Amazon defends New World as safe while EVGA ships replacement cards

What’s causing GPUs to die while playing Amazon’s beta game, New World? No one seems to know yet, but EVGA confirmed it has already shipped replacement GeForce RTX 3090 FTW3 cards to affected customers.

A company spokesman confirmed to PCWorld that it has enough GPUs to replace reportedly dead cards, and it would cross-ship cards directly to impacted customers under warranty.

EVGA wouldn’t say exactly how many dead card reports it had received, but the spokesman described it as a “small handful.”

The company also said it has received no new reports of GeForce RTX 3090 FTW3 cards dying since Amazon Games patched New World to implement frame rate lock options in-game, as well as “clamp down” on frame rates in the menu screen. 

Locking down frame rates in a video game can help prevent sudden increases in frame rates. The load on the graphics card will drastically increase from leaving to the game and dropping into the menu, which is often still rendered in 3D.

You can think of it as driving a car at up a hill and accidentally dropping the transmission into neutral, with your foot still flooring the gas pedal. In that case, the engine RPMs will race out of control until your foot can get off the gas. In a game, that transition can make frame rates go from 100 fps to suddenly 300 fps or higher. 

Whether that’s the cause of the issues isn’t known, of course. Many games implement frame-rate locks in the menu, and many games don’t, without previous issues.

Amazon Games itself has defended the game’s safety. “Hundreds of thousands of people played in the New World Closed Beta yesterday, with millions of total hours played. We’ve received a few reports of players using high-performance graphics cards experiencing hardware failure when playing New World,” an Amazon spokesperson told PCWorld through email.

“New World makes standard DirectX calls as provided by the Windows API. We have seen no indication of widespread issues with 3090s, either in the beta or during our many months of alpha testing,” the company’s spokeswoman said. “The New World Closed Beta is safe to play. In order to further reassure players, we will implement a patch today that caps frames per second on our menu screen. We’re grateful for the support New World is receiving from players around the world, and will keep listening to their feedback throughout Beta and beyond.”

With EVGA’s news that it has received no reports of failed cards since the patch, it’s probably safe, right? That remains to be seen. In the Reddit forum that has documented many of the failures, a person claimed their GeForce RTX 2070 went kaput Friday morning. 

While most of the public reports seemed to impact EVGA’s GeForce RTX 3090 FTW3, popular YouTuber Jayztwocents posted on Twitter that he has received emails from people claiming failing cards across multiple families and brands of cards. Those reports are unconfirmed by the companies that make them, so it’s very difficult to gauge how wide spread the problem may be, let alone what the issue is. 

Jayztwocents actually tried to break his EVGA GeForce RTX 3090 RTX3 in the latest version of New World without success, in a video posted to YouTube last night.

That obviously begs the question: Is it safe to play the New World beta? Switching on the frame rate limits probably makes it so, but that’s a decision every gamer would have to make for themselves. Obviously, more information from graphics card vendors, board makers, and Amazon Games would help soothe nervous gamers.

For its part, EVGA officials said the investigation is continuing. We likely won’t know more until the company receives the bricked cards back from customers.

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Ring rolls out end-to-end encryption worldwide

Following a U.S.-only “technical preview” that kicked off back in January, Ring announced Tuesday that users worldwide can now enable end-to-end encryption for supported Ring devices. Ring also unwrapped a pair of new security features: support for authenticator apps and CAPTCHA.

Ring users around the globe can now opt-in to video end-to-end encryption for more than a dozen cameras and doorbells. During the initial technical preview, only eight Ring devices supported end-to-end encryption.

The new list includes the Video Doorbell ProRemove non-product link and Pro 2; the Ring Video Doorbell EliteRemove non-product link and Doorbell Wired; the Spotlight Cam Wired and Cam Mount; the second-gen Stick Up Cam EliteRemove non-product link and Cam WiredRemove non-product link; the Indoor Cam; the Floodlight Cam (1st-gen), the Floodlight Cam Wired ProRemove non-product link and the Floodlight Cam Wired PlusRemove non-product link; and the third-gen Stick Up Cam Plug-InRemove non-product link.

You can activate end-to-end encryption by visiting the Control Center at Ring.com or on the Ring app.

Ring camera feeds and recorded videos are already encrypted on their way to the cloud and while they’re sitting on Ring’s servers. With end-to-end encryption, however, Ring videos are wrapped in an additional level of AES 128-bit encryption, starting locally on the camera itself and continuing all the way to a user’s iOS or Android phone, where it’s finally decrypted.

Once you enable end-to-end encryption, no third parties will be able to see your videos without the private decryption key of a public/private key pair, which is stored only on an “enrolled” phone and secured by a 10-word, auto-generated passphrase.

While end-to-end encryption will prevent strangers from snooping on your videos, enabling the extra security will also nix a few key features—namely, those that rely on in-the-cloud analysis.

For starters, those who opt into end-to-end encryption will have to do without motion verification and “people-only” mode, which leverage the cloud to detect movement and people in your video footage.

Other handy Ring features that won’t work with end-to-end encryption enabled include shared video links, the Ring event timeline, rich event notifications, and “shared” users, not to mention Pre-Roll, Bird’s Eye View, and Snapshot Capture. You also won’t be able to view your encrypted videos or live feeds on Ring.com, the Windows or Mac desktop apps for Ring, Amazon Echo Show or Fire TV devices, or any third-party devices.

Yes, that’s a lot of functionality to give up, but plenty of Ring users may figure that the extra security provided by end-to-end encryption is well worth the tradeoff—and besides, you can also disable end-to-end encryption if you wish.

Authenticator app support

Besides the worldwide rollout of end-to-end encryption, Ring is also unveiling support for authenticator apps as an option for two-step login verification.

Among the authentication apps you can use for logging into your Ring account are Google Authenticator, Twilio Authy, Microsoft Authenticator, and LastPass Authenticator.

Once you’ve enabled the use of an authenticator app from the Ring Control Center, you’ll be prompted to retrieve an authentication code from the app each time you log into your account.

Previously, Ring only offered email and text verification for two-factor authentication. Those methods of two-step verification are better than nothing, but authenticator apps are far more secure.

CAPTCHA support

Another new Ring security measure may inspire a few groans. CAPTCHA, the effective but much-loathed security feature that makes you prove you’re a human by checking a box or solving annoying “visual puzzles,” is coming to the Ring and Neighbors apps.

The addition of CAPTCHA can help prevent spambots from logging into your Ring account, and if you ask us, more security is always a good thing. Still, there’s nothing fun about trying—and too often, failing—to pick out buses, bicycles, or crosswalks from a grid of tiny pictures.

Self-service device transfer

Ring had one more feature to announce Tuesday: an easier way to transfer ownership of a Ring device to a new user.

Instead of having to call customer support, the new owner of a used Ring device can now scan it during setup and follow the instructions from the Ring app. Doing so will notify the previous owner, as well as de-link the former owner’s videos and events from the device before transferring ownership to the new user.

The self-service device transfer won’t work if the product is marked as stolen, enrolled in end-to-end encryption, or is part of a Ring Protect plan.

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We build a $2,000 AMD-based gaming PC

With the recent launch of FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR), AMD has added yet another powerful tool for gamers. Features like FSR, Radeon Boost, and Smart Access Memory are all meant to help PC gamers get more out of the hardware they own. At 11:00 a.m. PT on Wednesday, July 7, we’ll build an all-AMD-based gaming PC live on YouTube to try out those very features.

