or so, and the consumer-oriented XPS 27 has had its own ‘pro’ update in the shape of the Precision Workstation AIO 5720. The Precision AIO 5720 could even teach the iMac Pro a few things about streamlined design, as its 27-inch 4K display is surrounded by only the narrowest of borders; also, at 24 inches wide and 13.5 inches high, the glass panel is noticeably more compact than the 25.5 inch by 15.1 inch panel of its Apple rival.

The 5K display of the iMac Pro does have higher resolution, and both the iMac Pro and Microsoft’s Surface Studio support the broadcast industry DCI-P3 colour-space for video editing. However, the Precision’s 4K display (163.2dpi) produces an impressively bright and colourful image, and supports 100 percent of the Adobe RGB colour space, so it’s well suited to tasks such as graphic design, illustration, and photography. It also includes both HDMI and DisplayPort interfaces, allowing you to easily work with a multiple-monitor setup if you need to. The Precision AIO 5720 has another ace up its sleeve as well, as it allows you to remove the back panel in order to replace and upgrade both memory and storage — and with a little more effort it’s even possible to remove the processor too, making the whole system far easier to service than most of its AIO rivals.

Dell’s 27-inch Precision Workstation AIO is based on its XPS 27 system, adding high-end components such as Xeon processors and Radeon Pro WX graphics cards.


Image: Dell

You’ve got plenty of scope for customization too. The mid-range model reviewed here is competitively priced, at £1,588.82 (ex. VAT; £1,906.58 inc.VAT, or $1,926) with a Core i5-7600 processor running at 3.5GHz (4.1GHz with TurboBoost), 8GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and a Radeon Pro WX 7100 GPU with 8GB of dedicated video memory. However, there are dozens of build-to-order options available, going right up to £2,916.12 (ex. VAT; £3,499.34 inc. VAT) with a 3.8GHz Xeon E3-1275 v6 CPU, 64GB of RAM and a 1TB solid-state drive (the US configuration peaks at a 3.7GHz Xeon, costing $3,757).

Those prices include Windows 10 Pro, but you can also add a license for Windows 7 Pro for another £32.50 (ex. VAT; £39 inc. VAT, or $21), or save £105 by choosing a ‘no-OS’ system that comes with only DOS on CD (an option that currently only appears to be available in the UK).

See also: New equipment budget policy

Those configurations and prices aren’t quite in the same league as the iMac Pro, and Geekbench 4 reveals raw processor performance for the Precision’s Core i5-7600 to be relatively modest, with scores of 4400 and 11,530 for single-core and multi-core performance respectively. In contrast, the iMac Pro’s 8-core Xeon hits 31,400 for multi-core performance, which will clearly give it an advantage for tasks such as video editing with multiple streams of 4K video.

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However, the Precision AIO 5720’s great strength is its Radeon Pro WX 7100 GPU, which manages an impressive 129fps when running the demanding Cinebench R15 graphics tests, indicating that it will make a powerful and competitively priced workstation for graphics and design software.

There are some rough edges, though. The use of a conventional hard drive in our review unit proves to be a real bottleneck, with the ATTO Disk Benchmark recording speeds of just 129MB/s and 125MB/s for write and read performance respectively. There’s also a rather leisurely 45-second boot sequence to content with, followed by some further cursor-spinning before the system is fully ready to start work. Professional users with deadlines to worry about will probably want to upgrade to a faster solid-state drive. Alternatively, if you don’t mind removing the back panel, it’s also possible to install your own SSD using the PCIe slot inside the unit.

The internal speaker system is a little disappointing too. The Precision AIO 5720 boasts eight active drivers and two passive bass radiators — effectively building a large soundbar into the base of the display for what Dell claims is ‘studio quality’ music recording and editing. Yet the sound emanating from the Precision seemed quite thin and insubstantial when listening to both streaming video and audio CDs.


Image: Dell

Also, given the attention to detail in this system’s compact and upgradeable design, it’s odd that the various ports and connectors are infuriatingly inaccessible. There’s one USB port on the right-hand edge of the display, but the other four USB ports, a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports, RJ-45 Ethernet, HDMI and DisplayPort connectors are all set into a cavity on the back panel and hidden behind the pedestal stand that supports the display.

