Chromebook Pixel revisited: 18 months with Google’s luxury laptop

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Is it crazy to pay $1300 for a Chromebook? Some reflections after a year and a half of living with Google’s luxurious Pixel.

When you stop and think about it, it’s kind of astonishing how far Chromebooks have come.

It was only last February, after all, that Google’s Chromebook Pixel came crashing into our lives and made us realize how good of an experience Chrome OS could provide.

At the time, the Pixel was light-years ahead of any other Chromebook in almost every possible way: From build quality to display and performance, the system was just in a league of its own. And its price reflected that status: The Pixel sold for a cool $1300, or $1450 if you wanted a higher-storage model with built-in LTE support.

Today, the Pixel remains the sole high-end device in the Chromebook world (and its price remains just as high). But the rest of the Chrome OS universe has evolved — and the gap between the Pixel and the next notch down isn’t quite as extreme as it used to be.

So how has the Pixel held up 18 months after its release, and does it still justify the lofty price? I’ve owned and used the Pixel since last spring and have evaluated almost every other Chromebook introduced since its debut.

Here are some scattered thoughts based on my experiences:

1. Hardware and design
As I said when I revisited the device a year ago, the Chromebook Pixel is hands-down the nicest computer I’ve ever used. The laptop is as luxurious as it gets, with a gorgeous design, premium materials, and top-notch build quality that screams “high-end” from edge to edge.
Chromebook Pixel Revisited

We’re finally starting to see some lower-end Chromebooks creep up in the realms of design and build quality — namely the original HP Chromebook 11 (though it’s simply too slow to recommend for most people) and the ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook (which is sturdy and well-built but not exactly sleek) — and that’s a very good thing. In fact, that’s a large part of what Google was ultimately trying to accomplish by creating the Pixel in the first place. Think about it.

While those devices may be a step up from the status quo, though, they’re not even close to the standard of premium quality the Pixel delivers. When it comes to hardware, the Pixel is first-class through and through while other products are varying levels of economy.

The Pixel’s backlit keyboard and etched-glass trackpad also remain unmatched in their premium nature. Typing and navigating is a completely different experience on this laptop than on any other Chromebook (and, for that matter, on almost any non-Chrome-OS laptop, too).

The same goes for the Pixel’s spectacular speakers. Other Chromebooks are okay, but none is anywhere near this outstanding.

2. Display
The display — man, oh man, the display. The Pixel’s 12.85-in. 2560-x-1700 IPS screen is like candy for your eyes. The vast majority of Chromebook screens (yes, even those that offer 1080p resolution) are still using junky TN panels and consequently look pretty awful. The two exceptions are the same systems mentioned above — the HP 11 and the ThinkPad Yoga 11e — but while those devices’ displays reign superior in the sub-$500 category, their low resolution is no match for the Pixel’s crystal-clear image quality.

I continue to appreciate the Pixel’s touchscreen capability to this day, too: While I certainly don’t put my fingers on the screen all the time, it’s really nice to have the ability to reach up and tap, scroll, or pinch when I feel the urge. For as much time as I spend using smartphones and tablets, it seems completely natural to be able to do that with a laptop as well. (Admit it: You’ve tried to touch a non-touchscreen laptop at some point. We all have.)
“Performance is where things get particularly interesting”

I will say this, though: The time I’ve spent recently with the Yoga 11e has definitely gotten me keen on the idea of a Chromebook being able to convert into a tablet-like setup. After using that device, I sometimes find myself wishing the Pixel’s display could tilt back further and provide that sort of slate-style experience.

3. Stamina and performance
At about five hours per charge, the Pixel’s battery life is passable but not exceptional — especially compared to the eight to 10 hours we’re seeing on some systems these days. As I’ve mused before, stamina is the Pixel’s Achilles’ heel.

Performance is where things get particularly interesting: When the Pixel first came out, its horsepower was unheard of for a Chrome OS device. I could actually use the system in my typical power-user way, with tons of windows and tabs running at the same time and no slowdowns or multitasking misery. Compared to the sluggish Chrome OS systems we’d seen up to that point, it felt like a full-fledged miracle.

The Pixel’s performance is no less impressive today, but what’s changed is that other Chrome OS systems have actually come close to catching up. These days, you can get solid performance in a Chromebook for around $200 with the various Haswell-based systems. The newer Core i3 devices give you a little more punch for around $300. Neither quite reaches the Pixel’s level of snappiness and speed, but in practical terms, they’re not too far behind.

So for most folks, performance alone is no longer a reason to own the Pixel. It’s an important part of the Pixel, for sure, but if that’s the only thing you’re interested in, you’d do far better to save yourself the cash and get a lower-end Chromebook with decent internals.

To Pixel or not to Pixel?
What is a reason to own the Pixel, then? Simple: to enjoy a top-of-the-line Chrome OS experience with all the amenities you could ask for. The device’s hardware quality and design, keyboard and trackpad, speakers, and display add up to make a wonderful overall user experience no other Chromebook can match.

As for whether it’s worth the price, well, that’s a question only you can answer. Is a high-end car worth the premium over a reliable but less luxurious sedan? For someone like me, probably not. But for someone who’s passionate about cars, spends a lot of time in a vehicle and appreciates the elevated quality, it just might be.

The same concept applies here. The Pixel remains a fantastic luxury option for users sold on the Chrome OS concept — people like me who rely heavily on cloud storage and spend most of their time using Web-centric apps and services.

Like with any luxury item, the level of quality the Pixel provides certainly isn’t something anyone needs, but its premium nature is something a lot of folks will enjoy — and that’s as true today as it was last year.


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Ten tech products that died on arrival

Proof that no matter how much time, effort, and money you put into something, it may sink like a stone and stay at the bottom

ITworld’s own Andy Patrizio has declared Windows 8 dead on arrival, a product so out-of-touch with its intended audience that that it was doomed from the start. The tech industry is surprisingly littered with such sad stories of failure, many from extremely successful companies. These products take years to develop, and sometimes the train is hard to divert, even when it becomes clear it’s heading in the wrong direction. Many of these dead-on-arrival flops had high corporate hopes behind them; others were already giving off the stench of death, and were briefly released only to be mercifully put down in short order.