The build is sponsored by AMD (who provided the CPU and GPU), but the rest of the parts were picked and purchased by PCWorld to make a very capable gaming machine. The total cost of this particular build hits around $2,000 (if the GPU was bought at MSRP) and includes these parts:

At the heart of the system are an 8-core AMD Ryzen 7 5800X, which is great for gaming and streaming on one machine, and a Radeon RX 6700 XT, which targets 1440p gaming and above. There’s a generous 16GB of fancy, high-clocked RAM for gaming, and there are two fast storage options to accommodate all the newest titles. Both are plugged in to a well-reviewed X570 motherboard from Asus, and it’s all going to be thrown into a very popular Lian Li tower with plenty of RGB.

After the system is built we’ll show off how to configure an AMD-based PC for getting the best possible performance, including enabling Smart Access Memory, installing and updating Radeon Adrenalin software, and configuring things like Radeon Boost. In the weeks following the build we’ll be doing game streams on this rig over on PCWorld’s YouTube channel—the first one will take place at 2:00 p.m. PT on Friday, July 9.

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Windows 11 vs Windows 10: What Microsoft needs to improve

Microsoft is expected to launch Windows 11 this Thursday, and with that comes the hope that the new version will address some of the biggest problems with its predecessor, Windows 10.

Our hands-on with the leaked Windows 11 build gave us an idea of what the new operating system might be like. But if that leaked build was, as we were later told, an early, incomplete version, there’s likely more to come with Windows 11’s official unveiling. It’s also likely that Microsoft will still be working on Windows 11 for weeks and even months to come, providing an opportunity for yet more improvements. So now’s the time to add a few last items to the docket. Here’s a (short, incomplete) list of problems we’d like to see fixed in Windows 11. 

1. Leave local user accounts alone

Signing in with a Microsoft account (MSA) offers numerous benefits. Favorites and passwords sync within Microsoft Edge, Windows can pre-install and validate Microsoft 365 apps like Excel, and documents can be shared across PCs via OneDrive. But at Microsoft, there’s an ever-growing reluctance to allow Windows 10 users to sign in with a local account—sometimes flatly refusing if you’re connected to the Internet.

You could argue that the more services are tied to an MSA, the more valuable the ecosystem becomes. But if we value our privacy online, why can’t we value that same privacy on our PC?

Mark Hachman / IDG

Sometimes Microsoft will offer the option of a local account within Windows 10…and sometimes it won’t.

2. Streamline the installation even more

From what we’ve seen of the Out of the Box Experience (OOBE) in setting up a new Windows 11 PC, the startling “HI! I’M CORTANA!” exclamation is a thing of the past. But the process could be even simpler. I don’t mind signing in with my MSA. But what I’d like to do is simply establish a network connection (wired or otherwise), sign in with my MSA, authenticate via an app or security key, then walk away. Ad preferences, keyboard settings, Office logins—I’d like those stored in Microsoft’s cloud and applied automatically. If someone wants to log in with a local account, let them—it’s at that point that they can be asked for their preferences.

3. Leave your settings alone after a major update

This annoyance usually floats at or near the top of the list for most people. At this point, I’m simply resigned to the possibility that a feature update may unexpectedly reset one of my preferences. (Here’s how to manage Windows 10 updates.) Windows 11 just raises those concerns anew.

4. Rein in OneDrive placeholders

I thought OneDrive file and folder placeholders were fantastic, until my folder count kept climbing and climbing. I despise how OneDrive wants to back up my desktop, so I turn that off. But what I can’t turn off is the various placeholder folders that clutter my OneDrive—folders that I want, but hate scrolling through so I can add yet another folder for a review or other project.

I’d love an option to back up my documents or photos to the cloud automatically, but also toggle placeholders on and off so I can have the best of “local” files as well as the cloud. By definition, downloading those placeholders should require just a few kilobytes here and there, right? Toggling them on and off shouldn’t be any problem for a modern PC.

Mark Hachman / IDG

Organizing files is one solution. But allowing users to toggle placeholder files within OneDrive is another.

5. Fix the Microsoft Store

If you’re part of the angry mob marching on the Microsoft Store, torch and pitchfork in hand, look left—that’s PCWorld editor and colleague Brad Chacos shouting abuse at the poor storefront. For one, the Store suffers in terms of discoverability. Second, there’s really no way to download a large game (hello, Forza Horizon 4), back it up to an external drive, and then load it onto a new PC. Nope, you need to re-download it again and again. Why do I have to pore through the fine print to find the file size? When was the app last updated? There’s a lot of work to do here. Reportedly, however, the Store is one of the apps Microsoft will be overhauling in Windows 11.

Mark Hachman / IDG

From apps to games to videos, the Microsoft Store app is the iTunes of Microsoft.

6. Improve the PC gaming experience

PC gaming is thriving, thanks in large part to the efforts of third-party hardware and software vendors. Epic’s weekly free games, the ease of installing games via Steam, the “one ring to rule them all” GOG gaming app, GeForce Experience, overclocking and management apps from AMD, Intel, and others—there’s an entire ecosystem of PC hardware, software, storefronts, modders and more that work together to elevate the PC gaming experience.

Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s Xbox Game Bar is one of the nominally gamer-friendly features on the PC. But does anyone use it?

Here, Microsoft helps and hinders. The Microsoft Store has never been that friendly to third-party modifications, and the demise of the Mixer network really drove a dagger into the Microsoft gaming community’s back. Xbox Game Pass is wonderful, as is paying for it with Microsoft Rewards. Game Pass for PC still lags behind somewhat, and the crossplay options are lacking. But cloud play also offers a way around hardware shortages.

What Microsoft has to do is declare, “we’re going to make PC gaming awesome!” and deliver on that promise. Xbox gaming is cool again. The Xbox brand on PC? Not so much.

6. Make Windows’ multimedia apps best of breed

Microsoft offers two critical apps on Windows that don’t receive enough attention: Photos and Video Editor. Both cover the basic needs of most consumers. Photos aspires to greatness, with an AI-driven “enhance your photo” wand, filters, a spot fix, and more. I use it all the time for photo editing. Video Editor stitches together clips and audio, though the experience is still pretty rough.

It doesn’t have to be. While Microsoft chased mixed reality and mobile experiences and more, these basic experiences were neglected. The quasi-related Paint 3D app hides a Photoshop-like “Magic Select” tool that’s pretty marvelous. Why isn’t it in Photos, where people would actually use it? The rise of the “creator PC” hasn’t motivated Microsoft to step up its game.

Cara Neil / Flickr (CC0)

Now you see it, now you don’t—the Magic Select feature still remains one of the hidden gems within Windows.

7. Keep the streamlined dream alive

Hopefully Windows 11 offers more than the minimalist Windows 10X-like Start menu and task bar we saw in the leaked build. As a professional user of Windows 10, I want a full-fledged operating system driving my PC. But there’s a place for a simplified Chrome OS (and maybe Windows 10 S), and Microsoft shouldn’t give up on the dream of a streamlined, low-impact operating system. To be fair, that’s easy to say and hard to implement, though paring off unused apps and services like Mixed Reality Viewer was a good start. Just don’t announce them, then kill them.

8. Give new features a chance to shine

Speaking of which: If you introduce a new feature, tell people about it. Microsoft 365’s Office apps now do it, as part of a pop-up when a new update drops. Microsoft Edge does it, too. Why not Windows? If you’re proud enough to develop and launch a new feature, promote it. If you do, people just might try it. Then maybe you won’t have to kill it a few years out.

Mark Hachman / IDG

Windows 11 promises a brand new Start.

The Windows Tips app appears to be where Microsoft hopes to place these new introductions. If nothing else, Windows 11 should engage with users, deferentially introduce what’s new, then get out of the way (with an option to toggle off Tips in future updates). 

