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Technology US

Vergecast: Galaxy S21 Ultra review and Paramount Plus launch announced

This week on The Verge’s flagship podcast The Vergecast, The Verge’s own Nilay Patel, Dieter Bohn, Julia Alexander, and Chaim Gartenberg run through the news, reviews, and rumors in the world of tech this week.

Dieter published his review of Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra on Thursday, so The Vergecast discusses the updates and fixes in this iteration of the flagship phone. Has Samsung redeemed itself from the S20 Ultra?

Second half of the show, there were a bunch of Apple rumors this week — reports of the company planning a Mac redesign, a foldable phone, and a VR headset — so the crew theorizes what these products could look like, what their function could be, and when these would actually be available.

The show wraps up with some updates to the streaming wars: ViacomCBS’s new rebranded streaming service Paramount Plus now has a launch date for March 4th. Julia Alexander details what shows and movies we’ll see on the service and how well it could handle in an already competitive market.

Listen to the full discussion here or in your preferred podcast player.

Stories discussed in episode:

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Technology US

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: the real deal

Samsung’s “Ultra” phones are meant to be the absolute pinnacle of the company’s (non-folding) mobile technology. And so the Galaxy S21 Ultra — the third Ultra phone after the S20 and Note 20 Ultras — spares very few expenses. The price is lower than before, starting at $1,199.99, but the phone itself is a perfect example of what happens when Samsung goes all-out.

It’s also a perfect example of how Samsung often whiffs on its first attempt at something but presses on anyway, eventually achieving the original vision it couldn’t the first time. The original Galaxy S20 Ultra from last year promised much more than its parts could achieve. The Note 20 Ultra fixed the worst bugs but didn’t improve image quality. Thus far, the “ultra” line hasn’t been especially ultra.

This year, I’m hard pressed to find major faults with the Galaxy S21’s hardware. (Software, unfortunately, is another story.) The S21 Ultra is a huge phone and an expensive one, so it won’t appeal to many — but if you’re okay with those qualities, then it is also the best Android phone right now.

I guess third time’s the charm.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra, in Phantom Black

The Galaxy S21 Ultra in phantom black.

Galaxy S21 Ultra design

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is another in a long line of truly massive Samsung phones. The screen measures 6.8 inches diagonally, which is basically tablet territory. If you are keeping score — and you know that Samsung is — the S21 Ultra’s screen spec is 0.1 inches bigger than the 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max. (If you account for the curved corners on the screen, the viewing area on both phones is technically smaller.)

Samsung kept the curved edges on the screen

Samsung kept the curved edges on the screen.

The metal rail blends into the camera bump

The metal rail blends into the camera bump.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra vs the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The Galaxy is narrower and easier to hold

The Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The Galaxy is narrower and easier to hold.

Big Android phones are common now, though, so Samsung’s job is to not only make a powerful phone but to make one that feels well-made. Mission accomplished: the S21 Ultra looks great and feels better. It’s much more comfortable to hold than the iPhone 12 Pro Max because it is a little narrow and because it has curved edges.

Samsung’s main design change was to blend the metal rails on the sides into the camera array on the back. It looks as good as last year’s mesa-like camera bump looked bad. I’d become a little blind to just how weird and bad most camera bumps look, and the Ultra is a reminder that they can be better designed. Though, of course, there are five big holes (four cameras, one for the laser-focusing system) which are kind of a lot to look at.

There’s no getting around that this is a massive, relatively heavy phone. But Samsung also has a ton of experience making gigantic phones, and it has applied everything it has learned here. For example, contrary to the current trend, the screen is still just a little curved on the sides. I think it was the right call — it narrows the bezels on the left and right just that much more, making the phone easier to hold.

As you may have heard, Samsung is proud of its new, matted “phantom black” finish on the Gorilla Victus Glass on the back of the phone. It is indeed very black and it repels fingerprints well. However, I am a little worried about its durability. We have already put a tiny scratch on ours that shows through as silver simply by setting the phone down on concrete to take a photo of it. Something to watch out for.

Samsung’s One UI on the Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung’s One UI on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Galaxy S21 Ultra specs and performance

Funny story: usually when Samsung introduces a new flagship phone, its reps will talk my ear off about the technology and quality of its new, big screen. This year, the company simply pointed out that it supports an adaptive refresh rate up to 120Hz at its native 3200 x 1440 resolution and left it at that. If there had been a mic to hold on the video conference call, it could have been dropped.

Left unsaid because Samsung rightly knew it could be assumed: this is the best screen on a smartphone. Samsung’s default color balance choice is a little intense, but there’s a Natural option and even the ability to custom tune the Vivid option to your liking. It can reach up to 1,500 nits of peak brightness in HDR video, as well. Samsung’s “Eye Comfort” setting for turning down blue light at night is still a little ham-fisted compared to the iPhone, but that’s my only real complaint.

Internally, the S21 line is the first set of mass market phones with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 888 processor. Samsung says it is utilizing the extra features in this chip to improve image processing and add the variable refresh rate (which runs from 10Hz up to 120Hz) at full resolution. It also supports Wi-Fi 6E and both flavors of 5G. The chip doesn’t benchmark as well as the iPhone’s A14 Bionic, but in single core marks it beats other Android phones with the older 865 chip handily.

More important to me is that it feels fast. I never perceived any major lag anywhere in the phone. It also might be providing some battery efficiency improvements. For my testing, I turned on every bell and whistle: max resolution, adaptive refresh rate, high brightness, always-on screen. Even when shooting a ton of photos, 4K and 8K video, and playing games, the 5,000mAh battery lasted through the next morning consistently. With less intense usage this is easily a two-day phone.

If you’re looking at this phone, you will want to step up from the default 128GB of storage. The 256GB option only costs $50 more, while 512GB (which also has 16GB of RAM instead of 12) costs $180 more.

Getting more storage on this phone is important because unlike previous S-series phones, there’s no microSD card slot on the S21 Ultra. Perhaps it was inevitable as a cost-cutting measure (along with nixing the AC adapter and MST payment tech that worked with standard credit card readers), but it’s a bummer nonetheless. A phone that encourages you to take 8K video and 108-megapixel photos needs more than 128GB of storage, at the very least.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is also the first S-series phone to get support for Samsung’s S Pen stylus, though it’s sold separately and you’ll need to figure out a way to carry it (Samsung will happily sell you a bundle with a case). Later this year, Samsung will sell an S Pen Pro that adds in Bluetooth so you can use it as a remote for you phone if you like.

I didn’t get the S Pen to test so I can’t speak to whether it’s any good, but I don’t have any reason to expect it would be too different from the stylus experience on the Note line of phones.

But of all the specs I’ve listed — both good and disappointing — the one that had the biggest tangible effect on my experience was the new in-screen fingerprint sensor from Qualcomm. It’s both bigger and faster, and it means I can just quickly tap to unlock the phone without needing to aim that carefully. Because we unlock our phones so often, even tiny changes make a huge difference in reducing a sense of friction. It finally feels on par with rear-mounted fingerprint sensors. And of course, it works when you’re wearing a mask.

There are five cameras on the S21 Ultra, plus a laser autofocus sensor on the back

There are five cameras on the S21 Ultra, plus a laser autofocus sensor on the back.

Galaxy S21 Ultra camera

It should come as no surprise that Samsung can make a big phone with good specs and a great screen. What is really supposed to make the Galaxy S21 Ultra “ultra” is the camera system — it’s the most important differentiator from the other Galaxy S phones and the place where Samsung wants to rack up the biggest numbers.

However, racking up megapixels and zoom lenses does not guarantee either good photos or a good experience. Look no further than the original Ultra phone, last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra. It suffered from serious focusing issues and generally didn’t justify its higher price. The Note 20 Ultra added laser autofocus, but it still didn’t do as much as it should have.

To justify its price and size, the Galaxy S21 Ultra needed to overcome years of stasis and finally bring Samsung up to par with the competition.

It has.

The S21 Ultra’s color is usually accurate, but sometimes a little brighter than the scene

The S21 Ultra’s color is usually accurate but sometimes a little brighter than the scene.

The camera system on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best I’ve used on any Android phone and is extremely competitive with the iPhone 12 Pro Max. And with telephoto shots, it usually wins outright.

Dynamic range isn’t bad

Dynamic range isn’t bad.