Apple Lisa
The first GUI-based PC available for mass purchase, the Lisa had a hefty price tag of nearly $10,000 and a powerful enemy in Steve Jobs, who had been forced off the Lisa project, which had been named after his daughter, a year before its 1983 release. As recounted by his biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs told anyone who would listen that the new Apple project he had attached himself to, the Macintosh, was coming soon and would provide a GUI OS at a fraction of the price, all before the Lisa even hit stores. Although Lisa’s OS contained features like protected memory that wouldn’t hit the Mac until 2001, it never caught market traction and died by 1986.

IBM PCjr
If the Lisa died on arrival because of its looming successor, IBM’s PCjr, the subject of a massive marketing campaign and pre-release buzz that declared it would blow up 1983′s home computer market, was stillborn thanks to its older brother, the IBM PC, whose success had taken even IBM by surprise. While Big Blue hoped their reputation for quality would make people choose the PCjr over cheaper offerings from Atari and Commodore, most potential customers were looking for a stripped-down PC clone, not a computer that had a terrible keyboard and was incompatible with 40 percent of IBM software, including the all-important Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Flight Simulator. The PCjr was a massive flop.

dBASE IV
Many users of enterprise software products are resigned to x.0 versions being buggy and are willing to wait for x.1 versions before writing them off completely, and in 1988 Ashton-Tate’s dBASE database was in a strong enough position that it seemed capable of riding out the vitriolic press reaction to its dBASE 4.0 release. But instead of getting to work fixing the bugs, Ashton-Tate had already dedicated engineering resources to an entirely revamped product, leading to a user rebellion that targeted the company CEO personally. It took a year for the company to change course, by which point dBASE had lost nearly a third of its market share. Ashton-Tate was sold to Borland in 1991.

Microsoft Windows ME
Microsoft spent most of the ’90s managing two separate OS lineages: Windows 9x, ultimately based on MS-DOS, and Windows NT, a business-focused OS that was considered too advanced for ordinary users. As the fin de siècle approached, Microsoft prepared Windows 2000, a successor to Windows NT 4 that would also serve as the general-purpose consumer OS. But less than a year before its release, Redmond admitted the consumer version wouldn’t be ready in time and instead announced Windows Millenium Edition, a buggy, lackluster update to Windows 98, which PC World called “Mistake Edition.” Windows XP, the true unification of the two codebases, came in 2001, and Windows ME was mercifully forgotten.

Segway
In 2001, the tech press was roiled by rumors of something, code-named “Ginger” or just “IT,” being plotted by inventor Dean Kamen, who had previously built advanced all-terrain wheelchairs. Some of the more hyperbolic possibilities bandied about were that it was an super-efficient Stirling Engine, or perhaps a scooter built around such an engine. In fact, it (or “IT”) turned out to be a scooter powered by ordinary electric motors, and while it has sold well enough into specific niche markets, the initial maniacally high hopes for it — that people would “build cities around it” — were so far from fruition from the moment of conception that we can call the dream of Ginger DOA.

Nokia N-Gage
In the early ’00s, many gamers were carrying both a cell phone and a handheld gaming device like a Nintendo Gameboy. So Nokia, then a wildly successful developer of cutting-edge phones, reasoned: why shouldn’t we make a device that combines both? The N-Gage, released in late 2003, had a dumb name, which many a tech device has survived, and a terrible design, which most do not; in order to use it as a phone, you had to hold it at an awkward angle that made it look like you were talking into a taco. The gaming controls were no great shakes either. Nokia shipped 400,000 to retailers, but fewer than 6,000 were actually purchased.

Apple G4 Cube
Is a computer with a spot in New York’s Museum of Modern Art really a failure? It is if you were aiming to make money from it. Apple’s G4 Cube, introduced in July of 2000, was touted as a groundbreaking aesthetic work, but it was also intended to serve as an intermediary product between the low-end iMac and high-end Power Mac. Unfortunately, Apple was also selling G4 towers with nearly identical specs for $200 less. That, plus the Cube’s poor expansion options and overall weirdness, lead to anemic sales out of the gate and the decision to kill the product after only a year. By the time MoMA added one to its collection, it was genuinely a museum piece.

Oqo Model 2
The mid-’00s saw on onslaught of tiny Windows-compatible “ultra-mobile PCs.” The briefly popular netbook evolved out of this category, but for sheer splash you couldn’t beat the weird, PDA-sized Oqo Model 02, which Bill Gates held onstage at CES in 2007, and which somehow got dubbed the world’s smallest “full-powered, full-featured personal computer” by the Guinness Book of Records. Oqo’s Wikipedia page lists a litany of awards the Model 02 won (with a prominent [citation needed] tag), but did anyone actually use one in real life? The numbers were very small. The company was bankrupt less than two years later.

Microsoft Kin
In 2009, Microsoft was working on not one but two Windows CE-derived smartphone OSes to take on the iPhone and Android. One, Windows Phone 7, established a new ecosystem that’s carved out a niche in the market. The other, Microsoft Kin, was an epic disaster. Created by the group that had built the Danger Hiptop, the Kin was supposed to be a social media-focused device for twentysomethings. But its social hub only refreshed every 15 minutes, you couldn’t use it to upload pictures to Twitter, and it lacked an app store. Nobody bought it. Less than two months after it was unveiled, Microsoft killed it and cut its losses.

BlackBerry PlayBook
In 2011, RIM was in trouble, and BlackBerry had been eclipsed by Apple and Android. In a Hail Mary move, the company bought itself a new and well-regarded operating system, QNX, and opted to first build it into a tablet device that would take on the iPad. While the tech specs were good, the execution was awful: the PlayBook lacked the ability to send or receive email and BlackBerry messages (one of the few remaining BlackBerry-unique features on the market) without a connection to a separate phone, and it introduced an bewildering set of new development environments that alienated longstanding BlackBerry app devs. Sales were much, much lower than expected, which contributed to the company’s current sad state.


 

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The iPhone 6 unknowns

What we don’t know far outnumbers, and outweighs, what we think we know.

Almost everything that the iOSphere thinks it knows about the iPhone 6 – expected to be announced Sept. 9 — is based on Apple’s past history. So, everyone “knows” the iPhone 6 will have a new processor, the A8. The reason is because every new iPhone except the 3g has had a new processor. Almost everyone is convinced Apple will make the iPhone body look more like the iPad body: rounded instead of flat sides. But beyond that, it’s all up in the air. Here are the Big Unknowns about how today’s iPhone might change.