What Windows 10 mistakes would you like Microsoft to fix in Windows 11? Feel free to tell us on PCWorld’s Facebook page as well as our Twitter feed. Check back on June 24 for PCWorld’s Windows 11 coverage.

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Best budget computer speakers: $100 or less

You take all this care collecting gigs of your favorite music and movies, and then play it all through your laptop’s built-in speakers. Even the best ones can leave your audio sounding thin and lifeless. External PC speakers—along with a good set of headphones—are a must for getting the best fidelity from your media files.

A trip online or to your favorite electronics store will reveal a head-spinning variety of options to choose from, with some systems costing as much or more than you paid for your laptop. Luckily, you don’t need to take out a personal loan to upgrade your audio. Quality speakers can be found for even less than $100. And while there can be a degree of “you get what you pay for” at this price level, you can find satisfying sound on a budget if you’re willing to make a few compromises.

To help you cut through some of the clutter, we’ve tested many of the commonly available budget models. All cost under $100, sometimes significantly so. We set up each in a typical environment—on a desk in a home office—and played a variety of audio tracks to push their sound capabilities. We also offer some buying advice below to help you choose the right model for your needs.  Scroll to the bottom of this article to see all of our budget speaker reviews.

Best computer speakers under $100

Creative Pebble

Best overall budget speakers

We wouldn’t have thought a set of $20 speakers would impress us much, let alone turn out to be our favorites. But Creative Pebble’s simple USB-powered 2.0 system defies all odds, producing richer, more immersive audio than you commonly find in speakers at twice the price.

Pros:

  • Extremely affordable
  • Excellent audio quality
  • Space-saving design

Cons:

  • No Bluetooth connectivity for mobile devices

 

 

Edifier R19U 2.0 USB Computer Speakers

Runner up

We love the Edifier R19U. This 2.0 system sports rich mids, crisp highs, and deep, controlled bass. The faux-wood enclosures also give them a slightly vintage vibe that stands out from the matte-plastic pack. A great value at just $30 on Amazon. 

Pros:

  • Rich, balanced sound
  • Stylish faux-wood design
  • Requires a single USB connection for power and audio output

Cons:

  • Light on bass and volume ouput

Sound BlasterX Kratos S3

Best budget 2.1 system

Though the Sound BlasterX Kratos S3 is marketed for gaming, we like the warm, natural sound and beefy bass it brought to of all our media. At just $80 it’s an inexpensive entry point into 2.1 speaker systems.

Pros:

  • Wooden construction enables natural, warm sound
  • Small footprint
  • Deep, rich bass

Cons:

  • No extra audio inputs for mobile devices

 

How to shop for PC speakers

2.0 speakers vs. 2.1 speakers

Sure, a 5.1 (five speakers, one subwoofer) multi-channel speaker system sounds pretty sexy. But even if you were to unearth one for $50 or $60, the quality would almost certainly be just as cheap. That money can buy a much better quality two-speaker system. These basic 2.0 stereo setups, which are comprised of just a left and right speaker with a single driver (the actual loudspeaker) in each, abound in this price range. Occasionally you can also find a decent 2.1 system for—a pair of speakers to handle the higher frequencies and separate subwoofer for the bass—for not much more. These take up more space but often produce more balanced sound. More on that next.

Sound quality: Ask your ears, not the spec sheet

Try not to be seduced by manufacturer’s specs on sound quality. Even if you can parse frequency response numbers, they are frequently exaggerated. Let your ears be your guide instead. Listen for a good balance between the high (treble), mid, and low (bass) frequencies. Often, speakers will exaggerate one—usually the treble or the bass—at the expense of the others. Good speakers will produce full, detailed audio that sounds as the creator intended it.

Be aware, though, that finding strong bass response in this price range can be challenging. Without a subwoofer, 2.0 systems have trouble reproducing low frequencies. The manufacturers often use technological tweaks to beef up the bass notes, but these can sound boomy, and muddy the overall mix. If a deep, controlled bottom end is a priority, a 2.1 system might be a better investment.

AC power vs. USB: The tradeoffs

Both these options are prevalent in the sub-$100 price range. USB-powered speakers reduce cord clutter, as they don’t need a separate power cable. However, they can’t supply as much juice as the AC variety, so they tend to produce lower volume and less bass.

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Ultra-portable Galaxy Book Go laptops weave seamlessly into Samsung’s galaxy of devices

If you don’t like living in the multi-device ecosystem of Apple and Google, try the hybrid approach with Samsung’s “galaxy.” The electronics maker unveiled two new additions to its Galaxy Book lineup late Wednesday night. The Galaxy Book Go and Galaxy Book Go 5G are long-lasting, highly portable Arm-based Windows laptops intended to seamlessly work alongside Samsung’s Galaxy tablets, earbuds, and, of course, phones.

But first, the specs. The Galaxy Book Go comes with a 14-inch 1080p display and Qualcomm’s recently unveiled ARM-based Snapdragon 7c Gen 2 Compute Platform. This revised version of the Snapdragon 7c includes a Kryo 468 CPU with a 2.55GHz clock speed. Meanwhile, a 5G version of the Galaxy Book Go will use the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 5G Compute Platform that was announced in September.

Samsung says Galaxy Book Go pricing will start at $349 for a laptop with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of onboard storage. The basic Wi-Fi model will start rolling out on Thursday, June 10 in the U.S., with the 5G model to follow sometime in the second half of 2021. There will also be models with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. 

Samsung

The laptops have two USB-C ports, but didn’t say which generation of USB powers them. There will also be a single USB 2.0 slot and a microSD slot, and the 5G version will (of course) have a slot for a nano SIM. Samsung says you can expect to have about 18 hours of battery life, and if the included storage isn’t enough there’s also a microSD slot.

As for wireless connectivity, the Wi-Fi models won’t support Wi-Fi 6, sticking with 802.11ac instead, as well as Bluetooth 5.1. The 5G models will support Wi-Fi 6.

The Galaxy Book Go doesn’t have an HDMI port, but based on the images it appears one of the USB-C ports supports external displays. We’ve asked Samsung for confirmation, but the company hadn’t responded by press time.

These are nice looking laptops that are meant to function as portable devices when you need something for travel, or for those who don’t need much storage or a beefy desktop computer. With specs like these, the Galaxy Book Go would probably be better for people who mainly use web apps, but who want some onboard storage and access to Windows 10 software for local work—though in our testing Qualcomm’s Arm-based Snapdragon chips still have compatibility issues with some programs that favor the tradition x86-based CPU architecture used by Intel and AMD. 

Embracing Samsung’s galaxy of devices

Samsung is also leaning hard into the Galaxy Book Go being just one part of a connected device ecosystem where all devices work together. The company’s been pushing for that vision for a while, but it’s received some recent boosts.

Samsung

Microsoft and Samsung upped the capabilities of the Your Phone app, for example, making it possible to run Android apps from supported Microsoft and Samsung phones. The electronics maker also hopes you’ll pick-up a Galaxy Tab S7 or S7 Plus to extend your Galaxy Book Go to a second screen. It’s also making it easier to pair Galaxy-branded earbuds, as well as access your various SmartThings devices. Not to mention you can also get Samsung TV Plus access right from your uber-portable laptop.

[ Further reading: How to use Windows’ Your Phone app to connect your phone to your PC ]

If you’re already a Samsung fan then the Galaxy Book Go may be the perfect addition to your personal device lineup. Otherwise, it’s just another nice, portable, long-lasting laptop hinting at deeper integration if you ever go full Samsung.