Portrait Mode has the usual hair foibles, but a nice bokeh dropoff

Portrait Mode has the usual hair foibles but a nice bokeh drop-off.

Night mode

Night mode

Surprisingly, the S21 Ultra’s focal plane doesn’t seem as narrow as the S21, allow more of close subjects to stay in focus

Surprisingly, the S21 Ultra’s focal plane doesn’t seem as narrow as the S21, allowing more of close subjects to stay in focus.

I came into this review with a lot of skepticism. Anytime a company promises camera improvements — especially when they are promised on the back of more megapixels and more cameras — skepticism is the right attitude. On both of those fronts, Samsung is not shying away from promises. There are five image sensors, none of them throwaways:

  • Main wide angle: 108-megapixel, OIS, f/1.8, 0.8μm
  • Ultrawide: 12-megapixel, 120-degree field of view, f/2.2, 1.4μm
  • Telephoto 1: 10-megapixel, Optical 3X, OIS, f/2.4, 1.22μm
  • Telephoto 2: 10-megapixel, Optical 10X, OIS, f/4.9, 1.22μm
  • Selfie camera: 40-megapixel, 80-degree field of view, f/2.2, 0.7 μm

The fifth hole on the back of the phone is for the laser autofocus sensor, which was added to help with some of the focus issues on the main sensor. That main 108-megapixel sensor is also a second-generation sensor, capable of 12-bit color and featuring what Samsung says is a new “remosaicing” process for converting 108-megapixels into the default 12-megapixel images. (Getting 12-bit color requires diving into the settings and using Pro mode.)

The San Francisco skyline, shot on S21 Ultra

The San Francisco skyline, shot on S21 Ultra.

I am happy to report that nearly every problem I had with the original Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera system has been resolved. Focusing is fast and accurate, the focal plane seems bigger, there’s no discernible shutter lag, and most of all: the pictures look better.

The main sensor also simply feels more predictable. It focuses where I tap, and parts I’d expect to get some bokeh have a nice blur. In the dark, it switches over to night mode and produces images that have significantly less noise than before (though a touch more noise than the iPhone 12 Pro Max).

Galaxy S21 left, iPhone 12 Pro Max right. Samsung brightens images more.

Samsung continues to tune photos differently than I prefer. Compared to the iPhone, it aims to make things a little brighter and the colors a little more intense, while Apple seems to more confidently let shadows be shadows. However, the S21 Ultra often provides better sharpness and detail.

Where the S21 Ultra really shines is on zooming. It has two telephoto lenses and I found myself believing in the utility of having both. Proper optical zoom at 3X makes a big difference, and Samsung uses data from multiple lenses up to 10X. Samsung still has its gimmicky “Space Zoom” that works up to 100X, but I couldn’t get anything usable beyond 30X and even then it required a lot of light to create something passable.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra left, iPhone 12 Pro Max right; Approx 10x zoom on each.

As for video, we are equally impressed. The S21 Ultra does a very good job with dynamic range and adjusting exposure on the fly as you pan the camera through a scene. Stabilization is improved, too.

Some of you might be surprised that I haven’t mentioned the Pixel 5 yet. Well, it has fallen behind. Both the S21 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max have switched to physically larger sensors and it has revealed the limits of computational photography.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra left, iPhone 12 Pro Max right; night mode

As for the head-to-head with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, here’s where I have landed. If you were to take 50 photos or videos, 30 of them would be a toss-up based on your personal preference, seven or eight would be clearly better on the S21, and 12 or 13 would be better from the iPhone. They’ve very close.

But Samsung has those telephoto options. And it also has compensated for the relative dearth of high-quality third-party Android photo apps by building in its own features. Samsung has added a “director’s mode” that lets you switch lenses on the fly while shooting video in 1080p, but I found that I preferred shooting in 4K. You can shoot in 8K and pull out a still photo, you can use “Single Take 2” to let the AI try to make a bunch of amusing photos and video effects. Samsung’s Pro modes for both photo and video are excellent. You can shoot in RAW, too, although it is a standard RAW, not an Apple-style ProRAW that has some of the benefits of HDR mixed in. (I’ll leave a full Samsung RAW vs. iPhone ProRAW competition for others.)

Even in Portrait Mode, face smoothing can finally be fully disabled.

Even in Portrait Mode, face smoothing can finally be fully disabled.

Overall, there are just a thousand different ways you can work with this camera, and it can be a little overwhelming. But the good news is that the experience of just snapping a photo will yield better results than before.

I’ve saved my favorite news for last: Samsung has finally, finally given us the option to fully turn off face smoothing. Behold, my wrinkles and blemishes. No more Hamcam.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra

The Galaxy S21 Ultra

Galaxy S21 Ultra software

Here’s how Samsung’s versions of Android work: they get way way too messy and complicated, everybody complains, and eventually Samsung simplifies things. Then the cycle starts again.

Right now, we’re still heading toward the land of complication. Samsung’s One UI interface is still good for big screens, but there are just so many options in quick settings, many of which mean nothing to the average person. Unforgivably, there are still ads built into Samsung’s default apps. The biggest thing on the default home screen is a weather widget. Tap it and the next biggest thing you’re likely to see is the kind of ad that’s normally at the bottom of a crappy, overloaded website.

Bixby, Samsung’s digital assistant, is still the default, and it’s difficult to switch away from it (you need third-party software). Surprisingly, it’s somewhat better than the last time I used it, but it’s still brittle. When I asked it to set a second alarm for 15 minutes, it consistently canceled my first alarm and set one for one second. If you set it up and set SmartThings up for your smart home and live an entirely Samsung-based life, Bixby is passable. But it’s also not necessary. The Google Assistant is still here and still better.

Then there’s texting. In the US, Samsung ships these phones with Samsung Messages by default, whereas everybody else in the world gets Android Messages and therefore RCS. Some US carriers support RCS on Samsung Messages, but badly. AT&T’s version of RCS doesn’t interoperate with other carriers yet, for example. I know Samsung isn’t to blame for RCS’s problems, but as the biggest Android seller in the US, you’d like to think the company would try to fix this.

But if you know your way around Android, you can make the S21 Ultra a really amazing and powerful phone. Dodge or disable all those ads and install all the non-Samsung versions of software, and it’s a powerful and sometimes elegant experience.

Samsung is also better at letting customers customize its software for gigantic phone screens than Apple is. You can split-screen apps, convert apps to little pop-up floating windows, turn on a slide-over bar with access to your clipboard and calendar, and much more.

Getting to all that power requires wading through a lot of complexity, but I’ve always found it to be worth the effort. I just wish Samsung wouldn’t make it so difficult in the first place.

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra

Usually, a review of a superpowered phone from Samsung consists of a bunch of promises and then a bunch of reality checks on those promises. With the Galaxy S21 Ultra, there are fewer caveats than before. The battery lasts beyond a full day. There’s a beautiful new design. It has the fastest speeds, best camera system, and nicest screen of any Android phone right now.

If you’re wondering how the smaller Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus compare, we’ll have follow-up reviews on those — but as a spoiler, I’ll just tell you both are much more iterative.

The biggest reality check is the software, which suffers from Samsung’s heavy-handed attempts to build its own ecosystem and further monetize an already expensive phone. I doubt that the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra will convince many iPhone users to switch — the ecosystem lock-in on iOS is too strong for that and getting the most out of Samsung’s version of Android is daunting.

If you can navigate the software, the size, and the price tag, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best Android phone available today. I don’t know how long it will be able to hold on to that crown, but it’s got it now.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is finally worthy of the name.

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Technology US

Asus ExpertBook B9450 review: lightweight, long-lasting work laptop

There are two reasons to buy the ExpertBook B9450: the weight and the battery life.

Pick up the Asus ExpertBook B9450, and you’ll wonder where the rest of it is. Asus is touting it as the world’s lightest 14-inch commercial laptop, and it is light. Carrying it around, I felt like I was carrying nothing. My test unit is 2.19 pounds, but models go as low as 1.91 pounds.

Inside the 0.6-inch chassis, though, Asus has still managed to include some decent specs. Models start at $1,699, and the base includes 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage, and a Core i7-10510U with Intel’s UHD Graphics 620. The model I’m using, which costs $1,799, has the same processor but bumps the storage up to two 1TB drives.

Asus says the keyboard has a lifespan of up to 10,000,000 keystrokes, per its durability testing.

