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Jan 28, 2015

First Project Ara Modules Appear: Innolux Displays and Sennheiser Audio

The first modular smartphone kit to arrive under the Project Ara banner should be launched later this year. While we wait on the big occasion, we thought you’d like to know that developers are working on the modules that will actually let you achieve device customization.

And the first parts are in. Display maker Innolux has already unveiled a 4.5-inch, 1280 x 720 pixel Ltps display with 600 cd/m2 brightness plus a 1 mm / 0.03 inch border panel. The module is resistant against scratches and such, thanks to Corning’s Gorilla Glass technology. Innolux also plans to start manufacturing 3D and E-Ink displays for Project Ara. Moreover, German audio specialist Sennheiser has started preparations for designing high-end audio modules.

The first one is called Amphion and is actually a premium sound card that goes in the smartphone. It comes with a 150 milliwatt class G headphone amp, low-noise headphone jack plus low-latency digital signal processor. A second version is being touted as Proteus and is equipped with two audio jacks. Have you ever wanted to share with somebody the lovely tune you were listening to? Just passing along one ear-bud is usually useless in such a situation, but with a module like Proteus your friend could plug in his/her headphones too.

These are pretty cool developments and we expect more to come our way soon, especially from the camera department.

Innolux display for Project Ara

Proteus sound module from Sennheiser

Proteus sound module has two jacks

Amphion sound module from Sennheiser
Images credits to Phonebloks

Canonical Reveals the Hardware Specs of the Ubuntu Aquarius E4.5 Phone

Canonical has revealed the specs for the Aquarius E4.5 phone that will launch with Ubuntu Touch, although they were not exactly a state secret.

Information about the launch of the Ubuntu-powered Bq Aquarius E4.5 phone in February was made public only a month ago, so it's not really a secret what phones will be used by the Spanish partners at Canonical. Meizu, the partners from China, have been much more secretive and it's likely that they will wait until the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona scheduled to start on March 2. In the meantime, even if Meizu was the first company to confirm the release of an Ubuntu phone, it looks like Bq beat them to the punch, although they are aiming at different users. The specs detailed by Canonical show that Aquarius E4.5 is an affordable device with medium hardware specs. It doesn't seem like much, but it's addressed at people who don't want to spend too much on a high-end phone, but still want to own a smartphone.

Aquarius E4.5 specs are not a secret
The phone was revealed a few months back and the hardware specs were also made available. Nonetheless, Canonical felt that users need to hear the information from an official source and they have also released details about Aquarius E4.5. "A strong innovative brand who operates in Europe with over 600 staff. With mobile, in 2013 bq shipped almost 1.5 million devices and in less than a year has become Spain’s second biggest seller of unlocked smartphones. The Aquarius E4.5 Ubuntu edition will be available in Europe and can be purchased soon via the bq site," wrote Canonical on fullcirclemagazine.org.

Aquarius E4.5 is a rather small device, judging by today's standards, with a 4.5-inch screen and a 960×540 resolution. It also comes with a 13MP capable camera, a 2150mAh battery, and a Quad A7 processor at 1.3GHz. The exact date for the launch of the Ubuntu edition for this phone hasn't been pinpointed yet and the announcement only mentions soon. The previously announced launch date was late February, and there is no reason to think that it won't happen then.

Aquarius E45 Specs:
4.5″ qHD (960×540)
5MP Fixed Focus+13MP Autofocus
Dual Flash
Dual micro sim
Quad A7/1.3GHz
Gyroscope, Proximity, Light

Ubuntu Touch on Bq Aquaris e4.5 rendering

This is what the Ubuntu Touch phone might look like

Aquaris e4.5 front

Bq Aquaris e4.5 with white back

Bq Aquaris e4.5 with black back

Aquaris e4.5 with black back

Aquaris e4.5 features Android 4.4.4

Aquaris e4.5 with Android

Aquaris e4.5
Images credits to bq

Google Project Ara Modules Will Be Compatible with BLOCKS Modular Smartwatch

A while ago we talked about the BLOCKS modular smartwatch platform, which is built according to rules similar to Google’s Project Ara, an initiative that aims to build a smartphone made out of swappable modules.

At first, these two endeavors seemed like separate projects, but it turns out that at some point in the future they will be intertwined. That translates into the fact that some Project Ara modules will be made compatible BLOCKS’ modular smartwatch. According to a member from the BLOCKS team, they have already met with Project Ara’s team to discuss the further implementation of the idea.

