The UpStream

Game Pass Ultimate service could be the best Xbox service yet

posted Saturday Apr 6, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Game Pass Ultimate service could be the best Xbox service yet

Microsoft is making a big play for the Xbox brand in 2019, on the console, Windows 10, and on mobile. We've seen the company constantly upgrade the capabilities of the Xbox Game Bar in Windows 10, with new features being added this week. They've expanded the reach of Xbox Live off of their platforms. We've even seen more details of the Project xCloud streaming service.

One of their biggest moves in recent years was Game Pass, the monthly subscription service that gives you access to over 100 games for your Xbox One. For $10 per month (and only $1 for your first month), you can install a rotating list of games, including the company's major titles like Sea of Thieves. It looks like some new features will be coming to the Game Pass brand in the near future if some credible rumors are to be believed.

First is Game Pass Ultimate, a rumored service that will combine the $10 per month Game Pass subscription with the $10 per month Xbox Live subscription for only $15 per month. That's a 25% discount for purchasing services that you might already be subscribed to. It's a great deal, and time saver, for those of us who scour Microsoft, Amazon, and more looking for a discount on Xbox Live every year when it's time to renew. Plus, you can get the annual price ($60 per year or $5 per month) without paying it all up front. It is also a perfect companion service for people considering purchasing the upcoming Xbox One S All-Digital Edition, which will have no optical drive.

If you're also a PC gamer, Microsoft might have some good news for you, as well. Game Pass looks like it will finally be coming to the PC in the near future. There are no details on what this might look like, but Microsoft has been in the process of expanding the unification of Xbox and Windows gaming, so it should be no surprise that the service would be heading to PC.

Apple makes HomePod cheaper, but it is still way too expensive

posted Saturday Apr 6, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Apple makes HomePod cheaper, but it is still way too expensive

Since Apple first announced the HomePod, the company's rt speaker, they have struggled to gain any traction. Even the most hardcore Apple fans have skipped this device entirely. Apple has decided that the reason customers have not purchased the HomePod is because of its price and, this week, have lowered the retail price from $450 to $300: a 15% discount.

Unfortunately for Apple, they have made a major miscalculation on the cause of consumers' disinterest in the HomePod. Apple has never had problems selling their devices when they are overpriced. In fact, overpriced hardware is kind of Apple's brand message. In reality, the reason why no one is purchasing the device is that it is massively underpowered, as far as features. You get the features that Apple has provided and that is about it. Sure, you can get the weather from Apple, or control HomeKit-enabled smartphone devices, but you don't get much more than that.

Siri has never been the most powerful digital assistant in the market, dating back to when Apple purchased the technology in 2010. While she may have been the best known, she had no developer support, meaning that only Apple could give her capabilities. When Cortana, Alexa, and Google Assistant were introduced, all were designed with extensibility at their core.

While Apple has added some developer support to Siri in the past decade, it is far from useful for developers to add real capabilities through distributable skills. Even Cortana, who is in the #3 position as far as digital assistants, has more capabilities when used away from the computer, and they are having trouble selling the Harmon Kardon Invoke for $50[url" class="UpStreamLink"> (though it is a great Bluetooth speaker). If Apple wants to gain any traction on the HomePod, they need to give developers proper access to be able to build standalone apps for Siri.

Apple announces TV+ and News+ services for video and magazines

posted Sunday Mar 31, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Apple announces TV+ and News+ services for video and magazines

This week, the long-awaited Apple video streaming service was finally unveiled. Adding to that, the company also showed off a second subscription service for newspapers and magazines. The New York Times had already given us a small taste of what that might be when they warned publishers to avoid it.

Apple TV

Since Apple announced that they were dedicating over $1 billion to produce a video streaming service and exclusive content to reside on the platform, we have known that this day would eventually come. There had been discussion over whether Apple would build from scratch, try and purchase Netflix or Hulu, or do something in the middle. In the end, the service looks more like Prime Video than anything else, with 2 different aspects: TV+ and TV Channels.

Apple TV+ is similar to other streaming services, such as CBS All Access, where the content available will be exclusive to the platform. Unlike other services, however, Apple is not working to fight in the licensing realm. Instead, they will be offering only their own content. While the company was heavy on celebrity, they were very light on details. We know that 25 projects are in development, and we knew that the platform will not be exclusive to Apple devices. Unfortunately, that is about all we know. Hopefully, we'll know more as the year goes on.

Apple TV Channels is an extension of the existing Apple TV app, taking a lot of inspiration from Amazon Prime Video Channels. This idea is that you can add multiple subscriptions to your single platform, bringing together the video available on those services into a single interface. Apple is very excited about this ability, but not everyone is on the same page. Because of that, there is one very notable platform missing: Netflix. Another downfall is that the service is exclusive to Apple platforms, meaning that it will be less than useful for most in their living rooms, where many of us watch television.

Apple News+

The Apple News+ subscription service has a lot more information available, despite being far less interesting than its video counterpart. For $9.99 per month, the new service will provide access to over 300 publications, mostly magazines, with the occasional newspaper. Included are big publications like Time Magazine and Wall Street Journal, as well as more niche publications, such as Wired and Men's Health.

But Why?