But the ExpertBook’s battery life is just as (if not more) impressive than its weight. In my testing, it lasted an average of 10 hours and 47 minutes — and that was while multitasking with a decent load of Chrome tabs and apps at 200 nits of brightness. That means the ExpertBook isn’t the longest-lasting business laptop I’ve ever tested (the $3,000 Dell Latitude still holds that crown), but it’s certainly in the hall of fame.

That’s my quick take on the ExpertBook. Those are the two standout features (in addition to the storage capacity). Together, they make it a great option for business users who need a portable device with quite a bit of storage, but potential buyers should be aware that the processor is mostly suitable for basic office tasks. More on that in a bit.

The left side of the Asus ExpertBook B9450.

It’s too bad all USB-C ports are on the same side.

A problem with laptops this thin and light is that they sometimes feel flimsy. The ExpertBook is surprisingly sturdy, though; it’s made with multiple layers of a magnesium-lithium alloy material that Asus says is 17 percent less dense than “conventional” magnesium-aluminum alloy. The company also says the B9450 has passed MIL-STD 810G military-grade standards, which tests various factors like port durability, spill resistance, and shock resistance. I’d believe it. While I did feel a bit of flex in the keyboard deck and screen, it was nothing compared to what I’ve seen from other ultrathin units like the Vaio SX12.

Durability aside, the ExpertBook feels very high quality. There are metallic flecks in the finish, which give the whole thing a bit of a celestial look in certain light.

One note with the design: like a number of Asus laptops, the ExpertBook has an ErgoLift hinge, which means the display folds under the keyboard deck when you open the laptop and lifts it a bit off the ground. This has a number of benefits — it’s supposed to increase cooling and make typing more comfortable — but it also means that if you’re using the ExpertBook on your lap, you’ll have a sharp hinge digging into your legs. I know not everyone spends as much time on the couch as I do, so your mileage may vary.

The Asus ExpertBook B9450 open, angled slightly to the right. The screen displays the Asus ExpertBook logo on a blue and white background.

When the laptop is unfolded to a 145-degree angle, the bottom rises by 5 degrees.

The final impressive thing is the useful port selection: you’ve got two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, one USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A port, one HDMI 2.0 port, one Micro HDMI to LAN port, and one 3.5mm combo audio jack. Plenty of manufacturers have had trouble fitting even USB-A onto ultrathin machines, so I’m impressed to see a full-sized HDMI here.

The left side of the Asus ExpertBook B9450.

The HDMI 2.0 port supports 4K video output.

Other fun stuff: there’s a fingerprint scanner below the arrow keys, the Windows Hello webcam has both a physical shutter and a kill switch, and the touchpad has Asus’ NumberPad 2.0 feature, which allows you to pull up an LED numpad with the touch of a sensor. And there are a number of business-specific features, including a TPM 2.0 chip and a preloaded suite called Asus Business Manager where you can encrypt your local drives, toggle system registry editing, and customize various other stuff.

All this sounds great, so what’s the catch? There’s really only one, but it’s one that will matter to plenty of people. It’s the processor. The Core i7-10510U is a four-core processor that’s significantly lower-powered than the chips you’ll see in the best laptops on the market like the Dell XPS 13. It’s far from a workhorse.

Now, the ExpertBook is just fine for basic office work — emails, Google Docs, Slack, Zoom calls, that sort of thing. I never heard the fans spin up during my regular Chrome multitasking, nor did I experience any performance issues. If this is what you do all day, great — the ExpertBook is for you. But if you think you’ll ever need to do strenuous work on this, especially tasks that leverage the integrated graphics, you’ll want to look elsewhere.

I tried to run our traditional video export test in Adobe Premiere Pro to illustrate the performance difference between this model and other ultraportables you can buy, but the program crashed during each trial. I let Asus know about this, and it’s looking into it.

The Asus ExpertBook B9450 facing away from the canera, angled to the left.

The lid and base panel are made of magnesium-lithium alloy, which Asus says is 17 percent less dense than “conventional” magnesium-aluminum alloy.

So I ended up running some light games instead. The ExpertBook ran Rocket League on maximum settings at 40fps (where the 11th Gen XPS 13 with a Core i7 i7-1165G7 put up 111fps, and the 10th Gen XPS 13 with a Core i7-1065G7 put up 70fps). On League of Legends, it averaged 85fps (to the 11th Gen XPS’s 205fps and the 10th Gen’s 160fps). It averaged 31fps on Overwatch’s Ultra settings and 10fps on the lowest Shadow of the Tomb Raider (which I ran mostly out of curiosity). Those frame rates are considerably below what you can expect from both XPS models, as well as plenty of much more affordable 14-inchers like Asus’ own ZenBook 14.

To reiterate: The ExpertBook isn’t anything close to a gaming laptop. This is just to illustrate the processing power you’re sacrificing for the additional portability, battery life, and storage that the ExpertBook offers (and of course, to note that if you think you’ll ever want to play even casual games, think about getting something else).

One thing I want to commend Asus for, though: The ExpertBook’s cooling is great. During several Premiere export attempts and a long gaming session, the CPU’s temperature stayed very consistently in the high 60s and rarely jumped above 70 degrees Celsius. That’s impressive, especially for such a thin device. (The XPS 13 spends a lot of time in the high 90s.) On the other hand, the fans made so much noise that they were audible from multiple rooms over — people around me would have been alarmed if I tried these tests in an office. That’s another reason to steer clear of this if you’ll need to do gaming or media work from time to time.

The audience for the ExpertBook B9450 is somewhat specific. But that doesn’t mean it’s small. If you’re someone who doesn’t care much about processing power, but does care about portability, battery life, and storage, this laptop is worth the $1,799. Not only is it among the lightest you can buy at this size, but it’s one of few products in its weight class to feature dual storage slots. It’ll be difficult to find all three of those features in many other 14-inch laptops at this price point. Add nice build quality and the nifty numpad feature, and I imagine this is a laptop many at-home and on-the-go workers will be happy to have.

Just make sure you know what you’re getting — because the low-powered processor and deafening fans certainly aren’t ideal for everyone.

Photography by Monica Chin / The Verge

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Headlines UK

Bullets over Woody Allen

Among other celebrities whose reputation was shaken during the #metoo era, Woody Allen has a special position. Back in 1992, he was accused of molesting his seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan. The charges were based on the testimony of the girl herself and Allen’s common-law wife Mia Farrow, with whom they adopted Dylan. It is worth saying that in the same year Woody Allen broke up with Mia and began to live with his other adopted daughter, Sun-Yi, who was already an adult at that time, Mia adopted her even before the relationship with Allen. By the way, the director still lives with Sun-Yi, they seem to be happy, and the former stepdaughter openly declares that she does not believe in the accusations, but believes her husband, who continues to deny any criminal actions.

#Metoo activists do not need proof, the fact of oral evidence is enough for them. The campaign against Woody Allen has been purposefully conducted in the United States for several years. It cost him a contract with Amazon (Allen even sued the giant). It was worth friendship with seemingly decent people: Timothy Chalamet and Selena Gomez, who played in “Rainy Day in New York,” defiantly transferred their royalties to the anti-sexual harassment movement and publicly denounced Woody Allen. And along with them, a number of other artists who had ever filmed with him began to condemn the director. These names will be written in textbooks on film history next to Allen’s name. Greta Gerwig, Kate Winslet, Colin Firth said they would never work with Woody Allen again. On the contrary, many filmmakers support Woody Allen and do not believe in the charges against him. What can I say if even among his children there is no consensus on this score! For example, Allen’s adopted son Moses Farrow even published an open letter in which he claims that Dylan Farrow, accusing her father, acted under pressure from her mother. And Moses, by the way, works as a psychotherapist and specializes in trauma related to adoption and adoption, so his words are worth listening to.

After many years, all this is likely to turn into a not too funny curiosity for lovers of scabrous details, but the new ethics requires new objects of hatred, and this greatly affects the most painful place of every director – the attitude of the industry, funding and film distribution. For example, “A Rainy Day in New York” was waiting for release in the USA, and even then in limited release, almost a year and a half from the moment of the first screening. And Allen’s new film, The Rifkin Festival, after more than a cold reception at the San Sebastian festival, has not been released at all anywhere except in Spain, the Netherlands, Russia and Ukraine. It also seems to be shown in Turkey. But there is no other country on IMDb with a release date. And even if this can be partly attributed to the coronavirus, but it is obvious to everyone: distributors simply do not want to put themselves at risk of false guardians of morality.

