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11 gifts for audiophiles

11 gifts for audiophiles

Winter is coming. And with it also comes the need to show the loved ones in your life just how much you care for them by spending, spending, spending on gifts. Trouble is, there are just so many options to choose from. What you really need is someone, some outside force to hold your credit card-holding hand. And boy, do we have some suggestions for you. Happy Holidays! You’re very welcome.

“Music brings the people together,” a grande dame once sang in her characteristic sprechstimme. But what of the audiophiles? What brings them together? High-class sonic kit and the bragging rights that come with it, that’s what. Check out our choice selects below for the braggadocio you call bae.

Image credit: Mondadori via Getty Images

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The Pentagon’s plan to outsource lethal cyber-weapons

The Pentagon's plan to outsource lethal cyber-weapons

The Pentagon has quietly put out a call for vendors to bid on a contract to develop, execute and manage its new cyber weaponry and defense program. The scope of this nearly half-billion-dollar “help wanted” work order includes counterhacking, as well as developing and deploying lethal cyberattacks — sanctioned hacking expected to cause real-life destruction and loss of human life.

In June 2016, work begins under the Cyberspace Operations Support Services contract (pdf) under CYBERCOM (United States Cyber Command). The $460 million project recently came to light and details the Pentagon’s plan to hand over its IT defense and the planning, development, execution, management, integration with the NSA, and various support functions of the U.S. military’s cyberattacks to one vendor.

Now hiring: Lord of cyberwar

While not heavily publicized, it’s a surprisingly public move for the Pentagon to advertise that it’s going full-on into a space that has historically been kept behind closed doors. Only this past June, the Department of Defense Law of War Manual (pdf) was published for the first time ever and included Cyber Operations under its own section — and, controversially, a section indicating that cyber-weapons with lethal outcomes are sanctioned by Pentagon doctrine.

In addition to potentially cultivating lethal malware, the winner of CYBERCOM’s contract will run the whole Pentagon kit and kaboodle of cyber defense and offense. Among many tasks and deliverables, they’ll review and assess cyber wargame reports, run general DoD IT defense and manage patching and internal vulnerabilities, and coordinate CYBERCOM’s attack and defense capabilities with different departments.

The vendor will also do “cyber joint munitions effectiveness support” — assessing a cyberweapon’s effectiveness as a munition and advise changes to methodology, tactics, weapon system, fusing, and/or weapon delivery parameters to increase effectiveness of its force on specific targets. Likely candidates include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.

Well, the Pentagon sorely needs help with its cybersecurity. In March, the Pentagon’s director of operational tests and evaluation Michael Gilmore turned smiles upside down when describing the state of cybersecurity across the U.S. military at a Consortium for IT Software Quality conference.

Gilmore said, “When we do cybersecurity assessments … we get in almost every time.” He noted, “the testing staff generally used novice and intermediate techniques, not even the more sophisticated malicious software used by foreign countries.”

Several specific positions are in the work order, including a “Weapons & Capabilities Lead” who will “serve as the technical lead for contractor personnel performing Fires, Media Malware Analysis … and cyberspace joint munitions effectiveness support functions.”

The position requires that this person have considerable experience in what’s essentially malicious black hat hacking, with “A minimum of three years of experience in Cyber Fires and/or Cyber Targeting.” In military-speak, the term “fire” indicates the act of pulling a trigger; a “cyber fire” indicates a weaponry operation where the command is given to discharge that (cyber) weapon, just as one would receive the command to fire traditional munitions such as missiles or guns.

The contractor is also expected to advise on hack attacks, and “provide technical targeting expertise on the best methods to allocate fires against deliberate and dynamic targets in and through cyberspace.”

Ready, aim: Cyber-fire

The Pentagon's plan to outsource lethal cyber-weapons

Unlike attack malware of yore (like Stuxnet, made for sabotage), CYBERCOM’s digital arms will be made with the intent of achieving traditional warfare weaponry outcomes. In other words — death.

Under Law of War guidelines, if a “cyber fire” like weaponized malware caused “the kind of physical damage that would be caused by dropping a bomb or firing a missile, that cyber attack would equally be subject to the same rules that apply to attacks using bombs or missiles.”

According to the manual, the Pentagon’s cyber-weaponry operations may include “cyber fires” that “(1) trigger a nuclear plant meltdown; (2) open a dam above a populated area, causing destruction; or (3) disable air traffic control services, resulting in airplane crashes.”

