Laptops on test, tout shutdown, smart home tech and more: best of the week's news

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Hands-on review: four Windows laptops tested from Dell, Fujitsu, Microsoft and Lenovo

Over the past few weeks I spent a large amount of generally enjoyable time playing with a selection of laptops that some of the leading suppliers had offered me. The result of these tinkerings I put into this review, which gives some indication of my first impressions. How useful it is, I don’t know; what is clear is that it is not a scientific benchmarking process, so it was never going to be more than a starting point. Also, all of the laptops were clearly fine machines, but then it wouldn’t have made sense for Dell, Fujitsu, Microsoft and Lenovo to send me obsolete versions that were squirming around at the bottom end of the product range.

However, one thing they do all have in common is that they have Intel processors inside, which is the reason for writing this brief addition. In fact, one respondent wrote in to say that such are the security issues surrounding Intel processors at the moment that he would not buy any computer that had one. A drastic and interesting position, and one that immediately rules out about 80 per cent of all computers available. I suppose it does make the selection process easier when buying a new one.

The problems Intel has reportedly extend back to all the processors it has produced over the last 20 years, but it was in January that the so-called Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities were revealed. These exploit fundamental weaknesses in the processors that could leave all the information on that computer accessible, including such things as passwords. Just recently the Foreshadow vulnerability was added to the list of nasties. However, such vulnerabilities can be patched. The patches were believed to slow down performance, but new computers with new processors have such patches built into their systems, so when it comes to determining their performance it should not be regarded as diminished.

So maybe, in the same way that some are happy to beat Facebook with the same stick following data breaches, people feel the need to do the same with Intel. It strikes me as a bit of an exercise in cutting off your nose to spite your face though. People with no morals have careers in hacking and digital theft, all the technology companies can do is put up a good fight against it. As long as they are doing that, and not being free and easy with their customers’ data, then we have to accept that as part of progress. So to not buy an Intel-inside computer as a point of principle seems a bit over the top.

As an addendum to the original piece, one of our readers, Mike Ventham, refers to one of the minor issues I noted with the Microsoft Surface Book 2 – the transposing of “ and @ on the keyboard. He says: “This is almost always because a US keyboard layout is selected and the device has a UK-style keyboard layout. A quick trip to settings to add UK English as a language and set it as default display language fixes this. If the UK language layout is already installed, then Windows + <space bar> will swap between the keyboard layouts or clicking on the ENG on the bottom menu bar if it is present.” Thanks, Mike.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Ticketmaster shuts down resale sites in favour of fan-to-fan offering

Prostitution is often heralded as the world’s oldest profession, but ticket touting must be a close second. In fact, there are some obvious parallels between the two. Im sure there were touts outside the Lyceum any time Aristotle was scheduled to put on a stellar philosophical show and, again, there they were outside the Colosseum whenever a particularly juicy Christians vs Lions bout guaranteed a sell-out. “For a few extra denarii, mate, I can get you ringside seats, so you can really feel the blood spatter.” Ticket touts have never been popular, but it seems like theyve always been with us. Now, perhaps, a tide is finally starting to turn, as major ticketing agency Ticketmaster has announced that its shutting down two of its own ticket resale sites – where fans regularly get royally fleeced by avaricious, opportunistic hoarders of prime gold-dust tickets – in favour of a ‘face value fan-to-fan service. It probably wont entirely be good riddance, but at least a fairer, self-regulating service could mean safer and more satisfactory results for the average punter. There you go, another parallel with prostitution.

Turkey bites back at Trump tariffs, targeting US electronics

Theyre all as bad as each other, with the tit-for-tat tariff war threatening to span the globe as more and more countries and currencies get dragged into myriad economic and political spats. This is not going to end well for anyone.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Children more prone to manipulation by robots, study finds

Societal change can be wrought by many factors, from economics to political will, but one of the most powerful has always been technology change, from the printing press to the internet. This is especially true in recent decades as a whole generation of ‘digital natives has grown up with electronic games, mobile phones and social media. But this is nothing compared to what the next few decades will bring with artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality and – behind it all – the Internet of Things. The effects of technology are notoriously hard to predict but that doesnt mean we shouldnt try because they will be profound and far reaching in society. This study, out this week, looks at just one aspect – how children relate to robots. The results aren’t surprising; of course children tend to be more impressionable than adults. But it is important food for thought.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Smart home tech now owned by almost a quarter of Britons

Devices that handle the mundane tasks associated with living in a modern home seem such a great idea that it’s almost surprising only a quarter of the UK population have bought into the idea. Alexa, Siri and other AI-based assistants can be seen as the 21st-century equivalents of the one or two domestic servants most reasonably affluent British households would have employed in days gone by, keeping things ticking over without having to be told what to do all the time.

