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Why the fuss about USB-C?

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USB-C cables are thrown into the spotlight once again. These beloved reversible cables aren’t new to tech, but members of the European Parliament have called for the mandatory introduction of common chargers for all mobile devices with a near-unanimous vote of 582-40 on the resolution. One cable to rule them all. The iPhone’s current Lightning cable is Apple’s own proprietary tech. This means that the USB-C naturally finds itself the standard that all phone companies, including Apple, are going to abide to.

EU vs Apple

One of the EU’s arguments is to reduce electronic waste. The lawmakers’ resolution said the Commission should adopt new rules by July, calling for “an urgent need for EU regulatory action to reduce electronic waste, empower consumers to make sustainable choices, and allow them to fully participate in an efficient and well-functioning internal market.”

It sounds oddly specific, but the logic seems to be the more unique ports you have, the more wires you will need – and throw eventually. In fact, old chargers are estimated to account for a shocking 51,000 tonnes of electronic waste per year.

A lot of today’s cables deliver very similar charges, but the variety of plugs means that over 1 million tonnes of power adapters are produced annually. Instead of hoarding a whole bunch of cables, the EU envisions a world where one cable is enough.

That leads us to the EU’s second argument: interoperability. Uniting all devices with a single cable would mean you only need to bring one for all your devices. Most of the latest laptops charge with USB-C – even the MacBook, ironically – making it even more convenient for consumers.

Apple is obviously not pleased. Contrary to what EU are saying, Apple says forcing this change would lead to “an unprecedented volume of electronic waste.” It would render over the cables of over 1 billion Apple devices obsolete. These cables would be thrown out over the years as users move on to new phones.

Why USB-C cables?

The EU did not explicitly say USB-C will be the standard but given how Micro-USB is being phased out and Lightning cables are Apple’s, we seem to have a clear winner.

The USB-C brought to the rest of the world what Lightning cables brought for iPhones – flippable wires. Crucially, it has more than 700 companies in its membership, such as Microsoft, Samsung and even Apple. If there were to be one cable to rule them all, it would be this.

There are many variations of USB-C cables, which presents a huge flaw that we will address later. But in short, the variety has led to greater wattage and transfer rates of 5GBps for normal cables and up to 40GBps in high-end cables like the Thunderbolt 3.0. The higher transfer rate also means it can simultaneously send video signals and power streams, moving toward a future where chunky HDMI cables are redundant.

Limitations of USB-C

While it may be the future, USB-C cables are not without its flaws. Not every cable is created equal – users are getting wildly varied performances with every cable they buy. The one attached to your MacBook is greatly different from the one powering your phone.

Here is why we’re all confused: the USB-C name refers to the physical shape of the connector, not the protocol. The specs within the cable vary – this is what determines how much it can transfer and how fast it can send it. Better cables like the USB 3.0 or 3.1 may have the capacity to transfer big video game files in seconds, while ones with an ancient USB 2.0 spec may take minutes. Other cables can send video into a USB-C compatible desktop while other USB-C cables can’t, presenting another potential for wasted cables.

This is even more problematic when it comes to power. Cable ratings that do not match the ports they are plugged to can overload a device. Most USB-C cables have safeguards in place to prevent this, say, if it’s used on a device that does not support their maximum draw. But problems arise when manufacturers cut corners and these cables start to damage your tech – or cause overheating.

More needs to be done to ensure a clear-cut implementation of USB-C cables, which could lead to just as much waste, or worse, injuries.

What’s next for Apple?

Apple’s not a fan of the new resolution, but this change will likely force it to standardize all its new products by 2021. But the business will surely seek new ways to generate revenue, now that the infamous fraying charging cables are out of favor.

Its endgame is likely to obliterate cables entirely. Apple has killed the headphone jack for phones and charging ports will likely be its next target. Reports by Cult of Mac suggest Apple are working on a port-less iPhone for 2021, relying entirely on wireless connectivity.

There are concerns that Apple may not follow the Qi wireless charging standard that makes it compatible with the rest of the industry, but the EU saw that play early. Parliament is also requesting the Commission to ensure wireless chargers are standardized across the board too, ensuring it is not restricted to one brand or device type.

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ASUS ROG Phone 5 might have more RAM you’ll ever need for now

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How much RAM do you need for a smartphone? Disregarded the old joke about 640KB of RAM for PCs in the late 80s, smartphone memory seems to have stalled at 12GB in the past year or so with very few exceptions. That said, it seems that high-end smartphones are ready to push the envelope again with the ROG PHone 5 going beyond the 16GB that you’d find on the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G this year.

