New York Philharmonic/Kaija Saariaho review staking out new terrain

Taking a trip to the cavernous art space and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the NY Phil explored Finnish composer Kaija Saariahos sumptuous, theatrical work

On this seasons opening night, back in September, the New York Philharmonics outgoing music director, Alan Gilbert, led a subtly activist gala program that included Gershwins Concerto in F. The performance was activist in nature because it allowed the nights soloist jazz virtuoso Aaron Diehl to improvise in and around Gershwins written part. And it was subtle because the chance-taking worked so thoroughly and elegantly: an experimentalism that didnt have to call attention to itself.

This week, the Philharmonic is making another of its periodic visits to one of New Yorks contemporary performance art palaces, the Park Avenue Armory. As usual, the venturesome quality of the trip outside Lincoln Center is being more explicitly underlined. This is the same site that saw Gilbert and the Philharmonics performance of Stockhausens multi-orchestral masterpiece Gruppen (along with spatial music by Mozart and Boulez). This time around, the organizational theme centered on the sumptuous textures of works by contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, in a concert conducted by Philharmonic composer-in-residence Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The composer-in-residence position is, by the way, another Gilbert innovation during his time at the Philharmonic. Perhaps the point is obvious, at this juncture, but it still bears repeating: in its stylistic flexibility and in its approach to repertoire, the Philharmonic is working at an unusually high level, under Gilberts directorship. The point was underlined again on Thursday nights opening performance, the first of a two-night stand at the Armory. Helping round out the sense of the gig as an event was video art accompaniment, supervised by director Pierre Audi (whos also prepping Rossinis Guillaume Tell at the Met).

Any worries that the visuals would detract from concentration on the music were quickly vanquished, during the short opening orchestral piece, Lumire et Pesanteur. The overture-length work, dedicated to Salonen, was cinematic enough on its own. Early on, a pretty, delicate figure moved from a trumpet to a flute, while waves of strange harmony morphed as they passed through the wider orchestra. (The visual counterpoint was just a smoky series of cloud-like nimbuses.)

Soprano
Soprano Jennifer Zetlan gave a haunting performance of the electronics-and-vocals piece Lonh. Photograph: Stephanie Berger./?Stephanie Berger Photography.

Later, a harp and vibraphone emerged on the other side of a tutti passage, shimmering seductively together. Saariahos music doesnt traffic in obvious sign-postings: theres rarely a strong pulse driving you toward a promised climax, or other similar clues to let you know when a turning point is in the offing. Big changes happen without much warning, and are all the more powerful for it.

The meatiest piece on the evenings program was Dom le Vrai Sens a 2010 piece that Ive loved on a recording from the Ondine label. Live, it took on a new power. Clarinetist Kari Kriikku is the go-to performer for this sort of music. (Saariaho wrote this concerto for him.) He has a control over piercing multiphonics that is the equal of his poise in more regular melodic passages. At the Armory, he started out playing behind the audience risers, his sound echoing around us.

Toward the beginning of the second movement, Kriikku appeared in the stalls, slow-marching (or dancing) his way toward the orchestra proper. Very Stockhausen-like, in its theatrical way. But the most important aspect the music was handled even better. The way he can extend the clarinets range is a perfect match for Saariahos unusual textures. He can place a note cleanly in front of a listener, and then agitate it into an unrecognizable, yet perfectly harmonized, sound.

By the time of the second movement, Saariahos writing depended less on these tricks building out longer melodies for the clarinet and the string section. As the half-hour piece unfolded, Kriikku advanced toward the other players. In subsequent movements he danced through the percussion section, then past Salonen while keeping perfect track of the brisk, thrashing lines in the fourth movement. At the close of this piece, the crowd wanted to give an ovation, but Salonen dampened this impulse with a pensive look and some quick fluttering of his fingers. The idea was to present all four of the Saariaho works without a break.

The result was a little bit of confusion on the part of the audience, with listeners grasping programs trying to figure out which piece was being performed. Given the generally ruminative quality of the Saariaho compositions on this 90-minute program, the lack of piece-specific closure might have contributed to some restlessness in the crowd.