0day is to missiles, as candles are to snow: unrelated

The CYBERCOM project uses the Law of War ruleset of “following the kinetic model” for all things cyber; meaning that it subjects cyber-munitions, cyber-attacks, and the cyber-weapon’s effectiveness assessment to the same rules that apply to physical attacks using bombs or bullets.

And for anyone familiar with the attack landscape, that’s a highly problematic approach. Malware, zero days (0day), exploits and vulns, infiltration software, surveillance software, even crap used by script kiddies, etc. … none of it follows the same rules or characteristics as traditional weapons. This is exactly where the U.S. government’s proposed interpretation of export weapons agreement Wassenaar Arrangement went wrong and triggered outrage and alienation in global infosec companies and communities.

Both CYBERCOM and Law of War’s cyber-weaponry ruleset only works if the Pentagon is planning to stockpile an arsenal of DDoS attacks — to extend the bomb analogy — but not if it goes further than an external attack.

Hackers who develop, launch and execute attacks (or study such attacks) will certainly agree with Matt Monte, author of Network Attacks and Exploitation: A Framework, who told Engadget via email that CYBERCOM’s plan overlooks the critical step of gaining access. Because of the issues around access, the same rules can’t apply when it comes to cyber-weaponry in attack, execution, timing, predictability, collateral damage, so-called “friendly fire” — or what would now constitute an act of war.

“Causing damage beyond a temporary denial of service requires access,” Monte said. “And gaining access requires time. The question then becomes when is it acceptable to initiate gaining access? This is a political, strategic, and tactical question with no easy answer.”

CYBERCOM spokeswoman Kara Soules was reported as saying, “understanding the success rate of the weapon is critical,” — underscoring that the checks and balances of the project hinge on knowing that “cyber joint munitions” can be guided by the same model of assessing success as a traditional munition strike.

Monte said, “This is a very hard problem. What is the probability that a computer target is vulnerable? That the vulnerability can be exploited? What are the potential effects of destroying or degrading those systems? How will you even know if you are successful?” He added, “The only way to answer these questions with any level of certainty is to gain access.”

The Pentagon’s cyber-unicorn

The Pentagon's plan to outsource lethal cyber-weapons

Both Law of War and the Cyberspace Operations Support Services contract have a very Silicon Valley feel to them — and I don’t mean that in a good way.

That’s because both have a “ship it and fix it later” attitude about the tech at hand. In each document we can see the Pentagon’s young cyber branch echoing an irresponsible startup’s “move fast, break things, apologize later” approach. The COSS contract tries to solve the complex messiness of the Pentagon’s cyber-defense (and offense) needs by simply hiring an arms dealer for deliverables. The Law of War Manual included Cyber Operations alongside Weapons and Military Occupations, but beginning with a slapdash caveat, “Precisely how the law of war applies to cyber operations is not well-settled.”

This thinking isn’t too far off, considering that the Pentagon’s cyber strategy — precursor to its forthcoming CYBERCOM contract and Law of War cyber-bits — was unveiled in May to an audience of students and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs at Stanford University. At the startup epicenter, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said, “We’re going to be increasing our fundamental research and development,” with established companies and startups, Carter said. “So that together, we can create cyber capabilities that not only help DOD, but can also spin off into the wider U.S. marketplace.”

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In the App Store, love comes cheap

In the App Store, love comes cheap

When you’re a writer, people expect you to write. And when you’re courting someone the pressure to write for them, and to do it well, is amplified. My most recent romantic conquest, a Mexican interior designer, lived in LA. He was a diehard romantic, hundreds of miles away, and despite a slight language barrier, he had a way with words that I struggled to match. He had the ability to make me melt with a single text. I, in turn, would sit for minutes at a time, wringing my heart and brain for just one drop of sweet sentiment.

It was in those small moments of desperation that I wished someone else could put into words how I truly felt. In my professional life I’d never entertain the thought of having someone write for me, but I romanticized the idea of my own personal Cyrano de Bergerac. The late 19th-century play may have popularized the concept, but these mouthpieces for the emotionally stunted are peppered throughout popular fiction.

In Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, one of the novel’s central characters, Florentino Ariza, has so much to give after his one true love rejects him that he turns to writing love letters for those who can’t seem to muster the strength. Likewise, in Spike Jonze’s Her, a futuristic love story between a man and his mobile OS, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a love letter ghostwriter working at a strange human-powered fantasy factory called

In the App Store, love comes cheap

While reading a confession from former love letter ghostwriter Bonnie Downing, I came across an essay by Maria Bustillos entitled “Her: This Movie Makes no Sense,” in which she points out the absurdity of Twombly’s occupation: “In a world where machines can talk like Scarlett Johansson, we’re asked to believe that someone would pay another person to write love letters for him.”