Why are so few of us (and I include myself in this number) reluctant to embrace the smart home concept, even at the simplest level such as speakers for a home audio system? One clue is the comment in this story from a YouGov expert, that although ownership figures are impressive for what is still a relatively young technology, the challenge is to get people to buy their first device. Problem is, for the sceptics, that making the leap means deciding which particular platform to stake your investment in. Tech giants like Apple, Google and Samsung aren’t renowned for making sure their devices play nicely with each other; in fact, sometimes it seems that they’re trying to achieve the exact opposite.

It almost makes you long for the days when making the wrong decision would leave you lumbered with a library of Betamax video cassettes as the rest of the world raced off into the VHS future. I’m probably typical of the three-quarters of consumers who remain to be convinced of the need for smart home tech, but I can at least see some of the advantages and it wouldn’t be hard to persuade me to at least dip my toe in the water, if I was confident that I wasn’t wasting my money. As with so many other innovations that seemed unnecessary when they first appeared, but which we now cant live without, I suspect there’s one application, perhaps yet to be identified and from which some bright spark will make a lot of money, that’s going to do the job.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Patients’ vital signs could be falsified in cyber attack, study finds

Imagine you’re hooked up to a bedside monitor in hospital and, suddenly, your vital signs stop being, well, vital.

“Oh God! I’m dead!” you scream.

But wait, you screamed, so you’re not dead, are you? Jokes! The machine shows you’re alive again.

But wait! You’re dead again.

Oh no, wait. You’re not.

Hang on, you’re dead again.

That is my example of a poor attempt at a cyber attack on hospital monitors.

But these hackers, according to a report by McAfee Labs’ Advanced Threat Research team, could target connected patient-monitoring systems and provide false vital signals to cause confusion and danger on hospital wards. Don’t these guys have something better to do other than cause puzzlement among hospital staff when the monitor says you’re dead, but you’re perfectly fine – well, as fine as you can be in hospital – eating a ‘get well soon’ grape?

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

View from Vitalia: Of trains, trains and no trains

This week, the height of ‘silly season’, has not been particularly news rich, the biggest ‘engineering’ (or rather anti-engineering) event being the Genoa bridge collapse – possibly, some observers have alleged, the result in part of construction contracts with fishy Mafia connections.

I can be forgiven, therefore, for choosing my own blog as my news pick – moreover that there was some news – bad news again, I am afraid – in the ever-so-troublesome realm of Britain’s railways, to which the above blog post was almost fully devoted. Amid the continuing chaos, it was cynically announced that train fares will rise by a staggering 3.5 per cent as of 1 January 2019. So openly sadistic was the timing of the announcement and the announcement itself, that even The Guardian called it “a step too far” and asked – rather rhetorically – if renationalisation of railways would be the answer.

The answer to this answer is of course ‘no’, for we have been there before and not once. The only thing that would help, from my point of view, is the outright boycott of trains. As some ingenious commuters are doing already, let’s all buy second-hand cars and  start commuting to work in them. Yes, the commute will probably be slow, but we will at least move, whereas the trains normally don’t, but it will also be much, much cheaper in the long run (or in the long crawl, if you wish). In any case, in my next blog, which I am planning to post online today, I will dwell on this persistent crisis further – my own journalistic equivalent of buying a second-hand car (for I have one already), I assume.

Google tracks user location even when forbidden, investigation finds

Here’s a detailed transcript of the brief verbal exchange with my ‘Hey, Google personal assistant this morning:

“Hey, Google (the lights on the assistant’s mini-UFO-shaped body start flashing enquiringly). Are you spying on me?

“I think that your security is paramount!”

“Forget about security. I am asking if you are trying to record my words and movements when I have openly forbidden you to do so?”

“Sorry, I cannot help you here…”

“And who can? Should I ask my former compatriot Sergey Brin? Do you know who he is?”

“Sergei Mikhailovich Brin is a Russian-born American computer scientist and internet entrepreneur. Together with Larry Page, he co-founded Google…”

“Hey, Google, Stop it! I don’t need you to recite Brin’s biography from Wikipedia. Just tell me: do you intend to carry on with all those forbidden tracking activities, or maybe even to increase them?”

“I am still learning...”

At that point, I unplugged my faithful personal assistant. Until this evening, when I will probably ask her (it?) to play me some calming meditative music.

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