How four Microsoft engineers proved that the “darknet” would defeat DRM

24 Nov 2017, 3:13 pm

Peter Biddle speaks at the ETech conference in 2007. (credit: Scott Beale)

It's Thanksgiving week in the US, and most of our staff is focused on a morning coffee or Black Friday list rather than office work. As such, we're resurfacing this story of four Microsoft engineers who predicted the downfall of DRM more than a decade ahead of its time (their paper turned 15 this month). This story originally ran on November 30, 2012, and it appears unchanged below.

Can digital rights management technology stop the unauthorized spread of copyrighted content? Ten years ago this month, four engineers argued that it can't, forever changing how the world thinks about piracy. Their paper, "The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution" (available as a .doc here) was presented at a security conference in Washington, DC, on November 18, 2002.

By itself, the paper's clever and provocative argument likely would have earned it a broad readership. But the really remarkable thing about the paper is who wrote it: four engineers at Microsoft whose work many expected to be at the foundation of Microsoft's future DRM schemes. The paper's lead author told Ars that the paper's pessimistic view of Hollywood's beloved copy protection schemes almost got him fired. But ten years later, its predictions have proved impressively accurate.

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Guidemaster: Want an Alexa device? Here’s every Amazon Echo, compared

23 Nov 2017, 4:30 pm

Enlarge (credit: Valentina Palladino)

Amazon debuted the original Echo a few years ago, and it raised eyebrows in the tech industry. The Echo is a smart home speaker that houses Amazon's Alexa virtual assistant, an AI helper that helps you complete daily tasks using only your voice. Since its debut, users of all levels of tech prowess have embraced Echo and Alexa, finding practicality in a voice-controlled assistant and all the things it can do.

Both Alexa and the Echo have evolved since then to meet the needs of an ever-growing market. After the Echo and Alexa came Google Home with the Google Assistant, the Harman Kardon Invoke with Microsoft's Cortana, and the forthcoming Homepod with Apple's Siri. Amazon has an advantage over all these competitors because it has had the time to develop many different Echo devices and expand Alexa to be a multifaceted assistant, thanks to third-party integrations and skills. ("Skills" is Amazon's word for apps, in this case.)

Plenty of smart home device manufacturers have integrated Alexa into their products, and Alexa now has more than 25,000 skills made by third-party developers. Alexa skills are features that Alexa can leverage to do more than what its built-in features allow. For example, Alexa has native features that let it tell you weather and traffic forecasts, control smart home devices, and buy things from Amazon. Using third-party skills, Alexa can play soothing sleep sounds at night, read stories to your children, tell you random food facts, and act as the host of a trivia game for you and your friends.

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Aston Martin’s DB11 looks like a million bucks, only costs a quarter of that

22 Nov 2017, 12:30 pm

Video shot and edited by Justin Wolfson. Click here for transcript. (video link)

To the casual observer, Aston Martin cars might all look the same. A long hood. Voluptuous curves over the wheels. That iconic grille. It's a design language that you can trace back through the decades to the 1950s.

Sixty years later that formula is still being obeyed, but it would be a mistake to think that makes this car—the DB11—an anachronism. Underneath its gorgeous aluminum and composite body panels is the most technologically advanced machine yet to wear the winged badge. It's the first all-new Aston Martin in years, and race-bred aerodynamics, a clever twin-turbo V12 engine, and some 21st century electronics knowhow (courtesy of Mercedes-Benz) come together to create a gran turismo that's as much PhD as 007. Over the course of a week and several hundred miles, I came away with the impression that if this car represents the future of the marque, that future will be rosy indeed.

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OnePlus 5T review—An outstanding combination of specs, design, and price

20 Nov 2017, 2:00 pm

Ron Amadeo

After launching the OnePlus 5 earlier this year, OnePlus is back with an end-of-year upgrade for the device. The OnePlus 5T takes a winning formula—high-end specs with a low price tag and a metal body—and reworks the front of the phone to dedicate as much space as possible to the screen. This device has a new screen, a new button layout, a new fingerprint reader, and a new camera setup. It almost feels like a totally new device.