We’re not quite at Her levels of artificial intelligence quite yet, but when the world’s most popular super computer has had more careers in two years than the average American will have in a lifetime, the thought of a Cyrano de Berger-app doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Fortunately for tongue-tied lovers and the objects of their affection, these apps do exist. Unfortunately, they’re all terrible, miserable piles of shit. Excuse my language, but if you’ve used one of these things, then in all seriousness you deserve to be alone for a very, very long time.

Apple’s App Store is full of programs promising to deliver perfect, prepackaged or personalized love letters and text messages for any occasion. Many are rife with typos, misspellings and bad grammar and the reviews, should they exist, are either scathing or written in equally broken English.

“If I told you you had a beautiful body, would you have sex with me?”

Perhaps the most refined of these, the cleverly named Romantimatic, was created for those lovers who just can’t seem to find time for the people they care about. After selecting your “sweetheart” from your contacts, the app asks how frequently you’d like to be reminded to remind your loved one that you really do love them, really. When an alert pops up telling you it’s “time to send some love” you can either select from a series of canned messages or send your own. Should you decide to pursue the former, you’re given a total of 31 texts that range from the simple “I love you” to the clearly created by a bro-grammer “If I told you you had a beautiful body, would you have sex with me?” But let’s be real, if you can’t remember to say, let alone be bothered to type out, “I love you” once or twice a day, you’re probably not in love in the first place.

For those who truly are in love and are looking to drop more than a clumsy take on a played pick up line, there’s “My Love,” which boasts “3,000 ways to say ‘I love you’ (or not).” That “or not” comes in the form of “break-up quotes,” if you’re wondering. The app is broken up into six distinct sections: “Love love …”; “About the love”; “International love”; “Difficult love”; “Beginning and end”; and “My Favorites”. Because after you’ve perused this nightmare library of broken English emotion, you’re definitely going to want to remember greatest hits like:

In the App Store, love comes cheap

“I m going to write on the bricks I MISS U and i wish that one falls on ur head,so that u knows how it hurts when u miss someone special like u.”

“Two small kids, boy and girl were crying …. Someone asked why are you both crying???. Girl said my doll has broken.. Boy said- bcoz my doll is crying ….”

Then there’s tête à tête, which uses prompts to coach you through those hard to explain feelings with a series of scripted “love mails,” essentially creating short textable letters for that special someone by filling in the blanks. Should you come up short, the app provides recommendations under the headings “Inspiration” and “Beethoven would write.” I apparently did not understand the assignment:


Your petrified shit collection I’m writing an app-generated love letter to you because I’m dead inside

There is a ceramic elephant on the mantel Blocking a drawing of two men engaged in intercourse

Yours Truly

Assuming you’re as bad at following prompts as I am, the app also features Love MadLibs (which I’m sure is totally not a trademarked brand) in four flavors: “I love you like …”; “How do I love thee?”; “I like your body”; and “A movie.” Don’t ever, ever try this at home. I selected “I like your body” (because I do) and came up with this:

I love your Butt.
They are So warm and loving
I would like to touch them
and kiss them between meals.


So, the app store is a wasteland of canned sentiment, but there are still real-life people out there writing love letters everyday, to people they’ve never met for people they hardly know. And, whether you feel strongly that these sorts of messages should come from the heart (the heart of the sender specifically) or not, they can’t be any worse than what the app store has to offer.

We’re likely decades (if not more) away from real man-machine love affairs like the one featured in Her. Assuming that day does come, machines will be sophisticated enough to act as your love liaison. But for now, I think it’s safe to say, that no matter how hard you stumble, no matter how hard you fall, you’re better off leaving the love letter writing to sentient beings. Even if that being’s heart isn’t beating inside your chest.

Computer Love is a semi-regular column exploring the weird world of human sexuality in the 21st century.

[Photo credit: Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy]

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‘Uncharted’ for beginners: My first romp with Nathan Drake

'Uncharted' for beginners: My first romp with Nathan Drake

I am the 80 percent. Let me explain: Sony recently released a remastered collection of the Uncharted series for the PlayStation 4. The games were all critically acclaimed, with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves ranking among the best games of the last decade, but developer Naughty Dog says that 80 percent of PS4 owners have never played them. I’m part of that group, and I figured it was high time to catch up with one of the most lauded trilogies of the last decade. Now that I’m in the thick of Nathan Drake’s adventures, I’m going to answer one question: If you’ve never played Uncharted, are these games worth your time?