Sapphire cover glass
It’s never been clear that Apple’s strategic investment in synthetic sapphire production was intended to create tens of millions of iPhone screens in 2014. Sapphire furnace maker GT Advanced Technologies, Apple’s partner in the project, said in early August that the Mesa, Ariz., plant was only just then ramping up to full production of the raw sapphire. The downstream cutting, shaping, grinding and polishing – all arduous and more time consuming because of sapphire’s hardness – will ramp up after that. Some observers think sapphire might appear first in the next iPod nano, and roll out to iPhones in 2015.

Display technology
The iOSphere has been obsessing over bigger-than-4-inch (diagonal) screens for the iPhone. But there are a host of emerging display technologies that may have as big or bigger impact on users. Quantum dots, from vendors like Nanosys, promise to make the LCD technology favored by Apple rival OLED in brightness, color accuracy and lower power demand. Metal oxide technology, from vendors like Cbrite, promise to transform LCD backplanes (which turn pixels on/off), resulting in higher resolution, and lower costs and power demand. Shown: Nanosys’ quantum dots film in LCD stack.

Processor
Recent speculation is that the expected Apple-designed A8 system-on-chip will run at 2.0 GHz (vs. 1.3 GHz for the A7 in the iPhone 5s), or that the rumored 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch models will have, somehow, different A8 chips. But the A7’s Cyclone microarchitecture created a “desktop class” 64-bit processor for mobile devices and Apple has barely started to exploit its possibilities [See AnandTech’s march 2014 summary]. Apple could shift to a 20-nanometer (from 28nm) process, scale the clockspeed, and hold power demand steady; introduce other changes to reduce power demand overall; tweak internals to improve specific types of processing. And introduce apps that really show what Cyclone can do.

RAM
iPhone 5c and 5s currently both have 1GB of RAM. The 5c apparently uses low-power DDR2 (LPDDR2), while the 5s has LPDDR3, with a higher data rate and memory density, and greater power efficiency and bandwidth. Based on Apple’s historic RAM expansion, iPhone 6 could see a boost to 2GB of RAM, enabling the phone to handle more tasks at once. But the real benefits lie in a possible shift to LPDDR4, with 50 percent higher performance and 40 percent less energy than the fastest LPDDR3 today. Shown: SK Hynix’s 4-Gigabit LPDDR4 chip.

Wireless advances
Many expect iPhone 6 to introduce 802.11ac Wi-Fi, but the real advance would be a new antenna design to support two 11ac spatial streams, such as found in Broadcom’s BCM4354 chip, for a maximum downstream data rate of 867Mbps using an 80-MHz channel. Apple could boost LTE performance by adding a Category 4 modem, with up to 150Mbps of downstream throughput, such as Qualcomm’s Gobi MDM9x25 LTE modem. Near field communications (NFC) for mobile payments? iBeacon, based on low energy Bluetooth 4.0, is a better bet. [See “Apple's iBeacon turns location sensing inside out”]

Battery life
Larger phones mean room for physically bigger batteries, with correspondingly bigger capacity measured in watt hours. But that doesn’t automatically translate into much longer battery life, if the CPU, screen, and radios are power-hungry. The iPhone 5s battery is rated at 3.8 volts and 5.92 Watt-hours. The larger and newer Samsung Galaxy S5 has a battery rated at 3.85 volts and 10.78 WHrs. That results in 20 and 13 percent improved battery life when web browsing over LTE and Wi-Fi respectively, according to AnandTech benchmarks. Apple’s focus has been on modest boosts in battery capacity while maintaining or slightly improving battery life even as it adds processing power and higher screen resolution.

Sensors
9to5Mac recently reported that iPhone 6 may include a “barometric” – pressure – sensor. AppleInsider noted that the third iOS 8 beta build added support for Apple’s M7 motion coprocessor (shown here), allowing data from accelerometer, compass and gyroscope sensors to be accessed by the new Health app. The question is how Apple might exploit the M7, introduced with the 5s. One option: the M7 as a hub for a growing number of sensors, possibly including sensors on an Apple iOS wearable [See “M is for Mystery”, by Horace Dediu], or linked with Apple CarPlay. Semicon Research call this “sensor fusion” – “combining data from multiple sensors and deriving intelligence from that data.”

Model segmentation
In 2013, Apple introduced (as shown) two new iPhone models, the 5s as the lead phone, and the 5c as the mid-phone or mid-range phone; with the 4s now the entry-level phone. Within each model, there are different storage options, which are the basis of difference prices. Will Apple increase iPhone segmentation? The iPhone 5s is “translated” into the mid-range, perhaps being called the 6c, with a plastic body, and some internal hardware shared with the new higher-end phone. The rumored 4.7-inch phone is the new lead phone, iPhone 6; and the rumored 5.5-inch device could mark a new, more expensive iPhone model, the “6b” (for “big”) or “iPhone Air.” The existing 5c may continue as the 5c, becoming the new entry-level phone.

Pricing
Scare headlines of $100 (or more) price hikes for iPhone 6 have been frequent. Yet Apple’s pricing practice has been very consistent, and the 5c is firmly set as the mid-range phone, $100 cheaper than the “lead phone,” the 5s. Blogger John Gruber wrote that “it sounds weird and somewhat un-Apple-y for them to raise the entry price for any product, let alone for their most important product.” Apple could raise the starting price for iPhone by dropping the lowest storage tier option. Or put a higher price tag on the rumored 5.5-inch jumbo-screen model.


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Twitter to remove images of deceased upon request

Twitter has some reservations in granting wishes of kin

Twitter said late Tuesday it will remove images and videos of deceased people upon the request of family members, but it put conditions on the policy.

The microblogging service made the announcement a week after the daughter of the late comedian Robin Williams said she would quit Twitter after receiving gruesome images of him from online trolls.

The move also comes as Twitter tried to delete images and video depicting the death of U.S. photojournalist James Foley, who was apparently killed by the militant group Islamic State, better known as ISIS.

“In order to respect the wishes of loved ones, Twitter will remove imagery of deceased individuals in certain circumstances,” Twitter spokesman Nu Wexler said in a message about the update to its policies.