Moreover, if it is worth watching something during these harsh days, it is the Rifkin Festival – a nostalgic, intellectual, sun-drenched, light and slightly bitter story about the inextricable link between cinema, love and life. The main character is an elderly mediocre film critic Rifkin who dreams of writing his own novel. He came to the festival in San Sebastian with his beautiful wife, who works as a press agent and promotes the film of a newfangled opportunistic director who accompanies his highly social films with pseudo-philosophical calculations. And at the same time, the wife is too obviously flirting with the director. Since he is played by Louis Garrel, it is clear that it is impossible to resist such a charm.

Loser Rifkin understands that he is superfluous at this celebration of life. He would not even want to be his own; this whole vanity fair seems to him empty and worthless. He knows the true masterpieces of cinema, he only cares about true art! But he accidentally met a pretty Spanish woman, Dr. Rojas, and the festival immediately takes on a new meaning. Now Rifkin dreams in his sleep and in reality, living in fantasies of resentment and jealousy towards his wife and the most pleasant falling in love with the beauty he met.

All this is served with aphoristic jokes characteristic of Woody Allen, many of which have a chance to become winged. But what is even more amusing is Rifkin’s dreams, where he and his loved ones find themselves embedded in scenes from classical paintings. Woody Allen is a master of stylization in general, this was evident in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig and many of his other works, but here it is just pure pleasure.

Rifkin turns out to be a character in the textbook scenes of Fellini, Bergman, Bunuel, Truffaut, Lelouch, and this is not only a guide to Woody Allen’s personal top, but also direct evidence of one important fact that for some reason many people forget. It consists in the fact that all the blocks of classical cinema filmed films not about something abstract, but about us, and for Rifkin, for example, there is nothing special about the fact that he conducts the same dialogue with Death as the hero of von Sydow in “The Seventh Seal”. The setting is the same, but the words are different, and the denouement of the scene is different, but all these films are part of Rifkin’s soul, in a sense he is. They are his main love, his life.

You can perceive the film as a frivolous joke of Woody Allen for those who, like him, love good cinema, or you can take it as a manifesto, which the Rifkin Festival, perhaps, is. Even if it was created for those who for many years cannot imagine a year without a new film by old Woody and are going through a terrible breakdown if guaranteed and regular pleasure is delayed for some reason.

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Tech News

Apple AirPods Max Review


Love it or hate it, you can’t help but pay attention to what Apple is up to. More often than not, the Cupertino, California-based company will make your jaw drop with its products and prices, and you can’t help but wonder what life would be like with the latest iPhone, iPad, MacBook, and AirPods. While not all of Apple’s products are equally significant, the M1-powered MacBook and Mac range, and its most recent hardware launch, the AirPods Max, have grabbed a lot of attention.

Priced at Rs. 59,900 in India, the Apple AirPods Max promises to be the gold standard of wireless audio and active noise cancellation. However, at this price, the company has a lot of convincing to do, especially in the face of competition that offers much the same capabilities at about half the price. Do Apple’s famed ecosystem benefits make the AirPods Max worth the significant premium? Find out in our review.

Airpods Max: The Rolls Royce of headphones?

Most Apple products give you a feeling of great build quality straight out of the box, but the company has gone further than usual with the AirPods Max. These headphones scream ‘premium’ the minute you touch them; the anodised aluminium ear cups, soft foam ear pads, polyurethane-covered stainless steel and knit-mesh headband, and the button and crown dial all exude a kind of luxury that I haven’t experienced on a pair of headphones before.

While I have reviewed more expensive headphones before, none have been considered mainstream options for the everyday consumer. That’s where the Apple AirPods Max differentiates itself; this is meant to be an everyday pair of headphones that sets itself apart with its unique styling and attention to detail.

All of this makes the AirPods Max feel like what would happen if Rolls Royce decided to make wireless headphones. The AirPods Max is available in five colours: Space Grey, Silver, Green, Sky Blue, and Pink. Apple sent me a Pink unit, and while I was initially a bit concerned about it being a bit too flashy, I grew to like the colour over time.

The size and choice of materials on the AirPods Max means that these headphones weigh considerably more than other premium options. At around 385g, the AirPods Max is around 50 percent heavier than the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Many users have complained online that these headphones are too heavy for everyday use, but I found that the premium materials and design in the ear padding and headband made the AirPods Max quite comfortable over long listening sessions. Even with spectacles, the headset fit well, with no real effect on the noise isolating seal.

Although I initially thought the AirPods Max in Pink was a bit flashy, I grew to like it over time

 

Although I could definitely feel the weight on my head, it was never unpleasant. The ear cups rotate a fair amount, while the headband has a telescoping mechanism. All of this ensures that you can get as comfortable a fit as you want, without the AirPods Max putting unreasonable amounts of pressure on your ears and head. The replaceable magnetic ear pads come off and snap back into place with a little effort. While some users have reported condensation issues with the AirPods Max, this was fortunately something I didn’t face during my time with the headphones.

The Apple AirPods Max comes with a USB Type-C-to-Lightning charging cable, and what the company calls a Smart Case. I’m not going to mince words here; this case looks absolutely ridiculous, and barely wraps around the ear cups, let alone protecting the rest of the headset. However, magnets in the case interact with sensors on the headphones to put the AirPods Max into a low-power mode that is effectively the closest it comes to ever being switched off.

Indeed, there is no power button on the AirPods Max. As long as there is some power in the battery, the earphones are always on, albeit in a low-power mode when stored in the charging case. This state of being perpetually on lets the headphones connect immediately to your paired source device when taken out of the case with no action needed from the user, and it actually works very well. Sensors detect when the headphones have been worn or taken off, which further controls the state of the connection and power.

There is a button to cycle through active noise cancellation and transparency modes, and a digital crown which doubles up as a button, and controls playback, volume, and access to Siri. There is a small LED just next to the Lightning port that indicates various things such as the battery and charge status, connection status, and more. The headphones are also able to always listen for the ‘Hey Siri’ wake word when in use. All these controls worked perfectly for me, with the crown feeling particularly nice to use for volume and playback controls.

The AirPods Max expectedly work best with Apple devices

Apple’s highly regarded interoperability between products is evident on the Apple AirPods Max, thanks to the H1 chip in each ear cup. Although many believe that Apple has priced the AirPods Max a bit high, I’m of the opinion that this experience is a major factor that offers at least some justification for paying so much. Of course, all of this only makes a difference if you have a range of Apple products to use the AirPods Max with.

You will, of course, need an iOS device to properly set up the headphones the first time you use them, and adjust some settings including the direction of the crown’s rotation for adjustments, the noise cancellation modes for the button to cycle between, automatic head detection, and Spatial Audio. This also links the headphones to your Apple account, and automatically sets them up on any other Apple smartphones, tablets, and computers you might own.

apple airpods max review crown button Apple  Apple AirPods Max

The digital crown doubles up as a button, and controls playback, volume, and Siri functionality

 

Like on the AirPods Pro, the H1 chip enables the finest connectivity I’ve experienced on any pair of headphones, and does offer a significant reason to consider the AirPods Max over competing high-end headphones. The headset connects immediately, and usually managed to link with the right device among my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook, depending on what I was using. While manual switching was sometimes needed, connecting was quick in all cases. Part of this speed can be credited to the fact that the headphones don’t ever fully power down, and are always ready to connect.

You can also use the AirPods Max with other Bluetooth-enabled source devices such as Android smartphones. Pressing and holding the noise cancellation control button puts the headset into pairing mode (signified by a flashing white light), and you can follow the traditional Bluetooth pairing method. While this is of course appreciated and does allow for some flexibility, it doesn’t quite match up to the seamless connectivity experience you get with Apple devices.

The Spatial Audio feature, first implemented on the AirPods Pro with the update to iOS 14, is also present on the AirPods Max. It worked as expected for me, but currently only works with select content on the Apple TV streaming service. It therefore doesn’t have much utility for now, although other streaming services could enable it in the coming months.

