In today’s digital age, it sometimes feels like hardware has taken a back seat to the software that drives our devices. Button of the Month will look at what some of those buttons and switches are like on devices old and new to appreciate how we interact with them on a physical, tactile level.
The Xbox 360 controller is considered to be one of the best video game controllers ever made — except for one thing: the D-pad. It’s conversely one of the worst directional inputs ever put on a controller.
Microsoft knew it had to fix things, and in 2010 — a full five years after it launched the Xbox 360 — it tried to do so in a singularly impressive fashion with the Xbox 360 Limited Edition controller, which featured a transforming D-pad. With a quick twist, the new controller could switch between the (terrible) eight-way rocker that the original model shipped with and a variant mode that raised up the plus-shaped part of the D-pad for more distinct buttons to push.
It was a creative attempt to fix what was broken, even if it wasn’t entirely successful. An IGN review from the time notes that the base rocker mechanism for the buttons remained largely the same in terms of design and overall resistance, making it more of a surface change.
That said, as someone who played an irresponsible amount of Xbox 360 games over the years with both controllers, I do prefer the transforming D-pad. By making the four-way plus buttons more usable in any respect — even if just to make it easier to blindly switch between the distinct directions through the raised plus component — you’ve already made a big stride over the original rocker.
More importantly, it’s the creative compromise that the transforming D-pad represents that makes it fascinating. Instead of just switching the design entirely, Microsoft recognized that there were likely players and developers who had grown used to the eight-way rocker. And rather than leaving them with nothing, it tried to appease the groups that liked the rocker and the groups that hated it. It’s a recognition that not all players like to play the same way, an ethos that Microsoft would later establish even further with the completely customizable Xbox One Elite controller.
Like many things related to video game controllers, the heritage of the Xbox 360 controller (and its bad D-pad) is one of gradual growth. It starts with the original Xbox controller, affectionately called “the Duke” due to its uncomfortably large size. Microsoft fixed that with the Xbox Controller S, which offered a more reasonably sized model. That controller would serve as the basis for the Xbox 360 controller, albeit with more changes, like secondary trigger buttons and the Xbox guide button in the center (one of its best innovations).
It wouldn’t be until the Xbox One controller that Microsoft would have a good D-Pad, and it would take another two years for the Xbox One Elite Controller to offer a proper modular D-pad system that allowed players to switch between an eight-way pad and a four-pad plus without sacrificing quality on either option.
Of course, controllers constantly change: the Xbox Series X is around the corner, and Microsoft is already showing off a new controller that features yet another D-pad design. Even if it turns out to be worse than the current model, the Xbox 360’s transforming D-pad is emblematic of the fact that things eventually get better.
A Switzerland drone delivery service run by the Swiss Post is set to resume on January 27th, following a suspension of the program in August 2019 after two drone crashes, including one where the drone’s parachute malfunctioned.
“Swiss Post and Matternet maintain high safety standards and a high level of safety awareness. The processes that were examined were at a high standard even before the incidents,” according to Michel Guillaume, one of the members of the review board. “There are no reasons why flight operations should not be resumed.”
As part of the review, the board is recommending that Swiss Post and Matternet make four changes to their operations:
Matternet should implement the new safety recommendations set by the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) and the Swiss Transportation Safety Investigation Board (STSB) following the previous crashes
Establishment of an independent oversight body for safety-related processes before the end of March 2020
Swiss Post given more control over the actual drone operations (which are currently run by Matternet), including the ability to audit Matternet’s drone operations
Improved safety protocols for Matternet, including the hiring of a dedicated head of safety
The two companies are already working on implementing these suggestions: Matternet has already implemented the safety recommendations and hired a head of safety, and the review board will continue to advise the companies on their drone policies in the future. The two companies have also spent time since the accident in May 2019 running over 2,000 test flights in Switzerland on improved drones that should be less prone to failure.
The Swiss delivery program has been running in Switzerland since 2017, with Swiss Post claiming that the drones allow for lab samples such as blood tests to be flown between hospital facilities and labs up to 45 minutes faster than traditional transportation.
Correction: The drone accident in May was a parachute malfunction; this article original stated that the parachute failed to deploy.
Just days after EA announced that its mobile Tetris games will shut down on April 21st, new Tetris developer N3twork released an officially licensed version of the popular puzzle game for both Android and iOS. It’s already available to download today for free.