“When reviewing such media removal requests, Twitter considers public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content and may not be able to honor every request.”

Twitter, which boasts 271 million active monthly users, posted details of the policy that require the estate or a person’s family member to provide documents such as copies of a death certificate and government-issued identification.

Family members or other authorized people can request the removal of photos or video of deceased people on Twitter “from when critical injury occurs to the moments before or after death,” it said.

Twitter still refuses to provide account access to anyone, even if they are related to the person who has died.

Women have been the target of threats an abuse on Twitter, and critics have urged the company to change its Twitter Rules. A year ago, it introduced an “in-tweet” abuse button to report violations.

But some have complained that it’s still impossible to stop determined trolls.

“Ive endured this for two years, and so have countless others,” Twitter user Imani Gandy recently wrote about the racist invective she suffers at the hands of one particular troll.

“He creates hundreds of accounts to tweet his inane ramblings to my friends, online acquaintances and even my work. He latches on to any tweet of mine and harasses anyone that I interact with.”

She criticized Twitter for being slow to act and having no solutions beyond suspending accounts, adding she and other users are trying to get Twitter CEO Dick Costolo to strengthen the service’s abuse policies.


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Google lowers search ranking of websites that don’t use encryption

The move is intended to promote better security practices across the Web

Websites that aren’t encrypting connections with their visitors may get a lower ranking on Google’s search engine, a step the company said it is taking to promote better online security practices.

The move is designed to spur developers to implement TLS (Transport Layer Security), which uses a digital certificate to encrypt traffic, signified by a padlock in most browsers and “https” at the beginning of a URL.

As Google scans Web pages, it takes into account certain attributes, such as whether a Web page has unique content, to determine where it will appear in search rankings. It has added the use of https into those signals, although it will be a “lightweight” one and applies to about 1 percent of search queries now, wrote Zineb Ait BahajjiA andA Gary Illyes, both Google webmaster trends analysts, in a blog post.

All reputable websites use encryption when a person submits their login credentials, but some websites downgrade the connection to an unencrypted one. That means content is susceptible to a so-called man-in-the-middle attack. Content that is not encrypted could be read.

Rolling out https is fairly straightforward for small websites but can be complex for large organizations that run lots of servers, with challenges such as increased latency, support issues with content delivery networks and scaling issues.

LinkedIn said in June it was still upgrading its entire network to https after Zimperium, a security company, found it was possible in some cases to hijack a person’s account. People using LinkedIn in some regions are flipped to an unencrypted connection after they log in, making it possible for a hacker to collect their authentication credentials.

Facebook’s Instagram was found to have the same problem last month. Instagram’s API (application programming interface) makes unencrypted requests to some parts of its network, which could allow a hacker on the same Wi-Fi network to steal a “session cookie,” a data file that reminds Instagram a person has logged in but which grants access to an account.


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Climbing Aboard the 3rd Platform

Recent news from IBM and Microsoft highlight the upheavals underway as the technology industry rapidly transitions to new realities.

IBM announced that profits were up even as revenue was down as it continues to shift away from hardware business lines and tries “to convert the future of technology into an opportunity rather than a threat.” Microsoft announced its largest layoff ever as it continues to “become more agile and move faster” toward cloud and mobile hardware!

These upheavals are due to the forces propelling mobile, social, cloud and big data into what IDC labels the 3rd Platform, “the emerging platform for growth and innovation.”

“The 3rd Platform will deliver the next generation of competitive advantage apps and services that will significantly disrupt market leaders in virtually every industry,” IDC seer Frank Gens said, in laying out the firm’s predictions for 2014, late last year.

When long-time nemeses Apple and IBM climb into bed you know the ground is shaking!

With access to cloud infrastructure and other resources, new companies can be created almost overnight – the advantages of size that large, established companies used to rely on have greatly diminished. Everybody needs to be more agile, more flexible and willing to sacrifice proprietary advantages when customers demand adherence to open standards.

With so much change, no organization can afford to stand pat on the networking architecture of the past. Enterprises are driven to simultaneously improve business processes while reducing IT costs.

In order to move beyond the physical limitations of yesterday’s architecture so they can manage the complexity of the ever more connected world, many enterprises are modernizing data centers. Seeking to transform infrastructure into assets, they are turning to virtualization and cloud computing to drive up availability and transition IT to a services orientation.

They won’t get there with traditional Ethernet networks that rely on a rigid hierarchical approach that creates inefficient traffic patterns and purposely curtails the scalability. A newer category of flatter Ethernet networks called Ethernet fabrics combine the familiarity of Ethernet networks with the data center-hardened reliability and performance characteristics of fabric technologies such as Fibre Channel to provide organizations with elastic, highly automated, mission-critical networks to meet rapidly changing requirements.

Ethernet fabrics are specifically designed for the virtualized data center environments needed to transition to the 3rd Platform. Rather than focusing on management of discrete physical devices and physical ports, they logically eliminate the management of multiple switching layers and apply policies and manage traffic across many physical switches as if they were one.

Trying to forestall movement to the 3rd Platform is, at best, a defensive strategy that attempts to maintain a static position in an incredibly dynamic environment. It doesn’t make sense to become more stodgy while competitors are increasingly agile. As the situations at IBM and Microsoft attest, market advantages that once seemed insurmountable can quickly erode in the face of rapid transformation.


 

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15 great apps for Android Wear

All Android Wear apps are not created equal. Here are 15 standout selections that actually add value to the smartwatch form.

Expand your Android Wear horizons
Google’s Android Wear platform is pretty powerful out of the box — but with the right set of apps, it can be made even more useful.

Any Android app can actually interact with a Wear watch via its regular notifications. Certain apps, however, take things a step further with advanced features and special interfaces.

Of course, just because an app works on a watch doesn’t mean it’s worth using. Wear apps shouldn’t merely be watered-down versions of what we have on our phones; they should provide meaningful value specific to the smartwatch form — in a way that actually makes sense for a wrist-based device.

These 15 apps accomplish that, and they’re well worth giving a whirl.

Wear Unlock for Android Wear
This app is one you’ll probably never open once you have set it up — but its presence will benefit you almost every day.

Wear Unlock ($1.99) turns your smartwatch into a wireless key for your phone: Whenever your watch is present and paired, your phone won’t prompt you for a PIN or password. When your watch isn’t actively connected, your phone will automatically lock itself and enable a security prompt.

