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The Meizu 16s offers flagship features at a mid-range price

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Smartphones have gotten more expensive over the last few years even though there have only been a handful of recent innovations that really changed the way you interact with the phone. It’s maybe no surprise then that there is suddenly a lot more interest in mid-range, sub-$500 phones again. In the U.S., Google’s new Pixel 3a, with its superb camera, is bringing a lot of credibility to this segment. Outside the U.S., though, you can often get a flagship phone for less than $500 that makes none of the trade-offs typically associated with a mid-range phone. So when Meizu asked me to take a look at its new 16s flagship, which features (almost) everything you’d expect from a high-end Android phone, I couldn’t resist.

Meizu, of course, is essentially a total unknown in the U.S., even though it has a sizable global presence elsewhere. After a week with its latest flagship, which features Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 855 chip and under-screen fingerprint scanner, I’ve come away impressed by what the company delivers, especially given the price point. In the U.S. market, the $399 Pixel 3a may seem like a good deal, but that’s because a lot of brands like Meizu, Xiaomi, Huawei and others have been shut out.

It’s odd that this is now a differentiating feature, but the first thing you’ll notice when you get started is the notchless screen. The dual-sim 16s must have one of the smallest selfie cameras currently on the market, and the actual bezels, especially when compared to something like the Pixel 3a, are minimal. That trade-off works for me. I’ll take a tiny bezel over a notch any day. The 6.2-inch AMOLED screen, which is protected by Gorilla Glass, is crisp and bright, though maybe a bit more saturated than necessary.

The in-display fingerprint reader works just fine, though it’s a bit more finicky that the dedicated readers I’ve used in the past.

With its 855 chip and 6GB of RAM, it’s no surprise the phone feels snappy. To be honest, that’s true for every phone, though, even in the mid-range. Unless you are a gamer, it’s really hard to push any modern phone to its limits. The real test is how this speed holds up over time, and that’s not something we can judge right now.

The overall build quality is excellent, yet while the plastic back is very pretty, it’s also a) weird to see a plastic back to begin with and b) slippery enough to just glide over your desk and drop on the floor if it’s at even a slight angle.

Meizu’s Flyme skin does the job, and adds some useful features like a built-in screen recorder. I’m partial to Google’s Pixel launcher, and a Flyme feels a bit limited in comparison to that and other third-party launchers. There is no app drawer, for example, so all of your apps have to live on the home screen. Personally, I went to the Microsoft Launcher pretty quickly, since that’s closer to the ecosystem I live in anyway. Being able to do that is one of the advantages of Android, after all.

Meizu also offers a number of proprietary gesture controls that replace the standard Android buttons. These may or may not work for you, depending on how you feel about gesture-based interfaces.

I haven’t done any formal battery tests, but the battery easily lasted me through a day of regular usage.

These days, though, phones are really about the cameras. Meizu opted for Sony’s latest 48-megapixel sensor here for its main camera and a 20-megapixel sensor for its telephoto lens that provides up to 3x optical zoom. The camera features optical image stabilization, which, when combined with the software stabilization, makes it easier to take low-light pictures and record shake-free video (though 4K video does not feature Meizu’s anti-shake system).

While you can set the camera to actually produce a 48-megapixel image, the standard setting combines four pixels’ worth of light into a single pixel. That makes for a better image, though you do have the option to go for the full 48 megapixels if you really want to. The camera’s daytime performance is very good, though maybe not quite up to par with some other flagship phones. It really shines when the light dims, though. At night, the camera is highly competitive and Meizu knows that, so the company even added two distinct night modes: one for handheld shooting and one for when you set the phone down or use a tripod. There is also a pro mode with manual controls.

Otherwise, the camera app provides all the usual portrait mode features you’d expect today. The 2x zoom works great, but at 3x, everything starts feeling a bit artificial and slightly washed out. It’ll do in a pinch, but you’re better off getting closer to your subject.

In looking at these features, it’s worth remembering the phone’s price. You’re not making a lot of trade-offs at less than $500, and it’d be nice to see more phones of this caliber on sale in the U.S. Right now, it looks like the OnePlus 7 Pro at $669 is your best bet if you are in the U.S. and looking for a flagship phone without the flagship price.

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Biz & IT

Microsoft announces AI-powered Bing search and Edge browser

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Enlarge / A screenshot of Microsoft’s new Bing search with AI integrations from OpenAI.

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Fresh off news of an extended partnership last month, Microsoft has announced a new version of its Bing search engine and Edge browser that will integrate ChatGPT-style AI language model technology from OpenAI. These new integrations will allow people to see search results with AI annotations side by side and also chat with an AI model similar to ChatGPT. Microsoft says a limited preview of the new Bing will be available online today.

Microsoft announced the new products during a press event held on Tuesday in Redmond. “It’s a new day in search,” The Verge quotes Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella as saying at the event, taking a clear shot at Google, which has dominated web search for decades. “The race starts today, and we’re going to move and move fast. Most importantly, we want to have a lot of fun innovating again in search, because it’s high time.”

Microsoft

During the event, Microsoft demonstrated a new version of Bing that displays traditional search results on the left side of the window while providing AI-powered context and annotations on the right side. Microsoft envisions this side-by-side layout as a way to fact check the AI results, allowing the two sources of information to complement each other. ChatGPT is well known for its ability to hallucinate convincing answers out of thin air, and Microsoft appears to be hedging against that tendency.