The new N3twork app isn’t the 100-player Tetris Royale app that the developer is also working on; rather, it’s an extremely basic mobile Tetris game. “We’re launching Tetris with a traditional solo gameplay mode, but we want fans to know that we’ve got so much more in store for them, and this is just the foundation of an incredible Tetris app experience we’re building at N3twork,” commented CEO Neil Young.
Unlike EA’s old app, there’s a single mode (for classic Tetris) and a handful of alternative skins. There are also ads, although a single-time $4.99 purchase will remove those. It’s not exactly a groundbreaking iteration of the series, but if you just want to play some Tetris on your commute, it’ll get the job done.
The history of Tetris on smartphones — particularly the iPhone — largely mirrors the trends of mobile gaming in general. EA (which, up until recently, had the license for official Tetris games) first released Tetris for iOS in 2008 for an unheard-of $9.99. It had no ads or annoying in-app purchases; you paid money, and you got to play Tetris.
As TouchArcade recounts, in 2011, EA pulled that original app from the store and replaced it with a new (still paid) version that revamped the app with new features and game modes, but it was packed with in-app purchases. That version would actually be a harbinger for the future of mobile gaming, offering purchasable currencies and monthly and annual subscription passes. A free version of that app would be introduced later that year, too, with ads added in.
But with EA seemingly out of the Tetris business, it’s a new era for the series on mobile devices. With the launch of the new 2019 Tetris (as well as the upcoming Tetris Royale), we’re starting to see what N3twork’s vision of the franchise looks like.
After a slight delay last month, Motorola’s highly anticipated foldable Razr now has a release date: it’ll be out on February 6th for $1,499, with preorders starting on January 26th.
The new preorder date is exactly a month after the originally planned December 26th date, which Motorola changed due to demand for the foldable device being higher than it had anticipated.
Preorders will be available exclusively at Verizon, Walmart, and on Motorola’s website. The phone will also be available in stores starting on February 6th. However, it’s not clear how easy or difficult it’ll be to just walk in and buy one on the release date; the delay due to demand could suggest that there will be fewer units available.
The resurrected Razr was announced last year, making it Motorola’s first foldable smartphone. The design is inspired by the original Moto RAZR flip phone, but it has a flexible 6.2-inch display and modern Android specs. But the poor cameras and midrange Snapdragon 710 are less than ideal on a premium-priced device like this. As previously announced, the Razr will be sold exclusively on Verizon in the United States. (International carriers and details are still to come.)
The release timing is key for Motorola, given that it’s rumored to be getting some big competition in the clamshell-style foldable space in February in the form of Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip. If the rumors are true, Samsung’s next foldable could be announced on February 11th — just days after the Razr’s launch.
The Banker — the first film from Apple TV Plus planned to make a major theatrical release — will be hitting theaters on March 6th, after an initial delay while Apple investigated sexual misconduct allegations surrounding Bernard Garrett Jr., the movie’s producer. Garrett is also the real-life son of The Banker protagonist Bernard Garrett Sr. (played by Anthony Mackie), via Variety.
In a statement, an Apple spokesperson commented to Variety that “We created Apple TV Plus as a home for stories that matter and believe ‘The Banker,’ inspired by the brave actions of Bernard Garrett Sr. and Joe Morris, two African American businessmen who brought about positive social change, is one of those stories.”
“We wanted to take the time to understand the situation at hand — and after reviewing the information available to us, including documentation of the filmmakers’ research, we’ve decided to make this important and enlightening film available to viewers.”
The Banker was originally intended to premiere at AFI Fest in 2019, and was meant to serve as one of Apple’s first forays into making high-quality, Oscar-contending films. The delay from that initial release means that the film will have missed the 2019 awards season entirely, though.
Following the theatrical release on March 6th, Apple will also be releasing The Banker for Apple TV Plus subscribers on March 20th.
Details surrounding Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S20 are starting to pick up ahead of the planned debut on February 11th, and a new leak from XDA Developers has confirmed tons of new information about the flagship, including the rumored 120Hz display, the fact that the S20 will still use an ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, and the loss of a headphone jack.
The new leak comes from the S20 Plus, which will feature a 3200 x 1440 pixel display at a 20:9 aspect ratio (taller than previous models) and which has a centered hole-punch camera, similar to last year’s Note 10. That display is confirmed to offer a super-fast 120Hz refresh rate for smoother animations, but there’s a catch: you’ll only be able to use it with FHD+ resolution. The higher-res WQHD+ setting will only work at 60Hz, at least for now.