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Qualcomm targets low-cost PCs with the Snapdragon 7c Gen 2 CPU

Qualcomm’s lower-end Snapdragon 7c chips carved out a space for Chromebooks and other value devices that aimed for long battery life and consistent connectivity. Now Qualcomm is announcing an upgraded Snapdragon 7c Gen 2 chip aimed at powering the low-end $350 Chromebooks and PCs that flood Amazon’s “most popular” list.

Comparing 2019’s Snapdragon 7c and the new Snapdragon 7c Gen 2, the main difference is in clock speed: the Snapdragon 7c used a Kryo 468 CPU running at up to 2.4 GHz, which the new chip uses an identical Kryo 468, yet running 6 percent faster at 2.55GHz. It appears every other feature on the two different chips remains identical. The latest chip also uses the same X15 4G LTE modem as the 7c Gen 1.

What else has changed is the competitive landscape for low-end PCs and Chromebooks, which the original 7c seemed headed for. Intel’s Celeron N4020 processor and Pentium Gold N5030 are now viable solutions for low-end PCs and Chromebooks, as is the Mediatek 8183. You probably won’t look for any of these on a spec sheet, but you will notice how peppy the resulting performance is. What Qualcomm can’t really quantify is the battery life since that’s dependent on the hardware manufacturer.

Qualcomm

The Snapdragon 7c Gen 2’s feature set remains largely unchanged.

One hardware maker that will use the Snapdragon 7c will be Lenovo, which has often built laptops like the Lenovo Flex 5G around Snapdragon processors like the Snapdragon 8cx. Qualcomm executives said they expect the first Snapdragon 7c devices in summer, without specifically identifying Lenovo.

“We look forward to launching new Lenovo devices with the Snapdragon 7c Gen 2 compute platform later this year,” Emily Ketchen, chief marketing officer of Lenovo’s Intelligent Devices Group, said in a statement. 

Qualcomm declined to publish actual performance numbers backing the Snapdragon 7c. Instead, it published relative comparisons against its competition from Intel and Mediatek across a variety of benchmarks. However, we’ve already completed early testing on the HP Elite Folio, which uses the faster Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 chip, the premium offering in Qualcomm’s lineup. We also performed hands-on testing with the original Snapdragon 7c, and it felt quick enough.

Qualcomm

Qualcomm’s performance estimates are disappointingly vague.

Meet the Snapdragon NUC

Two other key things have changed since Qualcomm released the original Snapdragon 7c. First, Microsoft now allows users to run 64-bit apps via emulation and via the Windows Insider program, allowing the vast ecosystem of Windows apps to finally run unimpressively on top of Snapdragon hardware. (The capability has not yet been pushed to the mainstream release build of Windows 10, however.) Second, more apps now have versions specifically coded for Windows on Arm.

To kickstart development even further, Qualcomm and Microsoft said this week that they’ve co-engineered a low-cost development platform consisting of a NUC-like box with a Snapdragon processor inside of it. The Snapdragon Developer Kit will be commercially available at The Microsoft Store this summer, the two companies said. The price and configuration weren’t immediately available.

Qualcomm

Microsoft and Qualcomm have co-developed a Snapdragon development it, which developers will be able to purchase from the Microsoft Store this summer.

The development work has also paid off in another area as well. This summer, Zoom will be available in a native version coded for Windows on Arm that can run on Snapdragon. In a demo video, Qualcomm said that the added efficiency would allow a Snapdragon test notebook to run for up to almost eight hours while continually running Zoom. That’s up to 12 percent more than the un-optimized version, the company said. 

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Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360 review: A beautiful thin-and-light PC

Even in an era of progressively lighter notebooks, larger thin-and-light laptop options like the 15-inch Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360 are relatively rare. Sure, you might buy it because it simply won’t break your back. But a stunning multimedia experience and shocking all-day battery life demand additional praise.

Samsung’s Galaxy Book Pro 360 lends credence to Intel’s Evo program, from which this laptop graduated. Thin-and-light laptop keyboards can be iffy, though, and this laptop suffers accordingly. Samsung also loads up the Book Pro 360 with apps for just about everything. Nevertheless, we’ve awarded this laptop our Editor’s Choice award. Read on for why.

Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360 basic features

Samsung offers the Galaxy Book Pro 360 in either a 13.3-inch or a 15.6-inch configuration. Prices start at $1,199 (the minimal 13-inch spec: Core i7/8GB RAM/256GB SSD) and $1,299 for the cheapest 15-inch configuration with 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. It’s worth highlighting that our review unit and price includes a 1TB SSD, a luxury in an era of 256GB and 512GB notebooks.

Note that all of the Galaxy Book Pro 360 models ship with a Samsung S Pen in the box, which would normally cost about $32 on Amazon. At press time, Samsung.comRemove non-product link was the only source for the Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360.

Mark Hachman / IDG

If those prices are still too expensive, consider the similar Samsung Galaxy Book ProRemove non-product link, a traditional clamshell with a few differences: the lack of an included S Pen, for example, as well as a non-touch display. The Book Pro also includes a USB Type A port. Otherwise, the Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360 we’re reviewing requires purchasing one of our recommended USB-C hubs to connect to devices with a USB-A connector. 

  • Processor: Intel Core i7-1165G7
  • Display: 13.3-inch or 15.5-inch (as tested): 1920×1080 (AMOLED, touch)
  • Memory: 8GB/16GB LPDDR4x (16GB as tested)
  • Storage: 256GB/512GB/1TB SSD (as tested)
  • Graphics: Intel Iris Xe
  • Ports: 1 USB-C (Thunderbolt 4); 2 USB-C, microSD, 3.5mm jack
  • Security: Fingerprint reader
  • Camera: 720p (user-facing)
  • Battery: 67.0Wh (design), 68.0Wh (reported)
  • Wireless: WiFi 6E Gig+ (802.11ax), Bluetooth 5.1
  • Operating system: Windows 10 Home
  • Dimensions: 13.97 x 8.98 x 0.47in.
  • Weight: 3.02lb, 3.38lb with charger (as weighed)
  • Colors: Mystic Bronze, Mystic Navy (as tested)
  • Prices:  $1,499 as testedRemove non-product link (Samsung.com); otherwise $1,199 and up

Construction: The thin and light lifestyle

Samsung’s Galaxy Book Pro 360 proudly proclaims itself a member of Intel’s flagship Evo lineup via a small sticker on its keyboard deck, and it deserves it. The Galaxy Book Pro 360 is a beautiful piece of engineering, very much in the mold of the Surface Laptop: all cool, glossy metal and minimalist ports. We received our review unit in the Mystic Navy color scheme, and the blue hue is virtually indistinguishable from black in most lighting. 

It’s also the first laptop in a very long while that’s persuaded me to care about how thin it is, especially when folded back flat. Remember, this is a 360-degree convertible, which can be reclined all the way back into tablet mode. The Book Pro 360’s hinge holds the display true even when almost fully reclined, though it oscillates back and forth before settling in.

Mark Hachman / IDG

The Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360, in tent mode.

Less obvious but equally profound is the weight—this is a notebook that you can easily pick up by a corner and set it down somewhere else. Samsung used aluminum to construct the Galaxy Book Pro 360, but it felt absolutely stable with no give in the keyboard or to the chassis. While you can theoretically open the laptop with a single finger, its light weight and the slick, stubby feet beneath it nearly caused me to push it off my test stand when I tried.

As many notebooks do, the Samsung Galaxy Pro 360 pulls cool air from the bottom of the notebook and vents it out the back through a grille hidden within the hinge. Samsung shipped the notebook set to the middle “better performance” tier in the Windows power/performance slider. Under load, the fan noise increases to a moderate but not annoying hiss, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly the fan turned off, about fifteen seconds after exiting out of a computationally intensive application.