The Apple AirPods Max uses custom Apple-designed dynamic drivers. It features active noise cancellation, Transparency mode for hearing ambient sound through the headphones, and an adaptive equaliser based on the content being played. There are nine microphones on the headset; seven on the outside and two inside the ear cups. Eight of these are used for active noise cancellation, and three are for your voice (of which two are hybrid and also work for ANC, while one is only for voice capture).

apple airpods max review smart case Apple  Apple AirPods Max

The Smart Case is a bit ridiculous; it barely covers the ear cups of the AirPods Max, let alone the rest of the headset

 

There are multiple sensors on the AirPods Max, including a gyroscope in the left ear cup plus an optical sensor, position sensor, case detect sensor, and accelerometer in each ear cup. The headphones use Bluetooth 5 for connectivity, with support for the SBC and AAC codecs.

There’s no cable for wired connectivity in the box, but you can pick up the Rs. 3,500 Lightning-to-3.5mm cable if you want to connect the AirPods Max to a source device with a headphone jack. For wired airplane use, you’d need to also pick up an aftermarket 3.5mm-to-airplane adapter, so all non-wireless use cases will add to the price of the AirPods Max.

Battery life on the AirPods Max is a problem

Battery life was often a pain point for me during my time with the AirPods Max, largely due to the fact that the headphones can’t be powered down. Some overnight drain even in low-power mode was to be expected, with the battery level dropping by about 5 percent each night when left in the Smart Case.

With normal use, the battery level would often fall rapidly, perhaps due to being left in proximity to other devices not allowing the low-power mode to be activated. When using the same adapter and cable I use for my iPhone, I was able to fully charge the AirPods Max in just about two hours.

My testing suggests that the headphones will last for about 13-14 hours of continuous use with ANC on and the volume set to around 80 percent. However, this constant battery drain meant that actual usage was closer to 9-10 hours per charge for me, and I needed to recharge the headphones at least once every 2-3 days even with moderate use.

Great sound, excellent active noise cancellation on the Apple AirPods Max

The Apple AirPods Max is, no doubt, a technically impressive and feature-filled pair of headphones. There’s a lot on offer here, particularly if you’re using an iPhone as your primary source device. However, all of this would mean nought without good sound quality, and fortunately, the AirPods Max sounds very good. Performance with its key feature, active noise cancellation, is also largely on point.

apple airpods max review headband Apple  Apple AirPods Max

Thick foam ear pads and the knit-mesh material on the stainless steel headband make this a comfortable pair of headphones

 

With Bluetooth headphones and sound quality, a lot depends on the codecs supported. While options such as the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Shure Aonic 50 support advanced codecs including LDAC and aptX, the AirPods Max sticks to Apple’s preferred AAC Bluetooth codec.

Now for most people who use streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music, this isn’t really a problem at all, and considering that iOS devices also only support the AAC codec, it won’t even matter to a typical Apple user. However, in an objective comparison with the competition (when listening to high-resolution audio using an advanced codec), the Apple AirPods Max don’t quite match up to options from Sony and Shure.

That isn’t to say there’s a huge difference here; the AirPods Max can make the most of every bit of data being received thanks to good tuning of the custom dynamic drivers and a connection bridge that goes beyond the basic capabilities of Bluetooth. While the headphones are most at home with Apple Music or Spotify on an iPhone, Tidal Masters on an Android smartphone didn’t give the AirPods Max any trouble at all. However, features such as automatic head detection and battery levels weren’t available when using the Android phone.

The large ear cups and 40mm drivers made for what has to be the most impressive soundstage I’ve heard on any pair of wireless headphones. Listening to Lifafa’s Jaago on Spotify was a sublime experience for many reasons, including clear, crisp vocals, detailed instruments that sounded nuanced and beautiful even in the background, and a sonic signature that comes across as flexible and adaptable on the fly.

apple airpods max review flat Apple  Apple AirPods Max

Active noise cancellation on the AirPods Max is excellent, but the intensity of it can’t be adjusted

 

As the track switched from the slow introduction to punchy electronic beats, the AirPods Max impressively adapted to every element of the track with clinical efficiency, all while maintaining a luxurious and spacious soundstage that barely made me feel as though I was using a pair of headphones. The adaptable equaliser allowed the sonic signature to change on the fly, giving every part of the frequency range its time to shine. Apple has replicated the approach it took with the AirPods Pro with remarkable coherence, but using larger drivers to add an element of spaciousness that I haven’t experienced before.

The AirPods Max is incredibly detailed across volumes, regardless of whether you have active noise cancellation or the transparency mode active or not. Whether I was paying attention to the bass, mid-range, or highs, I was able to focus on individual aspects of the track with clear attention; nothing seemed to overpower anything else. The bass was tight, the highs sparkled, and the mid-range shone through beautifully, making for a capable level of coherence.

Active noise cancellation on the Apple AirPods Max is among the best I’ve heard on any headphones, offering a level of silence that matches what top competing options offer. It worked well for me both indoors and outdoors, and even managed to tone down sounds that aren’t ordinarily affected by ANC, such as voices, car horns, and doorbells.

This naturally made for the most focused listening experience, and the capability of the ANC even with music playing at moderate volume levels on the AirPods Max meant that all I could hear was the music. Transparency mode didn’t take anything away from the quality of the sound. If anything, it made it feel as though I was using a stereo speaker setup rather than a pair of headphones, as I could hear and focus on the music as well as my surroundings with ease.

The transparency mode is easily the best I’ve heard on a pair of headphones or earphones, sounding nearly as natural as simply not having the headphones on at all. Where other companies’ implementations of a transparency mode fall short is in the ability to hear your own voice, which still sounds muffled; the AirPods Max had no trouble here, with completely natural output despite the very real fact that I had a very large pair of headphones on my head.

apple airpods max review pad off Apple  Apple AirPods Max

The 40mm custom dynamic drivers in the AirPods Max make for great sound

 

However, where Apple’s ANC falls short is in its lack of customisability and adjustment; it’s either on at its full intensity, or off, with no middle ground. This made for an occasionally claustrophobic feeling that was unnerving for me, and it’s why I sometimes prefer the much more customisable ANC on options from Sony and Bose.

The use of three microphones for voice and active noise cancellation, the transparency mode, and the stable connectivity with my iPhone 12 mini (Review) meant that the AirPods Max was also excellent as a hands-free headset, with clear sound on both ends of the call. The ability to hear my own voice clearly as I spoke was great. I increasingly found myself preferring the AirPods Max to using the phone itself even for short calls.

Verdict

The Apple AirPods Max headphones are expensive; there’s no doubt about it. Many argue that they are too expensive, especially in the face of competition that costs significantly less while seemingly matching up in almost every way. Indeed, if you aren’t rooted to the Apple ecosystem, the AirPods Max would be a pretty indulgence but would barely justify its own price tag. So if you have an Android smartphone, are particular about your music sources and audio assets, or simply cannot fathom paying Rs. 60,000 for headphones, look elsewhere.

On the other hand, if you use an iPhone and maybe even have a MacBook or iPad, the AirPods Max does have some benefits that justify the higher price. Looking beyond Spatial Audio, the real clincher here is the seamlessness of the H1 chip; it’s incredible how easy and comfortable it is to use these headphones. Apart from the looks and premium materials that have gone into the AirPods Max, this is, in my opinion, definitely worth paying a bit more for as well.

Whether all of this is worth paying Rs. 60,000 for is entirely subjective, but I’d go so far as to suggest that the AirPods Max isn’t as overpriced as many might think. This is a pair of headphones that gets most things right, provided you’re matching it with the equipment it works best with. So if you recently indulged yourself with an iPhone 12 Pro Max (Review), this might be entirely worth your while – and money.


iPhone 12 Pro Series Is Amazing, but Why Is It So Expensive in India? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.



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Delhi The Buzz

SC rejects petitions seeking review of its verdict that upheld validity of Aadhaar


Satya Prakash

Tribune News Service

New Delhi, January 20

The Supreme Court has dismissed petitions seeking review of its verdict that upheld the validity of the Aadhaar scheme more than two years ago.

“In our opinion, no case for review of judgment and order dated 26.09.2018 is made out,” a five-judge Bench headed by Justice AM Khanwilkar said, rejecting a batch of review petitions by 4:1.

“We hasten to add that change in the law or subsequent decision/judgment of a coordinate or larger Bench by itself cannot be regarded as a ground for review. The review petitions are accordingly dismissed,” the top court noted in its January 11 order.