After working my way through the entire first game and a good chunk of the second, I can say the answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few caveats worth knowing about before you dive in for the first time. As I was getting started, I wondered how well Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune would hold up and whether it was worth playing at all. The game is about to have its eighth birthday, and with Uncharted 2 considered such a classic, I considered that newbies like me might want to just start there.

'Uncharted' for beginners: My first romp with Nathan Drake

The remastered Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune features improved environmental textures.

Even though the first game shows its age a bit, I’m glad I didn’t skip it. Graphically, the whole collection look great, if not quite as good as brand-new games coming out for the PS4. By and large, Nathan Drake’s search for El Dorado in the opening game feels perhaps a bit more cartoonish than Naughty Dog’s later games, with what sometimes feels like an overly bright color palate. But it’s an obvious step up over the original — Bluepoint Games, the developer responsible for the port, did a fabulous job bringing such an old game into the modern era.

Textures are more detailed and character expressions are much more lifelike, particularly in cutscenes. Water and fire have been greatly improved, and everything from the crumbling walls of ruins and the lush island vegetation to the aged notebooks and maps Drake carries with him are brimming with minute, real-life detail. Faces have a lot more depth and are far less wooden than in the PS3 version, something that’s immediately apparent in the game’s first encounter. The game on PS3 has some serious uncanny valley moments, with emotional facial expressions looking particularly odd, but the remastered humans look good enough to make Naughty Dog’s sweeping cinematic style work quite well. The fact that the game runs at 60fps now also makes the whole affair much smoother (and makes aiming a bit more precise, as well).

'Uncharted' for beginners: My first romp with Nathan Drake

Like a fine wine, Nathan Drake gets better with age. (PS4 remaster at left; PS3 at right)

While the graphics may not be a problem, the first Uncharted shows a bit of weakness in the gameplay variety department. Your character isn’t really upgradeable in any sense: You find better guns as you go, but there’s no way of tricking out Drake’s skills to fit your play style. And while the frequent shoot-em-up battles you find yourself in start out thrilling, they feel pretty repetitive once you’re about halfway through the game. There’s also not much of a reward for exploring the wonderfully-rendered island you find yourself on. There are some treasure items scattered about to collect, but they don’t reveal anything about the world nor do they really reward you beyond adding a trophy to your PlayStation collection.

From a story perspective, the game takes a little while to get going. After a solid first hour or so, there’s a long stretch where it just felt like I was mowing my way through the jungle taking out bad guys as they came with not a whole lot of movement or story advances. And once the gameplay started to get a little stale — there’s A LOT of “hide from gunfire behind this object, lean out and pop some guys, slowly advance” action going on here — I started to think about just skipping ahead to Uncharted 2.

If you’re part of the 80 percent, this collection is easy to recommend.

Fortunately, things picked up significantly in the game’s latter half. The story picked up, some new enemies provided a much-needed change of pace, and I found myself really wanting to see how everything came together in the end. That’s not to say that there weren’t a few frustrating, hair-pulling platforming sections, because there were — but they were fortunately few and far between.

The game is overall pretty short, with my playthrough clocking in around eight hours total, making it a nice appetizer into the world of Uncharted. You’ll get to know the game’s play style and controls and enjoy a pulpy adventure story that has some solid moments of humor and drama mixed in.

'Uncharted' for beginners: My first romp with Nathan Drake

Drake holds on for his life in the series’ classic Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

And then, when you start Uncharted 2, you’ll have the benefit of story background as well as familiarity with how the game works at a high level, which helped me enjoy the game’s gripping opening sequence even more. The first Uncharted started out with an almost comically easy, low-stakes confrontation, but Uncharted 2 throws you right into one of Drake’s most desperate scenarios before using the good, old flashback trick to unwind how he got into such a jam. It sucked me right in and the game only gets better from there. It doesn’t hurt that the sequel is an obvious step up graphics-wise, either — Naughty Dog continually got more and more out of the PS3 as the series progressed, and the improved graphics gave the Bluepoint Games team more to work with as it updated these games.

If you’re part of the 80 percent, this collection is easy to recommend. The first game may show its age compared with more contemporary adventures like the Tomb Raider reboot or Naughty Dog’s own The Last of Us, but it’s still a fun romp before jumping into Uncharted 2 — the real meat of the collection. And even though I haven’t gotten to Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception yet, I’m eagerly going to jump right in, and be ready to move right on to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End when it comes out next spring. With three highly-regarded games included in a package that’s selling for less than $45 on Amazon right now, it’s a smart holiday buy.

Image credits: Naughty Dog; Digital Foundry (side-by-side comparison)

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OnePlus X review: Never settle for second best

OnePlus X review: Never settle for second best

The OnePlus X breaks new ground for the young Chinese company. Making the X, OnePlus eschewed its usual formula of stuffing the best processor in a ridiculously cheap phone. Instead, it has repurposed the internals of its debut OnePlus One into a smaller phone with a lower $249 price tag. But in achieving that admittedly impressive feat, it’s gone against its own mantra.




  • Impeccable build quality
  • Strong performance
  • Cheapest OnePlus yet


  • Bad camera, day and night
  • So-so display
  • Limited LTE support


It seemed like a dream on paper: The specs of the company’s excellent debut flagship squeezed into a smaller, well constructed shell. In reality, OnePlus has cut some corners here. The X suffers in the camera and display department, and for some reason doesn’t support some increasingly common LTE bands in North America. It’s an oddly disparate device; unmatched for raw performance at $249, but unable to keep pace in other ways. With better all-round phones available in the same price range, including OnePlus’ own flagship, it’s difficult to recommend.


OnePlus X review: Never settle for second best

Let’s start this off with a list of things that, despite what you might have heard, the OnePlus X doesn’t actually look like:

  • The Apple iPhone 4
  • The Apple iPhone 4S
  • The Apple iPhone 5
  • The Apple iPhone 5S

That’s not to say that there aren’t elements of Apple’s design here, but they’re just elements. When combined with other constituents, they bond to form something wholly different. So much of Apple’s design philosophy over the years has involved borrowing, refining and remixing other companies’ work. If you don’t have a problem with that, you can’t suddenly take issue with OnePlus for wrapping a glass phone in a metal band and drilling some holes at the bottom.

Writing an impassioned defense, for what it’s worth, doesn’t mean that I actually like the way the X looks — I don’t. It’s so pedestrian; a glossy glass slab with the metallurgic equivalent of pinstripe etched into its metal sides. The build quality is admirable, from the phone speaker cutout to the three pristine capacitive buttons below the display, but it feels as if the designers created a mood board for “luxury” and then picked the things they liked from it. And those aforementioned Apple elements actually infect the OnePlus X with some of the best and worst things about Cupertino’s designs over the years.

The “iPhone 4″ glass covering, for example, looks nice enough, but the glossy back picks up fingerprints by the millisecond, and although my unit is pristine, we noticed scratches at the device’s UK unveil. It’s also very slippery, but that’s somewhat mitigated by the metal band, which although not particularly attractive, helps improve the grip. And those “iPhone 5″ drilled holes — one side serving a speaker, the other a microphone — are easy to obstruct if you’re “holding it wrong.”

At $249 the OnePlus X offers a compelling spec sheet

Within the staid shell, however, things get far more interesting. While the OnePlus X isn’t in danger of outpacing the new “2” flagship, at $249 it offers a compelling spec sheet, which is roughly the same as last year’s OnePlus One. That means a 2.3GHz quad-core SnapDragon 801 processor paired with Adreno 330 graphics, 3GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, dual SIM slots and a 2,525mAh battery. The screen is smaller than last year’s model — a 5-inch display rather than a 5.5-inch — but it’s still 1080p. There’s neither the fancy fingerprint reader nor the reversible USB Type-C port of the OnePlus 2. There is space for a microSD card inside the SIM tray, however, OnePlus’ excellent alert slider is present, and there’s a neat multicolored notification light that I’m quite enamored with.

There are two welcome additions inside the box. The first is OnePlus’ micro-USB cable. It’s the same as the cord packed in with the 2: a flat, red affair with a reversible (at the charger end) USB. It would’ve been easy for OnePlus to bundle a basic white or black lead here and call it a day. Even if it’s just a cable, it’s nice that budget-conscious shoppers can still enjoy the luxury. The second addition is a translucent silicone case. I’ve never put my phones inside cases, but I will slip one on if I’m going to a place where I may drop or damage a phone irreparably; something like a busy event or an alcohol-fueled night out. Including a basic thing that protects the X probably costs OnePlus $0.20, but it’s a nice touch.


OnePlus X review: Never settle for second best

The X’s 5-inch display is a 1080p AMOLED, which typically means superb viewing angles, bright colors and blacks beyond the event horizon. There’s no sea change here. Colors are indeed punchy — a little too gaudy for my taste, but your mileage may vary — viewing angles are great, and of course, since AMOLED doesn’t have a backlight, blacks are fantastic.