Still, the final two works came off well. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan gave a haunting performance of the electronics-and-vocals piece Lonh. (Her live singing doubled a recorded part by the soprano Dawn Upshaw, in a striking complication of the soloists role.) The final work, 2012s Circle Map, was only slightly less impressive as its recorded recitations of Rumis poetry sounded less well integrated into the overall writing. But even here, there were textures of uncommon beauty and imagination. Salonen had a clear sense of each piece, and the Philharmonic players never sounded anything but confident in Saariahos prismatic, provocative music.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/14/new-york-philharmonic-kaija-saariaho-review-park-avenue-armory

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Review: Olympus PEN-F

The original Olympus PEN-F arrived in 1963 and quickly gained a cult following. Solid design made it an instant classic, and an unusual half-frame photo formatpacked as many as 72 images onto a 36-exposure roll of 35mm film.

Olympus PEN-F

7/10

Wired

Beautiful, classic design. Excellent selection of high-quality manual controls. Sensor produces some of the best images you’ll get from a Micro Four Thirds camera. Decent flash accessory. Highly customizable creative filters you can select using the wheel on the front.

Tired

At $1,200, it’s awfully pricey for a Micro Four Thirds camera. The lack of a 4K video mode stands out in 2016.

How We Rate

  • 1/10A complete failure in every way
  • 2/10Sad, really
  • 3/10Serious flaws; proceed with caution
  • 4/10Downsides outweigh upsides
  • 5/10Recommended with reservations
  • 6/10Solid with some issues
  • 7/10Very good, but not quite great
  • 8/10Excellent, with room to kvetch
  • 9/10Nearly flawless
  • 10/10Metaphysical perfection

Thedigital PEN-Fcribs from the lookof original but offers thoroughly modern technology. Inside you’ll find a best-in-class 20-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor with 5-axis image stabilization. Perched in the top-left corner of the body sitsa bright 2.36 million dot OLED electronic viewfinder.Other notable specs include 10 frames per second continuous shooting (or 20 fps with electronic shutter), 1080p at 60 fps video (yep, another Olympus camera without 4K video) and a cool, if limited, 50-megapixel “high-resolution image” mode. More on that in a minute.

This camera sits in a class full of capable high-end compacts, witheverything you’d expect from a camera with interchangeable lenses and a price north of $1,000. It sportsan articulating 3-inch touchscreen, Wi-Fi connectivity, nine auto-focus modes, and a nice set of customizable controls. The retro design uses an aluminum and magnesium body with no visible screws, and Olympus really packed onthe dials and knobs. The number of options under my thumb are so plentiful that I rarely needed to use the on-screen menu.

Olympus has created the most film-like camera that I’ve used since selling my Nikon F3 and goingdigital. It even has the nicest faux-leather strap I’ve seen included with a camera. I found the articulated flashattachment even more useful, and it is far betterthan the fixed or pop-up varieties you usually see on cameras in this class.

If you’re thinking, “Hmm, this sounds pricey,” you’re absolutely right. The PEN-F is a wonderful camera, but at $1,200, it simply costs too much.

Image Ready

Outwardly, the PEN F looks more like a FujiFilm X100 than its ’60s namesake. It lacks the optical viewfinder of the X100,but the electronic viewfinder is in more or less thesame position. I found it wonderfully bright, but the diopter disagreedwith my eyes. I’m not sure about thedifference, or whether the camera I tested had a problem, but I could not get the electronic viewfinder sharp enough for my eye. If you wear corrective lenses like I do, it might be worth getting your hands on a PEN-F to seehow it works for you before committing to one.

But honestly, I didn’t rely much on the electronic viewfinder while testing.I am long accustomed to using the rear LCD screen for composing images with Micro Four Thirds cameras.

You tap into Olympus’s included image effects using a dedicated knob on the front of the PEN-F. With a twist, you can dial in settings for monochrome and color profile controls, color creator, and art filters.Each of adjusts the color saturation in your images, and each is customizable. Like other reviewers, I found them fun for about an hour. After that, I largelyignored them. I prefer to shoot RAW and add any effects whileprocessing images, but if you want straight-from-the-camera JPGs, Olympus provides an impressive set of customizable processing options. They aren’t quite as good as FujiFilm’s (the sharpening can be a bit harsh), but they’re close.


Olympus

One reason I didn’t find the filters on the front-mounted wheel appealing is because the images coming out of the PEN-F are quite good to begin with—particularly the RAW files, which offer what may bethe best dynamic range I’ve seen in a Micro Four Thirds rig.