XDA’s source also was able to confirm from their device that the S20 still uses an ultrasonic in-display fingerprint sensor, similar to the S10, as opposed to the optical sensors used by most other companies. The S10’s ultrasonic sensor was fairly controversial, with complaints of slow speeds and a high-profile screen protector issue. Qualcomm claims to have addressed many of those problems with its second-generation 3D Sonic Max sensor, but it’s not clear yet whether the S20 Plus is using that new sensor or the same first-gen model as the S10.
Lastly, XDA’s report confirms a few more specs for the S20 Plus: it’ll feature 25W fast charging, 12GB of RAM, and a 4,500mAh battery. Sadly, the source also confirms that much like the Note 10 and Galaxy Fold, the S20 is killing the 3.5mm headphone jack in favor of USB-C and Bluetooth audio.
According to the rumors, Samsung is expected to launch three S20 models this year: the smaller S20, a larger S20 Plus, and a new high-end S20 Ultra model. Screen sizes for the different models have yet to be confirmed, although rumors claim that the S20 will have a 6.2-inch display, the S20 Plus a 6.7-inch display, and the S20 Ultra a massive 6.9-inch panel. Shots of the S20 Plus next to an S10 Plus confirm that the new model is considerably taller than its 2019 counterpart. All three phones are also expected to feature Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 865 processor (along with the company’s X55 5G modem), although that detail is similarly unconfirmed.
The S20 Ultra is also said to offer specs that surpass the regular S20 models, with 16GB of RAM and the 108-megapixel sensor Samsung has been working on, along with a 5,000mAh battery and up to 1TB of internal storage.
The S20 Ultra 5G is going to keep the SD Card slot. Support for up to 1TB.
It will also be available in 128GB/256GB/512GB and have a 12GB and 16GB RAM option.
108MP main, 48MP 10x optical, 12MP ultra wide.
5000 mAh battery with 45W option fast charge. 0 to 100% in 74 min.
Apple’s new Mac Pro has been available in a standard desktop tower configuration since December, but starting today, Apple is selling its promised rack model that’s designed to be mounted in server rack setups — starting at $6,499, an extra $500 over the regular model.
From a specification perspective, the new rack Mac Pro is virtually identically to the tower model. Apple offers the same configuration options at the same prices (down to the included mouse and keyboard, which are unusual to see for rack-mounted hardware) with three main differences.
The first is the different case, although both feature the same “cheese grater”-style vents and aluminum handles. The second is the $500 premium Apple charges for the rack model compared to the tower model — with all other specs being equal, the rack model will still cost more, with the maximum configuration being the most expensive computer Apple has ever sold at $53,899. And lastly, there’s no option to add Apple’s infamous $400 wheels, seeing as the rack Mac Pro obviously can’t take advantage of them.
The rack-mounted Mac Pro also includes a set of rack-mounting rails (which Apple notes ship in a separate box), which might explain the $500 premium that Apple’s charging here.
The new rack Mac Pro is available to order now from Apple’s website, with shipping starting in early February.
CES 2020 was a boring year for laptops — at least, it was a boring year for laptops that will be real products that you can actually buy in 2020. The upgrades were incremental at best, and even the more interesting changes are reliant on unproven technology, like AMD’s new processors and 5G internet.
But despite the fact that the upcoming wave of 2020 laptops so far looks like it’s been upgraded even more incrementally than ever before, all is not lost. Among the minor spec boosts, CES 2020 also offered the first glimmers of what might come next for portable computers, with new screen technologies, wild new designs, and 5G modems. Those trends are important for the future of laptops, but we’re not quite in that future just yet.
The simpler updates are the easiest to explain: laptop innovation is largely driven by what parts are available. When new high-resolution screens came out, laptops got better displays, and when Nvidia releases new graphics cards (like at last year’s CES), gaming laptops get more powerful. The most recent hardware release was Intel’s proper next-gen 10nm process Ice Lake processors from late last year that bring big boosts to battery life and efficiency. So a lot of the “new” laptops at CES fall into the category of “similar design that just got upgraded to Intel’s new chips.”
Those laptops include Asus’ new ZenBook Duo, which is smaller and lighter than last year’s Pro model (although the specs are worse, despite the fact that it has Intel’s 10th Gen chips). Asus’ various sizes of VivoBook S laptops got the new chips, too. Acer similarly upgraded its bread-and-butter Spin 5 and 3 laptops, as did Samsung’s with its cheaper QLED Galaxy Book Flex Alpha (which is effectively a rebranded Notebook 9 Pen successor).
