The original Xbox background is here to haunt the Xbox Series X / S

The Xbox has gone through several visual periods during its life span, from an edgy and yet somehow dorky green alien thing, to a modern look that could be described as “I know how to use Excel but I can still have fun.” But like stumbling on a Facebook album from high school, you can still hold on to a bit of the past. As spotted by senior editor Tom Warren, the original Xbox background is now an option for the Xbox Series X / S.

The new (old) styling was added as a new dynamic background as part of Tuesday’s system update, which notably also brought improvements to quick resume. Titled “The Original,” it looks like a higher-resolution version of the glowing green orb that was at the center of the first Xbox’s user interface. Please note: it’s not the interface itself (Microsoft wouldn’t abandon tiles like that), but it is a recognizable part of it.

My experience with the original Xbox is admittedly secondhand. To me, it was the loud box that lived at my friend’s house and let us play Halo: Combat Evolved. But I do think you can get a pretty solid hit of nostalgia just by looking at this background and remembering what used to be. A simpler, more green time, when consoles were consoles and not Metro-inspired (or I guess Fluent Design-inspired) pseudo-Windows machines.

Microsoft and the Xbox team have been through a lot since the 2001 launch of the Xbox — the Xbox One was briefly positioned as a sort of cable box — but there’s some charm missing in the current dashboard and user experience. That charm was exchanged for a mostly better, if more complicated experience overall, but the heart still remembers what the brain forgot.

For a longer trip down memory lane, check out our visual history of the Xbox Dashboard and ponder with me how the Xbox 360’s “Blades” could be crammed on the Series X and S.

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Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast is going exclusive to Spotify

Spotify’s adding another big name to its list of exclusive podcasts: Dax Shepard and his show Armchair Expert, which is one of the most popular podcasts running.

All past and future episodes will be available exclusively on Spotify starting July 1st. Along with the exclusive distribution rights to Armchair Expert, Spotify is also signing a first look deal with Armchair Umbrella Network, meaning it gets first dibs on any other shows the network creates. The show will be exclusively licensed to the company for an undisclosed number of years. The terms of the deal were not shared, but the program will move over to Megaphone, a Spotify company, for hosting, and Spotify will handle ad sales in-house

The deal harkens back to Spotify’s Joe Rogan partnership. Similarly, Rogan’s show, The Joe Rogan Experience, went exclusive to Spotify in September last year, although clips continue to live on YouTube. Armchair Expert is widely considered one of the world’s most popular shows, and Forbes estimated in 2019 that it had a monthly audience of 20 million people, putting Shepard near the top of its list of highest-earning podcasts. Also on that list are Rogan and Bill Simmons, who sold his company The Ringer to Spotify in 2020.

Clearly, Spotify has centered its podcasting strategy on bringing the biggest names to its platform exclusively. That seems to be working, given that the company said last month that it grew its premium subscribers by 21 percent year over year and that people were listening to podcasts for longer periods of time. It also added that The Joe Rogan Experience performed “above expectations.”

A key component of Spotify’s podcasting moves is that it makes shows available to both free and paying users, and also includes ads for both of them. This means that Spotify makes ad money on every podcast listen. With Armchair Expert, the company can bring more people to Spotify, offer another popular show exclusively, and sell more ads, all in a quest to become the dominant place people consume audio.

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The Humble Heal: COVID-19 Bundle offers a lot of great games to raise money for COVID-19 relief

Humble Bundle is launching a new bundle to raise money for COVID-19 relief in India and Brazil, which have recently seen a surge in COVID-19 cases. The new Humble Heal: COVID-19 Bundle is jam-packed with a lot of great games, including the cult hit RPG Undertale, mind-bending puzzler Baba Is You, turn-based strategy games Into the Breach and Wargroove, as well as ebooks and software.

Humble Bundle says that all of the content in the bundle is worth more than $640, if everything was purchased on its own, but you can get everything in it for as little as $20.

All of the proceeds from the bundle will go to charities including Direct Relief, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), International Medical Corps, and GiveIndia, according to Humble Bundle. The bundle will be available from now through May 19th.

Some of the games included in the Humble Heal: COVID-19 Bundle.
Image: Humble Bundle

This isn’t Humble Bundle’s first COVID-19 relief bundle — last March, Humble Bundle launched the Humble Conquer COVID-19 Bundle and raised more than $6.5 million.

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Asus ZenFone 8 review – The Verge

After a couple of generations making phones with flip-out cameras and increasingly large displays, Asus has taken the ZenFone 8 in a totally different direction: small.

The flipping camera concept lives on in the also-new ZenFone 8 Flip, but it’s no longer a standard feature across this year’s ZenFone lineup. Instead, priced at €599 (about $730), the ZenFone 8 lands in the upper-midrange class with a conventional rear camera bump and a much smaller 5.9-inch display. As a side note, final US pricing is TBD — Asus says somewhere between $599 and $799 — but it will be coming to North America, unlike last year’s model.

Rather than an attention-grabbing camera feature, the focus of this design has been to create a smaller phone that’s comfortable to use in one hand, which Asus has done without skimping on processing power or higher-end features.

It’s an Android iPhone mini, and it’s fantastic.

Asus designed the ZenFone 8 with one-handed operation in mind.

Asus ZenFone 8 screen and design

The ZenFone 8 may be small, but that hasn’t kept it from offering the latest flagship processor: a Snapdragon 888 chipset, coupled with 6, 8, or 16GB of RAM (my review unit has 16GB). I can’t find fault with this phone’s performance. It feels responsive, animations and interactions are smooth, and it keeps up with demanding use and rapid app switching. This is performance fitting of a flagship device.

The display is a 5.9-inch 1080p OLED panel with a fast 120Hz refresh rate that makes routine interactions with the phone — swiping, scrolling, animations — look much more smooth and polished than a standard 60Hz screen or even a 90Hz panel. By default, the phone will automatically switch between 120 / 90 / 60Hz depending on the application to save battery life, but you can manually select any of those three refresh rates if you prefer.

The display’s 20:9 aspect ratio was carefully considered by Asus. The company says it settled on this slightly narrower format so the phone would fit more easily into a pocket, and it does. I can’t get it all the way into a back jeans pocket, but it mostly fits. More importantly, it fits well inside a jacket pocket and doesn’t feel like it’s going to flop out if I sit down on the floor to tie my shoes. The ZenFone 8 is rated IP68 for dust protection and some water submersion.

The front panel is protected by Gorilla Glass Victus and houses an in-display fingerprint sensor, while the back uses Gorilla Glass 3 with a frosted finish that’s on the matte side of the matte / glossy spectrum. The front panel is flat, but the rear features a slight curve on the long edges for an easier fit in the hand. At 169 grams (5.9 ounces), it’s heavy for its size, and it feels surprisingly dense when you first pick it up. The phone’s frame is aluminum, giving the whole package a high-end look and feel. There’s even a headphone jack on the top edge as a treat.

The power button (an exciting shade of blue!) is well-positioned so my right thumb falls on it naturally with the phone in my hand. Same for the in-screen fingerprint sensor: the target appears to be positioned higher on the screen than usual, but that actually puts it within a comfortable reach of my thumb.

I’ll admit up front that I have a personal bias toward smaller phones, but the ZenFone 8 just feels great in my hand. I’ve spent a lot of time using big devices over the last six months, and I’ve gotten used to it. But the ZenFone 8 is the first device that feels like it was adapted to me, not something I’ve had to adapt to using.

A smaller phone means a smaller battery.

Asus ZenFone 8 battery and software

The phone’s small size makes a smaller battery a necessity — 4,000mAh in this case, much smaller than the ZenFone 6 and 7’s 5,000mAh. I felt the difference in using this phone versus a battery-for-days budget or midrange phone, but I had no problem getting through a full day of moderate use. I even left Strava running for 20 hours by accident, and the battery still had some life in it the next morning. The ZenFone 8 supports 30W wired charging with the included power adapter, which takes an empty battery to 100 percent in a bit more than an hour. Wireless charging isn’t supported, which makes the ZenFone 8 a bit of an outlier in the flagship class.

Asus offers a ton of options to help stretch day-to-day battery life as well as the overall lifespan of your battery. There are no fewer than five battery modes to optimize phone performance or battery longevity on a daily basis, and different charging modes let you set a custom charging limit or stagger charging overnight so it reaches 100 percent around the time of your alarm for better battery health. You won’t find class-leading battery capacity here, but rest assured if you need to stretch the ZenFone 8’s battery, there are plenty of options.

The ZenFone 8 ships with Android 11, and Asus says it will provide “at least” two major OS with security updates for the same timeframe. That’s on the low side of what we’d expect for a flagship phone, especially compared to Apple’s typical four- or five-year support schedule. An important note for US shoppers is that the ZenFone 8 will only work with AT&T and T-Mobile’s LTE and Sub-6GHz 5G networks; you can’t use this phone on Verizon, and there’s no support for the fast, but extremely limited, millimeter-wave 5G networks.

The ZenFone 8 offers standard wide and ultrawide rear cameras.

Asus ZenFone 8 camera

There are just two cameras on the ZenFone 8’s rear camera bump, and they are both worth your time. Rather than cram in a depth sensor, macro, or some monochrome nonsense, Asus just went with a 64-megapixel main camera with OIS and a 12-megapixel ultrawide. They’re borrowed from last year’s model, minus a telephoto camera and the flipping mechanism.

As in the ZenFone 7 Pro, the 8’s main camera produces 16-megapixel images with vibrant color and plenty of detail in good light. Images can lean a little too far into unnatural-looking territory, and some high-contrast scenes look a little too HDR-y for my liking. But overall, this camera does fine: it handles moderately low-light conditions like a dim store interior well, and Night Mode does an okay job in very low light, provided you can hold the phone still for a few seconds and your subject isn’t moving.

A skin-smoothing beauty mode is on by default when you use portrait mode, and it is not good. Skin looks over-smoothed, unnaturally flat, and brightened, like your subject is wearing a couple of layers of stage makeup. Turning this off improves things significantly.

The ultrawide camera also turns in good performance. Asus calls it a “flagship” grade sensor, and while that might have been true in 2018, it’s at least a step up from the smaller, cheaper sensors often found in ultrawide cameras. Likewise, the front-facing 12-megapixel camera does fine. Beauty mode is turned off by default when you switch to the selfie camera, and thank goodness for that.

There’s no telephoto camera here, just digital zoom. On the camera shooting screen, there’s an icon to jump to a 2x 16-megapixel “lossless” digital zoom to crop in quickly, which works okay, but it isn’t much reach, and it just makes the limitations of the small sensor and lens more obvious.

On the whole, the camera system is good but not great. The lack of true optical zoom or a telephoto camera is a disappointment, but you can’t have everything on such a small device, and I’d personally take an ultrawide before a telephoto any day.

The ZenFone 8 doesn’t sacrifice a flagship experience to achieve its small form factor.

The ZenFone 8 fills a void in the Android market for a full-specced, small-sized device. The Google Pixel 4A is around the same size, but it’s decidedly a budget device with a step-down processor, plastic chassis, and fewer niceties like an IP rating or a fast-refresh screen. Aside from battery life, which is manageable, you give up very little in the way of flagship features to get the ZenFone 8’s small form factor.

You have to look to iOS for this phone’s most direct competition: the iPhone 12 mini, which it matches almost spec-for-spec from the IP rating down to the camera configuration. The 12 mini is actually a little smaller than the ZenFone 8, and when you factor in storage capacity, it’s likely to be the more expensive choice at $829 for 256GB. However, when you consider that the 12 mini will probably get a couple more years of OS and security support, it may be the better buy in the long run, if you’re flexible in your choice of operating system.

I like the ZenFone 8 a lot, but I’m not sure it’ll find a big audience, at least in the US. