Keep Prying Eyes Away with the InvizBox 2



Perhaps I’m just old and suspicious, but I’m increasingly concerned about the personal information that I give away to companies like Google and Facebook for their services. I’ve had enough of being the product. As for the information gathered surreptitiously by third parties, such as ISPs and government agencies, I’ve had enough of snooping and I don’t accept that if I’ve nothing to fear, I’ve nothing to hide. It’s simply none of their business.

Consequently, I’m working on a couple of strategies to mitigate my exposure, including some fake personas for simple things like compulsory registrations. While I’m not a social media superstar, I’m present on most social media platforms and it’ll take time to balance out the public and private. Fortunately in the UK, it’s not illegal to take a new identity unless the intention is criminal (so I’m told).

On a more practical side, I’ve already signed up for protonmail.com to secure my email correspondence and I’m going to move away from the big name providers in a gradual process. The other area of interest is VPNs and for those who aren’t in the know, a VPN is a Virtual Private Network. It hides your activity from the owner or maintainer of any local network connection – think of it as an opaque pipe within a transparent tube – so it’s good for protecting against both nosy ISPs wanting to sell your browsing history, and defending against nefarious activity on public wifi hotspots.

I’ve been tinkering with some of the software-based VPNs both for both mobile and home use as my ISP provided-modem/router doesn’t have any VPN capability. Software solutions are fine if you have one or two devices, but when you’ve umpteen tablets and laptops in the house, it’s a pain.

An alternative is a dedicated VPN hardware solution and this Kickstarter campaign from InvizBox caught my eye. Simply, the InvizBox 2 is a wireless access point that connects to your home router, and then encrypts all the traffic over a VPN (or the Tor network). There’s no need for individual configuration as everything that connects to the access point benefits from the VPN. Your local ISP is then completely unable to track your activities and sell them on. Even better, the ISP can’t throttle your traffic based on type of use, or use of competing services.

Obviously these are benefits enjoyed by all VPNs, but as a neat hardware package, the InvizBox 2 looks attractive. Other features on the InvizBox 2 include ad blocking and parental controls. The latter is useful as the VPN will bypass any controls implemented on your router or by your ISP, so you might need to defend against inquisitive teens. You can get round geo-blocking too – that’s where you can’t see some content because you are visiting from the wrong country. As with most VPNs, a regular subscription is required (allow around US$5 / €5 per month) but there are some deals there too.

The standard InvizBox 2 is currently at €109 and the Pro is €149 if you get in quick, both with a year of VPN service. Other deals are available and delivery is expected in April next year. The team has already hit their goal of €50,000 and there’s still a week to go, so the project is going to be funded. As background, the InvizBox team are based in Dublin, Ireland and have a track record of delivery from previous Kickstarters, so there’s a good level of confidence. However, as with all Kickstarter campaigns, consider yourself a patron rather than a customer until the product is in your hands.

I might actually plonk down some cash for this….


AIM Will be Discontinued in December



AOL has announced that it will be discontinuing AIM effective December 15, 2017. In a post titled “One Last Away Message”, VP of Communications Product at Oath, Michael Albers, revealed the sad news. The reason for discontinuing AIM is because they way in which we communicate with each other has profoundly changed.

If you were a 90s kid, chances are there was a point in time when AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) was a huge part of your life. You likely remember the CD, your first screenname, your carefully curated away messages, and how you organized your buddy lists. Right now, you might be reminiscing about how you had to compete for time on the home computer in order to chat with friends outside of school.

The post continues by noting the use of AIM in popular culture, including in “You’ve Got Mail” (starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks) and in the “Sex and the City” TV series. In the late 1990s, the world had never seen anything like AIM. Today, both technology and social media have changed, and so has how we communicate with each other.

On a help page, AOL says it is excited to focus on building the next generation of iconic brands and life-changing products. It also makes it clear that there currently is not a replacement product available for AIM.

Current users of AIM can continue to use it until the morning of December 15, 2017. It is possible to view and save your chat history.