Other laptops, like the XPS 13 and Spectre x360 15, got slightly more dramatic redesigns alongside the new chips. But even then, the designs weren’t really new. The XPS 13’s redesign matches the one the XPS 13 2-in-1 got last year, and the Spectre x360 15’s smaller bezels and not-terrible trackpad debuted on HP’s 13-inch model in 2019, too.
In an interesting twist, Chromebooks got in on the Intel upgrade cycle this year with the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook and the Asus Chromebook Flip C436, both of which got Intel’s newest chips and the Project Athena designations. They’re also the first Chromebooks to have this certification, which covers things like size, weight, Wi-Fi 6 support, and longer battery life, which could help them compete better with conventional Windows laptops. (Those have been getting similar certifications for months.)
Of course, there are always new chips on the horizon, and it’s there where some of the most immediate potential lies. AMD came back ready to take on Intel again with its new Ryzen 4000 series of processors for laptops, and we saw plenty of laptops with those, too. Although, like the Intel spec boosts above, many of these were upgrades to existing designs, like the Dell G15 and Yoga Slim 7. AMD is making some big promises with these new chips: it claims that they’ll outpace Intel’s Ice Lake chips when it comes to performance, along with battery life that’s twice as good as the last generation of AMD chips.
AMD needs the win. The second-generation Zen+ chips that AMD previously offered were handily outpaced by Intel’s 10nm lineup, but we’ll have to wait and see if AMD can keep up (or surpass) Intel here when we can test the laptops for ourselves. That means that even the more interesting AMD laptops, such as Asus’ ROG Zephyrus G14, are still a bit of a question mark for now.
Not one to be left behind, Intel started teasing its upcoming Tiger Lake chips, which will bring the 10nm process to all of its mobile processors (not just the U-series chips) as well as the company’s upgraded Xe graphics, which it promises will be twice as powerful. Intel also previewed its first discrete graphics chip for laptops, the DG1 GPU, but that’s also still months away. These are products that could bring big changes to the entire laptop world — imagine an ultralight laptop that could play games like Destiny 2 with decent performance — but they’re still months away from being in the hands of product manufacturers, let alone in laptops that you can actually buy.
Foldable and dual-screen laptops grabbed a lot of headlines at CES, between Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold, the Dell Concept Ori and Duet, and Intel’s Horseshoe Bend prototypes. But the category is still in its earliest days. Lenovo’s model is the only foldable screen laptop at CES that has concrete plans to ship a product in 2020. Even that will ship with regular Windows 10 at first, not the upcoming Windows 10X operating system that Microsoft is designing for dual-screen / foldable devices (like its own Surface Neo, which is due out at the end of 2020). And these laptops will need 10X to succeed: right now, they’re running customized versions of Windows 10, which just isn’t designed to handle dual-screen / foldable displays like 10X will be. Plus, 10X will offer a consistent experience across all devices of this category, instead of developers having to adapt to whatever unique solutions Dell or Lenovo come up with on their own.
Add in the fact that the ThinkPad X1 Fold starts at $2,500, and you’ve got a product category that — at least for now — looks more like a curiosity than the future of computing, with a couple of similar-looking prototypes that may never result in real products. Foldable laptops like these may eventually be ubiquitous, but it’s certainly not happening this year.
The same could be said about 5G connectivity, which we saw start to trickle into laptops with the announcements of Dell’s Latitude 9510, HP’s Elite Dragonfly G2, and the Lenovo Yoga 5G. Here, too, it’s clear that the upgrade at hand isn’t really ready for primetime. Two of those laptops (the Dragonfly and the Latitude) are business-focused devices that aren’t really aimed at consumers, and both only offer 5G as a configurable option, not as the default.
This makes sense since 5G rollouts are still ongoing across most of the US. And while 2020 will be a big year when it comes to consumer adoption of the next-gen cellular standard, it’s still very early on in the process. Still, it’s a bit disappointing to see that more laptops aren’t even trying to offer 5G support, given that they’re the exact sort of device that would benefit from reliable, ultra-fast internet on the go that offers speeds comparable to traditional cable internet.