We liked the OnePlus 5 from earlier in the year, but, with the more modern design, OnePlus has fixed OnePlus 5's biggest downside. The result is something that is extremely compelling—a $500 phone that makes you question exactly why you'd give $800 to those other OEMs when this has nearly everything the more expensive phones have.

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Pandemic Legacy: Season 2—The world’s “best board game” gets better

18 Nov 2017, 1:00 pm

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at

How do you follow the most popular board game ever made?

In a world where three separate versions of Smurfs Monopoly exist, Pandemic Legacy: Season One (PL:S1) isn’t the biggest-selling game of all time—but it has topped the popularity charts at Board Game Geek since it was released. It’s as close to “universally loved” as it’s possible to get in this contrarian world.

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Surface Book 2 review: Monster performance, but lightning hasn’t struck twice

16 Nov 2017, 7:38 pm

Enlarge / The 15-inch Surface Book 2. (credit: Peter Bright)

Introduced a little over two years ago, Microsoft's Surface Book was the hybrid laptop that I had long hoped the company would build. Like the Surface Pro, it worked as a true standalone tablet, but it had the all-important stiff hinge, making it suitable for use on your lap in a way that the Surface Pro's kickstand and Type Covers never really supported.

The Surface Book was not just a useful form factor; it was also something of a technological showcase. Other hybrid designs I've used, such as the ThinkPad Helix, had clunky mechanical linkages between the tablet portion and the base. The Surface Book boasted a clever software-controlled system. The fulcrum hinge design, which helped keep the device balanced when the screen was open, is elegant and visually striking.

And to top it all off, the Surface Book came with an optional discrete GPU, with the GPU housed not in the tablet part but in the base. While we've seen many systems with switchable graphics—using the low-power integrated GPU unless you're playing a game or similar and need the full power of the discrete chip—having the discrete GPU be in a separate component was an exciting twist.

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LG V30 review: Good hardware design marred by bad camera, software

15 Nov 2017, 12:30 pm

Ron Amadeo

Another six months, another LG flagship phone. Typically the V series has been LG's wacky, experimental line with an extra "ticker" screen on the front. This year, though, the V30 is all business. The ticker is gone in exchange for a slim-bezel device and a clean look.

With the V30, LG is still basically following the same path that Samsung travels by shipping a heavily skinned phone with a glass back and slow updates. When you do all the same things as Samsung without the marketing budget, it's hard to stand out.

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Spatial audio is the most exciting thing to happen to pop music since stereo

11 Nov 2017, 3:00 pm

Enlarge / To get the Dolby Atmos version of Automatic For The People, you'll have to buy this complete 3-CD, 1-Blu-ray edition. (credit: R.E.M./Craft Recordings)

As much as I love overpriced gizmos in my living room, I still tend to be reluctant about new standards. TVs are a great example. I've appreciated the bonuses offered by 3D, 4K, and HDR, but I concede they all lack content and are less amazing than salespeople would lead you to believe. They're also generally not worth replacing TVs that are only a few years old.

The same goes for audio, which fortunately hasn't strayed far from a "5.1" surround-sound profile since the dawn of DVD adoption. Really, I've been fine with two good speakers and a subwoofer for my entire adult life. I laugh at overblown, pre-film Dolby intros in a theater. I shrug at the surround effects in hectic action movies. I have failed A/B tests in picking out major differences between 5.1 and 7.1 systems.

Surround audio can be cool, sure. But if I were to ever change up my entire living room, I'd need something to blow my aural expectations away. This week, that might have finally happened.

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When will the Earth try to kill us again?

9 Nov 2017, 12:00 pm


“The revolutions and changes which have left the earth as we now find it, are not confined to the overthrow of the ancient layers” - Georges Cuvier, 1831.

Our planet Earth has extinguished large portions of its inhabitants several times since the dawn of animals. And if science tells us anything, it will surely try to kill us all again. Working in the 19th century, paleontology pioneer Georges Cuvier saw dramatic turnovers of life in the fossil record and likened them to the French Revolution, then still fresh in his memory.