So in the near future you’ll probably be able to swap out a camera, battery, sensor, secondary notification display or microphone from your smartphone and go on to use it on your smartwatch. Imagine that you have to go out for a run but want to leave your smartphone at home. Just swipe out the cellular module and put it on your smartwatch and there you go, you are covered in case your boss tries to contact you while you’re out. This is a pretty exciting development, which makes a lot of sense. After all, most smartwatches are designed to be paired with smartphones to be of any use to you.

Project Ara teams up with BLOCKS

Several modules of BLOCKS

Colored parts of BLOCKS

Several looks of BLOCKS

BLOCKS will come in many shapes and formes
Images credits to Phonebloks

Jan 27, 2015

Sapphire Radeon R9 290X with 8 GB Memory Launched

Overclocked graphics cards are the name of the game immediately after every new video board release, but today we aren't looking at yet another NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960. Instead, the AMD crowd is retaliating, so to speak.

Perhaps that is not altogether appropriate to say, since the board that Sapphire has just released is in no way meant to compete with NVIDIA's newest Maxwell model. Which is not to mean that it is weaker. Quite the opposite, Sapphire has launched one of the best single-GPU cards yet, the Radeon R9 290X Tri-X 8GB. This video card is an incarnation of the Radeon R9 290X single-GPU top-tier adapter from AMD, only with 8 GB instead of “only” four.

The Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X 8GB
The GPU, known in most circles as the Hawaii, runs its 2,816 GCN stream processing units (Graphics Core-Next) at a clock of 1,020 MHz. Considering that the normal board is content with 1,000 MHz (1 GHz for short), you can already see the factory overclock at work. However, one could also make a good case for the overclock being more or less minor. That's where the dual-BIOS comes in. The point is to allow buyers to manually overclock the graphics adapter themselves, and for the secondary BIOS to act as the fallback plan. If overclocking goes too high and too far, leading to a no-boot scenario, the card can be rolled back to factory settings with a single switch.

That said, the 8 GB of GDDR5 VRAM are run at 1,375 MHz (5.5 GHz Effective frequency) through a 512-bit interface. As for the cooler, it is a triple-fan monstrosity (fans with dust repelling bearings and dual ball races) with a black and red color theme and five heatpipes, a central 10 mm one, and four subsidiaries. Aerofoil section blades make sure airflow is strong and efficient with little noise. All in all, the video card, with its 6-phase power design and two 8-pin power ports, can pull as much as 375 Watts total including PCI-Express power.

Availability and pricing
The Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X 8GB graphics card should be put up for order soon, for around one thousand dollars / euro based on current trends and the prices of other high-end adapters. Sapphire didn't give any numbers in the PR. Or it could end up at under six hundred, or between six and seven hundred. A second search through retail channels confirms that the potential price range is surprisingly wide.

Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X 8GB

Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X 8GB side view

Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X 8GB full view
Images credits to Sapphire

Jan 22, 2015

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960: DX12, 9.3 GHz Memory and 21W Power Consumption

We have been following the approach of the new Maxwell-based graphics card from NVIDIA closely, and now we can finally say that the video board is ready to sell, for only $199 / €199.

Early rumors said that we may as well expect something like four hundred dollars / euro or more, but considering what card the GTX 960 will replace, that turned out to be too high. The GTX 960 was made as a replacement for the GeForce GTX 660. And GTX 760, but mostly the GTX 660 because people who bought a GTX 760 last year aren't as likely to want an upgrade so soon after spending that money. More importantly, the performance gain would not be worth it. Even NVIDIA's reps said as much during the conference call of a few days ago. Indeed, while the GTX 960 enables a better performance than 760 by around 10% or so (more if you overclock), the advantage over GTX 660 is of 45% or more.

The specifications of the GTX 960
We may as well get them out of the way. First off, we have the GM206 GPU with 1,023 CUDA cores, 1,127 MHz base clock, 1,178 MHz GPU Boost clock, and 128-bit interface. NVIDIA said that the interface was so small because Maxwell used it very efficiently. There are 2 GB of GDDR5 VRAM, and while NVIDIA isn't commenting on the possibility of 4 GB versions, an OEM or other will likely launch one just on principle. In any case, the clock of the VRAM is of 7 GHz physical, 9.3 GHz effective. As for video connectors, we have a pair of dual-link DVI, one DisplayPort 1.2 and one HDMI 2.0.