Mark Hachman / IDG

Laid flat, the Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360 virtually disappears. The right side of the chassis includes a standard USB-C port and a microSD card slot.

Samsung’s thin, light aesthetic extends to its port choices, which include a pair of USB-C ports and a third USB-C port that includes Thunderbolt 4 capabilities. Which one is which? Good luck trying to tell. There’s a virtually indistinguishable “lightning bolt” logo that signals that the front left USB-C port is Thunderbolt enabled, and a blue LED next to it. Otherwise, you’ll be left trying to figure which port is which.

We’d recommend connecting the 65W cellular-style charger to one of the other USB-C ports and dedicating the Thunderbolt port to one of our recommended Thunderbolt docks instead. Alternatively, you can buy a cheaper, slower USB-C hub to connect to older devices that use a USB Type A connector. Samsung also includes a microSD card slot on the Galaxy Book Pro 360, allowing you to “sneakernet” a microSD card from a Samsung Galaxy Phone if you don’t want to use one of the installed wireless apps like Galaxy Share that comes preinstalled on the notebook.

Mark Hachman / IDG

That LED to the right is really your best indicator of which USB-C port is Thunderbolt-enabled (the right) and which is a standard USB-C port (the left).

Display and audio: beautiful for both content creation and Netflix

Samsung has a well-deserved reputation for its dramatic OLED screens on its TVs, tablets and phones, and its Super AMOLED display (an OLED screen with an active matrix and touchscreen on top of it) certainly doesn’t disappoint. If you’re a content creator, you can be assured that Samsung is nearly perfect satisfying the various color gamuts. In part, that’s because Samsung offers several color options. There’s a general “AMOLED” color profile, but also separate display profiles within the Windows 10 Settings menu, each tuned to either the AdobeRGB, P3, and sRGB color space.

By default, the general AMOLED profile covers 100 percent of sRGB, 98 percent of AdobeRGB, and 99% of P3. Unfortunately, the “AdobeRGB” profile didn’t really increase the AdobeRGB coverage—it remained unchanged at 98 percent. The P3 profile produced 100 percent of sRGB coverage, 91 percent of AdobeRGB, and covered 99 percent of the P3 color gamut. Enabling the sRGB profile covered the sRGB color space by 100 percent as well, but decreased AdobeRGB coverage to 77 percent and P3 coverage to 78 percent. All of these measurements were recorded by Datacolor’s SpyderX Elite colorimeter, which also measured the display’s luminosity at a maximum of 295 nits—far less than the rated 370 nits that Samsung claims. That’s still fine for working in even a well-lit room, however.

The extreme width of the display (measuring 19.5mm high by 34.5mm long, a roughly  1.77 display ratio) also calls into question Samsung’s choice of 1080p resolution rather than a 4K option. As you might imagine, video played back looks bright and vivid, but there’s a hint of graininess to it that might go away with a higher-resolution option. The screen is quite glossy, too, with reflections often creeping into your peripheral vision.

That’s objective criticism. Subjectively, you might wonder whether the Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360 might replace your television. You don’t really realize how deeply dark an OLED display can be until the black letterboxes surrounding a video are indistinguishable from the thin (about 5mm) black bezels that wrap around the corners of the screen. It’s truly revelatory, especially when the Book Pro 360’s audio is layered on top.

Samsung shipped the Galaxy Book Pro 360 with a pair of 4-watt AKG-tuned speakers underneath, which sound all right by themselves. Of course, the flat laptop speakers can only do so much—there’s no way to manufacture the bass you’ll receive from a large, physical speaker. But there’s a Dolby Access app hidden within the Start menu, which is off by default. Enable it, flip the Book Pro 360 back into tent mode, and enjoy a superb entertainment experience. 

I have more mixed feelings about the Galaxy Book Pro 360’s fingerprint reader, which began as the worst I’ve ever used, by far. Normally, you simply touch the sensor several times to establish an “authorized” fingerprint. However, the notebook’s tiny “strip”-style fingerprint reader nestled in the upper right-hand-corner of the keyboard failed to recognize that my finger had actually touched it probably two out of every three times during the setup process. I gave up in disgust. However, near the tail end of the review, I decided to once again use Samsung’s Samsung Update utility to search out new drivers. Voila! A new fingerprint reader driver downloaded, and the reader worked flawlessly for the last days of our review.

Typing experience and webcam: the weak link

If there’s anything that should give you pause about the Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360, it’s the keyboard. A thin-and-light PC must inevitably make some sacrifices, and my is the Book Pro 360 thin, especially when unfolded flat along a desk or table. Samsung claims that its re-engineered keyboard includes a scissor mechanism that, combined with rubber keypad domes, provides a “satisfying” 1mm in key travel in near silence. Nope. One millimeter of key travel simply feels too shallow to be truly comfortable. But—I say this reluctantly, because I don’t want laptop makers to think we’re encouraging this—it wasn’t that bad, with more cushion than I expected.  Fortunately, keyboards are subjective experiences, and your fingers may be more welcoming.

Mark Hachman / IDG

You probably won’t love the Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360’s keyboard, but it does have a spacious touchpad, a dedicated number pad, and the fingerprint reader in the upper right-hand corner that doubles as a power button.

Samsung provides keyboard controls for three levels of backlighting, though you also have the option of entering the built-in Samsung Settings app and manually adjusting the backlighting via a slider control.

There’s one aspect to the keyboard that partially redeems it: the presence of a narrow but otherwise full-featured number pad to the right side of the keyboard, thanks to the extended width of the 15-inch laptop. Number pads are not only excellent for data entry, but they also provide left-handers an alternative to the WASD key layout for games, too.

The dimensions of the keyboard also allow the Galaxy Book Pro 360 to sport a gargantuan precision touchpad that takes up much of the remaining space on the chassis, allowing your wrists to rest on either side.  Gestures worked well, and you’ll find plenty of clickable space. 

Mark Hachman / IDG

The Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360’s webcam doesn’t look that great, even with the available beauty options turned on.

Samsung includes a fairly generic 720p user-facing webcam on top of the display, with no privacy shutter. As you might expect from a 720p camera, your image will be somewhat soft, as opposed to a cheap but good standalone 1080p webcam. I honestly didn’t like the resulting image quality, though Samsung’s “beauty” options seemed to knock a few pounds off my pandemic pudge. On the other hand, 720p webcams are the norm for laptops, so the graininess probably won’t be called out. 

Samsung doesn’t include a cubby or holder for the S Pen that it includes in the Galaxy Book Pro 360 box. Instead, the pen can be magnetically attached to the top of the notebook, though that’s not really secure in the slightest. The stylus does exhibit a bit of lag while inking. It also includes a single button, which when double-clicked triggers a menu which launches a number of pen-enabled apps. 

Mark Hachman / IDG

Samsung has a utility for nearly everything

Fortunately, Samsung doesn’t particularly overload the Galaxy Book Pro 360 with numerous third-party “crapware” apps. Still, Samsung adds tons of its own Samsung- or Galaxy-branded apps—some of which, it should be said, are quite good.

Samsung reserves pride of place on the Windows taskbar for Amazon’s Alexa app, and adds a Quick Search and Quick Share app shortcut to the taskbar, too. Both of the latter apps reflect both of Samsung’s approaches to PC software: replace or enhance Windows’ own apps or functions, or tie the Galaxy Book Pro 360 to Samsung’s ecosystem of phones and tablets. Quick Search doesn’t do that much more than Windows’ own search bar. Quick Share is like the Windows Your Phone app. It will find nearby devices and share files, texts, and photos, provided both are signed into a Samsung account.

