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Categories Consumer technology | Video games

This week, Toshiba is selling TVs again, new Fire TV products from Amazon, and Roku adds Prime Video to its streaming devices. Plus, a video game convention in the GTA this weekend, and a review of Red Dead Redemption 2, which is a masterpiece.

TCL’s TV line comes to Canada, bringing high tech for low cost

In mid-October, a brand of televisions was quietly offered for sale through Amazon Canada. The screens, from TCL, quickly moved to the list of top selling devices, and the two most expensive models sold out.

“We’ll have more in stock soon,” assured Chris Larson, the senior vice president of TCL North America.

Larson was speaking with me at a hotel in downtown Vancouver where he and his colleagues were set up and showing off the televisions which have been disrupting the industry in the United States since they started selling there in 2014. In that time, TCL has gone to number three in the TV space south of the border, behind Samsung and LG.

When it comes to high-quality picture for a reasonable price, no other brand or manufacturer comes close to TCL. The company’s “6 Series” includes 4K resolution and supports Dolby Vision and full HDR. They also have a number of additional features and technology to improve colour and contrast performance, as well as local dimming (called “Contrast Control Zones” by TCL).

While similar TVs from other brands cost in the neighbourhood of $2,000, TCL’s two sizes of 6 Series TVs are a fraction of the price, costing $849 for the 55-inch and $1,249 for the 65-inch.

TCL also has two other models coming to Canada, with slightly scaled back features. The 3 Series models cost $209 and $309 for 720p and 1080p resolution, while the 4 Series models, starting at $390, have 4K and basic HDR support, but none of the picture-enhancing controls.

While the cost of TCLs televisions is less, the quality is on par or better than other manufacturers.

Larson explained that TCL is one of only three TV brands that manufacture their own components. Other TV brands have to get components from other companies, or even have other companies construct their TVs for them. TCL has turned this advantage into an opportunity to undercut the competition.

Using a TCL is also a better experience because the company has partnered with Roku to provide the software for the TVs. Roku’s director of communications, Mike Duin, explained that his company takes care of the entire platform for TCL, including the operating system (OS) and programming.

The OS is not simply a port of the software Roku uses for its streaming devices, either. The Roku OS for televisions is a separate product, and Duin said that in developing the software, Roku prides themselves on “taking stuff out instead of adding things.” For example, the small and simple Roku remote control does not have an input button because anything plugged into one of the TCL TV ports appears on the TVs home screen.

Steven Abrams is the leading TCL’s push into Canada. He said that what makes the market here so unique is that consumers are very polarized. They either want the cheapest TV they can get, or they want the best thing available on the market.

TCL believes they have TVs that are both at the same time.

Amazon Fire-enabled TVs coming to Canada courtesy of Toshiba

Toshiba is back in the TV business.

In 2015, the tech company got out of the North American TV market, but as of this fall Toshiba sets will be sold in a partnership with Amazon.

There are two models of Toshiba Fire TV Edition, one which delivers 4K images and one displaying at 720p.

Fire TV is Amazon’s streaming media player and it’s also available as a Stick 4K ($70) that plugs into an HDMI port on your existing television. It’s selling with a new Bluetooth remote with Alexa voice functionality. You can also purchase the remote on its own for $40.

Amazon Prime Video now streaming on Roku

Roku also makes media streaming devices, and now you can watch Amazon Prime Video on them.

Prime Video is the streaming video service from Amazon that comes with every Prime membership. Popular shows on Prime Video include American Gods, The Man in the High Castle, and Goliath.

New shows include Homecoming, starring Julia Roberts and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, and the Jack Ryan series with John Krasinski in the title role.

Next Level video game convention in Mississauga this weekend

If you’re in the greater Toronto area with time on your hands this weekend, head out to the International Centre in Mississauga for the Next Level Video Game Convention which includes tournaments for Gears of War, Call of Duty, and more. Also appearing are local indie game developers, tabletop games to play, and a Magic card game tournament.