This camera offers features similar to those on other Olympus cameras, but they’re just a bit better here. For example the multi-shot high-res mode of the PEN-F is capable of 80 megapixels (if you shoot RAW; JPG is limited to 50) which is up from the OM-D E-M5 II’s 64-megapixel files. That said, high-res only works with a tripod and a really still subject. Wind-blown leaves blurred the landscapes I tried. But the PEN-F probably would do fine in the treeless deserts of Utah.

Switch On

I found the PEN-Fquitecomfortable. If you have large hands, you might find the grip skimpy, but that’s a common complaint with the smaller bodies of Micro Four Thirds cameras. I found the PEN-F just about perfect in terms of weight and balance. I tested it with two lenses that Olympus provided, a 17mm (35mm equivalent) and a 25mm (50mm equivalent) both of which felt well balanced on the body. Although the camera felt front-heavy with my big Panasonic zoom, I found it to be more comfortable on this camera than on the Lumix GF1 it’s usually attached to.

The PEN-F’s dials and knobs strike that perfect balance Olympus is famous for, easily turned yet sturdy enough to keep from rotating on their own in your bag.

I found the PEN-F a joy to use, and liked it so much that remembering the $1,200 price invariably disappointed me. If Olympus priced it at $800, the PEN-F would be a best-in-class camera I couldn’t eagerly recommend. However, when you can get a similar camera like the FujiFilm X-E2S for $700 with an APS-C sensor, I find it tough to justify that price. Still, Olympus built an excellent camera, soif you want something that looks great and produces wonderful images, ignore the fashion tax and buy it.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/2016/10/review-olympus-pen-f/

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Belgium Puts Corporate Tax Rate Under Review as Conflict Lingers

Belgiums government averted a political crisis by relegating plans to cut the tax rate on corporate profits and calls for a capital gains levy to further review as the conflict threatened to derail a last-minute budget deal.

You cant let things like this depend on the outcome of a deal struck in early hours, said Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo on Flemish public broadcaster VRT. Thats why we decided to give ourselves more time and take a closer look at the impact on corporate financing and job creation.

Prime Minister Charles Michel canceled an appointment last Tuesday to present the 2017 budget and measures to accomodate private-sector job creation in parliament in Brussels. Talks between the four coalition parties had stalled over Flemish Christian Democrats demands for the introduction of a capital gains tax on stock investments. De Croo spoke as he left Michels office shortly before midnight. Under European Union rules, Belgium must submit its draft budget by Oct. 15.

Michel will give details about the 2017 budget at a briefing shortly after 11 a.m. on Saturday. According to De Croo, the political agreement amounts to a 3 billion-euro ($3.3 billion) effort, keeping the governments target of a structurally balanced budget in 2018 within reach.

Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-14/belgium-puts-corporate-tax-rate-under-review-as-conflict-lingers

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk review Ang Lee war drama is a misfiring folly

A rare misstep for the Oscar-winning director is an adaptation of Ben Fountains acclaimed novel flattened by ill-fitting experimentation with new technology

Theres a lot going on in Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk, an alternately somber and boisterous film about the effect of combat on America. But despite the great wealth of compelling psychological, interpersonal and social drama that this promises, the complexities are left to those behind the camera to unravel. For director Ang Lee, he sees his latest project as a way to revolutionize how we experience cinema.

Its a lofty goal but Lees coming off the back of his Oscar win for the visually stunning adaptation of Yann Martels Life of Pi, a film that dazzled us with 3D wonders, arguably placed ahead of emotional engagement. But that was a project that demanded a skilled special effects team, a story too extraordinary to be told without. His follow-up is another adaptation, this time of Ben Fountains satirical award-winning novel about veterans and Lees keen to use it as a guinea pig for a new format.

The key here is immersion and as well as 3D, the film utilizes an increased frame rate of 120 frames per second, compared with 48 for The Hobbit trilogy. To the uninitiated, its that ultra-HD feel a high-end TV often adds, removing the slightest blemish but also a familiar gloss, making the biggest blockbuster feel like a documentary. Its a strange test subject for this technology and Lees two-hour argument that this will be how all films should be viewed in the future is a failed one.

The story follows Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn), a young soldier returning from a heroic tour in Iraq where media attention has turned him into a national celebrity in the US. Along with his squadron, hes being pushed around the country on a promotional tour, which is set to culminate during the halftime show of a Thanksgiving football game. But Lynn is struggling to acclimatize and a series of flashbacks showcase the difficult journey thats led him to this day.

When The Hobbit first unleashed an increased frame rate on audiences, feedback was mixed and by the end of the trilogy, converts were thin on the ground. Its an interesting concept to use an even faster frame rate for a film that exists in a real setting, with the idea that emotions should feel more genuine and the story more involving. But the irony is that the novelty of the technique ultimately makes the film feel like even more of a construct. The intimacy of certain scenes feels invaded, and its a struggle to feel emotional involvement within the flashy technique.

Its a curious, often lifeless film that has something to say and at times, almost makes a point or two, but too often it meanders awkwardly and Lees decision to shoot it in this way only serves to show up the inadequacies even more. Any false note, and there are quite a few from a cast of newcomers, is amplified and when a note doesnt ring true, it falls with a thud, harder than usual.

Taking away the technology, theres still a jarring mismatch between source material and film-maker. Fountains novel was praised for its post-modern satire, something that has only made it to the screen in brief glimpses. Theres a meta sub-plot about the squadrons heroic actions being adapted for the big screen with jabs made about the generic nature of Hollywoodised war films and Lee does deserve credit for not turning the project into American Sniper 2. But one feels as if there was a smarter, sharper, sadder film to be made here. Its almost there in the scenes between Lynn and his sister, played by MVP Kristen Stewart, that threaten to force reality through the 3D. But theyre sadly not enough to keep us involved.

Alwyn, effortlessly masking his British accent, makes a strong impression as Lynn and hints at better things to come in future roles while small appearances from Vin Diesel and Steve Martin make for amiable distractions. Its just a film that never really finds its footing, a problem that would have been noticeable with or without the increased frame rate. Its just that at 120 frames a second, its so much more noticeable.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/15/billy-lynn-long-halftime-walk-review-ang-lee-war-drama

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Review: Google Daydream View

The bestthings about the Daydream View, Google’s $79 mobile-driven virtual reality headset that comes out today, arewhat it isn’t: Complicated. Heavy. Expensive. Finicky. Most importantly of all, though, it’s not Cardboard. Google knows for Daydream to take off, the VR platform has to be as simple as as the assemble-it-yourself cheapo phone holster that’s brought so many people into immersive virtual worldsfor the first time—just better. Much better.

Much like the Google Pixel phone that powers it, the View is almost entirely featureless. Very unlike the Pixel, though—and unlike every other VR headset out there—the View manages to look and feel cozy. The eyebox is an uninterrupted swatch of soft heathered material. When you slip it over your head, a single wide fabric strap keeps everything secure, and a padded linerlets the headset rest snugly on your face withoutleaving pressure marks. The linercan even be removed and hand-washedwhich, seriously, you may want to consider doing every now and then. Your T-zone will thank you.

Google Daydream View

8/10

Wired

Comfortable for long spells. Feels good to the touch. Fast, responsive trackingespecially impressive after Cardboard’s disappointing performance. A versatile controller that enhances every experience.

Tired

Unreliable NFC pairing. A launch slate that’s overreliant on Google’s own apps.

How We Rate

  • 1/10A complete failure in every way
  • 2/10Sad, really
  • 3/10Serious flaws; proceed with caution
  • 4/10Downsides outweigh upsides
  • 5/10Recommended with reservations
  • 6/10Solid with some issues
  • 7/10Very good, but not quite great
  • 8/10Excellent, with room to kvetch
  • 9/10Nearly flawless
  • 10/10Metaphysical perfection

Flip down the faceplate, place your Pixel on the four contact points, and the View should recognize it immediately via NFC and prompt you to close the lid. “Should” being the operative word. If I’d recently restarted the phone, all happened as expected, but many times I needed to explicitly launch a VR app just to receive the prompt to place my Pixel in the View—and sometimes I got no prompt at all, leading to a frustrating game of Home Screen Bingo to see what would trigger the launch sequence.


Google

Once things start running, though, and the View is on your head, it (with a little help from you) pairs with the headset’s not-so-secret weapon: the companion controller. As my colleague David has already pointed out, the small pillbox-shaped device functions like a cross between the Apple TV’s remote and a Wiimote, though VR fans will find the Oculus Rift’s remote the handiest comparison. Yet, it’s an improvement on all of those, as well as handily eclipsing the touchpad-on-the-side-of-the-headset input scheme of theSamsung Gear VR, the View’s nearest competitor. It’s your all-in-one Daydream input device, taking various forms depending on what you’re doing. Because it’s motion-tracked, it act asa laser pointer, an aiming reticle, a flashlight, a wand, or just about anything you need it to be. Its buttons bring up in-game options or kick you back to an app-selection screen; around area near the top for your thumbcan function as a joystick, a rotary selector, or a swipe-able touchpad. It’s versatile, powerful, andwhilethe pairing dropped a handful times during my testing, it enhances everything you do in Daydream.

The first place you’ll use it is in Daydream’s pastoral home environment, a forest clearing with a waterfall to your right and a stream flowing nearby. In front of you hovers thesame tiledselection of apps that has emerged as VR’s default UI. (Passing your controller’s selector over the icons in Daydream, though,triggers a nifty 3D animation.) Our review unit included a small selection of titles, from Google’s own products like Street Viewand YouTube VR to third-party games and experiences: astronomy exploration tool Star Chartis a standout, as is cute if inconsequential puzzle game Mekorama.


Google

The good news is that the vast majority of these are flawlessly comfortable experiences. The View might be significantly more wearable than a Google Cardboard viewer, but it’s still essentially the same thing: a phone holster with some lenses in it. There’s no focus wheel, no interpupillary distance adjustment—no input whatsoever. While the Samsung Gear VR has some onboard motion sensors and establishes a hard connection with the phone via its mini-USB jack, the View eschews all that, instead relying solely on the Pixel’s (and controller’s) internal sensors for all tracking. And it does so surprisingly well.

My only brush with VRdiscomfort was in a mini-game collection called Wonderglade:something about the top-down view and the game’s detached camera control came together in unholy matrimony and turned what should have beena pleasant gameof minigolf into a headache I’ve come to know as a precursor to simulator sickness. That’s the fault of the game design, though, notDaydream’s tracking. (By contrast, I found action-RPGHunters Gateto beperfectly comfortable,despite needing to use my thumb and my controller in different waysand looking around at my surroundingswhile doing both.)

For all the good, keep in mind that this is still mobile VR. You can swivel in a chair or look up and down, but you can’t physically move through a virtual space. Fully positionally-tracked VR isn’t yet available in a standalone or mobile-driven headset; for now, if you want to be cable-free or avoid buying a PC or PlayStation 4 (and the multi-hundred-dollar headset to go with it), you’re looking at a somewhat constrained VR experience.

But for a constrained VR experience, this is as good as I’ve seen. A Pixel XL’s Quad HD OLED screen delivers an image as good as you’ll get using a Galaxy phone with the Gear VR, and Google has done a lot of work to optimize the phone to deliver great VR. If you’re not a Verizon customer, you’ll need to wait until there’s a Daydream-ready phone on your own carrier, but that won’t be a long wait: as Google announced in May,at least eight differentAndroid manufacturers, from Asusto Xiaomi,will be rolling out Daydream-capable phones. (There’ll even be other Daydream headsets eventually.)

Daydream also has the benefit of coming nearly two years after the Oculus Store first launched. The VR pipeline is robust, and growing all the time. There are more than 40 other games, experiences and apps arriving on Daydream over the next two months,While many of those are already staples of most other VR platforms (Netflix, NYT VR, cartoonish racer VR Karts, the bomb-defusing game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes), a healthy number of them are newcomers. That infusion of talent is integral to people not just buying in, but using VR.

When Google first surprised us withits Cardboard viewer, it was 2014: the first version of the Samsung Gear VR was still months away.Simply by representing an affordable buy-in, Cardboardspawned a seemingly endless paradeofcheap and easy(and, sure, mostlycrappy) phone-based headsets.Google knew that the quality would come; it just wanted people to be willing to tryVR. Now it’s got them thereand it’s giving them a better View.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/2016/11/daydream-view-review/

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Review: Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base

For years, consumer hardware has increasingly differentiated with design. And while Microsoft’s latest Surface Book hybrid features the premium materials, sleek looks, and lighter and thinner body you’d expect, it’s all about incredible engineering at its core.