Everything runs on a 6-pin power connector, as the TDP (thermal design power) is of 120W. It won't come even close to that limit during normal operation though, which incidentally means you can also overclock it quite a bit despite the power limit.

The special assets of the GeForce GTX 960
DirectX 12 was one of the things that NVIDIA's representatives specified during the presentation. Another technology was the Rasterized Order View, which allows the GPU to work out in advance how to draw polygons and shades. This smooths out 3D video. PhysX, Destruction and Cloth technologies are fully integrated (they're self-explanatory), as are secondary add-on technologies like WaveWorks, Turf Effects, turbulence, ShadowWorks, PhysX Flex, HairWorks and VXGI. VXGI is a global illumination algorithm known as Voxel Cone Tracing. It computes all lighting in a scene, making it realistic enough to seem like it was filmed in real life.

Then there is the Auto-enabled multi-frame sampled anti-aliasing in games, which improves graphics to the point where it looks like you're running 4K on a 1080p monitor. Finally, the efficiency deserves a place of honor. The TDP may be of 120W, but the card won't consume more than 21W in normal operation, and will stay at 31W when in a MOBA game like DOTA or Heroes of Newerth. This allows the fan to stay completely shut off, thus ensuring total silence (unless your CPU cooler is particularly noisy in any case). You can check yourself with EVGA Precision or MSI afterburner.

NVIDIA launches GeForce GTX 960

Maxwell architecture powers it

MFAA supported on more games

GTX 960, an overclocker's dream

MFAA auto-enabled in GameWorks

Play 4K on 1080p display

The specs of the GTX 960

The main selling points

Performance comparison with GTX 660

Efficiency comparison with GTX 660
Images credits to NVIDIA

Despite Constant Denial, Samsung Wants to Buy BlackBerry, Leaked Document Shows

Last week the entire world turned its eyes on Samsung and BlackBerry, as a rumor popped up online saying that the Korean tech giant is looking to purchase the Canadian company.

Since then both BlackBerry and Samsung have stepped forward and denied the allegations. Samsung was more specific and explained it was not looking to acquire BlackBerry, but it was still interested in continuing and strengthening their ongoing partnership. But could it be that the two companies prefer to keep quiet until some papers are signed and the deal is sealed off?

It turns out the Samsung-BlackBerry acquisition is still on the table
It’s a big possibility, especially since the Financial Post dug up a document dated to Q4 2014, written by investment bank Ecercore Partners for Samsung, in which the main reasons for the BlackBerry acquisition are outlined. A source close to Samsung has revealed that the company is still evaluating its options and that the acquisition is “being pursued right now, it’s still very much an open deal.” According to the leaked document, Samsung is apparently considering involving BlackBerry’s largest shareholder, Prem Watsa, in the whole affair.

Watsa is the CEO of Fairfax Financial, and if you remember, back in 2013 he was involved in a $4.7 / €4.06 billion deal to purchase BlackBerry. But the deal didn’t go through after all, and as a result, CEO Thorsten Heins was given the boot and John Chen took over. The document goes on to reveal that Samsung is planning to offer a price between $13.35 / €11.52 and $15.49 / €13.37 per share for BlackBerry. It’s also apparent that Samsung believes BlackBerry’s faith will be stabilizing soon. Hardware sales will finally find a balance, but what’s more interesting is Samsung’s prediction of software revenue, which is seen as tripling from $235 / €203 million in 2014 to $636 in 2017. What will happen? Your guess is as good as ours.

Samsung and BlackBerry are actively denying any rumors of an aqusition

Oppo Find 9 Leaks with Snapdragon 810 and 4GB of RAM

Just yesterday Oppo introduced a kooky new phone called the U3, which arrives in the wild with a pretty big 5.9-inch display, octa-core processor and a slightly disturbing bunny-tale case.

Well, it seems like Oppo is not planning to take a break from unveiling phones anytime soon. Newly uncovered information coming to us via Giz China reveals that Oppo is working towards bringing out a new model from the Find series. You might remember that, when it launched, the Find 7 was one of the first smartphones to arrive with a Quad HD display, so we’re expecting good things from the Oppo Find 9.

Oppo Find 9 is going to be a big phone
A few screenshots showcasing the device already popped out in China, and as you can very well see, we’re looking at a pretty big device, although we can’t tell for sure whether its display is larger than 5.5 inches or not. According to the rumor mill, the Oppo Find 9 will be quite a beast spec-wise. Word on the street has it that the handset will take advantage of a Snapdragon 810 processor fitted with a hefty 4GB of RAM. If the information turns out to be the real deal, the Find 9 will be on par with Xiaomi’s Mi Note Pro and possibly the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge.