The event runs Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $30 for a day and $45 for the weekend.

Meditative Red Dead Redemption 2 a masterwork

You may find the first hours of Red Dead Redemption 2 somewhat ponderous. The game’s introduction and tutorial levels are intentionally slow. Players are locked into a linear experience, during which time you learn a bit about the person you’ve become, Arthur Morgan, and his role as a lieutenant in the criminal gang of Dutch van der Linde.

If you played Red Dead Redemption (2010), some of the characters in the gang are familiar, because they appeared in that game as antagonists. In this prequel, though, they are part of your family.

I bristled a bit at the lack of independence, but realized that was how the developers at Rockstar Games got me to recognize that this open world game is not like other open world games. It’s more of a simulation. The systems in place are intricate and intertwined, the world existing whether you engage with it or not.

And the pace doesn’t change much after the world has opened up. You’ll spend hours on horseback simply riding from place to place. You won’t be looking to the map for side missions, because you just discover them occurring where you happen to be. The slower gait of the game gives you time to appreciate the attention to detail and the exquisite characterizations and dialogue, time to meditate on the themes of expectation, honour, and freedom.

Available for PS4 and Xbox One, Red Dead Redemption 2 is set in a fictionalized version of the American frontier in 1899 and is carefully constructed to peel away the myth and romance of the Wild West.

The role-playing and crafting systems in the game are a bit arcane, and the controls of the game are soft, much the same as they were eight years ago.

But if you don’t mind a game that plays things slow, it’s easy to be at peace with those limitations.

And for an open world game, this one has value. The game’s epilogue is almost as long as the fifty-hour narrative itself, and it all concludes with the map opening up even more. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is one you will want to continue exploring long after the game is done with you.

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Happy Halloween. Want to be scared? Take a look at how much time you’re spending on your smartphone. Also: Twitter might be dropping the “like” button, hackers pwned DOD weapon systems, and the latest robots prove to be more agile than most humans. But first, some treats: a new MacBook Air and new iPads will make you scream.

New MacBook Air is the best computer, new iPad Pros raise the tablet bar again

At a New York City event this week, Apple showed off new computers and iPads.

After a couple of years of very minor updates, the MacBook Air has been fully refreshed, and the new features and specs instantly put the computer at the top of my “best laptops available” list.

With a 13.3-inch Retina display and Touch ID, the new laptop gets a crisp screen and the ability to unlock the computer with a fingerprint, which has been the best feature of the Touch Bar found on the MacBook Pros.

It also gets the new “butterfly” keyboard and a larger, Force Touch trackpad.

Add to that a new camera, microphones, and speakers, an improved battery, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and the “all-new” MacBook Air is the most versatile system available now. It’s available to preorder now starting at Cdn$1,499 for release on November 7.

The newly iterated iPad Pros, meanwhile, have been given the edge-to-edge screen of the new iPhones. That means the 11-inch and 12.9-inch models are equipped with Face ID.

But they’ve lost the headphone jack, and instead of a Lightning port for charging, iPad Pros will now use a USB-C connector.

Also getting a refresh are the Apple Pencil, which attaches to the iPad Pro with magnets and will charge when it’s attached, and the Smart Keyboard, which is a full-size keyboard and protective case.

The new iPad Pros are available to order now and are priced starting at $999 and $1,249. They’ll ship on November 7.

Jack Dorsey said Twitter might get rid of likes, but that’s not going to happen

At the Wired25 event in San Francisco last week, Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey revealed he isn’t sure that the “like” button and follower counts associated with Twitter accounts are particularly helpful.

“Right now we have a big Like button with a heart on it and we’re incentivizing people to want it to go up,” he said while on stage with Nick Thompson, Wired’s editor in chief. “Is that the right thing? Versus contributing to the public conversation or a healthy conversation? How do we incentive healthy conversation?”

Some media outlets took that to mean that Twitter was going to remove the like functionality, but that was a huge extrapolation of what Dorsey actually said.

