Encrypting Your Laptop Like You Mean It

April 28th, 2015 by Manmohan No comments »

Time and again, people are told there is one obvious way to mitigate privacy threats of all sorts, from mass government surveillance to pervasive online tracking to cybercriminals: Encryption. As President Obama put it earlier this year, speaking in between his administration’s attacks on encryption, “There’s no scenario in which we don’t want really strong encryption.” Even after helping expose all the ways the government can get its hands on your data, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden still maintained, “Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on.”

But how can ordinary people get started using encryption? Encryption comes in many forms and is used at many different stages in the handling of digital information (you’re using it right now, perhaps without even realizing it, because your connection to this website is encrypted). When you’re trying to protect your privacy, it’s totally unclear how, exactly, to start using encryption. One obvious place to start, where the privacy benefits are high and the technical learning curve is low, is something called full disk encryption. Full disk encryption not only provides the type of strong encryption Snowden and Obama reference, but it’s built-in to all major operating systems, it’s the only way to protect your data in case your laptop gets lost or stolen, and it takes minimal effort to get started and use.

If you want to encrypt your hard disk and have it truly help protect your data, you shouldn’t just flip it on; you should know the basics of what disk encryption protects, what it doesn’t protect, and how to avoid common mistakes that could let an attacker easily bypass your encryption.

If you’re in a hurry, go ahead and skip to the bottom, where I explain, step-by-step, how to encrypt your disk for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Then, when you have time, come back and read the important caveats preceding those instructions.

What disk encryption guards against

If someone gets physical access to your computer and you aren’t using disk encryption, they can very easily steal all of your files.

It doesn’t matter if you have a good password because the attacker can simply boot to a new operating system off of a USB stick, bypassing your password, to look at your files. Or they can remove your hard disk and put it in a different computer to gain access. All they need is a screwdriver, a second computer, and a $10 USB enclosure.

Computers have become an extension of our lives and private information continually piles up on our hard disks. Your computer probably contains work documents, photos and videos, password databases, web browser histories, and other scattered bits of information that doesn’t belong to anyone but you. Everyone should be running full-disk encryption on their laptops.

Encrypting your disk will protect you and your data in case your laptop falls into the wrong hands, whether because you accidentally left it somewhere, because your home or office was burglarized, or because it was seized by government agents at home or abroad.

It’s worth noting that no one has privacy rights when crossing borders. Even if you’re a U.S. citizen entering the United States, your Constitutional rights do not apply at the border, and border agents reserve the right to copy all of the files off of your computer or phone if they choose to. This is also true in Canada, and in other countries around the world. If you plan on traveling with electronic devices, disk encryption is the only way you have a chance at protecting your data if border agents insist on searching you. In some situations it might be in your best interest to cooperate and unlock your device, but in others it might not. Without disk encryption, the choice is made for you: the border agents get all your data.

What disk encryption is useless against

There’s a common misconception that encrypting your hard disk makes your computer secure, but this isn’t entirely true. In fact, disk encryption is only useful against attackers that have physical access to your computer. It doesn’t make your computer any harder to attack over a network.

All of the common ways people get hacked still apply. Attackers can still trick you into installing malware. You can still visit malicious websites that exploit bugs in Flash, or in your web browser, or in your operating system’s font or image rendering engines, or countless other ways. When you visit benevolent websites, network attackers can still secretly make them malicious by modifying them in transit. Attackers can still exploit services running on your computer, such as network file sharing, iTunes playlist sharing, or your BitTorrent client, to name a few.

And of course, disk encryption doesn’t do anything to stop internet surveillance. Spy agencies like NSA, who tap into the fiber optic cables that make up the backbone of the internet, will still be able to spy on nearly everything you do online. An entirely different category of encryption is needed to fix that systemic problem.

The different ways you can get hacked or surveilled are too numerous to list in full. In future posts I’ll explain how to reduce the size of your probably-vast attack surface. But for now it’s important to know that disk encryption only protects against a single flavor of attack: physical access.

How it works

The goal of disk encryption is to make it so that if someone who isn’t you has access to your computer they won’t be able to access any of your files, but instead will only see scrambled, useless ciphertext.

Most disk encryption works like this. When you first power your computer on, before your operating system can even boot up, you must unlock your disk by supplying the correct encryption key. The files that make up your operating system are on your encrypted disk, after all, so there’s no way for your computer to work with them until the disk is unlocked.

In most cases, typing your passphrase doesn’t unlock the whole disk, it unlocks an encryption key, which in turn unlocks everything on the disk. This indirection allows you to change your passphrase without having to re-encrypt your disk with a new key, and also makes it possible to have multiple passphrases that can unlock the disk, for example if you add another user account to your laptop.

This means that your disk encryption passphrase is potentially one of the weakest security links. If your passphrase is “letmein”, a competent attacker will get past your disk encryption immediately. But if you use a properly generated high-entropy passphrase like “runge wall brave punch tick zesty pier”, it’s likely that no attacker, not even the NSA or Chinese intelligence, will ever be able to guess it.

You have to be extremely careful with strong disk encryption that can only be unlocked with a passphrase you’ve memorized. If you forget the passphrase, you get locked out of your own computer, losing your data forever. No data recovery service can help you, and if you give your machine to the FBI they won’t be able to access your files either. Because that’s kind of the point of disk encryption.

Once your computer is on and you’ve entered your passphrase, your disk encryption is completely transparent to you and to the applications on your computer. Files open and close as they normally would, and programs work just as they would on an unencrypted machine. You won’t notice any performance impact.

This means, however, that when your computer is powered on and unlocked, whomever is sitting at it has access to all your files and data, unencumbered by encryption. So if you want your disk encryption to work to its full potential, you need to lock your screen when your computer is going to be on while you’re away, and, for those times when you forget to lock it, to set it to lock automatically after, say, 10 minutes of idling.

It’s also important that you don’t have any other users on your system that have weak passwords or no passwords, and that you disable the guest account. If someone grabs your laptop, you don’t want them to be able to login at all.

Attacks against disk encryption

There are a few attacks against disk encryption that are tricky to defend against. Here are some precautions you can take.

Power off your computer completely (don’t just suspend it) when you think it’s at risk of falling into someone else’s hands, like right before going through customs when entering a new country. This defends against memory-based attacks.

Computers have temporary storage called RAM (otherwise known as memory) which you can think of as scratch paper for all of your software. When your computer is powered on, your software is constantly writing to and deleting from parts of your RAM. If you use disk encryption, as soon as you successfully unlock your encrypted disk the encryption key is stored in RAM until you power your computer off. It needs to be—otherwise there would be no way to encrypt and decrypt files on the fly as you use your computer.

But unfortunately, laptops have ports that have direct memory access, or DMA, including FireWire, USB, and others. If an attacker has access to your computer and your disk is unlocked (this is true even if your laptop is suspended), they can simply plug a malicious device into your computer to be able to manipulate your RAM. This could include directly reading your encryption keys or injecting commands into your operating system, such as closing the screen lock program. There is open source software called Inception that does just this using a FireWire cable and a second laptop, and there’s plenty of commercial hardware available too, like this one, or this one. It’s worth noting that new versions of Mac OS X uses a cool virtualization technology called VT-d to thwart this type of DMA attack.

But there are other ways for an attacker to learn what’s in your RAM. When you power your computer off, everything in RAM fades into nothingness. But this doesn’t happen immediately; it takes a few minutes, and an attacker can make it take even longer by physically freezing the RAM. An attacker with physical access to your powered-on computer can use a screwdriver to open the case of your computer and then use an upside-down can of compressed air to freeze your RAM (as in the image above). Then they can quickly cut the power to your computer, unplug your RAM, plug the RAM into a different computer, and dump all of the data from RAM to a disk. By sifting through that data, they can find a copy of your encryption key, which can then be used to decrypt all of the files on your hard disk. This is called the cold boot attack, and you can see a video of it in action here.