While Justice Khanwilkar, Justice Ashok Bhushan, Justice S Abdul Nazeer and Justice BR Gavai dismissed the review petitions, Justice DY Chandrachud — who had earlier delivered a dissenting verdict — allowed them.

The Supreme Court had on September 26, 2018 upheld the validity of Aadhaar scheme but struck down or read down as many as six provisions, including those on linking of bank accounts, mobile phones and school admissions to the unique identification number.

By a 4:1 verdict, a five-judge Constitution Bench led by the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra had, however, ruled that Aadhaar would remain mandatory for filing of IT returns and allotment of Permanent Account Number (PAN).

While rejecting allegations of surveillance state created by Aadhaar scheme, the top court had asked the Government to put in place a robust data protection regime as early as possible.

In a relief to the Government, it had upheld the constitutional validity of 12 other provisions including section 59 of the Aadhaar Act which extended validity to the data collected during 2009 to 2016 when the law was not there.

The top court had ruled that banks and telecom companies cannot insist on Aadhaar for opening of accounts or giving mobile connections. Similarly, Schools, Central Board of Secondary Examination, National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and University Grants Commission can’t ask for Aadhaar, it had said.

The verdict adversely affected the Government’s push to link Aadhaar with mobile connections and bank accounts s the top court had held that mandatory linking of Aadhaar with mobile connections and bank account cannot be made. It had struck down the amendment brought in Prevention of Money Laundering Rules which mandated linking of Aadhaar with bank accounts.

Noting that Aadhaar was aimed at extending benefits of welfare schemes to marginalised sections of society and to serve larger public interest, the SC had upheld the law taking into account the dignity of people — not only from personal but from the community point of view.

“It is better to be unique than the best. Because, being the best makes you the number one, but being unique makes you the only one,” Justice Sikri (since retired) who had written the majority verdict for himself, the then CJI Misra and Justice AM Khanwilkar had said.

There was nothing in the Aadhaar Act that violated right to privacy of an individual, the majority had ruled.

There were two other verdicts – one each by Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice Ashok Bhushan. While Justice Bhushan had concurred with the other three judges, Justice Chandrachud had dissented and declared the Aadhaar Act unconstitutional.

While upholding the law, the majority declared unconstitutional some of its provisions, including the one relating to national security exception under the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016.

The majority verdict had also struck down Section 57 of Act which permitted private entities like telecom companies or other corporates to avail of Aadhaar data. It also ruled that Aadhaar authentication data (metadata) cannot be stored for more than six months as against five years provided in the Act.

The top court had directed the government to ensure that Aadhaar numbers were not issued to illegal immigrants.

The majority had rejected Congress leader Jairam Ramesh’s petition challenging passage of the Aadhaar Bill as a Money Bill by the Lok Sabha even as Justice Chandrachud had termed it a fraud on the Constitution.

Taking into account the presentation made by UIDAI CEO, it said the data collected by the authority was safe.

There had been minimal demographic and biometric data collected by the Unique Identification Authority of India for Aadhaar enrolment, Justice Sikri said unique identification proof empowered and gave identity to the marginalised sections of society and there was no possibility of obtaining a duplicate as there existed a sufficient defence mechanism, it had said.

The regulation which dealt with storage of metadata of transactions was also set aside and the court had said it needed to be amended.

It had read down section 33(1) of the Aadhaar saying that an individual, whose information is sought to be released, should be afforded an opportunity of hearing.

Section 47, which provided for the cognizance of offence only on a complaint made by UIDAI or its authorised officers, needed “suitable amendment to include the provision for filing of such a complaint by an individual/ victim as well whose right is violated”, it had said.

It had termed as “susceptible to misuse” and struck down section 57 which empowered the private entities to seek and use Aadhaar authentication for business purposes. 

“This is clearly impermissible as a contractual provision is not backed by a law and, therefore, first requirement of proportionality test is not met,” the bench had said.





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UAE

UAE: Abdullah bin Zayed, Cyprus foreign minister review cooperation

Abu Dhabi: Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and Cyprus Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides have reviewed the prospects of advancing relations between the two countries.

This came as the two top diplomats met in Abu Dhabi on Monday and underlined the steadily growing cooperation.

They addressed the recent regional and international developments, primarily the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, and ways of ensuring security and stability in the region.

The two ministers also discussed the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of enhancing international cooperation to ensure fair and equitable access to the vaccine for every country in the world.

Sheikh Abdullah reaffirmed the depth of UAE-Cyprus relations and underscored the Emirates’ determination to foster cooperation in the common interests of their people.

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Headline USA Politics

Lindsey Graham releases transcripts from Senate review of Crossfire Hurricane

Senator Lindsey Graham has released interview transcripts from his inquiry into the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe, claiming they show the ‘gross incompetence’ and corruption behind the effort.

Graham, a South Carolina Republican and chair of the Judiciary Committee, on Thursday released hundreds of pages of transcripts from the committee’s inquiry into the origins and aftermath of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, as the FBI probe was code-named.

‘I believe that Crossfire Hurricane was one of the most incompetent and corrupt investigations in the history of the FBI and DOJ,’ said Graham in a statement.

The transcripts cover the contents of 11 closed-door Judiciary hearings conducted from March to October of 2020, including interviews with former top DOJ official Bruce Ohr and former Acting Attorney General Dana J. Boente.

Senator Lindsey Graham has released interview transcripts from his investigation into the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe, claiming they show the ‘gross incompetence’ in the investigation

Graham harshly criticized former FBI Director Jim Comey (above) and his top lieutenant, Andrew McCabe

Graham harshly criticized former FBI Director Jim Comey (above) and his top lieutenant, Andrew McCabe

Crossfire Hurricane was the FBI’s investigation into allegations that Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the election. The probe was later turned over to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose report ultimately found no proof of such a conspiracy.

Among the revelations in the released transcripts, an unnamed FBI agent who was British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s primary contact and handler admitted that it was immediately apparent that Steele’s ‘dirty dossier’ was ‘political.’

‘I mean, it was obvious,’ the FBI agent said when asked if the dossier was political in nature. 

The agent said that he did not initially know which political party had funded the dossier, which was paid for by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

‘It was completely obvious to all of us, whoever was involved in these conversations, what the purpose was of the information was — to be used by one political party or another,’ the agent said.

The dossier contained salacious allegations, including that Russia had compromising videos of Trump, but that and other claims were never verified.

An unnamed FBI agent who was British ex-spy Christopher Steele's (above) handler admitted that it was immediately apparent that Steele's 'dirty dossier' was 'political.'

An unnamed FBI agent who was British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s (above) handler admitted that it was immediately apparent that Steele’s ‘dirty dossier’ was ‘political.’

'I mean, it was obvious,' the FBI agent said when asked if the dossier was political in nature

‘I mean, it was obvious,’ the FBI agent said when asked if the dossier was political in nature

Nevertheless, Steele’s dossier became part of the evidence used to obtain a surveillance warrant on Trump campaign advisor Carter Page from a secretive special court through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Page was never charged with a crime.

‘The FISA warrant applications against Carter Page were a travesty, and those who signed them have acknowledged that if they knew then what they know now, they would not have signed it,’ Graham said on Thursday. 

Another released interview, with an individual identified as ‘Supervisory Special Agent 1’, reveals that the SSA had requested a ‘validation review’ of Steele’s subsources, and quit Crossfire Hurricane after the request was denied.

The SSA said he was aware that Steele ‘had a sub source network that provided him the reporting,’ and became aware that he ‘was collecting this information for an entity that was conducting opposition research.’

The SSA said he requested an outside review of Steele’s primary subsource, but that the proposal was shot down by former FBI deputy assistant director of counterintelligence Peter Strzok and former assistant director of counterintelligence Bill Priestap, saying they feared leaks. 

The SSA was concerned enough by the decision to leave Crossfire Hurricane, he said. 

Former top DOJ official Bruce Ohr was among those interviewed by the Judiciary Committee

Former top DOJ official Bruce Ohr was among those interviewed by the Judiciary Committee

‘It is hard to believe that the senior officials at the FBI did not know that the Steele Dossier had been disavowed by the Russian subsource,’ Graham said. 

‘It is equally hard to believe that the warnings from the CIA and other agencies about the reliability of Christopher Steele and the dossier were not known to senior leadership.’ 

Graham harshly criticized former FBI Director Jim Comey and his top lieutenant, Andrew McCabe. 