This is the second version of the unique detachable device Microsoft first released a year ago, and outwardly the mechanics are largely the same. When the Surface Book’s 13.5-inch touchscreen docks in its mechanical-and-magnetic grip, it’s a powerful laptop with a comfortably spaced keyboard.

Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base

8/10

Wired

It’s a lean performance hybrid with an awesome keyboard. The sharp touchscreen has a sweet aspect ratio for hard-core doc-jockeying. Laptop mode offers the graphics performance of a decent gaming laptop. It does hybrid right.

Tired

Battery life is solid, but falls short of the 16 hours claimed. Sometimes you will forget where the power button is. It’s expensive, but you’re essentially getting two computers in one.

How We Rate

  • 1/10A complete failure in every way
  • 2/10Sad, really
  • 3/10Serious flaws; proceed with caution
  • 4/10Downsides outweigh upsides
  • 5/10Recommended with reservations
  • 6/10Solid with some issues
  • 7/10Very good, but not quite great
  • 8/10Excellent, with room to kvetch
  • 9/10Nearly flawless
  • 10/10Metaphysical perfection

But then you hold down a button for a second, hear an electromechanical thunk, and lift the display right off. Thats the muscle wire lock working as designed, a special mechanism that keeps the screen on tight in laptop mode, and lets it loose when you want a big-screened tablet PC instead—complete with its own three-hour battery and mobile processor. When it comes time to re-dock, go ahead and put the screen on backwards; the system still works and sips from the main battery, giving you a gently sloped surface to write on with the included Surface Pen stylus.

All of which makes Surface Book a unique entry in the portable PC field, even a year later. And while this year’s model—the Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base—doesn’t reinvent the hinge, it does offer a dual-core Intel Core i7 CPU, up to 16 gigs of RAM, and dedicated graphics processors for more gaming and graphics oomph. Not that you can tell from the outside; the new machine looks just like last years Surface Book.

The new model sticks with the same a 13.5-inch, 3000 x 2000 touchscreen display, and its 3:2 aspect ratio leaves ample vertical real estate for rockin’ Word docs. It has same signature bendy-straw hinge as its predecessor, the same surprisingly good speakers, the same contoured magnesium-alloy body with chiseled details, and the same MacBook-silver coloration.

There are differences, though, all of them hidden inside. As a result, the newer Surface Book is a little bit heavier, weighing in at around 3.7 pounds versus the previous model’s 3.5-pound frame. Those extra ounces are no big deal, as it remains a fairly light load in your laptop bag.

Interior Upgrades

The most notable change is an upgraded graphics processing unit, which makes the Surface Book with Performance Base more attractive for gamers, video editors, or CAD whizzes who found last years internals too wimpy. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M GPU tucked inside now is an upgrade from the Nvidia 940M-range GPU found in last year’s models, and theres also double the memory devoted to it (2GB of GDDR5 RAM).

The upgrade pays off; the 2016 Surface Book is super-powerful for such a slim, light, and versatile machine. For the majority of mixed-use cases during testing—streaming a bunch of video, writing this review, surfing the web, and listening to music—the Surface Book had no trouble multitasking without a hiccup. It really zips. Thats to be expected out of the top configuration I tested, a $3,300 rig with a top-shelf Core i7 with 16GB RAM and a 1TB SSD. Still, it lives up to very lofty performance expectations.

I ran it through 3DMarks Cloud Gate benchmark test for all-purpose laptops, and the Surface Pro with Performance Base churned out a score of 8,803, which was significantly better than most 2013 gaming laptops and any general-purpose portable PC. On the more intense Sky Diver test, it held its own as well, netting a 10,738 score that also put it above older gaming laptops and all-purpose portables. No, it’s not on par with newer gaming laptops—it wont handle Oculus VR, for example—but it’s especially impressive when you factor in its size, weight, and versatility.

One perk that the new Surface Book didn’t live up to was its listed 16 hours of battery life in laptop mode. I tested the laptop through three complete charge and recharge cycles, with normal heavy use, and it gave me between six and seven hours of juice at a time. Microsoft suggested downloading the latest Windows update, which did improve power management quite a bit, boosting me to around nine to 10 hours per charge. Another caveat: Microsoft’s battery life spec is based on video playback, not mixed use. The upshot is that you get solid mileage, but don’t expect to make from sunup to sundown with everyday use, unless you live in the Arctic.

