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The Shadow Ghost turns cloud gaming into a seamless experience – TechCrunch

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French startup Blade, the company behind Shadow, is launching a new set-top box to access its cloud gaming service — the Shadow Ghost. I’ve been playing with the device for a couple of weeks and here’s my review.

The Shadow Ghost is a tiny little box that doesn’t do much. The true magic happens in a data center near your home. When you sign up to Shadow, you don’t even have to get a box. You can simply subscribe to the service without any hardware device and use the company’s apps instead.

Shadow is a cloud computing service for gamers. For $35 per month, you can access a gaming PC in a data center and interact with this computer. Right now, Shadow gives you eight threads on an Intel Xeon 2620 processor, an Nvidia Quadro P5000 GPU that performs more or less as well as an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080, 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. You can optionally get more storage with an extra subscription. It’s a full Windows 10 instance and you can do whatever you want with it.

Most subscribers now access Shadow using one of the company’s apps on Windows, macOS or Linux. You also can connect to your virtual machine from your iOS or Android phone or tablet. And now, you can buy the Shadow Ghost if you want to use the service on a TV or without a computer.

I first used Shadow during the early days of the service back in early 2017. My first experience of the service felt like magic. Thanks to my high-speed fiber connection, I could play demanding games on a laptop. The best part was that the laptop fan would remain silent.

But it wasn’t perfect. Nvidia driver updates failed sometimes. Or your virtual machine would become completely unaccessible without some help from the customer support team.

In other words, the concept was great, but the service wasn’t there yet.

Things have changed quite drastically after years of iteration on the apps, the streaming engine, the infrastructure and even the GPUs in the data centers. Blade co-founder and CEO Emmanuel Freund told me that the service has been working fine for just a few months.

It’s no surprise that those technical improvements have led to less churn, more referrals and more subscriptions. In July 2018, the startup had 20,000 subscribers. Now there are 65,000 subscribers. There’s even more demand, but the company has had a hard time keeping up with new machines in data centers.

Shadow is currently available in France, the U.K., Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and parts of the U.S. The company simply can’t accept customers from anywhere in the world because they need to live near a data center with Shadow servers.

Playing with the Shadow Ghost

The original Shadow box was a bit clunky. You could hear the fan, you had to rely on dongles if you wanted to pair a Bluetooth device or connect to a Wi-Fi network and there was no HDMI port — only DisplayPort. Internally, Blade has been debating whether the company needs another box.

In 2017, it was too hard to explain the product without some sort of physical device — you can replace a PC tower with a tiny box. But now that gamers understand the benefits of cloud gaming, there’s no reason to force you to buy a box.

And yet, the Shadow Ghost can be a useful little device in some cases. For instance, while the company has released an Android TV app and is testing a new app for the Apple TV, your current TV setup might not be compatible with Shadow. Or maybe you primarily use a laptop and you want to create a desktop PC setup with a display, a keyboard, a mouse and a Shadow Ghost.

Everything has been improved. It is now a fanless device that consumes less than 5W when it’s on. It has an Ethernet port, two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, an audio jack and a single HDMI port. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have finally been integrated in the device.

When you boot up the device, you get a menu to connect to a Wi-Fi network or control your Bluetooth devices. You also can change some streaming settings, like in the app launcher.

Once you press the start button, the video stream starts and it feels like you’re using a Windows computer. With Steam’s Big Picture mode, you get a convenient setup for couch gaming. I had no issue playing demanding games, such as Hitman 2. It works perfectly fine with a Wi-Fi connection and a Bluetooth controller.

Using the Shadow Ghost feels just like using the Shadow app on a computer. So it’s hard to say whether you need the Shadow Ghost or not. It depends on your setup at home and how you plan to use the service.

Last summer, Blade planned to manufacture 5,000 units. But now that the user base has grown significantly, that first batch could disappear in no time. It is available starting today for $140.

A gold rush

Cloud gaming is a hot space right now. While some companies have been experimenting with this concept for a while (Nvidia, Sony), it feels like everyone is working on a new service of some sort. Maybe the next Xbox is going to be about streaming a game from a data center. Maybe Amazon will offer a game library in the cloud as part of your Amazon Prime subscription.

Emmanuel Freund believes that it could be an opportunity for Shadow. Everybody is going to talk about cloud gaming if Apple and Google announce new services. But the startup has years of experiences in the space and has tried hard to compensate when it comes to latency and internet speeds.