‘The leadership of the FBI under Comey and McCabe was either grossly incompetent or they knowingly allowed tremendous misdeeds,’ Graham said.

‘There was a blind eye turned toward any explanation other than the Trump campaign was colluding with foreign powers. At every turn the FBI and DOJ ran stop signs that were in abundance regarding exculpatory information,’ he added.

‘There was no ‘there’ there. The investigation was pushed when it should have been stopped and the only logical explanation is that the investigators wanted an outcome because of their bias,’ Graham said.

A 2019 report from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General did not find evidence of political bias in the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, but did criticize ‘basic and fundamental’ errors and omissions in the FISA warrant applications to surveill Page.

U.S. Attorney John Durham has been appointed as a special counsel to pursue a separate investigation into whether Crossfire Hurricane had proper and legal origins.

The ongoing Durham investigation followed Trump´s repeated calls to ‘investigate the investigators.’  

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Technology US

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro review: the right balance

Let’s just get to it: Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Pro are the best true wireless earbuds that the company has made yet. For their $200 asking price, you get a comfortable fit, effective active noise cancellation, and good, punchy sound quality. These earbuds improve on Samsung’s prior efforts with clever features like a speech detection mode that automatically lowers your music and lets you hear the outside world as soon as you start talking.

But they also inch Samsung closer to a siloed-off world, not unlike Apple, where the best experience is reserved for people who stick to Samsung-branded devices. A few features like 3D audio and automatic device switching — sound familiar? — only work if you’re using these earbuds with a Samsung phone or tablet. Most people aren’t going to be cross-shopping the Galaxy Buds Pro and AirPods Pro since they’re designed for different mobile operating systems, but Samsung has never leaned into its own ecosystem with earbuds quite like this. Thankfully, there’s enough good for everyone else that the Galaxy Buds Pro still come out a success.

The Buds Pro are an amalgam of the Galaxy Buds Plus — they have an in-ear design with silicone tips — and the open-air Galaxy Buds Live, from which they borrow some style cues. The outer casing is a tasteful mix of glossy and matte finishes and has been redesigned to protrude less from your ear. Samsung says this revamped shell also “reduces the contact area between your ear and the bud, improving comfort and minimizing any clogged-up feeling.”

The wing tips from the Galaxy Buds Plus are gone; Samsung got the message that some customers experienced discomfort from those over time. Instead, you get the usual three sizes of silicone ear tips, which are a bit shorter than before to help with the low-profile design. Samsung tells me it has considered including foam tips but has so far held off. You’ll also notice a section of mesh on the outside. This covers one of the three built-in microphones and is there to act as a wind shield for voice calls. (More on that later.)

I really like how these earbuds fit. They feel stable and twist into place for a good seal in my ear canal, without making my ears feel too plugged up. The air vent and reduced contact area really do seem to make a difference there, and I appreciate that the Buds Pro don’t noticeably jut out from my ears like some competitors. If I have one critique, it’s an old one: more than a few times, I accidentally activated the touch-sensitive controls when trying to adjust the fit of an earbud. Such is life with tap gestures, I suppose. The controls can be turned off if this proves a problem for you.

According to Samsung, the Galaxy Buds Plus are rated IPX7 for water and sweat resistance, which means they can survive a half-hour swim in fresh water — so even your sweatiest runs and workouts shouldn’t present any problem. That’s the highest rating among any of Samsung’s earbuds and beats out the AirPods Pro, Jabra Elite 85t, and Bose Sport Earbuds, which are all IPX4. Either earbud can be used independently with mono audio if you prefer that option for voice calls or biking.

The wonderfully pocketable Buds Pro charging case is so close in size and shape to the Buds Live case that accessories for the latter will fit the former, and it still charges over both USB-C and Qi wireless charging. But endurance is one area where these earbuds settle for very average numbers. Samsung promises up to five hours of playback with ANC enabled (or eight with it off). Case top-offs put you at 18 hours of total battery life or 28 without noise cancellation. That’s basically on par with the rest of the field, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the 11 hours of continuous audio that the Galaxy Buds Plus are capable of. Alas, it turns out the Buds Pro have a smaller battery capacity (61mAh for each bud versus 85mAh) on top of their more power-hungry ANC feature.

The Galaxy Buds Pro have two-way speakers in each earbud: there’s an 11-millimeter woofer and 6.5mm tweeter. Those are larger than what was in the Buds Plus, though smaller than the single 12mm driver from the Buds Live; in that instance, Samsung was most focused on getting satisfactory bass out of an open-style earbud. Here, it’s aiming for “the most comprehensive sound in the Galaxy Buds line yet.” I can’t speak to what “comprehensive” is supposed to mean, but the Buds Pro are enjoyable to listen to, with a good bass thump, crisp treble, and a pleasant soundstage / imaging.

A lot of earbuds can make it feel like everything is happening in the middle of your head, but these do a solid job keeping instrumentation and vocals distinct. Sturgill Simpson’s “Oh Sarah” and Troye Sivan’s “Easy” (with Kacey Musgraves and Mark Ronson) make for nice showcases — in very different genres — of how layered the Buds Pro can get.

Bass heads might want to go for the “bass boost” EQ setting, and the tweeters can occasionally give off a little too much brightness and sibilance for some tracks like Jason Isbell’s “Be Afraid,” but for the most part I was very pleased with the sound signature. I don’t think Samsung hits the same fidelity as something like Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 2, but those are nearly $100 more expensive. I’d be perfectly content with the Buds Pro as my daily earbuds.

The active noise cancellation on the Galaxy Buds Pro is much better than the Galaxy Buds Live, where it seems to barely do anything since there’s so much outside noise to contend with. Samsung claims that the Buds Pro can cut down on “up to 99 percent” of noise “at 118.43Hz,” which is wildly specific. In my experience, Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds, Sony’s WF-1000XM3 earbuds, and the AirPods Pro all outperform Samsung at quieting the world around you, but Samsung does a perfectly adequate job. You can choose between high and low levels of noise cancellation in case you’re sensitive to the effect.

Samsung’s latest transparency / ambient mode still doesn’t sound as natural as what Apple and Bose have achieved, but it’s a definite improvement over the very digitized version from the Galaxy Buds Plus. And the fantastic “voice detect” feature, which automatically lowers audio volume and switches from ANC to ambient mode when you start talking, is one of the best things about the Galaxy Buds Pro. Sony did something similar on its 1000XM4 headphones, but I haven’t seen this convenient trick in many earbuds, and now I wish all of them at least had the option.

Samsung uses a “voice pickup unit” — basically an accelerometer that senses jaw movement — to know that it’s you talking and not someone nearby. After a few seconds of no more talking, ANC returns and your music gets turned back up. Voice detect works as expected, but if you’ve got a tendency to talk to yourself or sing to your music, you might want to keep it disabled and assign ambient sound to a long press of one of the earbuds. Controls work the same way as other Samsung buds, with a single tap to pause / play, double to skip to the next song, triple to go back, and a customizable long press that can be used for volume, voice assistants, or ambient mode.

For voice calls, Samsung has a three-mic system and uses beamforming to isolate your voice from your environment. The lower profile of the Buds Pro helps combat wind noise, and the mesh-covered chamber does a good job filtering out any gusts if you’re talking with someone outside. Clarity is also good, as you should be able to hear in Becca’s video review above. Speaking of voice, the Galaxy Buds Pro still have hands-free “Hey Bixby” capabilities.

Pro as in… AirPods Pro?

There’s no denying that a few features of the Galaxy Buds Pro are heavily influenced by Apple’s AirPods Pro. The first of these is 3D audio, which is Samsung’s take on the immersive spatial audio capabilities of the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. Load up a movie with Dolby surround, and the Buds Pro will attempt to cram a surround sound listening experience into a pair of earbuds.

Samsung says that 360 audio uses Dolby head tracking technology, which “enables you to stay at the center of the scene when you’re watching a movie or TV show.” In concept, this sounds similar to Apple’s approach, which uses sensors like accelerometers and gyroscopes in the earbuds and your iPhone or iPad to keep the sound source anchored to your device — even when you turn your head side to side.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how convincing Samsung’s 3D audio is or whether it compares favorably to spatial audio because it requires OneUI 3.1, which for now is only available on the new Galaxy S21 lineup. The $1,300 Galaxy Note 20 Ultra that Samsung sent for this review doesn’t have that update yet.