Outside of the fresh new engine and bulked-up battery life, the experience of using the new Surface Book is exactly the same as using last years model. Thats largely a long list of pluses: I am a huge fan of its keyboard, which has wider keys, better ergonomics for bigger hands, and more pleasant key travel than the 13-inch MacBook Pro I normally use. The input options are decent, with two USB 3.0 ports and an SD reader along its left edge, and a mini DisplayPort jack on the right edge.

The Surface Books detached-screen experience is best described as tablet PC rather than tablet. When its freed from its dock, the big ol slate runs full Windows 10 programs and is more like a desktop experience than the app-filled iPad. Microsoft calls it Clipboard Mode, which is apt; its size and shape really do make it feel like a clipboard in your hands. In other words, its bulkier than your average iPad. For most casual users, Clipboard Mode will primarily be a nice-to-have feature for reading and watching movies on a plane.

Casual users probably aren’t ponying up this much for a laptop, though. And while Im certainly not the target audience for drawing on its touchscreen all that much, Microsoft nailed the feel of writing with the Surface Pen. It feels like a cross between the worlds smoothest ballpoint and jotting on a slick whiteboard. Just as importantly, stowing the Surface Pen is as simple as sticking it on the edge of the Surface Book’s display with its super-strong magnetic innards. For artists, its certainly worth at least a test sketch to see if it fits your needs.

There are tiny complaints with the new Surface Book here and there. The placement of the power button and the headphone jack will never feel quite right; to accommodate its standalone tablet mode, the Books power button is on the top of the display and the headphone jack is on the top right edge. Cords be danglin. Due to the unique hinge design, theres also a small loopy gap between the screen and the keyboard when the Book is closed. It didnt bother me at all, but it bears mentioning.

Just like the first version of the machine, Surface Book with Performance Base is certainly a laptop first—a damn good laptop first, with a great keyboard, superb performance, and a sharp display that gains more than youd think from its aspect ratio. The new graphics-boosted configurations represent steps up in performance, with the same clever engineering elements that make them such unique portables. But theyre certainly pricey, and if you can do without the tablet mode—and if you truly want a tablet, not a slate PC, you probably can—you can find a similarly powerful machine for the same price or less.

It just wont be as cool.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/2016/11/review-microsoft-surface-book-performance-base/

The post Review: Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base appeared first on Safer Reviews, Unbiased & Independent Reviews..

Source: http://www.saferreviews.com/review-microsoft-surface-book-with-performance-base/

Amazon Blu R1 HD review: Just barely good enough to get by

The Blu R1 HD starts at $50, works on T-Mobile or AT&T, and will arrive on your doorstep in two days. It is, for all intents and purposes, an Amazon phone.

Not the Amazon phone, the Fire, that failed so hard a few years ago. The R1 HD is a phone made by another company, with a few customizations by Amazon, and sold by Amazon.

For Prime members who are fully entrenched in Amazons ecosystem, from Photos to Music to Video to Cloud Drive, the Blu R1 HD comes preinstalled with every Amazon app from the factory.

Now, before you get too excited, you have to remember its a $50 phone.

Amazon ads all up in your face

In June, Amazon announced a new program in which the company takes preexisting Android devices, preloads the complete suite of Amazon apps and tweaks the operating system. Those tweaks allow Amazon to push ads to the lock screen of the device, similar to what the company has long done with its Kindle lineup.

It’s not all bad news. The ads fill up the lock screen when you don’t have any pending notifications. But if you do have pending notifications, they just show up like any other notification.

It’s jarring to see the ads at first, but after a few days I got used to seeing them every time I woke up the phone. If you flat out dislike the idea of ads on your phone, you’ll want to look elsewhere. Also, know that you can’t pay a one-time fee to remove them later like you can with the Kindles with ads.

Hope you like seeing ads on the lockscreen.

Image: screenshot: jason cipriani/mashable

And using Amazon apps.

Image: SCREENSHOT: JASON CIPRIANI/MASHABLE

In exchange for letting Amazon shove ads in your face every time you pick up your phone, the company knocks the price down.