Today, we refer to such events as “mass extinctions,” incidents in which many species of animals and plants died out in a geological instant. They are so profound and have such global reach that geological time itself is sliced up into periods—Permian, Triassic, Cretaceous—that are often defined by these mass extinctions.

Debate over what caused these factory resets of life has raged ever since Cuvier’s time. He considered them to be caused by environmental catastrophes that rearranged the oceans and continents. Since then, a host of explanations have been proposed, including diseases, galactic gamma rays, dark matter, and even methane from microbes. But since the 1970s, most scientists have considered the likely root cause to be either asteroid impacts, massive volcanic eruptions, or a combination of both.

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Hacking the vote: Threats keep changing, but election IT sadly stays the same

7 Nov 2017, 3:55 pm

Enlarge / A voting machine is submitted to abuse in DEFCON's Voting Village in July. (credit: Sean Gallagher)

The outcome of the 2016 presidential election is history. But allegations of voter fraud, election interference by foreign governments, and intrusions into state electoral agencies' systems have since cast a pall over the system that determines who makes the laws and enforces them in the United States. Such problems will not disappear no matter what comes out of a presidential commission or a Congressional hearing.

"Amazon will not go out of business because one percent of its transactions are fraudulent," said David Jefferson, a visiting computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and chairman of the Verified Voting Foundation, a non-governmental organization working toward accuracy, integrity, and verifiability of elections. "That's not the case for elections."

Jefferson's words came during his talk at the latest edition of DEFCON, the annual infosec event. Election hacks naturally became something of an overarching theme within the Caesar's Palace convention center this summer. In fact, there was an entire room dedicated solely to testing the reliability of US electronic voting systems. Called "Voting Village," the space was filled with more than 25 pieces of electoral hardware—voting machines and other electronic election-management equipment—in various stages of deconstruction. Any curious conference attendee, no matter where they fell within the conference's wide technical skill spectrum, could contribute to the onslaught of software and hardware hacks targeting the machines in this de facto lab.

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Essen 2017: Best board games from the biggest board game convention

6 Nov 2017, 1:15 pm

Enlarge / Behold the craziness of Essen... (credit: Owen Duffy)

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at

Every October, the German city of Essen becomes the epicenter of tabletop gaming geekdom. Tens of thousands of visitors descend on the International Spieltage fair, where publishers from around the world debut their up-and-coming releases over four frantic days of dice chucking, card shuffling, and cube pushing.

For gamers, it’s an enthralling, bewildering, almost intimidating spectacle. Where gaming events in other countries, like Gen Con in the US or the UK Games Expo, incorporate celebrity guests, panel discussions, and side attractions, Essen is focused squarely on the games—everything from light and fluffy family favourites to impenetrable brain-melters.

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iPhone X review: Early adopting the future

3 Nov 2017, 1:47 pm

Enlarge / The iPhone X isn't actually "all screen," and it has that notch. But that doesn't make it any less dramatic. (credit: Samuel Axon)

A lot has changed in the decade since Apple shared its first iPhone with the world, but most people's relationships to their smartphones have not changed for a while. After an explosion of innovation, we’ve mostly seen incremental updates to processing power, security features, screen size, cameras, and software in recent years. These have added up over time, but the progress has rarely revolutionized this product area or its users' experience.

Generally, people have understandably been fine with that. Stability is good for consumers. We now see our phones as practical tools, not as anything extraordinary—not anything that opens up exciting and relevant new possibilities in our professional and personal lives like those earliest iPhone and Android phones did.

Some enthusiasts have nevertheless lamented that this is no longer the Apple whose products, once perceived as truly groundbreaking, excited them. But even more so than usual, Apple wants buyers to see this new phone, the most expensive iPhone yet released, as revolutionary. It has positioned iPhone X as a blueprint for all handsets to come.

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Xbox One X review: An exclamation point for hardware, a question mark for software

3 Nov 2017, 7:01 am

Enlarge / A lot of tech packed into this svelte box. (credit: Kyle Orland)

When the Xbox One launched in 2013, Microsoft had to try to convince gamers that extra features and hardware like the Kinect made its console worth $100 more than Sony’s PlayStation 4. Today, Microsoft is trying to convince many of those same gamers that the extra horsepower in the Xbox One X makes it worth $100 more than the PS4 Pro for the definitive living room 4K gaming experience.

When it comes to hard numbers, the Xbox One X definitely merits Microsoft’s marketing hype as “the most powerful console ever.” Microsoft has pulled out the stops in squeezing stronger components into the same basic architecture of the four-year-old Xbox One. In games like Gears of War 4 and Super Lucky’s Tale, the system generates performance that’s equivalent to modern PC hardware that costs hundreds of dollars more.

When it comes to seeing the value of that hardware on the screen, though, the promise of the Xbox One X is currently unfulfilled—at the very least, it's incomplete. We’ve only been able to test a relative handful of games that have gotten a downloadable patch providing the full “Xbox One X enhanced” treatment as of press time. That list excludes high-profile exclusives like Forza Motorsport 7 and Halo 5, as well as major cross-console comparisons like Rise of the Tomb Raider or Middle-Earth: Shadow of War.

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The underground story of Cobra, the 1980s’ illicit handmade computer

1 Nov 2017, 4:34 pm

Enlarge / Mihai Moldovanu tinkers with his beloved Cobra. (credit: Adi Dabu)

BUCHAREST, Romania—Mihai Moldovanu grabs the cardboard box with the enthusiasm of a man from the future who’s opening a time capsule.

“Maybe it could still work,” he tells me.

He dusts it off with his hands. Inside the box rests the computer he built for himself in high school. He hasn’t switched it on in 10, maybe 20 years. This summer, when moving from one apartment to another, he stumbled upon the box. “I need to find a charger and an old TV set. It’s going to be tricky to revive it.”

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Waymo has a big lead in driverless cars—but here’s how it could lose it

31 Oct 2017, 2:30 pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty / Aurich)

Waymo has long had a sizable lead in self-driving technology, and recent reports indicate that Larry Page, CEO of Waymo parent company Alphabet, is determined not to let it slip away. According to The Information's Amir Efrati, Waymo CEO John Krafcik is under pressure to launch a commercial service in the Phoenix metro area as soon as this fall.

But at a Monday event with reporters at Waymo's Castle testing grounds in California's Central Valley, Krafcik was non-committal about the company's launch plans. In fact, he cast doubt on whether a driverless taxi service would even be Waymo's first product, as almost everyone has assumed it would be.

"We'll have to see," Krafcik said, noting that the company was also working on self-driving truck technology. "We're also considering working directly with cities."

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Emissions, eschmissions: How to (simply) reduce your carbon footprint in 2017

28 Oct 2017, 12:00 pm

Winter is coming—and not in that Game of Thrones sense. Many people are starting to button up across the US, but while you might have to turn the heater up too, there’s reason to stop and think before blasting the warm air. Like so many of the best aspects of modern living, heaters aren’t necessarily great for the environment. In fact, your heating habit may be bloating your carbon footprint dramatically.

With the Trump administration ditching the Paris Climate Agreement, of course, there may be no federal mandate for individuals and organizations to shrink their carbon footprint. But many people—for reasons ranging from the financial to the environmental—still want to find out how to shrink their impact on the Earth. While it’s hard, there is a way.

Carbon footprints are essentially a convenient way for scientists and environmental advocates to provide you with a number—typically in tons—of the C02 emissions you produce each year. Calculated based on a number of factors including where you live, what you eat, and how you get around, the size of each person’s C02 footprint varies widely. Things are especially different between city slickers and suburbanites, as urban living lowers carbon emissions by 20 percent. Still, the average American clocks in at 16.4 metric tons, or some 36,00 pounds, of carbon dioxide and its greenhouse gas equivalents each year, according to the World Bank. That made for a shared national footprint of about 5,300 million metric tons in 2015, which continues to contribute to the acceleration of global climate change.