That type of function is available natively in the Moto X — and will be built into Android itself starting with this fall’s “L” release — but Wear Unlock makes it work with any phone today.

Wear Unlock for Android Wear
This app is one you’ll probably never open once you have set it up — but its presence will benefit you almost every day.

Wear Unlock ($1.99) turns your smartwatch into a wireless key for your phone: Whenever your watch is present and paired, your phone won’t prompt you for a PIN or password. When your watch isn’t actively connected, your phone will automatically lock itself and enable a security prompt.

That type of function is available natively in the Moto X — and will be built into Android itself starting with this fall’s “L” release — but Wear Unlock makes it work with any phone today.

Wear Aware – Phone Finder
Your Android Wear watch is always on your wrist — and that means it can help make sure you never leave your phone behind.

Wear Aware (free) runs in the background on both devices and buzzes your watch anytime your phone moves out of range. That way, if you set the phone down and walk out of a room, you’ll figure it out before you get too far.

The app also allows you to manually page your phone from your watch so you can easily find it when it’s out of sight (like those times when it’s magically hidden between your couch cushions).

IFTTT
No single Android Wear app offers more possibilities than IFTTT. The app — which stands for “If This, Then That” — connects to the cloud-based service of the same name.

IFTTT (free) allows you to configure and run all sorts of recipes that bring together different types of Web-driven actions. You can use it to set the temperature on a Nest thermostat, for example, or to activate an appliance connected to a Belkin WeMo switch. You can even use it to trigger a fake call to your phone, if you’re ever desperate for an excuse.

Anyone can create and contribute new recipes, and the list of available options grows with each passing week.

PixtoCam for Android Wear
Google’s native Android Camera app has built-in Wear functionality: When you open the app on your phone, a card appears on your watch with a simple button to activate the shutter remotely.

Handy, sure, but that’s just scratching the surface of the ways Wear can interact with your phone’s camera. An app called PixtoCam ($1.99) actually lets you see through your phone’s lens anytime you open it on your watch. You can remotely snap photos or capture videos and even control the camera’s zoom and flash from your wrist.

The app’s interface isn’t great — but if you’re willing to put up with that, its functionality is fantastic.

Allthecooks Recipes
Allthecooks (free) is a prime example of how an app can adapt sensibly to the smartwatch form. The way it works is simple: You open the app on your phone and find a recipe you want to attempt.

Once you make a selection, the recipe automatically shows up as a card on your watch. You tap it to bring up step-by-step instructions formatted to fit the small screen. Each step is on a single card, and you swipe horizontally to move from one to the next.

That keeps your hands free while you’re cooking and allows you to glance down at your wrist for all the info you need — and that, my friends, is what a smartwatch is all about.

RunKeeper – GPS Track Run Walk
RunKeeper (free) makes excellent use of the smartwatch form. The app is designed to track your walks, runs and bike rides while providing detailed ongoing info about your progress.

Anytime you start a new activity, RunKeeper places a card on your watch that lets you view your current time, total miles traveled and miles per minute. You can pause or stop the activity by using on-screen buttons or by tapping a microphone icon and saying “pause” or “stop.” When you’re finished, RunKeeper gives you a summary card that shows all of your stats, including totals for the aforementioned measurements as well as the number of calories burned.

An optional $9.99/month subscription offers features like long-term statistics.

Golfshot: Golf GPS

Golfshot (free) turns your Android Wear watch into an intelligent guide for all your golfing adventures. You simply tell the app what course you’re playing on and it puts pertinent info on your watch’s display as you go.

Cards from Golfshot show you the distance from your current location to each hole, along with stats like the par and handicap for every stop along the way. You can also get the distance to the course’s hazards in order to keep track of upcoming obstacles.

An optional $4.99/month subscription enables enhanced features like 3D flyovers and personalized recommendations.

EchoWear Song Search
Google’s ability to identify a song on demand is an awesome feature for music fans — and with a screen on your wrist, it’s easier than ever to access that information.

Install EchoWear Song Search (free) on your Android Wear device and the next time a song that you don’t know is playing, tell your watch to “Start Echo Search.” The app will listen to the tune through the watch’s mic and then present you with a card showing the artist and track title.

Wear Mini Launcher
In theory, Android Wear is designed to revolve around voice commands and contextual information — but in reality, there are also times you’ll want to manually open an app or adjust your watch’s settings. The current version of the software doesn’t make those tasks easy.

That’s where a utility called Wear Mini Launcher comes in handy. Wear Mini Launcher (free) adds a hidden drawer that appears anytime you swipe over from the left side of your watch’s home screen. The drawer gives you quick access to all of your apps as well as tools to adjust the watch’s brightness, view the battery level of your watch and your phone, and remotely toggle things like your phone’s Wi-Fi and volume settings.

@here for Android Wear
Ever find yourself in an unfamiliar area and attempting to tell someone where you are? An app called @here (free) can help.

The app does all the work for you: When you’re in a new location, @here will place a card on your Wear watch showing your current address on a map. You can swipe sideways to see the name of the neighborhood and to get a closer view of the streets around you.

If you’d rather not get location cards automatically, you can also opt to have @here appear only when you explicitly ask for its assistance.

Emergency Alert for Wear
Emergency Alert (free) is an app you probably won’t need often — but one that might be worth keeping around just in case.

The app allows you to set a predefined emergency contact and message. You can then speak the command “Start Emergency Alert” into your watch to have the message delivered via SMS along with an interactive map of your location. (The app does require a single on-screen tap for confirmation to make sure you don’t trigger an alert by mistake.)

Of course, the app doesn’t have to be used only for emergencies; you could also employ it as a tool for quickly sharing your location with a specific friend or loved one to make it easier to meet.

Lyft
Next time you need a ride, try speaking into your wrist. Lyft (free) lets you request a pickup via Wear with an easy-to-remember voice command: “Call me a car.”

Once a driver’s en route, the app delivers card-based updates to your watch that show you the vehicle’s estimated arrival time along with the option to cancel.

Lyft isn’t available everywhere, but if you’re in one of the places where the service is provided, its Wear integration delivers a top-notch — and thus far unmatched — experience.