The key takeaway is that while your encrypted disk is unlocked, disk encryption doesn’t fully protect your data. Because of this, you may consider closing all your work and completely shutting down your computer at the end of the day rather than just suspending it.

It’s also important to make sure your laptop is always physically secure so that only people you trust ever have access to it. You should consider carrying your laptop with you wherever you go, as inconvenient as that may be, if your data is extremely important to you. When traveling, bring it with you in a carry-on bag instead of checking it in your luggage, and carry it with you rather than leaving it in a hotel room. Keep it with a trusted friend or locked in a safe when you can’t babysit it yourself.

This is all to defend against a different type of disk encryption attack known, in somewhat archaic language, as the “evil maid” attack. People often leave their laptops in their hotel room while traveling, and all it takes is one hotel housekeeper/elite hacker to foil your disk encryption.

Even when you use full disk encryption you normally don’t encrypt 100% of your disk. There’s a tiny part of it that remains in plaintext. The program that runs as soon as you power on your computer, that asks you to type in your passphrase and unlocks your encrypted disk, isn’t encrypted itself. An attacker with physical access to your computer could modify that program on the tiny part of your disk that isn’t encrypted to secretly do something malicious, like wait for you to type your passphrase and then install malware in your operating system as soon as you successfully unlock the disk.

Microsoft BitLocker does some cool tricks to make software-based evil maid attacks considerably harder by storing your encryption key in a special tamper-resistant chip in your computer called a Trusted Platform Module, or TPM. It’s designed to only release your encryption key after confirming that your bootloader hasn’t been modified to be malicious, thwarting evil maid attacks. Of course, there are other attacks against TPMs. Last month The Intercept published a document about the CIA’s research into stealing keys from TPMs, with the explicit aim of attacking BitLocker. They have successfully done it, both by monitoring electricity usage of a computer while the TPM is being used and by “measuring electromagnetic signals emanating from the TPM while it remains on the motherboard.”

You can set up your Linux laptop to always boot off of a USB stick that you carry around with you, which also mitigates against evil maid attacks (in this case, 100% of your disk actually is encrypted, and you carry the tiny unencrypted part around with you). But attackers with temporary access to your laptop can do more than modify your boot code. They could install a hardware keylogger, for example, that you would have no way of knowing is in your computer.

The important thing about evil maid attacks is that they work by tampering with a computer without the owner’s knowledge, but they still rely on the legitimate user to unlock the encrypted disk. If someone steals your laptop they can’t do an evil maid attack against you. Rather than stealing it, the attacker needs to secretly tamper with it and return it to you without raising your suspicions.

You can try using bleeding-edge tamper-evidence technology such as glitter nail polish to detect if someone has tampered with your computer. This is quite difficult to do in practice. If you have reason to believe that someone might have maliciously tampered with your computer, don’t type your passphrase into it.

Defending against these attacks might sound intimidating, but the good news is that most people don’t need to worry about it. It all depends on your threat model, which basically is an assessment of your situation to determine how paranoid you really need to be. Only the most high-risk users need to worry about memory-dumping or evil maid attacks. The rest of you can simply turn on disk encryption and forget about it.

What about TrueCrypt?

TrueCrypt is popular disk encryption software used by millions of people. In May of 2014, the security community went into shock when the software’s anonymous developers shut down the project, replacing the homepage with a warning that, “Using TrueCrypt is not secure as it may contain unfixed security issues.”

TrueCrypt recently underwent a thorough security audit showing that it doesn’t have any backdoors or major security issues. Despite this, I don’t recommend that people use TrueCrypt simply because it isn’t maintained anymore. As soon as a security bug is discovered in TrueCrypt (all software contains bugs), it will never get fixed. You’re safer using actively developed encryption software.

How to encrypt your disk in Windows

BitLocker, which is Microsoft’s disk encryption technology, is only included in the Ultimate, Enterprise, and Pro versions of Windows Vista, 7, 8, and 8.1, but not the Home version which is what often comes pre-installed on Windows laptops. To see if BitLocker is supported on your version of Windows, open up Windows Explorer, right-click on C drive, and see if you have a “Turn on BitLocker” option (if you see a “Manage BitLocker” option, then congratulations, your disk is already encrypted, though you may want to finish reading this section anyway).