While it’s a good display for the price, this is not AMOLED’s finest hour. I’m perhaps spoiled by flagship panels. It’s not a matter of resolution — that’s absolutely fine — but the screen itself has some idiosyncrasies. It’s not laminated, and there’s quite a gap between the display and the coverglass. It’s not a huge issue, but it’s there. I also take issue with the color balance of the display. The company has form here — the OnePlus 2 has one of the bluest displays I’ve ever seen on a phone — but to my eyes the X has an even higher white point.

This is not AMOLED’s finest hour

It’s worth noting that Samsung, HTC and other companies that offer AMOLED displays all include various color modes to account for differing tastes, and there’s no way to adjust the temperature out of the box. Without jumping through complex loops, third-party options to fix this are only ever going to be crude color filters. Again, this is personal taste, but I can say for sure you’re definitely not going to be viewing photos and movies the way their creators intended them to be seen.

My final complaint is that the display is also a little on the dim side, even at full brightness. Autumnal London doesn’t exactly provide the best conditions for a daylight readability test, but while I haven’t had any problems to note, I am concerned this phone won’t do well in sunnier climates.


OnePlus X review: Never settle for second best

OnePlus’ Oxygen OS is very good. I hadn’t really spent time with it before the X arrived — unless a cursory swipe across home screens on a OnePlus 2 counts — but I’d like to spend more time with it now. If you’ve used stock Android, you won’t find too many differences visually, but there are some additional, genuinely customization options on offer.

By default the phone has a “dark” theme, which changes the menus to a deep black and the app drawer to a dark gray. In theory, due to the peculiarities of AMOLED technology, this uses less power than the regular white Android theme. In practice, white text on a black background hurts my eyes, and I’d rather just charge slightly more often. Changing this theme is a simple affair, as is modifying the accent colors. I do think OnePlus could go a little further with the customization options, especially by pulling in some third-party ideas like having specific color notifications on the LED for your favorite apps.

OnePlus X review: Never settle for second best

In the same settings menu you’ll also find some other options, one of which lets you deactivate the capacitive buttons and opt for on-screen instead — which I did almost immediately, chiefly because the capacitive ones aren’t backlit and I was tired of fumbling for the back key in the dark. Other than that, though, this is just Android really. There are a few token gestures for when the screen’s off — double-tap to wake up, draw a V for flashlight, an O for Camera, etc. — and a weird “Shelf” thing for storing frequently apps that I switched off, but you’re mostly just looking at Android Lollipop, for all its good and bad points.

One thing I was slightly concerned about were the broken apps and restarts that marred the early days of Oxygen OS. These were present when we reviewed the OnePlus 2, but I’m happy to report that these teething problems seem to have subsided; I encountered no random reboots and no rendering issues even after purposefully running down the list of previously affected apps. For the record, the phone was running Oxygen OS version 2.1.2, and Android version 5.1.1.


OnePlus X review: Never settle for second best

The OnePlus X’s camera may have the same megapixel count as its more expensive brethren, but the similarities end there. Yes, it’s got a 13-megapixel sensor, but it’s a smaller sensor than the OnePlus 2’s, and so lets in less light. It’s also placed behind an f/2.2 lens, which is a third-stop slower than the lens on the 2. The result of these concessions is a much poorer experience.

In good lighting conditions, the X can capture a decent amount of detail, but it’s difficult to predict whether you’ll get a good photo. There’s just no consistency here; in a typical five-minute shooting period, I saw underexposed and overexposed photos, vibrant colors, subdued colors and totally inaccurate colors. The X is quick to focus, though, and shutter lag is minimal.

In low light, things get worse. I took the phone along to an industry event featuring live music, and happily snapped away. During the show the images seemed fine, but I came home to find they were universally bad. There’s an over-aggressive anti-noise algorithm that sucks all the detail out of photos, and the daylight exposure and color issues carry over as well.

Software updates could improve things, but this will never be a great camera

Video fares a little better: It maxes out at 1080p and is more than adequate in daytime. At night or in low light things will get grainy, but not unreasonably so. There’s a slow-motion mode that records at 120 frames per second but kicks the resolution down to 720p. It doesn’t really work. Unless you’re in bright bright daylight, slow-mo footage looks awful; the X’s tiny sensor and poor ISO performance make everything too dark. This feature works well on the OnePlus 2, but adding it here just seems like a waste of time.