And earlier this week, the company responded to the reports by saying that this was nothing new, that Dorsey had mentioned “in front of the US Congress” that the company had been thinking for a while about how to incentivize “healthy conversation” but that there was nothing happening “soon”.

It may be that removing the retweet functionality would do more to change the social conversation.

How much time are you spending on your smartphone and tablet?

The easiest scares this Halloween may come from the recognition you are spending way too much time on your mobile.

With Screen Time, the new feature available on iPhones as part of iOS 12, you can see exactly how much time you’re spending, and you can dive down into what apps you’re using the most, too.

In the last week, for example, I spent, on average, one hour and thirty-five minutes per day on the iPhone XS Max I’ve been using (more on that experience soon). Two and a half hours of that was on social networking (Facebook, Twitter), two and a half hours was using “productivity” apps like email, Slack, and calendars.

The cool thing about Screen Time is that you can dispel the dread that came when you first looked at your usage.

You can schedule times when your device will effectively shut down, permitting phone calls only. Or you can set time limits for specific apps (if you’re burning through your days playing Angry Birds, for example).

You can also control the usage of family members you monitor, so if your kids keep texting with their friends late into the night under the covers, you can put a stop to that right quick.

Hackers easily take control of U.S. weapon systems

Given that Trump seems hell bent on reintroducing the Cold War, don’t you feel good to know that the U.S. military can’t even keep control of its own weapon systems?

That’s the disturbing finding of a “cybersecurity” test that the Pentagon staged and the U.S. Government Accountability Office analyzed

The GAO found that Department of Defense officials “believed their systems were secure and discounted some test results as unrealistic.”

This was after they realized that, “Using relatively simple tools and techniques, testers were able to take control of systems and largely operate undetected, due in part to basic issues such as poor password management and unencrypted communications.”

“In one case, the test team took control of the operators’ terminals. They could see, in real time, what the operators were seeing on their screens and could manipulate the system.”

Sleep well tonight.

Boston Dynamics robots more agile, mobile than ever

We’ve been tracking the progress of the robots being designed at Boston Dynamics for a couple of years. At first they were interesting and curious.

Now they are genuinely frightening in their abilities.

Just watch this “humanoid” Atlas running and navigating around ground obstacles and climbing up some offset stairs.

And there’s also Spot, the “dog”, proving that robots can even dance better than some of us. Okay, I’ll admit it: Spot dances better than me.

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Categories Consumer technology | Video games

This week, the Mysterious Package Company intrigues, podcast festivals are coming to Toronto and Vancouver, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey makes some changes that make it a better game. But first, a look at the Google Pixel 3 smartphone.

Google’s Pixel 3 is the best Android smartphone you can get

I’ve been using the Google Pixel 3 for a couple of weeks now and it’s easily the best Android device available.

Available in two sizes, the 5.5-inch 3 ($999 and $1,129) and the 6.3-inch XL ($1,129 and $1,259), the smartphones aren’t all screen like others are (the Pixel 3 has a top and bottom bezel and the Pixel 3 XL has a bottom bezel and a notch at the top), and they aren’t equipped with facial recognition.

They have a fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone, a USB-C port that does duty for connections, charging, and for headphones (the devices ship with USB-C earphones and an adapter for headphones with a 3.5mm jack).

The glass backs allow for wireless charging (Qi standard) which works great with the Pixel Stand, which turns your smartphone into a Google Home hub.

And the lean software installation and Android Pie operating system means that these phones run fast, giving you barely time to blink when opening and switching between apps.

The photos you’ll take with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are class-leading. The machine learning/AI support for photography means that you’ll be snapping photos and taking selfies that rival what you’d get with a DSLR. The Top Shot feature alone will be your saviour.

But a few of the lesser talked about features are what really make a difference, I think, and serve to set the Pixel 3 devices apart from iPhones and other Android devices.