Fly Delta
Flying the friendly skies? Grab the official Fly Delta app (free), and you’ll automatically get useful info on your Android Wear watch when you need it.

Delta’s app delivers nicely formatted updates about your itinerary along with mobile boarding pass barcodes so you never have to whip out your phone or physical documents. Its updates start appearing as cards as soon as you’re checked in.

(The American Airlines app (free) also provides similar functionality.)

1Weather: Widget Forecast Radar
Android Wear has its own native weather cards, but you can step things up a notch with the aid of 1Weather (free — an optional $1.99 upgrade removes ads).

The app’s main card shows you the current conditions for your area or any other area you select. Swiping over once gives you a glimpse at what’s ahead for the rest of the day — broken down into segments like “morning,” “noon,” “evening” and “night” — while swiping over a second time lets you look ahead at the four-day forecast.

Baby Time: Android Wear Lock
If you spend any time holding a small child, this app might be just what the doctor ordered.

Baby Time (free) offers an easy way to baby-proof your Android Wear watch: Just issue the voice command “Run Baby Time,” and your screen will go dim and stop responding to taps and basic swipes. To get the watch back in its normal mode, you’ll have to swipe up twice and then down twice — something even the most advanced infant is unlikely to do.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+ or Twitter.


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Vision-correcting display nixes your need for eyeglasses

Your reading glasses will be so yesterday with UC Berkeley’s new technology

What would it be like if you didn’t need your eyeglasses to clearly see your laptop screen or a text message on your smartphone?

Scientists at the University of California Berkeley are working on computer screens that would adjust their images to accommodate individual user’s visual needs. Think of it as a display that wears the glasses so users don’t have to.

“For people with just near sightedness or far sightedness, life isn’t so bad,” said Fu-Chung Huang, the lead author of the research paper on the display project at Berkeley. “But as you get older, your lenses lose elasticity and you cannot read things close to you, like a cell phone or tablet. You need another pair of reading glasses, which can be quite inconvenient.
Scientists at the University of California Berkeley are developing a vision-correcting display that would mean users wouldn’t need their eyeglasses to see it clearly. (Video: UC Berkeley)

“With this technology, in the future, you just need to press a button and the display will accommodate to your vision,” he said in an email to Computerworld.

Users would input their vision prescription into their individual desktop, laptop or mobile device. Then when the user logs on with a password, the computer recognizes the user and automatically adjusts its display.

Researchers at Berkeley, working with scientists at MIT, are developing algorithms that will compensate for a user’s specific vision needs to adjust the image on a screen so the user can see it clearly without needing to wear corrective lenses. The software will create vision-correcting displays.

The researchers have been working on the technology for three years.
Computer screen
Researchers place a printed pinhole array mask, shown here, on top of an iPod touch as part of their prototype of a visually corrected display. (Image: Fu-Chung Huang)

A user who, for instance, needs reading glasses to see or read anything clearly on his laptop or tablet screens wouldn’t need to wear the eyeglasses if the displays adjust themselves for his vision needs.

If a user who needs one pair of glasses to see things at a distance and another pair for reading, would not need to put on reading glasses to read her emails or Facebook posts if the display could adjust itself for her near-vision needs.

The displays, according to Berkeley, also could be used for people whose vision cannot be corrected with eyeglasses or contacts.

“This project started with the idea that Photoshop can do some image deblurring to the photo, so why can’t I correct the visual blur on the display instead of installing a Photoshop in the brain?” asked Huang, who now is a software engineer at Microsoft. “The early stage is quite hard, as everyone said it is impossible. I found out that it is indeed impossible on a “conventional 2D display.” I need to modify the optical components to make this happen.”

The university said that the hardware setup adds a printed pinhole screen sandwiched between two layers of clear plastic to an iPod display to enhance image sharpness. The tiny pinholes are 75 micrometers each and spaced 390 micrometers apart.

The algorithm, which was developed at Berkeley, works by altering the intensity of each direction of light that emanates from a single pixel in an image based upon a user’s specific visual impairment, the university reported. The light then passes through the pinhole array in a way that allows the user to see a sharp image.

Huang, who has not yet talked with computer monitor or smartphone and tablet manufacturers about the research, noted that the display technology could be developed into a thin screen protector.

“The current version is still quite fragile,” he added. “It requires precise calibration between the eye and the display and it took some time to find the sweet spot for my own eye. But remember that Amazon just announced the Fire Phone with the super fancy dynamic perspective to track your eye. This technology can solve my problem … so I’m pretty optimistic about the overall progress.”

However, he said that at this point in their work, the technology wouldn’t work on a shared display such as a television screen.

“In the future, we also hope to extend this application to multi-way correction on a shared display, so users with different visual problems can view the same screen and see a sharp image,” he said.


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Building a security awareness program on a shoestring budget

Awareness programs don’t have to be complicated, expensive ventures

Implementing a security awareness program seems rather straightforward, until you actually start to implement one – factoring in things like resources and the people (users) to be trained. At that point, it can seem complicated, costly, and unnecessary. However, the process doesn’t have to be a logistical and expensive nightmare, and it’s certainly worth it in the long run.

Organizations both large and small have implemented awareness programs for next to nothing, and while they’re not perfect, many of them are able to show measurable results. The key to these successes however, is based on understanding what it is that the organization is actually trying to accomplish.

While doing topical research for this story, CSO discovered a common thought among the experts and executives that were consulted, including some who spoke to us during two regional security conferences this summer (B-Sides Detroit and CircleCityCon).

Often, executives view security and business as two separate items, and while this point-of-view is changing, it takes effort to get some executives to commit to security and make it part of the business overall.

When this happens, tangible security needs such as license renewals, support and service contracts, firewalls and other appliances – all of those are things that executives understand. However, awareness training, to the executives at least, seems like an extended version of general security training, and there just isn’t money for something like that.

At the same time, there’s also a shakeup happening – thanks to a seemingly endless stream of data breaches this year that have placed several large companies in the headlines. The result of this shakeup is fear, and sometimes fear has a way of producing the budget needed to strengthen security. In some circles, this additional funding opens the door to the development of security awareness programs.

Is awareness training really needed?
Security awareness training is something that can cause a good deal of debate among experts. Some agree that it’s needed; others will call it a waste of time and resources.