I’m not sure that all of the OnePlus X’s problems are due to the sensor; it’s more likely the software. That’s not to say that OnePlus can fix everything — this will never be a great camera — but white balance and exposure settings seem like something OnePlus could improve through updates. And it really needs updates. A shot of fallen leaves taken at the park near my place shows just how wrong the software gets white balance sometimes. The blades of grass look like astroturf rather than something natural. I took the liberty of color-correcting one half of the image in Photoshop so you can see just how bad the original was:

OnePlus X review: Never settle for second best

In case you couldn’t tell, the right side of the above image is what came from the OnePlus X. I didn’t expect this camera to be fantastic — what phone in this price range gets imaging totally right? But I did expect it to keep pace with other budget handsets like the Moto G. It can’t, and if you’re passionate about mobile photography, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.

Performance and battery life

OnePlus X review: Never settle for second best

Keeping pace with the Moto G is not exactly a problem when it comes to raw performance. As I mentioned before, the quad-core 2.3GHz Snapdragon 801 processor inside the OnePlus X is last year’s flagship chip. Aside from OnePlus’ own One, it’s found in phones like the Samsung Galaxy S5, the HTC One M8. In general navigating home screens, browsing, multitasking and gaming was fast and fluid. The OnePlus 2 is a hair faster when you put the two side by side, but I really can’t discern much of a difference in everyday use.

OnePlus X OnePlus 2 Moto G (2015) Samsung Galaxy S6
AndEBench Pro 7,528 9,945 4,259 10,552
Vellamo 3.0 2,828 3,025 1,992 3,677
3DMark IS Unlimited 16,716 23,598 4,518 21,632
SunSpider 1.0.2 (ms) 1,330 1,516 1,522 674
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 9.8 25 1.7 25
CF-Bench 58,373 62,117 20,999 79,168
SunSpider 1.0.2: Android devices tested in Chrome; lower scores are better.

I don’t really put much stock in benchmarks; they’re a rough guide of a smartphone’s raw power, but aren’t really indicative of what a device is like to use. That said, you’ll be unsurprised to note that artificial benchmarks put the X pretty much exactly on par with the company’s One, which it shares many specs with. I did notice a little stutter when opening apps, but I’ve yet to see a phone that doesn’t occasionally slip up due to a bad app.

I was really concerned to hear that the OnePlus X had a sealed 2,525mAh battery. The Snapdragon 801 is a powerful chip, and that battery is far smaller than the OnePlus One’s 3,100mAh unit. Turns out I needn’t have worried. The X always reached the end of the day before I needed to charge it, and in our battery test (looping a video with WiFi on and the screen brightness set to 50 percent) it hit nine hours and 47 minutes, which is virtually identical to the OnePlus One, and about half an hour longer than the OnePlus Two. It’s also ahead of flagship phones like the Galaxy S6 and HTC One M9, but thanks to the beefier processor, it lasts an hour less than the Moto G.

LTE support is a big issue for North America

If you’re reading this from North America, there are a few additional things you need to know. The OnePlus X lacks support for Band 12 and 17 LTE, which depending on where you live could seriously affect your ability to access high-speed data. Parts of AT&T’s US and Puerto Rico networks run on Band 17, as do portions of Rogers’ network in Canada. T-Mobile’s network is increasingly relying on Band 12, and Bell’s Canadian network also uses Band 12 in some regions. This is obviously a big problem if you live in the “wrong” area; journalists in New York on AT&T have reported big issues with LTE signal. Failing to support those bands is an odd decision, especially considering that OnePlus actually has three versions of the X for different regions, and budget handsets from other companies have no trouble.

The competition

OnePlus X review: Never settle for second bestThe $329 OnePlus 2.

What do you want from this phone? Are you just looking for a cheap, reliable device, or are you searching for the trappings of a flagship at a lower price? Whatever you’re looking for, I have trouble believing that at $249 the OnePlus X is the best fit for you.

For the budget conscious, the cheaper Moto G, at $220 for the 2GB RAM version, is simply a better all-round phone. It’s less flashy, for sure, but it’s a competent performer, has a superior camera, wider LTE support, and is waterproof. For those looking for bleeding-edge performance, why not spend the extra $70 and pick up a OnePlus 2? It’s got more power and a way better camera, and in my opinion it’s the more attractive phone by far. About the only thing the OnePlus X has over the 2 is microSD expansion.


OnePlus X review: Never settle for second best

And that’s really my issue here. OnePlus’ motto is “Never Settle.” But I can’t see a reality in which you buy the OnePlus X and you’re not settling. You’d be settling for a subpar camera, even compared to cheaper devices. You’d be settling for weaker LTE support, which even if you’re European will affect you if you plan on roaming. Or you’d be settling for last year’s flagship, when you could have this year’s for $70 more. OnePlus has proven it can make a competent phone on an even slimmer budget. But it hasn’t made one that makes sense over its slightly more expensive cousin, or even one that can justify the price hike over a Moto G.