Google Lens, for example, is more integrated into the phone, so you can use the camera to help you identify that plant growing in your yard or translate that street sign when you’re on vacation in Eastern Europe. You can even use it to scan business cards.

Google Assistant, meanwhile, can screen your phone calls before you answer them, in the same way a receptionist would.

And if you’re thinking about moving to the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL from a different device or manufacturer, the “Quick Switch Adapter” software makes it easy.

Surprise someone with the gift of an experience from the Mysterious Package Company

For the past few weeks, Drex has been receiving strange packages.

They’ve been coming from the Mysterious Package Company, a Toronto-based group that tells stories through objects and artifacts they send to people in the mail. These items are clues to puzzles and narratives that build over time until the story is complete.

I was given the opportunity to “gift” one of these experiences to Drex, and the entire thing was a surprise to him until he received a final letter revealing my involvement.

He told me it was “totally weird” and that he thought at first he was being pranked.

The story I sent him was Tempus Fugit, which he found to be a bit confusing. There are a few other genres of experience, including a couple that are okay for families, and a couple of more horror-like ones that are definitely not.

Now that I’ve sent one, I want to be a recipient! I’m curious to experience the strange storytelling for myself.

Podcast festivals hit Toronto, Vancouver in November

There’s a podcast for everyone these days, and if you want a chance to see the people behind the microphones, check out the Hot Docs Podcast Festival, dropping into the Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto for five days from November 1 through November 5.

Highlight event: LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow doing a live reading Friday, November 2 at 6:30 p.m.

Starting a few days later is the inaugural Vancouver Podcast Festival, which runs November 8 to November 10 at a number of venues in downtown Vancouver.

Highlight event: Harry Potter Podfest at the VPL at 11 a.m. on November 10. This one is free.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey sheds some baggage and shows off a tantalizing new approach to open world games

The new Assassin’s Creed game from Ubisoft is quite unlike the others in the blockbuster franchise.

For one, it’s set before the time established by the previous games as when the Brotherhood of Assassin’s was created. That’s easily dealt with by the narrative. The more prominent shift is away from the strictly stealth-based assassination simulation of the early games, where you needed to escape the chase by hiding in nooks and crannies or crowds of people.

Instead, Odyssey puts you in a more organic, freeform system in which you have more freedom to come up with your own approach. It’s akin to the way other games like Horizon Zero Dawn and Far Cry are presenting open world experiences.

With developed led by Ubisoft Quebec and available for PS4, Switch, Windows, and Xbox One, you become immersed in the world of Ancient Greece just a generation after the Greco-Persian War of the fifth century BCE. It’s takes its initial inspiration from the battle in which Leonidas and the Spartans confronted Xerxes and the Persian army, a tale documented by Herodotus.

The Greek historian is prominent in Odyssey, just as real-life figures have appeared in all Assassin’s Creed games before. The central character you embody is a mercenary of Spartan origin who gets caught up in the political shifts of the time.

You get to choose whether your character is male or female (I played as the very able Kassandra, wonderfully performed by Canadian actor Melissanthi Mahut). You make other decisions, too, and they all impact that game you play to some degree.

And while you aren’t an assassin here, the way you were in previous Assassin’s Creed games, you are a capable killer when you need to be. I confess to missing the pure stealth tactics of those early games, but Odyssey is fluid and dynamic and easy to enjoy.

You may find that the activities get tedious after a while. Tedium is part of any open world game. The trick for the developer is to craft a world that people want to spend time in so that it doesn’t feel boring doing the same things over and over again.

That’s certainly true of Odyssey. The developers crafted a deep and engaging story with crisp characters and varied connections. I was playing for about 20 hours before I started to really notice the grind.

And what drove me forward was the notion that I had just unravelled another twist in the web of intrigue anchoring the narrative.

Assassin’s Creed may be more about solving whodunnits than sneaking around to perform assassinations, but it’s a shift that makes Odyssey one of the best Assassin’s Creed games in years.

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