Here’s just some of the apps Samsung reserves for the Start menu. The Galaxy Book Smart Switch app, for porting over data from an earlier Galaxy PC; the PenUP drawing app; Samsung’s DeX app for connecting your Samsung phone to your PC; the Samsung TV Plus link to a TV-like collection of video streams; the Samsung Update service for updating drivers; and even the ability to control your Samsung SmartThings smart home via a dedicated app. Spotify also comes preloaded, as does Booking.com.

Mark Hachman / IDG

I couldn’t discern any tilt support for the included S Pen, and there was a bit of lag while inking. 

The only three must-open apps are Samsung Update, Samsung Settings, and Samsung Security. Samsung Settings provides granular controls you won’t find elsewhere, such as the ability to enable USB charging when your laptop is otherwise asleep, or to fine-grained control of the keyboard backlighting. 

Samsung Security combines four interesting features. One grants the ability to “obscure” your screen by making the current window semi-transparent and allowing a wandering eye to confuse it with other apps. Another provides the option to manually disable your webcam and mic via software; a third creates a “security cam” that snaps a photo of anyone who tries to log into your PC and fails. The fourth feature, “Privacy Folder,” creates a hidden folder that is kept hidden from Windows File Explorer and is locked with your PC’s password when discovered. It’s like OneDrive’s Personal Vault, but on your PC. 

Mark Hachman / IDG

Here’s what someone viewing your Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360’s “secret screen” will see: a mishmash of translucent windows. Here, the “active” window is Word, with a line of text.

Next page: Performance and final thoughts

What’s the best CPU for gaming? AMD and Intel picks for 2021

Buying a processor for a gaming rig isn’t as hard as it used to be. Now that Ryzen 5000-series and Intel’s 11th-gen Core CPUs come with more performance and cores than ever before, it’s hard to buy a stinker these days—especially because most games favor graphics firepower over CPU oomph. All that said, there are specific chips that stand out from the horde as the best gaming CPUs due to their price, performance, or nifty extras.

Whether you’re on a budget or willing to pay for sheer face-melting speed, these are the best CPUs for gaming PCs that you can buy.

Editor’s note: We constantly updated this article as necessary. The latest iteration adds various tidbits to the news section below.

Latest gaming CPU news

  • CPUs are seeing some of the same shortages that have been plaguing graphics cards in recent months, leading to low availability and higher prices of many AMD Ryzen processors in particular—especially at the high end. Fortunately, supply is becoming more available for the Ryzen 5 5600X and Ryzen 7 5800X, and there’s hope on the horizon for the Ryzen 9 5900X too.
  • After a two-year drought, modern versions of AMD’s ultra-popular Ryzen APUs are on the horizon. The Ryzen 5000G series wields significantly faster Radeon graphics and up to twice as many Ryzen cores than before, but they’ll come to prebuilt systems first before launching in DIY retail form later this year. Our guide to everything you need to know about Ryzen 5000 can help you wrap your head around AMD’s APUs and CPUs alike.
  • Intel’s latest chips are here now, and while the 11th-gen “Rocket Lake” Core processors are still built on the ancient 14nm manufacturing process, the architecture itself is built from the company’s newer 10nm “Ice Lake” cores. It’s an interesting, perhaps desperate idea that yielded mixed results, as you can see in our Core i9-11900K review and suggestions below.
  • The performance-boosting PCIe Resizable BAR feature continues to become more widely available after debuting in the form of AMD’s Smart Access Memory. AMD introduced the feature with Ryzen 5000, but it has since spread to Intel’s newer Rocket Lake chips. BIOS updates are adding it to older processors and motherboards from both chipmakers, though you shouldn’t expect the feature (or any Ryzen 5000 support) to extend back to AMD’s older x370 motherboards.

The best gaming CPU for most people

Intel Core i5-11600K ($270 on Amazon)

Midrange CPUs are the sweet spot for PC gamers. In fact, if you don’t need the additional cores of pricier CPU options, this class of chip offers essentially the same gaming experience of processors that cost hundreds more. The bigger question is: Intel or AMD? The answer is complicated.

Intel

After a decade of Intel dominance, AMD came back with a vengeance in recent years. Its Ryzen 5 2600 and 3600 offerings conquered mainstream gaming. The company’s newer 6-core Ryzen 5 5600X delivers killer gaming speed for the class and solid productivity results. However, Intel’s solid Core i5-11600K earns our nod for two simple reasons: price and availability.

AMD raised prices by $50 over previous generations for the Ryzen 5 5600X thanks to its newfound gaming supremacy, then got hit by the same semiconductor shortages and logistics woes plaguing the GPU industry. Supply of the chip has been hit and miss since its November launch, though it’s finally starting to loosen up. When you can find it at retailers, it’s usually going for $350 (or more!) rather than its $300 MSRP.

Enter Intel’s $270 Core i5-11600K. Launched in late March, it offers the same 6 cores and 12 threads as the Ryzen 5 5600X and top-notch gaming performance, per reviews from TechPowerUp, Tom’s Hardware, and PC Gamer. It doesn’t win every battle—the Ryzen chip comes out slightly ahead on average in TechSpot’s gaming tests—and Intel’s aging 14nm process makes the 11600K less power-efficient than AMD’s 7nm 5600X. Still, the chips offer effectively similar experiences, especially at the higher visual settings and resolutions that most PC gamers play at. They’re both excellent.

Gordon Mah Ung

A motherboard with an LGA1200 socket is required to run a 10th- or 11th-gen Intel Core CPU.

We’d give the AMD chip the nod in a world where parts flowed freely, but the Core i5-11600K’s $80-plus price advantage gets our recommendation in today’s market. Note that you’ll need to buy a cooler for it, however, while AMD’s Ryzen 5 5600X comes with one bundled. You may want to factor that into your buying decision if you aren’t dead-set on outfitting your chip with a nice third-party cooler.

If you don’t mind giving up PCIe 4.0 support and a wee bit of potential speed, give last generation’s Core i5-10600K a long, hard look. It’s another 6-core, 12-thread, highly clocked gaming chip, and currently you can find it going for just $230 on Amazon and other retailers. That’s a great price for a good chip, especially if you plan on playing at 1440p or 4K resolutions, where games become more GPU-bound than CPU-bound.

The best high-end gaming CPU

AMD Ryzen 9 5900X ($550 on Amazon or NeweggRemove non-product link)

To repeat: Modern Core i5 and Ryzen 5 chips with six cores deliver nearly the same levels of gaming performance as pricier processors. You only need to step up to a high-end gaming CPU if you need more cores for productivity tasks, want eight cores for streaming or future-proofing against console hardware configurations, or simply demand the absolute fastest potential frame rates in any situation.

Gordon Mah Ung

If you’re in the market for a high-end gaming processor, the Ryzen 9 5900X ($550 on Amazon or NeweggRemove non-product link) is the best option available. It offers no-compromises gaming performance on a par with Intel’s new 8-core Core i9-11900K flagship, but significantly more productivity performance thanks to the Ryzen chip’s 12 cores and 24 threads. This can handle anything you throw at it, and then some—that’s why we called it “the best consumer CPU we’ve ever seen” in our review.

The step-up $750 Ryzen 9 5950X offers even more performance, thanks to its whopping 16 cores. That’s overkill for most people, though, and its gaming performance isn’t fundamentally faster than the 5900X’s.

Intel’s Core i9-11900K costs $550, so it’s priced the same as AMD’s Ryzen 9 5900X, though we’re seeing it going for roughly $615 on the streetsRemove non-product link in Rocket Lake’s early days of availability. It’s very power-hungry and not appreciably faster than AMD’s chip. It also lags far behind in productivity tasks, as the Core i9-11900K comes with only 8 cores and 16 threads. In fact, Intel’s chip performs more comparably with the 8-core Ryzen 7 5800X, which carries a $450 retail price.

Gordon Mah Ung

Intel’s Core i9-11900K.

We can’t recommend Intel’s 11th-gen Core i7 or Core i9 chips given those facts, even though they’re great gaming CPUs in a vacuum. The high-end Ryzen CPUs have been subject to even more extreme pricing volatility than the midrange 5600X, and the Ryzen 9 chips often sell for hundreds of dollars more in the real world. If Intel is able to keep 11th-gen chips in stock and AMD can’t step up, that will make the 11900K more appealing. As we said, though, it’s more comparable with the Ryzen 7 5800X, and availability of that chip at MSRP is much more reliable. Go with AMD if you can.

You  might consider Intel’s older 10th-gen Core processors, if you don’t mind giving up PCIe 4.0 support or Rocket Lake’s vastly improved integrated graphics. The 11900K is more of a side-grade or even a downgrade to its predecessor, offering two fewer cores and only slightly faster gaming performance than the last-gen 10900K. The former flagship is hard to come by now, but the step-down Core i9-10850K remains widely available, with 10 cores and just 100MHz lower top speeds than the 10900K.

Better yet, you can buy one for just $380—meaning it offers more cores for less money than either AMD or Intel’s current 8-core offerings. The 10850K is a screaming value while it lasts, and we’ve seen it as low as $330 if you don’t mind heading into your local Micro Center.

The best budget gaming CPU

Intel Core i5-10400F ($152 on Amazon)

Intel

Usually, we recommend AMD’s Ryzen APUs (like the Ryzen 3 3200G) for budget builders. These chips costs between $100 and $150 and come with integrated Radeon graphics that let you get game without a graphics card if you don’t mind dialing back your visual quality or resolution. Unfortunately, AMD hasn’t released a new APU since the 3200G’s introduction in mid-2019—though new Ryzen 5000G chips will arrive later this year—and that chip has all but disappeared in today’s weird world of silicon shortages.

If you’re a gamer on a tight budget and already have a graphics card, consider Intel’s last-gen Core i5-10400F first. This 6-core, 12-thread chip costs only $152 now and comes with a cooler in the box. It offers the same thread count as rival Ryzen 3000 options and similar-to-better gaming performance, per TechSpot and TechPowerUp reviews, though it lags the K-class Core i5 chips by double-digit percentages in CPU-bound games. The newer processors in our “Best gaming CPU for most people” section also smoke it, though if you’re playing with higher visual settings, you’ll feel it less—especially at higher resolutions.

The “F” denominator in “Core i5-10400F” means it lacks an integrated GPU, however, so a graphics card is necessary. If you want to game without a graphics card, consider the new Intel Core i5-11400. The Core i5-11400 includes Intel’s vastly improved Xe integrated graphics (which can actually game with compromises!) and Rocket Lake’s various other improvements (like PCIe 4.0 support) for $184Remove non-product link

Gamers Nexus reviewed the Core i5-11400 and says it’s a good, affordable part for people who have no plans to overclock and don’t mind losing a few percentage points in gaming performance in exchange for a much lower price. The 11600K is a better option if you do content creation on the side thanks to its faster speeds though.

Optimum Tech, meanwhile, reviewed the Core i5-11400F (with no integrated graphics) and called it “the ultimate value gaming CPU that you can buy right now,” though he notes that you’ll want to ditch the stock cooler and upgrade to even an affordable third-party cooler to get the most performance out of the chip. 

“If want to get the most performance that you can out of it, even a single-tower air cooler will let you run the full power and boost clocks that are on offer here.” Something like the legendary Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo should do the trick for around $30. Opting for our recommended Core i5-10400F and sticking with the stock cooler can get you most of the performance for around $60 less than the 11400F with a Hyper 212 costs, however.

Cheaper AMD options like the $100 Ryzen 3 3100 and $120 Ryzen 3 3300X would contend for this title if they truly sold for their asking prices, but the processors have been almost impossible to find since their debut. Currently, both are going for well over twice their MSRP, making Intel’s options the better buys.

Note: When you purchase something after clicking links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate link policy for more details.

Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar review: High-end sound for a high-end price

A soundbar is an attractive alternative to a full-blown outboard speaker system. It offers better sound quality than a TV’s built-in audio, and it’s much more convenient to set up and use. On the other hand, a soundbar can’t reproduce a fully directional surround or immersive soundfield like a system with separate speakers located around the listening area.

Or can it? That’s the goal Sennheiser set for itself with its Ambeo Soundbar. This high-end behemoth sits near the top of the soundbar price range and claims to reproduce a virtual 5.1.4 immersive soundfield—a claim that has some merit, though it never fooled me into thinking I was listening to an actual immersive multi-speaker system.

Updated April 23, 2021 to report Sennheiser has released a firmware update for the Ambeo Soundbar that adds support for Sony’s immersive 360 Reality Audio technology. We returned our review unit shortly after this review was published, so we won’t be able to evaluate the new feauture, but we wanted our readers to know about it.

Ambeo feature set

The Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar is massive, measuring about 50x5x7 inches (WxHxD) and weighing almost 41 pounds. It sports a total of 13 speaker drivers—six 4-inch long-throw, cellulose-sandwich cone woofers, five 1-inch aluminum-dome tweeters (two of which fire to the sides at an angle), and two upfiring 3.5-inch full-range drivers powered by a total of 500 watts. The frequency response is said to extend from 30Hz to 20kHz (-3dB).

Sennheiser

A total of 13 drivers include nine that fire forward, two that fire to the sides at an angle, and two that fire upward (not seen here because their grilles have not been removed in this photo).

So, how does a single soundbar—even such a large one—simulate the effect of a 5.1.4 speaker system? In this case, it uses all those drivers and some serious DSP to direct the surround and overhead channels to the room’s walls and ceiling, where they are reflected toward the listening area. According to Sennheiser, the effect is best if the walls and ceiling are no more than five meters (about 16 feet) from the soundbar; otherwise, the reflected sound might be noticeably delayed.

To accomplish this feat of virtualization, the Ambeo Soundbar must be calibrated to the room in which it will be used. In addition to the soundbar itself, the package includes a 28-inch-tall, free-standing calibration microphone attached to its own heavy base and a long cable that connects to the front of the soundbar. To calibrate the unit, you place the mic so its top is at ear height in the listening position and hold the Ambeo button on the remote or the top of the unit. The soundbar plays a series of sweeping tones and then calibrates the DSP based on what the microphone picks up from reflections in the room.

Physical inputs on the back include three HDMI 2.0a ports (18Gbps), one ethernet port, one Toslink optical port, and one pair of RCA analog-audio jacks as well as a 2.5mm microphone input on the front for the calibration mic. It also provides several wireless inputs, including Bluetooth 4.2 and dual-band Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac). Finally, it has Google Chromecast built in, and it can join a UPnP media network. Outputs include one HDMI 2.1 port with eARC and a subwoofer pre-out with an RCA connector. A USB port supports service and firmware updates but not media playback from storage devices.

Sennheiser

The soundbar’s rear-panel connections include (L-R): stereo analog-audio input, subwoofer line output, Toslink digital-audio input, three HDMI 2.0a inputs, one HDMI 2.1 output with eARC, ethernet port, USB port for service and firmware updates, and AC power receptacle. An integrated cable tie keeps the cables tidy.