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Vinyl brings in more money than YouTube for UK music labels

Vinyl brings in more money than YouTube for UK music labels

YouTube views aren’t translating into profit for British musicians, and even vinyl sales are bringing in more money. According to The Guardian, that is what British music industry association’s (BPI) head honcho, Geoff Taylor, claimed when he spoke at the Music Futures conference in England. Unfortunately, he didn’t back that statement up with exact figures, but he did say that BPI members garnered 14 billion YouTube views in 2014. Back in 2013, the organization reported that its artists sold enough vinyl LPs to earn a revenue of £12.1 million ($18.4 million), which was the highest the format has ever reached since 1994.

A spokesperson defended the Google-owned video hosting website, telling The Guardian: “Music videos on YouTube can be discovered by over 1 billion people in over 80 countries. To date, we’ve paid out $3 billion to the music industry -– and that number is growing year on year.” In addition to talking about revenues, the BPI boss also talked about lobbying for tighter copyright laws. Services like YouTube, he said, typically aren’t held liable for content their users upload, so long as they have a system that pulls down videos at the request of the copyright holders.

Taylor isn’t the first person in the industry to express his discontent over low earnings from streaming services. Another Taylor pulled her entire catalogue from Spotify last year after writing an op-ed for the WSJ to say that music should not be free (Spotify has a free tier, as you probably know). BPI’s Taylor clarified that he supports free music streaming, but he believes the companies could do better at turning their users into paid subscribers.

You’re seeing consumption going up rapidly on YouTube and on the ad-funded tiers of services like Spotify, but the money coming back to the industry through those ad-funded uses isn’t increasing at anywhere near the same pace.

Advertising-supported only works if it is a step towards premium, and if it is monetised at an acceptable rate. We can’t just give our music away for free: that is not a business model.

YouTube is attempting to do just that with its Music and Red subscription services, though we’ll have to wait and see if they can successfully convince people to sign up.

[Image credit: Getty/JGI/Jamie Grill]

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Pope Francis: Don’t use your phones at the dinner table

Pope Francis: Don't use your phones at the dinner table

Know who’s not cool with you poking at your phone at the dinner table? Your friend who’s scowling while you Instagram your food, your mom/dad/significant other shouting at you to put your phone away… and Pope Francis. Maybe it’s because the current head of the Catholic Church is tech-friendly — he even has a Twitter account — that he knows how addictive gadgets can be. “A family that almost never eats together, or that never speaks at the table but looks at the television or the smartphone, is hardly a family,” he said during a sermon at St. Peter’s Square, according to the Catholic News Agency. “When children at the table are attached to the computer or the phone and don’t listen to each other, this is not a family, this is a pensioner.” So, there: if you’re the kind of person who hates Facebooking-while-eating, you’ve found a powerful new ally.

[Image credit: AFP/Getty Images]

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You can’t fly drones near the Pope during his US visit

You can't fly drones near the Pope during his US visit

Thinking of using a camera drone to get some above-the-crowd footage of Pope Francis during his trip to the US near the end of September? The Federal Aviation Administration would really, really prefer that you didn’t. It’s instituting drone flying bans in key parts of New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, DC (where there are already strict limitations) throughout the Papal visit. Give in to temptation and you’re breaking the law, even if you had no intentions of getting near the religious leader.

It’s not hard to see why the FAA would clamp down. Its drone restrictions are tough even in normal circumstances — you can imagine how it feels about swarms of drones jockeying for good views of the Pope, let alone genuine threats. And whether you like it or not, these kinds of large, one-off bans are likely to become more frequent as drones grow in popularity.

[Image credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia]

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‘Everest VR’ will take gamers up a CGI mountain next year

'Everest VR' will take gamers up a CGI mountain next year

Along with a “mobile supercomputer,” NVIDIA dropped off this teaser for Everest VR at its event earlier this week. Made by Sólfar Studios and RVX, it used NVIDIA’s GPU to mash up over 300,000 high res pictures of the mountain range to create a 3D mesh and textures that is claimed to be the “definitive” CGI model of Everest. Some of Sólfar’s personnel come from CCP where they worked on EVE Online, but this new company is all about creating purely VR experiences, like Everest for PCs and Godling for Playstation VR. I’m not going to climb Everest to find out exactly how realistic the simulation is, but everyone can form their own opinion when the full experience is available next year.

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