Just for a quick refresher, RAM is that volatile (meaning it loses data when power goes out) memory space that’s used not for holding data you want to keep but for programs to stay while running. To keep it overly simple, the more RAM you have, the more programs you can have running at the same time before the operating system starts killing unused programs to make room for more. This is why phones with less RAM often have problems multi-tasking, forcing apps to be restarted when you switch back to them because they were killed in the background.

That is true for normal apps but is even more true for games that have large pieces of code and data that need to be kept in memory to run fast and smoothly. It’s really no surprise, then, that the first smartphones that boasted 16GB of RAM were gaming phones like the Lenovo Legion Duel (or Pro) and the ASUS ROG Phone 3. According to a Geekbench sighting, the ASUS ROG Phone 5 will be taking that to the next level even.

The benchmark notes a RAM size of 16.97GB which, given how these numbers work, suggests that the phone could actually have 18GB of RAM. That is quite a large amount of RAM that, even with today’s demanding mobile games, might sound almost too much. Then again, ASUS offers various configurations for its ROG Phones so this could simply be the top-end variant.

The entry doesn’t have other details to offer but we can already piece some of those together. The phone will undoubtedly take advantage of all the power that the Snapdragon 888 has to offer, for example, and DxOMark’s recent audio benchmark revealed not just the return of the 3.5mm headphone jack but also what seems to be a display on its back purely for branding purposes. The ASUS ROG Phone 5 is slated to debut on March 10 so Android gamers won’t have too long to wait for confirmation.

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NVIDIA SHIELD TV SmartThings Link will become unusable in July

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A smart home hub is only as useful as the number of languages it can speak. Given the number of disparate smart home platforms available today, it pays to either understand all those or at least have the ability to learn to communicate with other smart home products. That was practically what the SmartThings Link USB dongle did for the NVIDIA SHIELD TV but that dongle itself will lose its ability to speak the SmartThings language when Samsung upgrades its ecosystem in June.

The SmartThings Link dongle goes way back in 2017 when Google, NVIDIA, and Samsung seemingly sang in unison to bring their smart home ecosystems to a single device. The NVIDIA SHIELD TV, which ran Android TV, not only got support for Google Assistant but also Samsung SmartThings via that USB stick. It may not have exploded as the companies would have hoped but this recent news shows that there will be quite a number of disenfranchised users who banked on that setup.

Janko Roettgers on Twitter shared an email from Samsung detailing the end of times for the SmartThings Link. Starting June 30, 2021, the device will be rendered useless and the NVIDIA SHIELD TV and SmartThings devices will no longer be able to communicate with each other. Additionally, NVIDIA’s Android TV console will also lose control of any other Zigbee or Z-Wave product previously connected via the SmartThings app.

Although disappointing, the writing has been on the wall since June last year when Samsung announced that it would be moving to a new SmartThings platform. A lot of devices won’t be able to make the transition, not just the SmartThings Link, as the change will require completely new hardware more than just a software update. Samsung is taking a very big risk in promising a more flexible ecosystem while potentially hanging hundreds out to dry.

Samsung seems to be offering refunds for some or discounts for its new SmartThings Hub but this still means that SHIELD TV owners won’t be able to use their device as a central smart home hub anymore. Whether Samsung takes steps to bridge the gap again is still unknown but it seems to be cozying up to Google lately so that might still happen, one way or another.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra DxOMark score is surprisingly lower than expected

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Although it isn’t exactly terrible, Samsung’s performance in the mobile photography department can be described as inconsistent at best. It does take great photos and videos but, at least as far as DxOMark is concerned, it simply isn’t the best by a long shot. Every new generation of the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note flagships are expected to bring improvements in that arena but that didn’t seem to work for the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G which actually fared worse than its predecessor.

Samsung’s gimmick this year was to replace the lone periscope-style telephoto zoom camera with two cameras that work independently, depending on the range of the shot. While that did work as advertised, it couldn’t save the Galaxy S21 Ultra from what DxOMark says is the phone’s biggest flaw, image noise.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra managed to do well in almost all other criteria like exposure, color, and even autofocus where it stumbled last year. Unfortunately, for reasons still unexplained, the phone also produced more image noise than the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which was already on the lower rungs of the ladder compared to Huawei, Apple, and even Xiaomi. Making matters more perplexing, however, is that noise and artifacts are present both in low-light situations as well as bright, outdoor scenes.

The story is the same when it comes to video recording, with the Galaxy S21 Ultra doing well for exposure, stabilization, and even autofocus. Again, noise and artifacts pull the score down to the point that it doesn’t even make it to the site’s top tiers in this category.

With an average score of 121, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G ranks not only below its predecessor but even below the likes of last year’s flagships, including the iPhone 11. That said, DxOMark only tested the Exynos variant of the phone and the Snapdragon version sometimes scores differently, whether for better or for worse.

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