Another handset that arrives with 4GB of RAM is the ASUS ZenFone 2, although this particular model relies on an Intel chip. As we advanced into 2015, more and mode handset manufacturers are showing interest in developing monster devices that take advantage of high-end chips such as the Snapdragon 810 and also bundle 4GB of RAM. Unlike the newly uncovered Oppo U3 which will probably be offered only in Asia, the Find 9 has a bigger chance of being offered internationally. We’ll keep you posted as more information about the subject surfaces online.

Current Oppo Find 7 was among the first to have a QHD display
Image credits to Oppo

Leaked image of the upcoming Oppo Find 9
Image credits to GizChina

Current Oppo Find 7 handset
Image credits to Oppo

Jan 21, 2015

Qualcomm Remaining 2015 Roadmap Leaks, Snapdragon 820 Ready to Rock

While we are still waiting for Qualcomm to start shipping out batches of its high-end Snapdragon 810 chip to device manufacturers like Xiaomi and LG, the chip-makers roadmap for the second half of 2015 has already leaked.

Twitter account @leaksfly has managed to get ahold of information that reveals what we can expect from Qualcomm throughout this year. For starters, the successor of the “current” Snapdragon 810 will be the Snapdragon 820. Its purported specifications reveal two major differences. Traditionally, Snapdragon chips are based on Krait CP cores, but the transition into 64-bit territory happened to come at the same time with the end of life for Krait. So the Snapdragon 810 was released without its own custom core. But the Snapdragon 820 appears to be the first custom model to take advantage of 64-bit CPU cores under the Taipan architecture.

The silicone bit should arrive in an octa-core formation with eight TS2 high-performance cores. The second important change is that with the Snapdragon 820, Qualcomm will be transitioning to 14nm FinFet manufacturing, which will bring about visible improvements in performance and overall efficiency. Samsung and GlobalFoundries will be in charge of the production. The Snapdragon 820 will also come equipped with new Adreno 530 GPU, faster LPDDR4 RAM and add support to MDM9X55 LTE-A Cat.10 Qualcomm modem. But wait, there are more chips we have to look forward to in 2015.

Snapdragon 815
This platform is an octa-core design which nestles four TS1 cores and four TS2 ones in a big.LITTLE setup. The GPU inside is the Adreno 440 while modem and RAM stay the same as with the Snapdragon 820. However, the Snapdragon 815 will be forged on a 20nm process.

Snapdragon 620, 625 and 629
All these three chips will end up powering mid-range mobile devices. The Snapdragon 625 and 629 look quite similar, coming with an octa-core configuration with Adreno 418 GPU, LPDDR4 RAM and a lower-class MDM9X45 LTE-A Cat.10 modem. They will be manufactured using a 20nm HKMG Samsung/GF process.

Snapdragon 620, 625 and 629
All these three chips will end up powering mid-range mobile devices. The Snapdragon 625 and 629 look quite similar, coming with an octa-core configuration with Adreno 418 GPU, LPDDR4 RAM and a lower-class MDM9X45 LTE-A Cat.10 modem. They will be manufactured using a 20nm HKMG Samsung/GF process.

The Snapdragon 620 is a quad-core chip which uses Qualcomm Taipan cores clocked between 2 and 2.5GHz and LPDDR3 RAM. The platform will support Adreno 418 GPU and MDM9X45 LTE-A Cat.10 modem. Apart from that, the Snapdragon 620 is identical to the other models in the 62x family.

Snapdragon 616
Last but not least, we have the Snapdragon 616 which takes advantage of eight ARM Cortex A53 cores clocked between 1.8 and 2.2GHz with Adreno 408 GPU. The SoC has LTE-A Cat.6 modem and will be manufactured on a 28nm HKMG by Semiconductor Manufacturing International Company (SMIC). Qualcomm really seems to have a full agenda in 2015 and hopefully the silicone maker will be able to pull together and resolve the over-heating issues of the Snapdragon 810 once and for all.

Qualcomm's 2015 roadmap leaks
Image credits to @leaksfly

Jan 14, 2015

Oppo R1C Is Here with Sapphire Display, Snapdragon 615 and $400 Price

Just like we were telling you a few days ago, today Oppo took the opportunity to unveil the new R1C smartphone, which is basically a refresh of the Oppo R1S.