Acer’s $200 15-inch Chromebook confirms it: The price of computing is falling to zero

April 28th, 2015 by Manmohan No comments »

As of last week, Moore’s Law is 50 years old, and with some adjustments here and there, it has more or less governed every major technological advance in the computer industry. Now we’ve come to the point where the price of computing itself — at least for casual users — is falling to zero.

It’s tough to pick any one recent development that tipped it over the edge. What got me thinking about it, as the headline indicates, is Acer’s new $199 Chromebook 15 CB3-531 configuration, unveiled Thursday. By today’s standards, that machine is kind of bulky. And given its specs, it probably won’t deliver the best user experience: It has a dual-core Intel Celeron N2830 processor, 2GB RAM, 16GB of flash storage, and 802.11ac WiFi. But if you need a new laptop and have a hotspot available most of the time, it will totally get you there. We’ve had $199 Chromebooks before, but not with a 15.6-inch display and 11.5 hours of battery life. (The CB3-531 will be available in July, if you want one.)

Meanwhile, the Intel Compute Stick may have its own version 1.0-style flaws in the Bluetooth stack and USB-required setup, as has been widely reported around the Web. But it’s a full-blown Windows PC you just plug into a monitor, keyboard, and mouse for $150, and it should be hitting stores the first week of May. And while I don’t want to disparage a potential hot product before its release, it’s probably safe to bet this summer’s upcoming $100 Google Chromebit won’t be the fastest thing in the world, either. There’s also the Raspberry Pi, now in its second iteration (pictured below) and still costing just $35. It’s a DIY hacker’s dream come true. You can even (slowly) run Windows 10 or Ubuntu on it.

None of the hardware above will set the average PC enthusiast’s heart pumping. With low-end products like these, you won’t get speedy graphics or video editing. Gamers, not to mention professionals in niche industries like engineering and audio recording, will need heavy local computing power for some time to come. And with these low-end machines’ single-antenna WiFi and piddly amounts of onboard RAM and storage, you’re lucky if you get steady Internet performance and enough memory for basic Web browsing.

In other words, they’re not for you and me, except maybe as second or third devices. But what’s fascinating here is that they’re almost entirely removing the price barrier to computing. In other words, you don’t have to compute just with old hardware, or hardware with horrible commercial restrictions. (Remember those so-called “free PCs” from the late 1990s that required sitting through ads all the time and a monthly service contract? That kind of thing is history.) School labs, developing countries, DIY projects, your uncle with the 10-year-old desktop he still refuses to upgrade –these new low-cost machines are shoo-ins.

Today, you could buy a $200 Chromebook, and, say, a $190 unlocked Moto G LTE with 8GB and without a contract, store your data in the cloud, and just use free or marginal-monthly-cost services for music, photos, movies, email, and more. If there’s reader interest, I could see us doing a story on what it’s like to live that way these days. I know some sites (including ours) have touched on that in the past, and I personally wouldn’t want to give up a Core i7 desktop PC or a MacBook Pro with Retina Display for this setup for more than a few days. But I find the notion of free computing incredibly compelling.


Lenovo’s new ThinkCentre Chromebox: The right size for small business

April 28th, 2015 by Manmohan No comments »

Add another Chromebox to the mix of hardware running Google’s Chrome OS. Lenovo on Monday introduced its $199 ThinkCentre Chromebox that could find a spot on your desk when it arrives in June. The small computer is the first Chromebox to integrate with Lenovo’s Tiny-In-One workstation.

It’s a small box measuring 7.0″ x 1.4″ x 7.2″ and has four USB 3.0 ports, a full-sized HDMI jack, integrated DisplayPort and Ethernet jack. Android Central notes that configurations include a fifth-generation Intel Core processor, up to 4GB of memory and 16GB of flash storage.

As far as Chromeboxes go, this is pretty standard fare. What’s unique is that the small box works with Lenovo’s modular $279 Tiny-In-One monitor, turning the new ThinkCentre into more of an all-in-one, similar to LG’s Chromebase.

That configuration uses a 23-inch, full HD display for the Chromebox, while adding an integrated webcam and microphone for video calls and other communications. It also supports a wireless keyboard and mouse for the Chromebox.

The big selling point here — aside from saving space on the desk — is that you can swap an old Chromebox out for a newer one if and when the time is right.


Microsoft Surface 3 Windows 8.1 tablet

April 28th, 2015 by Manmohan No comments »

Microsoft told us that its goal for the Surface 3 tablet is to “get the Surface into more folks’ hands”. It reckons it can do this by offering a more affordable product that’s still similar in form and function to the Surface Pro 3. How has it achieved this? It has reduced the size of the tablet to 10.8 inches and dropped the latest Intel Atom CPU into its belly.

How fast is it?
Some of you may cringe at the mere talk of Atom, but you shouldn’t. Over the last year or so (starting with the Bay Trail-codenamed products), the Atom range has shown that it can allow a Windows tablet to perform reasonably well when it comes to common, ‘everyday’ tasks. The Intel Atom in the Surface 3 is an x7-Z8700 model, that’s part of the latest generation of Atom CPUs that are codenamed Cherry Trail.

It’s this CPU that puts the Surface 3 in a class below the Core i3-based Surface Pro 3 tablet, and it’s what makes it a reasonably affordable entry level product for users who don’t require the gutsier CPU in the Pro models. With the Atom x7 in the Surface 3, we did notice some sluggishness, but only when running multiple tasks that required CPU time simultaneously. For the most part, it was a responsive tablet that was a joy to use.

The Cherry Trail Atom in our test model was joined by 4GB of RAM and a 128GB solid state drive (SSD), and for this configuration the cost is $839. There is a lesser configuration of 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD that costs $699, a configuration that will be more popular with wallet watchers. The thing is, the $839 price tag isn’t too far off the price of an Intel Core i3-based Surface Pro 3 with a 64GB SSD (about $135 at the writing of this review), so some of you might give in and go for the extra processing speed.

A smaller, more portable size may be the thing that makes the Surface 3 more attractive than the Pro, though. On its own, the 10.8-inch Surface 3 weighs 617g compared to 795g for the 12-inch Surface Pro 3. Add the Type Cover accessory, and the Surface 3 comes in at a healthy 886g, while the Surface Pro 3 crosses the 1kg mark and almost hits 1.1kg.

It all depends on what you want to achieve with the device. If you want something that’s more conducive to content creation (building presentations, doing spreadsheets, and editing photos), then you will more than likely want the bigger Pro version with the faster CPU. If all you want is a tablet for perusing Web pages, streaming videos and music, and viewing photos and communicating online, the smaller Surface 3 and its Atom will suffice.

Spending a week with the Surface 3, we got to know what it can and can’t do early on. For the most part, it’s not great at multitasking, especially if those tasks need to consume a lot of CPU time. Things such as Web pages with lots of Flash elements can bog down the tablet and cause it to respond slower than it otherwise would.

We found it to be fine for tasks such as viewing Netflix and other streaming video on demand services, and we could do things such as stream music from Google Play Music and send it over to a stereo via Bluetooth while we still browsed the Web and typed up this review in Google Docs. (At this point, we’ll note that an Office 365 subscription for this device is offered by default.) When we used the tablet in this way, we did notice that scrolling in Web pages was slower, and typing in Docs also suffered a minute delay between our typing and the resulting display.

Running our Blender 3D rendering test for some perspective, the Surface 3’s 1.6GHz Intel Atom x7-Z8700 processor recorded a time of 1min 25sec. This is 25sec slower than a tablet running Intel’s 1.2GHz Core M CPU (codenamed Broadwell Y), and about 10sec faster than a tablet running Intel’s 1.59GHz Atom Z3795 (codenamed Bay Trail).