Of course, it wouldn’t be CES without a few exciting experiments. MSI announced the Creator 17 as the “world’s very first” Mini LED laptop, promising better HDR and zone lighting from its far brighter-than-usual screen. MSI also had a pair of gaming laptops with blazing-fast 300Hz displays for gaming and beefy 99.9Wh batteries. Lenovo had a laptop with a full-fledged E Ink panel built into the lid; Asus had one with a customizable dot-matrix LED display that can play animated GIFs. And Alienware stuffed an entire gaming laptop into something the size and shape of a Nintendo Switch with its Concept UFO prototype. Some of these innovations could go on to be the next big thing in portable computers, but it’s too early to tell which will succeed and which won’t. (I wouldn’t go betting on E Ink lids being the new standard for laptops just yet.)
2020 is just getting started, and there’s going to be plenty of new laptops out this year that didn’t make an appearance at CES this week. New processors and parts will presumably ship at some point, enabling the kind of overhauls for higher-end creative and gaming machines like we saw last year, thanks to products like Nvidia’s then-new RTX laptop GPUs.
But despite the promises of flashy folding screens and fast 5G, this year’s laptop lineup looks, for the most part, boring. But it’s the good kind of boring that makes laptops look better, last longer, and feature more refined designs than ever before.
A month after Samsung executive Young Sohn wrongly claimed the company had sold 1 million Galaxy Fold phones, it has returned with another sales estimate at CES 2020. “I think we’ve sold 400,000 to 500,000 Galaxy Fold smartphones,” Samsung co-CEO DJ Koh told Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
Given that Koh runs Samsung’s entire mobile phone division, it’s likely that his number is closer to the mark when it comes to the actual number of Galaxy Folds sold so far. But Koh’s number is still frustratingly vague. Surely the co-CEO of Samsung has a better idea of how many of the company’s most cutting-edge and experimental phones were sold than “400,000 to 500,000”?
It’s not just a matter of nitpicking, either: Samsung previously said that its goal in 2019 was to sell half a million Folds. There’s a big difference between selling 400,000 Folds and missing that goal or 500,000 devices and hitting it. And vagueness around exact numbers is exactly what led to the flood of misinformation the first time around, with the incorrect 1 million Folds sold number. (In that case, the company claimed that Sohn had confused Samsung’s original sale target of 1 million devices with the actual number sold.)
In either case, 400,000 to 500,000 Folds sold is still impressive, even if it pales in comparison to other Samsung smartphones and even more niche Samsung devices, like its pricier 5G variants of the S10 and Note 10. Samsung recently announced that it sold 6.7 million 5G phones in 2019, far outpacing Galaxy Fold numbers.
Still, given the months of delays around the Galaxy Fold and the drama surrounding its release, with Samsung canceling its original launch after review units (including our own) began to break for a variety of reasons. The company would go on to redesign several aspects to the Galaxy Fold to prevent these issues, with the phone launching in September 2019, months after the original April 2019 date.
Despite the seemingly lackluster sales, the initial Galaxy Fold is expected to merely be the start of Samsung’s foldable ambitions. The company is rumored to have multiple other foldable phones in the works, with talks of a vertically folding clamshell foldable planned to launch alongside the Galaxy S20 at an event in February.
When it comes to improving external SSDs, there are usually only two things that matter: making the drives faster and adding more storage. Samsung’s new T7 Touch external SSD, which was announced at CES 2020, is a bit more creative. It adds a built-in fingerprint reader to secure your files, in addition to the usual improvements to transfer feed.
It’s a clever idea that gives you the option to protect your files with biometric security even if you’re using a laptop that doesn’t have a fingerprint reader. Samsung says that you can register up to four different fingerprints with the T7 Touch, meaning you’ll be able to easily share the drive with friends or teammates if you’d like.
Another addition to the T7 Touch is an indicator light that shows when the drive is plugged in and actively transmitting data, something that was bafflingly missing from the last generation.
The drive has a solid aluminum chassis, which Samsung says helps make it drop resistant up to two meters (about six and a half feet) — although you probably shouldn’t intentionally test that out for yourself. There’s also a single USB-C port, which can be connected to either a USB-C to USB-C or USB-C to USB-A cable.
It’s not all cosmetic changes and fancy fingerprint sensors, though. Samsung has also improved the actual SSD here, offering write speeds up to 1,000MB/s and read speeds up to 1,050MB/s, which it says is “approximately twice as fast as its predecessor, the T5.”
The T7 Touch will go on sale later this month and is set to cost $129.99 for a 500GB model, $229.99 for 1TB of storage, and $399.99 for the 2TB version. A version of the T7 Touch without a fingerprint reader, the T7, is set to be released in Q2 2020.