Dave Aitel, in a column for CSO, expressed an opinion that such training wasn’t needed:

“Instead of spending time, money and human resources on trying to teach employees to be secure, companies should focus on securing the environment and segmenting the network. It’s a much better corporate IT philosophy that employees should be able to click on any link, open any attachment, without risk of harming the organization.

“Because they’re going to do so anyway, so you might as well plan for it. It’s the job of the CSO, CISO, or IT security manager to make sure that threats are stopped before reaching an employee—and if these measures fail, that the network is properly segmented to limit the infection’s spread.”

However, the other side to that argument comes from Ira Winkler:

“The question to ask is whether the losses prevented by awareness training are more than the cost of the awareness program. So for example, as every successful phishing attack has a cost associated with it, if you are reducing phishing attacks by 50 percent, you are mitigating 50 percent of the potential losses…

“The original opinion also says that a sophisticated security awareness program can prevent 90-95 percent of attacks. A 90-percent-plus reduction of loss will always be a good return on security investment, especially when the cost of typical security awareness programs is minimal?”

Awareness programs are not a replacement for solid security infrastructure and policies. Nor are they a replacement for response and incident handling. They can’t be. The only thing awareness does is increase the odds of recovery, and increase response times should an incident occur.

While training employees to act as monitors for Phishing attacks or emails with malicious attachments is helpful, that doesn’t mean such campaigns won’t be successful. However it does mean that the security team may know about the problem sooner, and that could be the difference between preventing a disaster – or suffering through one.
Getting started:

One of the main steps to building a good security awareness program is to separate it from security training. Security awareness is not the same as security training when it comes to employees.

Security training serves to offer a structured set of rules, which is what most auditors will look for when assessing compliance. Security awareness, on the other hand, aims to modify behavior. If done right, the company’s employees will become an extension of the existing security program. However, while security training can be done annually, awareness programs are a continuous process.

A living proof of concept:
Amanda Berlin works in security for a medium-sized healthcare organization in the Midwest. Over the last few months, she has created an effective awareness program almost out of thin air.

Her organization didn’t have the resources to pay for external awareness development and training, but it was needed, so they had to go it alone. It’s taken some time, but her efforts have resulted in a program that benefits the company, keeps the staff engaged in security related topics, and has little to no impact to the bottom line.

“So we knew the weakest element in our security were people,” Berlin said in an interview with CSO.

“That’s probably the weakest part of any organization. You can have IDS / IPS, massive email filtering, but stuff is still going to get through and [criminals] are still going pretext.”

As mentioned, user education can go a long way to keeping outsiders off the network, but it isn’t a silver bullet.

In the past, prior to implementing the awareness program, Berlin’s organization had to deal with various socially-based attacks. Yet, those were mostly random phone calls and faxes (fake domain renewal bills for example), so need for a scaled awareness program wasn’t made abundantly clear until the company had a penetration test performed.

“We had a [penetration test] with some Phishing included, and that was what got them domain admin access. Right away, within fifteen minutes, somebody clicked and gave out their credentials, and they [the red team] were in from the outside.”

It was an eye-opening experience. Other than the expected security training, related to HIPAA and other regulatory requirements, nobody in her organization had given a thought to implementing user awareness training against Phishing or similar attacks.

However, the main takeaway from that initial penetration test was that if the human element had been hardened, or at least better prepared, then the other defenses on the network would have had a better chance of keeping the attackers out.

Training out of thin air and OSINT:

For Berlin, the process of building an awareness program from scratch started with a series of conversations with her boss and the organization’s education department.

The idea was to develop materials that would benefit any user. However, they had to keep the materials basic, so that the information was easily understood and the technical aspects were obtainable to anyone, no matter their personal skill set.

“[We used] things that would be really helpful for any end user, like ‘Don’t click on stuff’ emails. We didn’t get too far into it, but we used that and put it out there,” Berlin explained.

After the material was shared during formal and informal staff meetings, it was time to test the employees and see what they’ve learned.

The first month her program ran, the targets were selected by way of available OSINT, or open source intelligence. By targeting company email addresses that were already publicly available, Berlin was starting with the same pool of potential victims that an actual criminal could, which helped her set the tone for the program’s development.

Using the Social Engineer Toolkit, or SET, she created an initial campaign that consisted of an obviously suspicious email, and a simple link to a webpage she created to collect credentials.

“It was just a plain two, three line, HTML email. I wanted to try and make it as blatantly obvious that I wasn’t a legitimate source. I wanted to see how good their [personal] filter was,” Berlin, recalling the first email that was sent to users, explained.

The first set of emails were sent from a Gmail account created for the exercise. They contained no identifiable information, and used a basic HTML link to a local IP as the trap. Out of the initial run of a few hundred emails, Berlin said that she managed to get nearly 60 percent of the targets to enter their credentials.

The powers that be viewed the results as proof positive that something should be done about this gap in security, but the program needed to be tuned, and there needed to be a way to track the results. The process took a few months, but eventually Berlin was ready to launch her program officially.

Rewarding those who help:

While the initial test proved that an awareness program was needed, the question of who should be doing the training was the first hurdle. In fact, research showed that there were plenty of vendors available to come in and run an awareness program. However, the cost of hiring someone form the outside was steep, and would put additional pressure on an already taxed budget.

Instead, Berlin explained, the company opted to manage things internally. Moreover, some of the money that would have gone to an external training firm ($1,000) was allocated in order to establish a reward scheme for employees.

“So every time somebody reports a Phishing email, whether it be form me or the outside, they need to forward it to the help desk or call and let us know, so we can actually see the email. If it’s a legitimate one, we’ll go through the steps to actually block it; otherwise we’ll let them know they’ve been entered into the drawing.”

The program allows employees to report legitimate Phishing emails, as well as emails that are sent as part of the ongoing awareness training. In addition, other suspicious electronic activity may also count, such as emails with attachments that the employee didn’t expect, but that is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Another interesting aspect to the program is the encouragement to report people who are attempting to access the employee’s system that haven’t been authorized to do so.

The incentive scheme itself is simple and geared towards the staff’s personal interests. There is a monthly drawing for a $20 gift card, followed by a quarterly drawing for a $50 gift card to either Bass Pro Shops or Red Lobster. There is also a yearly grand prize worth $400 in the form of an Amazon gift card.