The most appealing feature of the handset is that it is offered with a sapphire glass display. While major tech players in the industry like Apple have yet to offer products taking advantage of the indestructible technology, Asian companies have gotten a head start in this department. Yesterday we talked about one of Apple’s suppliers, Desay which recently unveiled the Magical Mirror X5, a handset which offers a sapphire display for a budget price tag.

Oppo R1C boasts sapphire glass
Anyway, going back to the Oppo R1C, the handset makes a debut into the wild with a 5-inch display and boasting 1280 x 720 pixel resolution, as reported by Gizmo China. Pumping power into the whole shenanigan is a new octa-core Snapdragon 615 CPU clocked at 1.5GHz fitted with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. Luckily, there’s a microSD slot onboard, so those who feel they need more storage can go ahead and bump things up to 128GB of internal storage. The Oppo R1C dons a 13MP snapper on the back that uses a Sony IMX214 sensor with an f/2.0 aperture, so the part where you can take decent low-light pictures is covered. Up front, a 5MP snapper will feed your needs for selfie taking.

The handset survives off a decent 2420 mAh battery, but Oppo doesn't say how much we should expect the smartphone to last on a single charge. The company’s proprietary Color OS 2.0.1 is present on the handset, which is a tweaked version of Android 4.4 KitKat. We also have to mention that the handset is pretty sleek, boasting a thickness of just 6.85 mm / 0.26 inches. It’s not the skinniest you’ll see on the market, but it’s quite anorexic nevertheless. To compare, Samsung just unveiled its thinnest smartphone to date, the Galaxy A7 which enjoys a profile of 6.3 mm / 0.24 inches.

As we told you above, Oppo will offer a variant with a sapphire glass display plus 4G connectivity and dual SIM support. Expect the device to go on sale starting January 20 for an approximately $403 / €342.

Oppo R1C launches
Images credits to Gizmo China

Jan 13, 2015

DDR4 Memory Record Set by G.Skill DDR4 RAM

The DDR4 memory technology is relatively young at the moment, with only a select few ultra high-end workstation motherboards even having support for them. Those powered by the X99 chipset from Intel.

This does, however, mean that all the tools needed to perform great overclocking feats are already available. Which is to say, a powerful chipset (the X99 we already mentioned), good mainboards based on them (in this case the ASUS Rampage V Extreme), and a mighty central processing unit (the Intel Core i7-5960X). All these things came together recently and enabled G.Skill to set the new record in terms of DDR4 performance, leading the clock of its best Ripjaws to 4,255 MHz while latencies were of CL 18-18-18. The CPU-Z validation has already been submitted and acknowledged.

For comparison, the previous record was 4,032 MHz on an MSI X99S SLI PLUS motherboard, set by Kingston HyperX modules. Liquid nitrogen had to be used for the overclocking run, however, so don't try this at home unless you have access to the same resources. Normally, DDR4 operates at 2,133 MHz. But when even DDR3 can go above 4.5 GHz, you can be sure that enthusiasts and PC hardware companies themselves will do all they can to bring DDR4 well above that level.

G.Skill Ripjaws DDR4
Image credits to G.Skill

CPU-Z validation of the record performance
Image credits to G.Skill

Jan 12, 2015

Oppo’s Upcoming R1C Handset Could Feature Sapphire Glass, Snapdragon 615 SoC

Just a day before Xiaomi’s big event where we expect to see the handset maker launch its latest flagship, the Mi5, Oppo will be doing some unveiling of its own.

The device maker also has a new smartphone to show us, which goes by the name of U3 and its most important feature is that it comes with a 4x optical zoom on the rear 13MP camera. However, Oppo might have another model in the pipeline. It’s called the R1C, and according to Gizmo China, it could come boasting a stylish crystal glass on the back. For the time being, word on the street claims that the device will arrive with a 5-inch 720p display and take advantage of an octa-core Snapdragon 615 processor fitted with 2GB of RAM, but we can't be sure just yet that all is accurate.

Other known specs so far include a 13MP on the back and 5MP frontal camera, 16GB of internal storage (expandable via microSD card) and LTE connectivity. The handset is said to be scheduled for launch on the same date as the Oppo U3, meaning January 14. The first month of 2015 seems to be a very busy one for Chinese OEMs, so sit back relax and let yourself be wowed by Asia’s latest monsters. Check out the preliminary images featuring the R1C in the gallery below.

Oppo R1C
Images credits to Gizmo China

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