Another mode allows users to interact with the Bing chatbot through a regular chat interface, such as ChatGPT, by asking it questions. In Edge, Microsoft will provide two new features: one called “compose,” which acts as a writing assistant; and “chat,” which can summarize a website or provide an interactive Q&A about the website’s contents.

The “new Bing” isn’t the first service to experiment with AI-assisted search engines. Both Perplexity Ask and YouChat currently provide similar conversational AI offerings. And on Monday, Google lifted the veil on Bard, an AI-powered conversational bot that it says will power the future of its search experience, although it’s not available in demo form yet. We expect to hear more about Bard and potentially other Google AI projects during an event scheduled for Wednesday.

For now, Microsoft has made the new Bing available on a limited preview basis with some prefilled search results at bing.com/new, where there’s also a sign-up link for a waitlist. This is a breaking news story, and we’ll update it as we learn new information.

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Google and Mozilla are working on iOS browsers that break current App Store rules

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Enlarge / Mozilla’s current logo for Firefox.

Companies like Google, Mozilla, and Microsoft have versions of their web browsers on Apple’s iOS and iPadOS App Stores, but these versions come with a big caveat: The App Store rules require them to use Safari’s WebKit rendering engine rather than the engines those browsers use in other operating systems.

But that could be changing. According to The Register, Google and Mozilla have recently been spotted working on versions of Chromium and Firefox that use their normal Blink and Gecko rendering engines, respectively.

Apple hasn’t announced any rule changes. The correlated activity from Google and Mozilla could suggest that they’re expecting Apple to drop its restrictions on third-party browser engines in the near future, or the companies could simply be hedging their bets. Regulatory pressure from multiple governments is pushing Apple in the direction of loosening many of its App Store restrictions, including (begrudgingly) accepting third-party payment services and sideloading of apps and third-party app stores.

The iOS versions of Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and others can currently sync with their desktop counterparts and present whatever user interface they want, but the WebKit requirement means their capabilities and shortcomings are mostly the same as Safari’s. No such restriction exists on macOS, where third-party browsers can use whatever rendering engine they please.

Apple could still conceivably impose limitations on the way these browsers work—the amount of storage they’re allowed to use for caching content, how much memory and CPU capacity they’re permitted to use while running in the background, how aggressively tabs must be unloaded from RAM to make room for other apps, what extensions they’re allowed to use, and plenty of other possibilities. But for the iPad in particular, opening the platform up to third-party browser engines will hopefully mean more third-party browsers that look and act more like their macOS and Windows counterparts.

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Hackers are mass infecting servers worldwide by exploiting a patched hole

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An explosion of cyberattacks is infecting servers around the world with crippling ransomware by exploiting a vulnerability that was patched two years ago, it was widely reported on Monday.

The hacks exploit a flaw in ESXi, a hypervisor VMware sells to cloud hosts and other large-scale enterprises to consolidate their hardware resources. ESXi is what’s known as a bare-metal, or Type 1, hypervisor, meaning it’s essentially its own operating system that runs directly on server hardware. By contrast, servers running the more familiar Type 2 class of hypervisors, such as VMware’s VirtualBox, run as apps on top of a host operating system. The Type 2 hypervisors then run virtual machines that host their own guest OSes such as Windows, Linux or, less commonly, macOS.

Enter ESXiArgs

Advisories published recently by computer emergency response teams (CERT) in France, Italy, and Austria report a “massive” campaign that began no later than Friday and has gained momentum since then. Citing results of a search on Census, CERT officials in Austria, said that as of Sunday, there were more than 3,200 infected servers, including eight in that country.

“Since ESXi servers provide a large number of systems as virtual machines (VM), a multiple of this number of affected individual systems can be expected,” the officials wrote.

The vulnerability being exploited to infect the servers is CVE-2021-21974, which stems from a heap-based buffer overflow in OpenSLP, an open network-discovery standard that’s incorporated into ESXi. When VMware patched the vulnerability in February 2021, the company warned it could be exploited by a malicious actor with access to the same network segment over port 427. The vulnerability had a severity rating of 8.8 out of a possible 10. Proof-of-concept exploit code and instructions for using it became available a few months later.

Over the weekend, French cloud host OVH said that it doesn’t have the ability to patch the vulnerable servers set up by its customers.

“ESXi OS can only be installed on bare metal servers,” wrote Julien Levrard, OVH’s chief information security officer. “We launched several initiatives to identify vulnerable servers, based on our automation logs to detect ESXI installation by our customers. We have limited means of action since we have no logical access to our customer servers.”

In the meantime, the company has blocked access to port 427 and is also notifying all customers it identifies as running vulnerable servers.

Levrard said the ransomware installed in the attacks encrypts virtual machine files, including those ending in .vmdk, .vmx, .vmxf, .vmsd, .vmsn, .vswp, .vmss, .nvram, and .vmem. The malware then tries to unlock the files by terminating a process known as VMX. The function isn’t working as its developers intended, resulting in the files remaining locked.

Researchers have dubbed the campaign and the ransomware behind it ESXiArgs because the malware creates an additional file with the extension “.args” after encrypting a document. The .args file stores data used to decrypt encrypted data.

Researchers from the YoreGroup Tech Team, Enes Sonmez and Ahmet Aykac, reported that the encryption process for ESXiArgs can make mistakes that allow victims to restore encrypted data. OVH’s Levrard said his team tested the restoration process the researchers described and found it successful in about two-thirds of the attempts.

Anyone who relies on ESXi should stop whatever they’re doing and check to ensure patches for CVE-2021-21974 have been installed. The above-linked advisories also provide more guidance for locking down servers that use this hypervisor.

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