The financial motivation has helped things tremendously, Berlin noted, as the number of reports focused on legitimate Phishing attacks has “skyrocketed.” Even better, the stigma associated with reporting a potential problem, or admitting that an attack was successful, has plummeted to nothing.

While rewards are important, for Berlin’s organization, tracking and measuring progress is the main concern. After only a short time of operation, the stats from her program are impressive. The number of successful attacks in the training program have continued to fall steadily since the program officially started.

In January: 985 emails were sent to employees; and out of those, 53 percent of the targets actually clicked the Phishing link. Of those who clicked the link, 36 percent of them entered credentials and 11 percent of all the targets reported the attack.

In February: 893 emails were sent out, resulting in a click rate of 47 percent. Again, of those that clicked, 11 percent of them gave out credentials and 11 percent reported it.

The test in March didn’t go as well. There were 1,095 emails were sent, but only three percent of the targets clicked the link. Of those that clicked, none of them entered credentials. In fact, everyone who clicked the link in March also reported the email.

“In March I think the reason that I had such a low rate of participation in general was due to the all around subject/theme of the Phish,” Berlin said, when asked about the stats.

“We had a large push for the March of Dimes that month and it seems like every other email was about another donation opportunity, or bake sale of some sort. We think that the majority of them were just deleted along with the rest of them, or filtered out as noise.”

April was another interesting month. There was no opportunity to enter credentials this time around, as the goal was to target clicks. Anyone who clicked on the email was directed to a “You’ve been hacked!” message.

During this test, two percent of the 1,111 emails sent resulted in a click, and 25 percent of those who got the message reported it.

While Berlin’s awareness program clearly has changed user behavior, as well as improved the overall security posture for her organization, that doesn’t mean that it’s foolproof. There’s plenty of room to grow, and the program itself is in a constant state of tuning.

For example, there are plans to improve tracking, and make the process easier to manage. Currently, the tracking process is manual, so the goal is to have it completely automated. There are also plans to increase the program to include mobile devices directly, as many of the providers within the organization rely on tablets in their day-to-day routine.

Awareness is only part of the battle:
Security awareness programs are only one piece of a larger security puzzle. By the time a Phishing email reaches a user, parts of the security chain have failed (anti-Spam) and the weakest-link in the chain now has an active role in defense.

If the users are trained, or to use a stronger term, conditioned to spot random abnormalities, there is a greater chance that a passive Phishing attack will fail. But no one is perfect, and targeted Phishing attacks will succeed eventually.

This is why users should be encouraged to report not only the attempt, but any failures as well – without the fear of punishment. This engagement will help lower the time it takes to address the incident, and in some cases, it could actually prevent an incident from exploding into a monumental disaster.

Users are often snickered at for trading their passwords for candy during social engineering experiments. However, this willingness to do a task that takes little effort in exchange for something of value works both ways.

The user who will trade access for sugar is also someone that can be trained to spot attacks for gift cards, and financially, that’s affordable when compared to the cost of mitigating a data breach.


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Windows XP: No IE9 for you

Microsoft becomes first major browser maker to drop support for world’s most popular OS

Microsoft’s new browser, Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), will not run on Windows XP, now or when the software eventually ships, the company confirmed Tuesday.

The move makes Microsoft the first major browser developer to drop support for XP, the world’s most popular operating system, in a future release.

Although Microsoft excluded Windows XP from the list for the IE9 developer preview, it sidestepped the question about which versions of Windows the final browser would support. In an IE9 FAQ, for example, Microsoft responded, “It’s too early to talk about features of the Internet Explorer 9 Beta” to the query, “Will Internet Explorer 9 run on Windows XP?”
dialog box
This dialog box pops up during attempts to install IE9 Platform Preview on Windows XP.

That caused some users to demand a straight answer. “Please tell whether the final version will run on Windows XP SP3 or not,” said someone identified as “eXPerience” in a comment to a blog post by Dean Hachamovich, Microsoft’s general manager for the IE team. “If not, please be clear about it. Really, enough is enough of keeping users in the lurch about Windows XP support.”

Others bashed Microsoft on the assumption that IE9 would never run on XP. “Dropping Windows XP support is one of the worst decisions ever taken by [the] IE team, probably even worse than disbanding the IE team back in the IE6 days,” claimed an anonymous commenter.

Microsoft had offered up broad hints that IE9 was not in Windows XP’s future, however. Tuesday, a company spokeswoman said the new browser needs a “modern operating system,” a phrase that hasn’t been paired with Window XP for years. “Internet Explorer 9 requires the modern graphics and security underpinnings that have come since 2001,” she added, clearly referring to XP, which appeared that year.

Windows XP’s inability to run the Platform Preview or the final browser stems from, IE9′s graphics hardware acceleration, which relies on the Direct2D and DirectWrite DirectX APIs (applications programming interfaces). Support for those APIs is built into Windows 7, and was added to Vista and Windows Server 2008 last October, but cannot be extended to Windows XP.

Some users worried that by halting browser development for Windows XP, Microsoft would repeat a current problem, getting customers to ditch IE6 for a newer version. “Those who choose to stay with XP will be forced to [then] stay forever on IE8, which will become the new IE6,” said a user named Danny Gibbons in a comment on Hachamovich’s blog.

Tough, said Sheri McLeish, Forrester Research’s browser analyst. “This is the stick to get off XP,” she said. Windows XP users will solve the browser problem themselves when they upgrade, as most eventually will, to Windows 7. “What are they going to do, go to Linux or run XP forever?” she asked.

Still, IE9′s inability to run on Windows XP will prevent it from becoming widespread until the nearly-nine-year-old OS loses significant share to Windows 7. According to Web metrics company NetApplications’ most recent data, if IE9 was released today, it would be able to run on just over a quarter — 27% — of all Windows machines.

No other major browser maker has announced plans to stop supporting Windows XP, but several have dropped other operating systems or platforms. Last month, for instance, Mozilla said it would not support Apple’s Mac OS X 10.4, known as “Tiger,” in future upgrades to Firefox. Google’s Chrome for the Mac, meanwhile, only runs on Intel-based Macs, not on the older PowerPC-based machines that were discontinued in 2006.

The IE9 Platform Preview can be downloaded from Microsoft’s site. It requires Windows 7, Vista SP2, Windows Server 2008 or Windows 2008 R2.


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