Conclusions

The Precision 5720 is not without its flaws, but its high-end graphics performance ensures that it’s well suited to tasks such as photography, design and illustration work. It’s also considerably less expensive than rivals such as the iMac Pro and Microsoft’s Surface Studio. And with its relatively easy user repairs and upgrades, it should find favour with budget-conscious IT managers too.

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Windows Server 2019 LTSC Build 17623, First Take: Key scenarios await detail

Windows Server is moving to the faster six-month release cycle of the Windows client and staying as a server OS that comes out every two to three years. This split personality is managed through what Microsoft calls ‘channels’: the Semi Annual Channel (SAC), which includes only the GUI-less Server Core and Nano server; and the Long Term Support Channel (LTSC), which includes Server Core and the full version with Desktop Experience.

Due for release in the second half of 2018 (very possibly at Microsoft’s Ignite conference in September), Windows Server 2019 is the first LTSC version that can take advantage of the features that have been incubated through the SAC releases — for example, a much smaller Server Core image size, or the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL). As in Windows 10, WSL means you can install multiple Linux distros and use them to run Linux scripts and (command-line) utilities. Unlike Windows 10, Server 2019 doesn’t have the Windows Store, so you need to know the direct download link for the distro you want and the PowerShell commands to download, unzip, and install it.

Windows Server 2019 gets the Windows 10 desktop look and feel, but Windows 10-style flyouts can be inconvenient for admin tasks.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Windows Server 2019 also brings the Windows 10-style desktop to the server, replacing the Windows 8 GUI from Windows Server 2016. The cascading menus of the Start menu are a better fit for a server than the finger-friendly live tiles that took over the whole screen, but the way the Windows 10 Start menu relegates ‘Run as Admin’ to the secondary More flyout on context menus makes it far too fiddly for something server admins do so often. As with Windows 10, system settings are divided between the control panel and the modern Settings panel in ways that can make tasks like joining the server to a domain involve more clicks than you’re used to — especially as the handy context menu that appears when you right-click on the Start button no longer includes the control panel.

As with Windows 10, system settings are divided between the control panel and the modern Settings panel in Windows Server 2019.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Settings aren’t exactly the same as on Windows 10: adding a local account brings up Users and Groups, for example, while some Windows 10 settings — like connecting to an Android or iOS phone to sync browser tabs — seem inappropriate to a server and will likely disappear in later builds. If you were hoping that the server OS would make the transition from the control panel more coherent, it’s clearly still a work in progress — and of course much more of the emphasis for Windows Server management is on PowerShell.

Particularly interesting for companies with servers that haven’t been upgraded in a while is support for direct, in-place upgrade from both Windows Server 2016 and Windows Server 2012 R2. This works in the preview but you obviously won’t want to try it on your production systems. Annoyingly, the installer offers the upgrade option even on systems that don’t have a previous version of Windows Server to upgrade, and if you choose it the installer insists that you exit and start the installation again from scratch.

You can upgrade from previous versions to Windows Server 2019 — but don’t pick that option unless there’s an OS to upgrade from.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

It’s also worth noting that a bug in the preview image means that if you’re using DISM or other deployment tools to install Windows Server 2019, rather than using the ISO, the naming of installation options is incorrect so you need to use the index numbering in scripts: 1 for Server Core Standard; 2 for Server Standard w/Desktop; 3 for Server Core Datacenter; and 4 for Server Datacenter with Desktop Experience.

Beyond point and click

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In the final release, the ability to upgrade in place will be especially useful for smaller businesses who don’t have extra hardware to use for migrating to a new server release. In principle, Project Honolulu offers those customers the option of moving to Server Core, which is a big security advantage because Server Core needs far fewer security updates (and fewer reboots).