The second AirPods feature that Samsung has tried to directly counter is automatic switching. Apple’s earbuds can hop between an iPhone, iPad, or Mac depending on which one you’re using in that moment without you having to manually make the change. Samsung says it has now pulled off the same trick, so the Buds Pro should automatically switch between your Galaxy smartphone and tablet. Unfortunately, the laptop gets left out of Samsung’s equation completely, which makes the feature somewhat less helpful. I wish that more earbuds would just give us proper multipoint Bluetooth pairing to two devices at once; Jabra continues to be the standout there. Automatic switching feels like a makeshift solution until Samsung can get to multipoint.

Both of these capabilities require you to be fairly entrenched in Samsung’s ecosystem. 3D audio only works on Samsung hardware, so if your Android phone is from a different brand, you lose out on it altogether. Same goes for auto-switching. If neither feature is important to you, that might not matter, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Also worth mentioning is that Samsung isn’t extending the same level of iOS support it has maintained for the Buds Plus and Buds Live: the existing iOS app doesn’t work with the Buds Pro, so you can’t use features like voice detect on iPhone. I’m not sure what the reasoning is there, but maybe Samsung’s internal data shows that not many people are pairing its earbuds to Apple devices. You can still pair them and use noise canceling and ambient modes — much like the way AirPods Pro function on Android.

The Galaxy Buds Pro face stiff competition everywhere you look, and you can find superior ANC and sound quality elsewhere. But with these latest earbuds, Samsung has blended much of what worked best about the Buds Plus and Buds Live. Battery life is merely average, but that’s the only real gripe I’ve got. They don’t necessarily win at any one category, but the Galaxy Buds Pro strike an excellent all-around balance. And you can clearly see Samsung trying to recreate some of the ecosystem “magic” that AirPods owners are now used to.

The Buds Pro feel great in your ears, sound better than any Samsung earbuds to date, and have convenient tricks to complement their decent noise cancellation. There’s still a place for the Galaxy Buds Plus if all you want are wireless earbuds with a battery that just goes and goes, and the Buds Live remain the better pick if you need environmental awareness at all times. But if you’re nabbing the Buds Pro as a preorder bonus for a new Galaxy S21, you should be more than satisfied.

Photography by Becca Farsace / The Verge

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Tech News

Review: WandaVision Is Unlike Anything in the MCU


WandaVision — Marvel’s first (mini)series on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar — is a weird delight. It features Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) doing the dishes and Vision (Paul Bettany) belting out his dulcet tones at a dinner party. Two of Marvel’s most powerful superheroes, who’ve been busy saving the world over and over, have suddenly been relegated to homebody stuff. In that sense, it’s very much like our collective experiences over the past year, as we’ve found ourselves stuck at home. The initial episodes — I’ve seen three — are largely in black-and-white, filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio. And oh, did I mention that it’s set in the fifties? WandaVision is Marvel’s first new offering since Martin Scorsese compared Marvel movies to theme parks and complained they didn’t constitute “cinema”, and the new Marvel series seems like a direct response to those remarks.

Of course, part of that is merely accidental. WandaVision is the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Four — that’s an insider term that refers to the post-Avengers: Endgame era — but it wasn’t planned like that. Scarlett Johansson-led Black Widow was set to kick things off last April, with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, starring Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, to follow up on TV as the MCU began its Disney+ journey. WandaVision was going to be third in line, but then the pandemic swept over us and delayed everything. In a way, it’s worked out well for Marvel. Black Widow and Falcon and Winter Soldier look a lot like Marvel’s existing offerings, in line with Scorsese’s criticisms. WandaVision is unlike anything in the MCU, and its boldness augurs well for Marvel’s Disney+ start, something Marvel chief Kevin Feige also acknowledged.

WandaVision’s monochromatic Academy-ratio look is inspired by dozens of classic American sitcoms it pays homage to. That includes the likes of I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, Family Ties, and Full House. And just like some of those shows, WandaVision transitions to colour as it progresses, adopting new tropes and styles along the way. It starts off as a Hollywood Golden Age sitcom with a laugh track — episode 1 was shot with a live studio audience — and silly jokes at a staccato rhythm, and then moves through the decades as it employs physical comedy, animated sequences, and pops of vibrant colours. WandaVision even has period-appropriate title sequences new to each episode, and they come with opening theme songs crafted by the Frozen duo of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.

But WandaVision isn’t just that. The sitcom appearance is a façade for a larger mystery lurking beneath the surface — it technically takes place after the events of Endgame, and will lead into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which stars Olsen — one that gets the briefest of mentions early on. In that essence, it feels closest to Westworld (whose creative team included lover of mystery boxes J.J. Abrams) and seems set to spawn endless theorising after each episode. And just like with the HBO series, I’m sure enthusiasts and Redditors will figure out WandaVision’s true nature within the first few episodes.

The first Marvel Disney+ series opens with a “just married” sign on the back of an old-timey car. The couple in question is Wanda and Vision, who have just arrived in the idyllic suburban town of Westview. They both acknowledge they are an unusual couple even apart from the whole superpower business — they have no wedding rings, no wedding pictures, and even no memory of a wedding — but Wanda wants them to “fit in”, and that’s what they do. She does her best to be a housewife, prepping meals and organising local events with other women. Vision spends his days typing out forms in a 9-to-5 office job. He once wonders what the company really does, but no one seems to know, in what feels like a jab at bureaucracy and being a cog in the machine.

There are early signs that something is amiss, with both Wanda and Vision struggling to remember the importance of an upcoming day. The two also have trouble recollecting anything from their pre-Westview days, as they discover when a dinner guest asks them the simplest questions. Exasperated, said guest screams, “What is your story?”, in what reads like a question being asked by the series’ audience. After all, Vision died — twice, at the hands of Wanda and the big bad Thanos — in Avengers: Infinity War, but he seems to be alive and well on WandaVision. What is their story? The Marvel series — crafted by creator Jac Schaeffer, an in-house Marvel talent who has worked on Captain Marvel (uncredited) and Black Widow (story) — is in no hurry to provide answers though, with the early episodes functioning as sitcom episodes for the most part.

In the first episode, Wanda and Vision have to manage an impromptu dinner party, which goes hilariously off the rails. In the second, the two sign on to do a magic show for a local fundraiser — it comes across as Chaplin-esque in parts — which also goes hilariously off the rails. And in the third, they must deal with a life-changing event that is progressing much faster than it usually does. In between and all around this, WandaVision sprinkles in jokes on Wanda and Vision’s dual personalities, which play on the fact that the audience knows more than the show’s other characters do.

Speaking of other characters, WandaVision has three from the larger MCU: Monica Rambeau (Teynoah Parris) from Captain Marvel now an adult, Dr. Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) from Thor and Thor: The Dark World, and FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) from Ant-Man and the Wasp. The only new entrant is Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), a nosy neighbour.

Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau in WandaVision
Photo Credit: Disney/Marvel Studios

WandaVision has its rare dramatic moments too. They explore Wanda’s familial worries and maternal desires, the death of her brother (who was killed in Avengers: Age of Ultron) and the mental anguish it has caused. These are all moments she’s never been allowed before, because Marvel movies don’t have room to process those feelings, and even more so because Wanda is a supporting character and has never had a standalone film.

Just as the trailers hinted, the sitcom world seems like a construct manifested by Wanda in pursuit of a normal life she’s never had. Or maybe as a refuge from a danger of sorts. There are hints early on in WandaVision that this supposedly virtual state might not be of Wanda’s own making, with fake commercials further serving as proof of the same. Feige has admitted that the bigger truths about the show will come out of these ads.

It’s a credit to Matt Shakman, the director best known for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (40+ episodes) and Game of Thrones (“Eastwatch” and “The Spoils of War”), who shows himself able to handle both the light and the heavy, and bring a soft touch to darker notes. Of course, the true test of his abilities lies in the remaining six episodes, which Disney has not made available to critics prior to the show’s release. WandaVision is different than everything we’ve gotten previously. There’s nothing cookie cutter about its approach, something Marvel has been rightfully accused of in the past. But how will it fare as it approaches its endgame? After all, its creators have already spoken about it being like a big action MCU movie in the third act. Will it remain very unlike Marvel throughout or will it eventually dissolve into a generic MCU actioner?

WandaVision premieres January 15 on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar. Two episodes will air in week one, with one weekly thereafter until March 5.



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