It’s going to be harder to compete on content though. Game publishers and console manufacturers could start releasing exclusive titles on their cloud gaming services. That’s why Blade is thinking about new gaming experiences and exclusive content that would make Shadow more than a technical service.

(Controller for scale)

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Apple reports double-digit sales booms for every product category in Q1 2021

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Enlarge / Apple’s global headquarters in Cupertino, California.

Sam Hall/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The last 24 hours have been flooded with stock market news, from the normal to the nutty. But based on Apple’s performance in recent quarters, the earnings the Cupertino company reported today for its first quarter of 2021 were very much on the normal side. And by that, we mean big numbers yet again.

According to the report, Apple crossed the threshold for $100 billion in revenue in a single quarter for the first time, and the company posted double-digit sales increases for every single one of its defined product categories. Overall, sales were up 21 percent year-over-year, despite many consumers’ struggles in the pandemic-stricken economy.

iPhone revenue was $65.6 billion, surpassing analysts’ expected $59.8 billion, and beating the same quarter last year by 17 percent. This coincides with the introduction of the iPhone 12 lineup (iPhone 12, iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro Max), which was the most substantial redesign and upgrade to iPhones since the iPhone X three years earlier.

While the iPhone is Apple’s big-ticket item, that product’s growth was actually modest compared to a couple of others. The iPad’s sales were up 41 percent year-over-year, reaching $8.44 billion. This was likely driven in part by the launch of the redesigned iPad Air.

And services—that business segment that Apple executives and investors are always looking to as the obvious growing revenue source—were up 24 percent year-over-year. This quarter included the launch of Apple Fitness+, but otherwise, this growth appears to have been driven by existing services like Apple Music, Apple TV+, or Apple Arcade.

Not all of them grew in equal measure, though: an Apple spokesperson said on the investor call that AppleCare has grown slower than other services because of its dependence on retail stores to provide its full value to Apple’s customers.

In any case, total services revenue for the quarter was $15.76 billion.

The Mac also rose—21 percent in this case, up to $8.68 billion. (This quarter included the launch of the M1 Macs.) And a catch-all for all other products, of which wearables like the Apple Watch and AirPods make up a significant part, grew 29 percent year-over-year to $12.97 billion.

CEO Tim Cook told investors on the call that the total install base for iPhones has risen to 1 billion, up from the 900 million he stated last time that metric was reported. Total active install base for all Apple products was 1.65 billion—so yes, the iPhone is still Apple’s dominant product, and the one that forms the foundation for many of the services and wearables the company has introduced over the past few years.

These positive numbers follow a two-year rally that itself followed some investor skepticism about declining iPhone sales.

Apple again declined to provide guidance to investors for the next quarter. The company hasn’t given guidance on upcoming quarters since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic just under a year ago.

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Samsung’s reportedly ready to supply foldable displays to rival companies

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Enlarge / The Galaxy Z Flip (left) and Galaxy Z Fold 2 (right). Samsung will be selling both of these display styles to competitors now.

A report from ETNews claims that Samsung Display is ready to expand its foldable-display business and start selling to companies other than Samsung Electronics’ phone division. Flexible panels were previously exclusive to Samsung’s phone division, but the report says Samsung Display plans to sell 1 million panels this year in the open market. ETNews quotes a source saying “multiple Chinese smartphones markets” are working with Samsung and plan to ship devices in the second half of 2021.

A million panels isn’t a huge supply compared to the ~350 million smartphones sold annually, but that is about the size of the foldable market in these early days. Canalys’ last numbers said 1.74 million foldables were sold from September 2019 to June 2020, which represents the first generation of foldables, before the launch of the Galaxy Z Fold 2. Samsung hopes to see that number grow a lot in 2021, with ETNews reporting Samsung Display will supply 10 million foldable displays to the phone division.

It doesn’t sound like the third parties buying from Samsung will have a lot of wiggle room in terms of form factor. According to the report, Samsung is supplying two types of displays: one that folds across the horizontal axis like the Galaxy Z Flip, and one that folds across the vertical axis like the Galaxy Z Fold. The industry isn’t quite sure what a flexible display smartphone should look like, and at trade shows, various companies have pitched all sorts of wild form factors. There are concepts for rollable display smartphones, outward-folding displays like the Huawei Mate X, and tri-folding smartphones that fold up like a wallet or a brochure. It doesn’t sound like Samsung will be humoring any of those form factors just yet.