AOL says that in some cases, the ability to do that may depend on whether you previously disabled the option to save a copy of your chats on your computer, or if you or your buddy selected the “Go off the record” option. If you want to save your chat log, you must do it before December 15, 2017. It is not possible to save or export your Buddy List.


Netflix is Raising the Prices on Two of its Plans



The Associated Press reported that Netflix is raising the price for its most popular U.S. video streaming plan by 10 percent. This change is going to affect most of Netflix’s 53 million U.S. subscribers.

As you might expect, the Netflix US Twitter account has been busy answering questions about the pricing change and clarifying things. The pricing change hasn’t happened yet. Netflix users will start getting emails about the pricing change on October 19, 2017, or after. Your email might arrive 30 days out from your billing date.

Netflix tweeted that the new prices are $7.99, $10.99, and $13.99. Netflix offers three streaming plans: Basic, Standard, and Premium. The Verge provided a good explanation of the price changes:

The standard tier, which allows subscribers to watch on two screens at once, will be bumped up from $9.99 to $10.99 per month. The premium tier, which is available in Ultra HD and allows users to watch on up to four screens, will go from $11.99 to $13.99. The Basic $7.99 per month plan will remain the same.

In other words, people who have the Basic Netflix plan will not see a change in price. Those who have either the Standard or Premium Netflix plans will see a change in price and will be paying an extra $1 or $2 per month for their Netflix plan beginning on, or sometime after, October 19, 2017.

The reason for the price increase appears to be so Netflix can continue to make original content.


Blizzard’s Battle.net App Adds Appear Offline Feature



Blizzard Entertainment announced the new social features that are now available in the beta version of the Blizzard Battle.net desktop app. The one that is likely going to get the most attention is the ability to appear offline.

The Appear Offline feature allows you to set your status to show you as “offline” to your Battle friends while remaining connected to Battle.net. You can launch the app and game away without distraction. That being said, it’s not exactly a “cloak of invisibility”:

Appearing offline will show you as offline to everyone in your Blizzard friends list. Once you have joined a game, the experience of appearing offline might be slightly different depending on which game you are playing. In the case of World of Warcraft, your guildmates will see your character come online and enter WoW’s in-game chat channels, and anyone who has you as a character-level friend will see you online on their friends list. Everyone outside of the same game as you will not see you online or playing any games.

Based on that description, it looks like players won’t be able to use the Appear Offline feature to avoid dealing with guild drama. That feature also won’t help a player to avoid a guildmate who has made them uncomfortable or who has been harassing them.

Another new change allows a player to send a message to a friend who is offline (or appears to be offline). Players who are using the Appear Offline feature can send and receive messages in the app. Blizzard points out that this allows players to decide when they want to respond to those messages. This is a step in the right direction, but it would also enable a mean person to quietly harass someone.

In addition, the beta Battle.net desktop app has a new Social Tab for managing all your various social interactions. Blizzard Groups is a new way for you to connect with your friends and plan your next mission.

Players can create and join Groups based on their common interests. Each Group can have multiple text and voice chat channels, and Group administrators will have tools to manage memberships, invites, and more. To me, this sounds like Blizzard is competing with Skype, Discord, and other similar things people currently use to talk to their friends in-game.


Blizzard and DeepMind Announce StarCraft II AI Workshop



Blizzard Entertainment is the creator of StarCraft II (and several other popular video games). They have teamed up with DeepMind, the world leader in artificial intelligence research and its application for positive impact. Together, the two will co-host the StarCraft II AI Workshop.

The workshop is an opportunity for AI researchers, academics, bot programmers, and industry professionals to get together, exchange ideas, and collaborate on all things AI, utilizing the recently-released StarCraft II Learning Environment and StarCraft II API as a development platform.

The event is described as BYOC, meaning that you need to bring your own computer. Attendees will be provided with power drops, dedicated wireless internet access, and a catered lunch. Engineers and researchers from Blizzard and DeepMind will meet with attendees and answer questions about SC2LE and SC2API.

Space is limited. Those who want to attend need to apply by filling out a questionnaire. A final group of attendees will be selected out of the applications. The workshop will take place November 3 and 4, 2017, at the Hilton Anaheim hotel. The workshop is not part of BlizzCon (which will be happening at the same time in the Anaheim Convention Center.)