For example, the Blu R1 HD with 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM normally would set you back $110. Someone who purchases the same phone through Amazons Prime Exclusive Phones will get a $50 discount, making the total cost for an unlocked smartphone $60.

Theres a less equipped version of the Blu R1 HD with 8GB of storage and 1GB of memory you can get for $50. Both models have a microSD card slot capable of accepting cards up to 64GB.

Motorola has partnered with Amazon on two of its Moto G4 devices, priced at $100 and $150 after the discount.

Google and Amazon apps

Image: JASON CIPRIANI/MASHABLE

The Blu R1 HD runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and as previously mentioned comes preloaded with Amazon apps. The good news is when you enter your Amazon credentials during setup, all of the Amazon apps Prime Music, Video, Photos, or Alexa are already set up for use with your account.

For what its worth, you cant completely remove any of the Amazon apps, which makes sense. You can, however, disable the apps so you dont have to look at any unused app icons.

Theres little in the way of customizations from Blu, save for an option to schedule a time for the device to turn itself off and on.

Outside of that, the Blue R1 HD provides a pretty basic Android experience. No frills, no fluff, just Amazon and Google playing nice together.

Surprising performance

Image: JASON CIPRIANI/MASHABLE

I was somewhat surprised at how well the Blu R1 HD performed during my time with the phone. As it cost $59, my expectations for the device were very low. I anticipated having to wait for emails to open, apps to launch, and taps or swipes to register.

For the most part, I was wrong and the phone handled common tasks as one would expect. In other words, emails promptly opened, apps launched with quickness, and taps or swipes were registered without any delay.

Image: JASON CIPRIANI/MASHABLE

Image: JASON CIPRIANI/MASHABLE

Gaming, however, is where the Blu R1 HD begins to show its low-end specs. Asphalt 8 is a game I play on all review devices as a way of pushing the device to its limits (plus I enjoy the game quite a bit).

On the Blu R1 HD, graphics stuttered as the phone tried to keep up with gameplay. Its not enough to make the game unplayable, but its not something I could do for an extended chunk of time.

My loudest gripe, outside of the camera, has to be the display’s brightness. I couldnt leave the auto-brightness setting turned on because any lower than 80 percent brightness and the screen was just too dim. Ultimately I left the display set to max, and found it to work in all environments.

Overall battery life was just alright. Youll probably get a full day of use out of it, but barely.

Crummy camera

Image: JASON CIPRIANI/MASHABLE

I think this is the first smartphone camera I wouldnt feel comfortable applying the good enough for Facebook tagline to.

I dont know how else to say it, but the photos are bad. Like really bad. Colors are either overly muted and not all that realistic, or so overblown that the photo is, again, not close to reality.

Camera samples

Image: JASON CIPRIANI/MASHABLE

Image: jason cipriani/mashable

Then again, maybe Im expecting too much from a phone that costs $1 more than Apples leather case for the iPhone 7 Plus. Yes, the camera can take pictures and video, just dont expect to be happy with the results on most occasions.

Should you buy it?

Image: JASON CIPRIANI/MASHABLE

The vast majority like 99.75 percent of the time, that answer is no. The Blu R1 HD is a $50 phone with more concessions than giving Amazon access to blast ads to your lock screen. The camera alone almost makes it a no-go. Heck, for $50 more you can get the Amazon Prime Exclusive version of the Moto G4 Play and find yourself with a battery camera and superior battery life.

With that said, for someone who has met the sad fate of losing a phone and cant afford a new iPhone or Samsung Galaxy phone, the Blu R1 HD will get the job done.

And who knows, maybe the ads you see from Amazon will save you money on purchases you were going to end up making anyways.

Blu R1 HD

The Good

Ridiculously cheap Noticeable Amazon integration

The Bad

Screen is too dim Laughable camera Slow performance at times

The Bottom Line

If youre on a tight budget and just want a phone to get by, you cant go wrong for $50.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2016/10/15/blu-r1-hd-review/

The post Amazon Blu R1 HD review: Just barely good enough to get by appeared first on Safer Reviews, Unbiased & Independent Reviews..

Source: http://www.saferreviews.com/amazon-blu-r1-hd-review-just-barely-good-enough-to-get-by/