Testing out the storage with CrystalDiskMark, the 128GB SSD recorded a sequential read rate of 106.7 megabytes per second (MBps), and a sequential write rate of 30.77MBps. These rates are not unheard of for a tablet in this class, but the write rate is 5-10MBps slower than we expected.

In our battery life test, in which we disable power management, maximise screen brightness, enable Wi-Fi, and loop a Full HD, MP4 file, the Surface 3 lasted 5hr 58min. Battery life can be prolonged depending on the tasks you run (if they are not CPU intensive) and if you use a low screen brightness where possible.

Quality hardware
Like all good Windows-based tablets, the Surface features some ports on its sides so that you can plug things in. There is a full-sized USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort, and you even get a microSD card slot, which is hidden from view under the kickstand. A change to this Surface is the addition of a micro-USB port, which is the interface through which the tablet can be charged (USB On-the-Go drives can also be plugged in and accessed).

You can’t just use any charger to replenish the Surface 3’s battery (nor a mobile battery pack that can typically be used for Android tablets and iPads), as it needs the extra juice that its own charger supplies. You can use the Surface’s charger to charge other devices if need be, though the end of the cable is extra wide in order to provide a good grip for plugging and unplugging the charger from the tablet. It’s not as fiddly as the connector on the Surface Pro 3.

For using the Surface 3 as a display on your desk (or while lying in bed), you can extend built-in kickstand — one of the features that we love about Surface tablets. The kickstand on the Surface 3 doesn’t have a free-flowing hinge with variable angles like the Surface Pro 3, but it does feature three distinct angles that snap into place firmly.

As a safeguard against the heavy handed, Microsoft has designed an ‘emergency release’ of sorts for these hinges. If you try to take the kickstand past its maximum angle, the pressure will force the hinges to ‘snap’ out of their final position. The kickstand then flaps around, so to speak, until you snap it back into its hinges. This design can help prevent the stand and hinges from breaking, though we’re not sure how many ‘accidental’ exertions of extra pressure they will handle.

The 10.8-inch screen of the Surface 3 has a native resolution of 1920×1280 pixels, meaning you get an extra 200 lines of vertical resolution compared to a regular Full HD screen when using the tablet in landscape mode. This extra space can be noticeable in Web pages and when viewing documents and spreadsheets. However, the pixel density of the screen can make text rather hard to read a lot of the time. For this reason, Microsoft (and indeed other vendors that use screens with a high dot count) has the text and icon size set to large. This doesn’t overcome the problem completely, as Windows 8 doesn’t scale some dialogue boxes and tooltips, while some windows can end up looking muddy.

Nevertheless, it’s a good screen that has wide viewing angles and a high enough brightness level to cope with the lighting in typical office and home environments. That said, you can still see reflections, but it also depends on the angle that the screen is placed. We found the screen to be of good colour and crispness, and it was especially good for the full-screen viewing of photos that were shot with a 3:2 ratio; these photos filled the screen completely.

The surface of the Surface (sorry) felt smooth to the touch, and all Windows 8-centric gestures that we tried, such as the swipes in from the edges, worked smoothly. Browsing the Modern UI was also smoother than we expected, with icons flowing freely from side to side until we found what we were looking for.

Other things to note about the hardware are that the Wi-Fi adapter supports 802.11ac (via a Marvell Avastar module). It connected to our TP-Link Archer C9 router at 867Mbps, and we could transfer movie files onto the Surface 3 at a rate of 30MBps. You also get front and rear cameras, with the front having 3.5 megapixels, and the rear having 8 megapixels and autofocusing capability.

The speakers face forward and are installed up near the top of the screen (when in landscape orientation), with their sound escaping through gaps that have been cut in the edges of the Gorilla Glass. As far as tablets are concerned, the sound is quite decent. It’s not loud, and it’s a little tinny, but it’s clear overall, and useful if you don’t have headphones or a Bluetooth speaker to hand.

An unlocked 4G/LTE version of the Surface 3 will be released at some point, too.