SAG-AFTRA Reaches Tentative End to Video Game Strike



SAG-AFTRA has reached an agreement to end the strike against 11 video game companies that has been waged since October 21, 2016. The tentative agreement was reached on September 25, 2017.

The terms of the tentative agreement include a new bonus structure that provides an additional payment to performers (voice actors). The bonus payment, which is due no later than the release date of the game, is based on the number of sessions worked on each game, beginning with a $75 payment on the first session and totaling $2,100 after 10 sessions worked.

SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris pointed out that a secondary payment structure was one of the members’ key concerns. Keythe Farley, chair of the SAG-AFTRA Interactive Negotiating Committee noted that the bonus payments they have now are significantly larger than what they had 11 months ago.

Chief Contracts Officer Ray Rodriguez was lead manager on the new contract. He said: “The new transparency provisions will enhance the bargaining power of our members’ representatives by requiring the companies to disclose the code name of the project, its genre, whether the game is based on previously published intellectual property and whether the performer is reprising a prior role.”

He continued, “Members are also protected by the disclosure of whether they will be required to use unusual terminology, profanity, or racial slurs, and whether there will be content of a sexual or violent nature and whether stunts will be required.”

The contract will be reviewed by the SAG-AFTRA National Board at its October meeting.The new terms take effect upon ratification.

Kotaku reported that the SAG-AFTRA strike was against game companies like Electronic Arts, Disney, Insomniac Games and Take Two. Kotaku also reported that the voice actors’ request for two-hour limits on sessions that require voice strain (such as screaming) is not part of the tentative contract.


Google is Ending First Click Free



Google is ending its First Click Free policy in favor of a Flexible Sampling model. This could change the amount of news websites that you can read without paying for a subscription to one or more of them.

Part of the point of this new change is to enable news websites to provide small samples of their articles for free so readers can determine if they want to buy a subscription. Google explains:

The ecosystem is sustained via two main sources of revenue: ads and subscriptions, with the latter requiring a delicate balance to be effective in Search. Typically subscription content is hidden behind paywalls, so that users who don’t have a subscription don’t have access. Our evaluations have shown that users who are not familiar with the high quality behind a paywall often turn to other sites offering free content. It is difficult to justify a subscription if one doesn’t already know how valuable the content is, and in fact, our experiments have shown that a portion of users shy away from subscription sites. Therefore, it is essential that sites provide some amount of free sampling of their content so that users can learn how valuable their content is.

The Flexible Sampling model will replace First Click Free. It will allow publishers to determine for themselves how many, if any, free articles they want to provide to potential subscribers. It sounds like Google sees the Flexible Sampling model as a “try before you buy” offer.

Google recommends that publishers start by allowing 10 free clicks per month to Google search users in order to preserve a good user experience for new potential subscribers. In addition, Google recommends publishers provide a lead-in of the first few sentences, or 50 to 100 words, of an article, in truncated content. This is intended give readers a clue about what the article is about – without giving them the full article.

The thing to keep in mind is that Google is not requiring news websites (or publishers) to provide lead-in truncated content or to allow users any free clicks per month. The decision about how much content to offer for free is left to individual publishers.


RuneScape is Coming to Mobile Devices



Jagex is home to the iconic massively multiplayer online roleplaying game RuneScape. They are a tribe of over 300 passionate game developers and specialist teams, and are headquartered in Cambridge, UK.

Jagex has announced that RuneScape is coming soon to mobile devices. Those who want to know more can register interest on the RuneScape website. The registration is in the form of a survey titled “RuneScape Mobile BETA Sign Up.”

RuneScape will soon be available on mobile devices. That’s right – RuneScape. The game you know and love, on your phone or tablet, with a mobile-optimized interface and cross-platform play between mobile and desktop versions. Your game, your character, anywhere!

Jagex says that RuneScape Old School Mobile is coming this winter, with RuneScape Mobile “hot on its heels” in 2018.