Apple is in the middle of a transition of sorts. It is clear that they are struggling to care about the iPhone, and hardware in general. Despite their best efforts, smartphones have become a commodity, with nothing really separating them from one another. People buy on price and brand at this point, and so the company has to do something to generate additional revenue. Subscription services have been a good way to do that in the past, though subscription fatigue is certainly setting in, and that market is likely to start collapsing in the coming months. It will be interesting to see if any of these services end up gaining any traction.

Google's questioned in policy of scanning and reporting content

posted Sunday Mar 31, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Google's questioned in policy of scanning and reporting content

It is no secret that online privacy is quickly dissolving. Some of this has been care of the general nature of companies like Facebook, whose platforms are based around you giving someone else your personal information for public consumption. More recently, however, some of the big tech companies have been getting involved with the government to not only invade your privacy but to violate the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution.

One of the most notorious violators of privacy has been Google, according to EPIC (not EPIC Games) the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberty group in Washington DC. They have filed an amicus brief in a case involving Google's practice of scanning files that you upload to the company's servers, looking for specific content that the government has asked them to look for. When they find the content in question, they report it to law enforcement, essentially circumventing the 4th Amendment, which protects citizens against search and seizure.

Obviously, this gets into some really sticky legal ground. Google is a private entity that is not directly bound by the 4th Amendment. Their terms of service could say that they look at every file and search for illegal content and report any violations to law enforcement, and that would technically be fine, though would still cause civil liberty issues. But, a voluntary search of hashes could legally protect their actions.

However, the fact that Google is working directly with law enforcement, and searching on matches and no longer just hashes, for what is deemed illegal activity makes them a partner of law enforcement, not just a private entity. It is similar to being a law enforcement contractor, which could bind them to the rules and regulations against law enforcement.

The biggest issue in question here, above and beyond possible Constitutional violations, is a lack of information about the validity of the system. How often does Google refer innocent people to law enforcement? Has anyone lost their job because Google has inaccurately accused them of trafficking in illegal content? Neither Google not law enforcement agencies have released any information on these statistics. A little transparency of any kind might help them defend their actions, unless they often fail, in which case it could hurt their image even more. Either way, transparency is essential in this kind of questionable behavior.

After years of partnership, Valve is ready to build its own VR headset

posted Sunday Mar 31, 2019 by Scott Ertz

After years of partnership, Valve is ready to build its own VR headset

Valve, the gaming company behind the Steam game distribution platform and popular games like Portal, has been involved in the virtual reality market for the past few years. The SteamVR platform has been as popular for VR games as Steam has been for PC gaming. But, they have relied on a partnership with HTC to produce the HTC Vive hardware as the primary VR headset for SteamVR. That is about to change, however, as Valve is ready to enter the hardware space once again.

Over the last few months, there have been continued rumors that Valve would be launching their own VR headset, and this week the company confirmed those rumors. In fact, not only have they been working on the headset, but they are nearly ready to show it off. The Valve Index is going to be made public in "May 2019" - only a few weeks away. Unfortunately, other than a darkened, shadowed photo, there is no other information provided.

It is not terribly surprising that Valve would want to get involved in the hardware side of things, especially now. The company has long produced its own flagship hardware for its software platforms, whether or not they were successful. They have been closing up divisions from past products and services that haven't worked, such as the Steam Machines and Steam Link. Relying on a partner for the flagship hardware was a departure, but has produced arguably the best VR experience on the market.

Over the last year or so, HTC has undergone some big corporate problems. They sold the majority of the smartphone business to Google, leaving them with a partial team in that division, plus Vive. There has been a lot of fear that HTC couldn't survive on the Vive alone, so this could simply be a survival move for Valve. It would be a terrible idea to wait until things get really bad to respond.

Asus update tool hacked, allowed access to millions of computers

posted Sunday Mar 31, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Asus update tool hacked, allowed access to millions of computers

Computer manufacturers and users are definitely getting more sophisticated. Manufacturers, as well as Microsoft and Apple themselves, continue to produce more sophisticated tools to prevent hackers from gaining access to your computer. Users are getting smarter about which sites and emails they interact with, preventing attacks. With a more sophisticated computer user must come a more sophisticated hacker, and we have definitely seen a growth in that area. This week, Asus was the target of an incredibly advanced attack, putting computer owners at risk.

According to Russian security firm Kaspersky, a supply chain attack had been carried out using the ASUS Live Update Utility. Using a flaw in the utility, hackers opened a back door into any computer that had downloaded the tool. Kaspersky said that 57,000 of their users have downloaded the compromised tool, but that represented only a small portion of the Asus customer-base. They believe that as many as a million computers may have this backdoor installed.

ShadowHammer, as the attack has been called, is certainly a sophisticated one. The software was able to bypass initial detection because it was signed using an official Asus security certificate. For most, that would be enough to believe it is legitimate. In addition, the hackers managed to make the file exactly the same size as the original file which it replaced.

While many computers are likely compromised, it would appear that the actual usage of the exploit was incredibly targeted. It appears that only 583 MAC addresses were targeted, representing computers within large organizations. The affected computers are almost exclusively owned by ASUSTek, Intel, and AzureWave Technologies, with only 70 affected computers being owned by anyone else. That does not mean that users should not be concerned about this hack. This is not the first time that a company's update utility had been compromised, and it will not be the last.

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