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Super Mario Odyssey review: Mario’s densest, deepest adventure yet

26 Oct 2017, 1:00 pm

Enlarge / "May you be as joyful as a Mario in boxer shorts and an oversized boxing glove hat" -Ancient proverb

A few weeks ago, I got dragged down a rabbit-hole discussion of what defines a "core" Mario game. One proposed definition relied on Mario trying to reach an explicit "goal point" or exit at the end of the level.

While a core Mario game could have secondary goals (like collecting red coins or one-ups) and while there might be multiple exits in a single level, getting from the start to the end has always been a defining characteristic of his adventures. Even more open 3D games like Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy have retained this model to some extent, ending with a run through the level and putting Mario back to the start after he collects a star (or "shine").

By this strict definition, Super Mario Odyssey can't really be considered a core Mario game at all. The game's wide-open "Kingdoms" don't have any set end points, instead they exist more as spaces to run and jump around at your leisure. When you stumble on one of the many power moons that are Mario's most explicit goals within these levels, the exploring continues on from that same point after a short animation. On top of that, you only need to collect a small handful of these available moons before you're allowed to move on to the next Kingdom (and back) at your leisure.

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Google Pixelbook review: Prepared today for the possible reality of tomorrow

26 Oct 2017, 1:00 pm

(video link)

Chromebooks may be most popular in the classroom, but Google wants to ride that train out of schools and into the next phase of students' lives. The Pixelbook is the manifestation of that idea, the piece of hardware that combines Google's revamped design aesthetic and Internet-based software with the needs and wants of a younger generation.

Google stopped selling the original Chromebook Pixel, but seemingly only because the company wants to shine the spotlight on its new Chrome OS laptop. No distractions, no other (potentially) cheaper options: if you're someone who grew up using Chrome OS in school, this $999 convertible is the one you should get if you want to continue using Chrome OS later in life.

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Returning to Second Life

23 Oct 2017, 4:30 pm

Seriously, this once happened.

A decade ago, dozens of media outlets and technologists discovered "The Next Internet." An original cyberspace science fiction fantasy had finally come to fruition as the world gained a second digitized reality. In a short period of time, countries established embassies, media companies opened bureaus, one of Earth’s biggest rock bands played a concert (sort of), political campaigns took to its streets, and people became real-world millionaires plying their skills in this new arena.

That much hyped "Next Internet?" You may remember it better by its official name—Second Life. For many modern Internet users, the platform has likely faded far, far from memory. But there’s no denying the cultural impact Second Life had during the brief height of its popularity.

Explaining Second Life today as a MMORG or a social media platform undersells things for the unfamiliar; Second Life became an entirely alternative online world for its users. And it wasn’t just the likes of Reuters and U2 lookalikes and Sweden embracing this platform. Second Life boasted 1.1 million active users at its peak roughly a decade ago. Even cultural behemoth Facebook only boasted 20 million at the time.

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Sonos One review: A better sounding smart speaker

19 Oct 2017, 4:14 pm

Enlarge (credit: Jeff Dunn)

Sonos is finally girding itself for the smart speaker wars. With Amazon’s Echo line of speakers proving a surprise hit and the usage of digital assistants growing generally, wireless speaker pioneer Sonos has launched its first voice-enabled speaker, the Sonos One. This $199 device taps in to the same Alexa assistant that Amazon plants in its own hardware; at some point in 2018, Sonos says it will add support for the rival Google Assistant as well.

It is generally accepted that current smart speakers like the Echo and Google Home, the devices for which such assistants are mainly designed, are mediocre when used as speakers. Given Sonos’ reputation for delivering above-average audio quality, the hope is that the One provides the smarts of an Echo (and, eventually, a Home) without skimping on sound.

In many ways, that’s exactly what the Sonos One does. It runs circles around the Echo and Home in the audio department, and it does nearly all of the same "Alexa things" you can do with an Amazon-made device. The One makes sense for someone who has a set of Sonos speakers already and is curious to see how an Echo-like machine would fit into their lifestyle.

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