No FM Radio in iPhone 7-8 #1230



The FCC asked Apple to turn on the FM radio inside the iPhone. Apple responded by saying there was no FM chip in either the iPhone 7 or 8. I talk about the ramifications of this acknowledgment and the future of radio. This has been a week where my schedule has been full from early morning to late into the evening. Big things are coming.

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Small Size, Small Price – RCA Mercury 7L Tablet



The RCA Mercury 7L Pro tablet is a 7″ Android tablet with budget specs and a price to match, at just GB£49. That’s about US$65 and it’s right in there as an impulse purchase. But is it a case of buying in haste, repent at leisure? Let’s take a look.

Sold by Asda in the UK, the Mercury 7L is the little sister to the Saturn 10 Pro and both carry the RCA branding: I reviewed the 10 Pro a couple of weeks ago here on GNC and I’ll confess upfront to lifting parts of the Saturn’s review: unsurprisingly, the 7L shares many of the 10 Pro’s traits. There are two other models in the line up; a 7R which has double the internal storage at 16GB and 7 Pro with a folio Bluetooth keyboard.

Taking a quick look over the tablet, the first impressions is how small it is. It’s a 7″ 1024 x 600 screen and the device is 8.25″ across the whole diagonal. For metric people, the Mercury 7 is 185 x 113.8 mm and is 12.5 mm deep and as expected, it’s all pastic. In places, it actually feels that someone thought about how it might be used but in other areas, gets it totally wrong. For example, the bezel on one side is slightly thicker and if you hold it in your right hand in landscape mode, the front-facing camera is neatly positioned to the top right, away from your thumb. Briliant….except that the same hand covers up the microphone. So close….

Quickly reviewing features, there’s a microphone, reset button (that I never had to use), microSD slot, 5V DC jack (never used), microUSB (used for charging), 3.5 mm headphone jack, power button and volume rocker. The single speaker round the back is loud. It’s not terribly clear from the website but I think microSD cards up to 128GB can be used. It’s light at 280g.

Despite the name, speed is not one of Mercury 7L’s strengths. Although equipped with a 1.3 GHz quad core processor it’s held back by the paltry 1 GB of RAM. Once apps get going, they’re fine, but starting a new app or switching between apps can be a little slow. For whatever reason, Geek Bench 4 refused to run so I can’t give a definitive comparison. Having said that Alto’s Adventure play surprisingly well (once it started).

The display could be better too but at this price, it’s in-line with expectations. 1024 x 600 on a 7″ screen is acceptable, the colours are strong and it’s reasonably bright. My only real criticism is that the viewing angle is a little narrow – it’s most noticeable when holding the tablet in portrait mode.

And as for the camera, lots of light is needed to get anything worthwhile from the one megapixel but for a bit of Skype, it’s ok.

As on the Saturn 10,  the user interface for the Mercury 7L would appear to be mainly stock Android 6.0 (June 2016 security patch) with a couple of customisations. The most obvious is the that status bar has few additional icons. Pressing the camera on the left takes a screenshot and the speaker icons control the tablet volume. It’s a smart idea to have onscreen volume controls though I would have preferred keeping the Home button centred as my muscle memory expects it in the middle.

The other change is more of a disappointment – the “Firmware update” screen is black screen with a grey “CHECK NOW”. How hard would it have been to code a screen in keeping with the rest of the OS? It’s somewhat concerning too that the most recent security update is from June 2016.

Everything else is as expected for an Android tablet with full access to Google products; Play Store, Music, Movies, Games, Maps and so on. It’s all there – the Mercury 7L is fully functional Android tablet (specs). Battery life is quoted at six hours and that’s not far from the truth.

After owning the Mercury for a couple of weeks, I think the niche for this tablet is in the portable media space. It’s fine for listening to Spotify, watching Netflix and reading ebooks on OverDrive, plus the microSD card slot gives plenty of room for media. Switching apps can be slow, so if you’re a social butterfly mixing Facebook with Twitter and Instagram, you might need some patience. Overall, it’s a budget tablet for a budget price. Understand this and you won’t be disappointed.

If the Mercury 7L is of interest, it’s available from Asda for GB£49 at time of writing. Thanks to Venturer for supplying the tablet for review.