You can use Honolulu for simple server management or to work with hyperconverged clusters.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

For simple server management, Honolulu is a friendly interface that comfortably replaces Server Manager. It runs as a gateway anywhere on your network and offers everything from a file browser to hyperconverged cluster and Storage Spaces Direct management, complete with a detailed new view of SSD performance history right down to individual drives and network adapters. (Because it’s under development and works with older versions of Windows Server, Honolulu is a separate install, but it’s clearly part of the direction for Windows Server in the long term.)

But once you make the leap to more powerful options in Honolulu (connecting it to Azure Active Directory to use the new hybrid cloud options like setting Azure Backup and File Sync for your server, for example), you still need to get comfortable with installing PowerShell modules and running PowerShell scripts. We’d like to see that become simpler in later versions, to give smaller companies with less expertise access to the advantage of cloud connections. More experienced admins may hope for similar connectivity to other cloud services, but this is Azure only.

Download now: Server deployment/migration checklist

The Azure services you can connect to Windows Server 2019 need subscriptions. A particularly interesting option is Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection. ATP is a ‘post-breach’ service that detects suspicious behaviour that anti-malware hasn’t been able to block, and having that extended to servers is excellent news.

Confusingly, Windows Defender ATP Exploit Guard in Server 2019 is only related to the Azure service because you can use it for reporting on events related to it (the name and many of the features come from Exploit Guard in Windows 10). It’s a set of rules, controls and EMET-style vulnerability exploit mitigations you can use to block scripts, suspicious files, lateral movement, outbound connections to untrusted hosts and access to protected folders by untrusted processes.

Shielded VMs can now protect Linux VMs as well (Ubuntu, RHEL and SUSE Enterprise Server are supported), giving them a virtual TPM and BitLocker encryption as well as checking the health of the host Hyper-V system. To make this more robust on less reliable networks you can now create a fallback connection to the Host Guardian Service that runs the health check, and even configure Shielded VMs to run without the ability to connect for the health check as long as the host’s security configuration hasn’t changed since it was last checked. VMConnect Enhanced Session Mode and PowerShell Direct can connect to shielded VMs if they’ve lost network connectivity so you can update them and get them back online. The ability to encrypt the virtual subnet on which important VMs run without having to make complex changes to the VMs means they don’t leak data from network traffic. This combination of features updates some important security features, making them more robust and more useful for the increasing number of organisations that run both Linux and Windows Server.

The first SAC release of Windows Server caused some confusion because it didn’t include Storage Spaces Direct (although if you upgraded a server that had it installed, it carried on working). That didn’t indicate anything about the future of the feature, just the emphasis of that release on DevOps scenarios like containers. The performance history isn’t the only new option for Storage Spaces Direct in this preview; if you want to improve fault tolerance you can now manually delimit the allocation of volumes. Instead of spreading data out as small ‘slabs’ that are distributed across every drive in every server for performance, you can limit the slabs to a subset of servers. If three servers fail when the slabs are evenly distributed, it’s very likely that at least some of the data will be unavailable until you recover the servers; if three servers fail when the data distribution is limited to fewer servers, it’s more likely that the surviving servers have all the data and you can carry on using the volume. So far this is a PowerShell-only option, but it definitely gives you more nuanced choices about performance and availability.

Remote Desktop Services is still there, but RDSH is missing in the preview.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

The Remote Desktop Session Host (RDSH) role isn’t included in this preview build. Microsoft is clear that Remote Desktop Services isn’t going away, but what’s unclear is whether it’s just that RDSH isn’t in this preview, or whether it’s going to be replaced (or more likely, supplemented) by a host role that runs on Windows 10 desktops.

Conclusions

This Insider Preview is both a solid release and a frustratingly minimal set of new features for Microsoft’s next big server OS release. Clearly, what’s included is a subset of what’s planned, and it seems likely that releasing this preview was intended to avoid a new SAC release coming out without any news about the full version. Organizations planning their upgrades might prefer to know more about the key scenarios they’ll be upgrading for, especially as the cost of Client Access Licences seems set to go up. So far, it’s improved security (especially for Linux VMs), container support (especially for Kubernetes), massive hyperconverged-infrastructure-scale with cluster sets, and hybrid cloud options with Azure and Project Honolulu.

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