Not the normal way Samsung does business

This report signals an end of Samsung’s exclusivity period on its foldable display technology, which has been an exception to the way Samsung normally does business. Samsung Display and the Galaxy phone division are both under the “Samsung Electronics” label, but often the various divisions of Samsung treat each other like any other customer. If your goal is “sell as many phones as possible,” it would be a good strategy to keep any special technologies in house, but if you’re focused on making as much money as possible, it’s better to sell to the entire industry. As a whole conglomerate, Samsung makes more money selling iPhone parts to Apple than it does selling Galaxy Phones to consumers. We recently saw a good example of this “components-first” approach with the rise of faster-refresh-rate OLED smartphone displays, where OnePlus, Google, and others were using Samsung-made 90Hz OLED displays a generation before Samsung.

The foldable displays are special, though. Samsung Display says it invested six years and $130 million in R&D to bring foldable displays to market, and so far, the phone division has had exclusive access to the technology. Presumably, the plan was that Samsung Electronics would have a huge head start over the competition and would be the only company selling Foldable phones for a few years. Samsung’s plans didn’t work out, though. According to Korean prosecutors, Samsung’s foldable display technology was stolen in 2018 and sold to “two Chinese companies” that have never been officially named. A report from Nikkei Asia pegs China’s biggest display manufacturer, BOE, as a recipient of the stolen display technology, and that certainly seems plausible given that BOE is the closest thing Samsung has to competition in the foldable-display market.

BOE foldable displays power Samsung’s two biggest foldable rivals, the Huawei Mate X and the Moto Razr. Like we listed above, there are plenty of other companies that bring prototype foldable smartphones to trade shows, but as far as products that are actually brave enough to come to market, there are devices powered by Samsung and BOE and maybe one or two tiny boutique outlets like Royale. ETNews still qualifies Samsung as the only “mass market” flexible-display panel provider, a fine conclusion given that other devices seem to mostly be paper launches with either minimal distribution or constant stock problems. If you want to zoom in on the extremely small foldables segment, a report from industry tracker Display Supply Chain Consultants recently put Samsung’s 2020 foldable smartphone market share at 88 percent.

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Microsoft earnings: Xbox hardware sales shot up 86% with Series X/S

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Enlarge / The Xbox Series X, which launched in November.

Microsoft delivered its earnings report for Q2 2021 yesterday, and the company has continued its sprint of very strong quarters, again driven primarily by Azure and the cloud. But that same old story isn’t the only one here: the report also tells us a thing or two about the new Xbox’s performance, as well as Windows and Office.

Overall, Microsoft beat analyst expectations. The company’s top-level revenue grew 17 percent year over year, reaching $43.08 billion. Analysts had expected $40.18 billion. $14.6 billion of that was from the business segment Microsoft calls “Intelligent Cloud,” which most notably includes Azure but also some other professional services like GitHub.

Cloud wasn’t the only positive story, though. Personal Computing including Windows, Xbox, and Surface grew 15 percent compared to the previous year to just over $15 billion. That included an 86 percent increase in Xbox hardware sales, as well as a 40 percent increase in Xbox content and surfaces—the former of those includes the launch of the Xbox Series X/S consoles in November, and the latter includes Game Pass, which Microsoft has been pushing hard as a core value proposition for the Xbox game platform.

It also includes Microsoft’s streaming games service, though that service is still nascent, and it’s unlikely to have had a significant impact on driving those services numbers up.

That said, the cost of producing and marketing the new Xbox actually shrank Microsoft’s margins during the quarter—down from 40 percent to 34.6 percent in that Personal Computing segment.

Windows had a somewhat less impressive quarter, as it was essentially stagnant at 1 percent growth, despite the fact that IDC reported traditional PC sales were way up last quarter. Admittedly, part of the big numbers presented by IDC came from the expansion of ChromeOS beyond the education market and relative growth for Apple’s macOS-based hardware.

There is also the Productivity and Business Segment—including Office and LinkedIn. That, too, grew. Total revenue for the segment was $13.35 billion, which means it was up 14 percent.

Microsoft gave somewhat more conservative guidance to investors for the next quarter, with a range between $40.35 billion and $41.25 billion.

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