The Ambeo Soundbar can decode a wide range of audio codecs, including virtually all varieties of Dolby (including Dolby Atmos) and DTS (including DTS:X and DTS 96/24). Other supported codecs include DSD (the format used with SACD discs) and MPEG-H, a relatively new codec intended for use with next-generation TV broadcasting via ATSC 3.0. It can also upmix stereo and 5.1 content into a fully immersive soundfield.

You can engage the Ambeo virtualization with three intensity levels (Light, Standard, Boost), and you can cut or boost four bands of EQ by up to ±10dB. Of course, you can disable it altogether as well. The soundbar also offers five preset sound modes: Movie, Music, News, Sports, and Neutral. In addition, it offers a Night mode that compresses the dynamic range so you can hear everything without having to crank it up and possibly disturb others trying to sleep in the next room.

If the audio is in one of the Dolby formats, the Ambeo Soundbar can utilize Dolby Virtualizer, in which case the Ambeo 3D audio effect is disabled. It also offers Dolby Dynamic Range Control (DRC) with three different settings (Auto, Normal, Heavy) and dialog normalization. If the audio is a DTS bitstream, you can set DRC to any value from 0 to 100 percent and boost dialog up to 6dB. These and most other controls are found in the Sennheiser Smart Control app (more in a moment).

Of course, you can place the soundbar on a credenza or other surface, and it comes with protective feet you can install if you wish. You can also wall-mount it with an optional hardware kit. Keep in mind, however, that it’s five inches tall, so the bottom of the TV needs to be at least that far above the surface where the soundbar sits.

Sennheiser

The controls on top of the soundbar include (L-R): mute, volume up, volume down, Ambeo on/off, multifunction, source selection, and power on/off. The NFC antenna is located between the source and power buttons. If you don’t have an NFC-capable device, you initiate Bluetooth pairing by holding the multifunction and Source buttons.

Ambeo user interface

The front of the soundbar sports an OLED display with an ambient-light sensor and status LED in the center. An LED-illuminated Ambeo badge on the right-hand side of the cabinet lights up when the virtualization is engaged. Fortunately, you can control the brightness of the display and Ambeo indicator using the Smart Control app.

On the top of the soundbar are a few basic control buttons, including power on/off, source selection, Ambeo on/off, volume up/down, and mute. A multifunction button lets you control playback of music files—press once to play or pause, press twice to skip to the next track, press three times to skip to the previous track. Pressing the multifunction and source buttons together for two seconds puts the soundbar in Bluetooth-pairing mode. If the device supports NFC pairing, you can simply hold the device close to the NFC logo on the soundbar and they will pair automatically.

The slender remote is blessedly simple, with only 14 well-separated  buttons. Naturally, there are buttons for power on/off button, Ambeo on/off, and mute on/off as well as the same multifunction button as found on the unit itself. The source up/down and volume up/down buttons are slightly contoured (up is convex, down is concave), making them very easy to find by feel. The five sound modes and night mode have their own dedicated buttons, which is great, though they all feel the same, and without illumination, you have to memorize where they are to change modes in the dark.

Sennheiser

The remote is small and simple, with well-separated buttons that are easy to find by feel. I wish the mode buttons at the bottom were illuminated; it’s difficult to remember which is which in the dark.

As you might expect, Sennheiser’s Smart Control app offers the most control options. Of course, you can power the soundbar on and off, control the volume, select inputs and sound modes, and engage and disengage the Ambeo effect and Night mode. In addition, the app lets you select the strength of the Ambeo effect and adjust the 4-band EQ as well as rename the inputs. You can also control the brightness of the display and Ambeo LED manually or set it to automatically adjust according to the amount of ambient light in the room. As mentioned earlier, the Dolby and DTS DRC and dialog controls are available in the app as well. Even better, you can specify that your settings are remembered for each input as well as whether or not the soundbar plays audible cues for various actions.

Overall, the app is designed quite well. The basic controls are found on the home screen, while the Ambeo strength and EQ controls are two levels into the Acoustical Settings; they can be adjusted and saved separately for each sound mode, which is very nice. All other controls are found in the Device Settings, which are organized fairly intuitively.

Scott Wilkinson / IDG

Sennheiser’s Smart Control app offers lots of control over the Ambeo Soundbar, including basic settings on the home screen (left), different levels of virtualization and a 4-band EQ, and more device settings than can fit in a single screen.

Ambeo performance

I placed the Ambeo Soundbar on a small table in front of my Sony 65A1E OLED TV; fortunately, the table is just low enough so the soundbar didn’t block any of the screen when I was seated in my normal chair. The room is almost entirely rectangular with standard drywall, though there is an open closet to the right of the seating area, and one of the equipment racks is against the wall next to the closet. There are some shelves of Blu-rays to the left of the seating area.

Next, I set up the calibration microphone at ear height in my chair, connected it to the soundbar, and ran the calibration routine. It plays a set of sweeping test tones, after which the DSP processes those measurements. As I listened to the sweeps, I was particularly impressed with the low-frequency output.

Unfortunately, the calibration failed, even after repeated attempts. A Sennheiser rep suggested that I cycle the AC power by unplugging the unit for 15 minutes, then plugging it back in and trying again. Sadly, that didn’t work, so they sent me another calibration microphone, which worked the first time.

I connected three source devices to the HDMI inputs—a Dish Hopper 3 satellite receiver, a Roku Ultra 4K streamer, and an Oppo UDP-203 UHD Blu-ray player—using 18Gbps cables. I also connected the soundbar’s HDMI output to the calibrated HDMI input on the TV.

Sennheiser

The Sennheiser Ambeo can be wall mounted beneath your TV using an optional kit.

Each time I turned on the soundbar, it switched to the HDMI TV (eARC) input. Unfortunately, I can find no control in the app that lets you specify which input it should select at power up. According to Sennheiser, the soundbar should automatically select the most recent active input, but even when I powered up one of the source devices last, the soundbar’s input remained on HDMI TV, so I had to manually switch to the desired input every time. I wish the app included a setting that lets you specify something like “stay on the input selected at last power down” or “always select HDMI X when powering up.”

Another operational problem was that the app lost its connection to the soundbar after my phone went to sleep. When I woke it up and went to the app, it was no longer connected, and I had to manually reconnect, which got tiresome after a while.

I started my formal evaluation by playing the 5.1.4 test tones—pink noise, actually—from the Dolby Atmos demo Blu-ray. Of course, the front LCR channels came from where they were supposed to, but the surround and overhead channels were also in front of me. The surround channels were farther to the sides than the front LR channels, but they didn’t appear to come from the sides of the room. The overhead channels appeared to be coming from the upfiring speakers in the soundbar, not from the ceiling.

The helicopter and 747 takeoff demos from the Dolby Atmos disc sounded about the same—entirely in front of me with some width and height in the soundstage. The rainstorm demo, however, was much more effective; the sound of the rain actually appeared to be coming from overhead, especially the higher frequencies.

I compared the Ambeo effect with Dolby Virtualization during the rainstorm demo, and found that Ambeo was much more effective. Dolby Virtualization rendered the sound more in the front of the room with a somewhat smaller soundstage.

Next, I played some of the short Atmos demos with video. In all cases, overhead sounds with high frequencies appeared to come from overhead, and the width of the soundstage was very good, though I heard nothing from where actual surround speakers would be. The Horizon demo includes a plane flying over from back to front, but the entire sound came from the front. On the plus side, low frequencies were particularly impressive.

Sennheiser

The height of your ceiling, the shape of your room, and the furniture inside the room will all have an impact on the Ambeo’s performance.

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