Accessories complete the product
For handwriting recognition, the Surface Pen accessory is needed, and what we noticed most about this active pen was the way it rode the glass. We found it to be smooth in its operation as we wrote words on the screen, yet with a slight hint of grip at the end of each stroke. It wasn’t as silky smooth as the writing we’ve done on higher-end products such as the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga, but it was still something we were able to appreciate.

The recognition of handwriting from within Windows was typically good, with the system guessing correctly at what we meant when we performed our messiest running writing. We could tell there was a delay as the Surface 3 studied what we wrote before attempting the recognition, but it was nevertheless quicker than we thought it would be for an Atom-based computer.

We like the Pen accessory a lot for writing, but wish it was standard. Like the Type Cover, you have to pay extra ($60), and you can select the colour that you desire (if you desire blue, red, black, or silver). It has a good weight to it (thanks to the batteries mostly), sits well balanced in the hand, and supports 256 levels of pressure. There is nowhere to place the pen on the tablet, but if you have purchased the Type Cover, then you can clip it on the cover as if it were a real notepad.

The Type Cover is the other accessory that really is a must if you have any inkling to type on the Surface 3, be it for your email correspondence or upcoming novel. It has mechanical keys that can be backlit in five intensities, and it almost has the feel of a proper keyboard because of the way the keys travel and respond. It’s similar to the Type Cover for the Surface Pro 3 — it even has the magnet that allows the keyboard to sit at an angle — but it’s not as long as the Pro’s cover. The kicker is that it’s a $170 keyboard, which means the price of the Surface 3 goes over $1100 if you purchase the top model with the Surface Pen and Type Cover.

In a surprising twist, Microsoft also has a dock accessory for the Surface 3, which is similar to the dock for its Surface Pro 3. Instead of a docking connector, though, the docking looks to be made via the USB 3.0 and Mini DisplayPort interfaces (we haven’t personally seen this this accessory yet). This dock can supply two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, Mini DisplayPort, 3.5mm audio, and a security lock. This should help make the Surface 3 appeal to business users who don’t have the need for the extra CPU power in the Surface Pro 3.

What’s the verdict?
A couple of things stand out about this tablet for us: its high-res screen, and the built-in kickstand. These features alone make it a very good product to consider if you’re after a basic Windows tablet. Furthermore, we feel as though Intel’s Cherry Trail Atom, while not being super-fast, contributes to an overall enjoyable experience because it allows the tablet to run without making any noise, and without getting warm.

We’d pick up this tablet for use as a media streaming device around the home, and for basic Web browsing and online communications. If you add the Type Cover and Surface Pen to the mix, then it’s also a good unit for productivity. In fact, you can use the Surface 3 as a laptop and for long typing sessions if you wish. It takes a bit of a balancing act to use the Surface 3 on your lap, to be sure, but we’ve seen it being done with good success.

Unfortunately, the accessories are rather pricey, and will set you back quite a bit if you’re looking to go all the way and use this tablet as a hybrid laptop.


Logitech Pulls Millions From Mice, Invests It In Design

April 28th, 2015 by Manmohan No comments »

The year 2006 was a big year for headphones. It’s when the Beats brand debuted, took over every pair of ears in professional sports, and exploded into a $3 billion lifestyle-led technology company. You know what Logitech released that same year? This game controller loaded with fans so your hands would get less sweaty.

It’s one of many opportunities that Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell admits the company missed out on.

Logitech is one of the world’s largest hardware companies. It sells more computer mice than any other company in the world, which earn a vast majority of the company’s $2 billion in yearly revenue. But Darrell—who hailed from Whirlpool, Procter & Gamble, and GE—didn’t come to Logitech in 2012 to figure out how to sell more mice.

“We were one of the quintessential examples of a PC-related company, and our profits were dropping,” he tells Co.Design. “I came because I wanted to create an amazing company, and a design company. That’s fundamentally what I’m up to.”

In the last two years, Darrell has made a lot of big changes to the business plan. He took the company’s $100 million+ R&D budget, 85% of which had been dedicated to mice, and spread it around to three new product categories where he thought they could compete: Bluetooth speakers, teleconferencing systems, and tablet accessories.

Mice would be left with just a quarter of Logitech’s budget in a decision which provided an almost immediate payoff: Those other three categories would create $400 million in new business for Logitech by the end of 2014 thanks to standouts like the UE Boom. And the company would go on the upswing for the first time since 2011.

But this spreadsheet math overlooks Logitech’s bigger play: the quest to become what Darrell unabashedly calls “a design company.” In less veiled terms, it wants to be the type of company responsible for the next Beats-like craze. To lead the charge, Darrell recruited Alastair Curtis, the former Chief Designer at Nokia, to become Logitech’s first Chief Design Officer in its two-decade history.

“We had a long courtship. He and I got along really well,” Darrel says. “He’s come in here and done more than I thought was possible in a very short period of time.”

Curtis, who is now approaching two years with the company himself, recognized what he calls a rare opportunity. Logitech was a stereotypical engineering company. A quarter of its staff was engineers, and all of its products were being designed out of house.

Under Curtis’s design lead, the Logitech offices have embraced the open floor plans and collaboration championed by design firms. He’s also been staffing up, hiring roughly two dozen designers who specialize in industrial design, UX, and branding. The goal? To begin designing Logitech’s products in-house, while managing the external design studios with more guidance.


Maingear Eyes DIY Builders By Selling Standalone PC Cases

April 23rd, 2015 by Manmohan No comments »

Maingear is typically known as a boutique desktop and notebook maker, offering pre-built PCs that customers can configure based on their budget. These PCs typically have a plethora of hardware options spanning from the CPU to the PSU. What we have yet to see is Maingear selling its cases without all the hardware packed inside. As of today, that has changed.

The company is now going after the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) crowd by serving up its most popular cases. These include the Shift, Potenza, F131, Drift, Rush, Force and Torq models. Customers can personalize these cases by ordering custom color combinations found in the Maingear palette, or by supplying automotive color codes. Customers can even get their artwork laser engraved on the side.

Out of the group, the Shift case has the highest starting price at $499. As with the company’s desktops, customers have a number of options to choose from such as the exterior finish, the interior finish and chassis lighting. Customers can also configure the case with processor cooling and a power supply. Additional optional gear consists of a portable tool kit and a nifty shirt.

As an example of what to expect when configuring one of these cases, the Shift can have an Alpine White automotive paint finish for $399 extra. For another $299, customers can get the same finish on the inside. Want the chassis to be nice and glossy? Add $50 to the total. Lighting can be provided by LED light strips that cost $39 each and consist of Amber, Blue, Purple, Red, Ultra Violet or White colors. There’s even a light strip that can be changed by remote control ($74.99).

With all of the above, customers can find themselves with a customized chassis that costs more than purchasing a pre-built gaming desktop. The Torq case has the smallest starting price tag of $100, followed by the Rush case ($110), the Drift case ($155), the Potenza case ($210), the F131 case ($220) and the Force case ($349). The Torq is the smallest of the group, whereas the Force case is the tallest.

“Our selection of DIY cases gives everybody the ability to build and create a truly unique system that reflects their personality,” stated Wallace Santos, CEO and Founder of Maingear. “This is the first time Maingear has offered its customization capabilities and unique cases for non-full system buyers.”


Dell beefs up Ireland R&D center

April 23rd, 2015 by Manmohan No comments »

Dell Inc. is hiring 100 engineers to work in its facility in Limerick, Ireland, according to a report from Ireland-based RTE News.
The report says the company is focusing its hires there on engineering rolls as it expands its research and development outfit at the Limerick facility. When the hiring is done, the report says nearly 1,000 people will work at Dell’s Limerick facility. The Round Rock-based computer company also has offices in Dublin and Cork, Ireland.
Dell employs about 14,000 people in the Austin area and has been diversifying its product line to include more corporate and back-end services and hardware. The company still has a stranglehold on some aspects of its old PC-focused business model. For instance, Dell captured the largest share of the global personal computer monitors market during the fourth quarter, research firm International Data Corp. reported earlier this month.


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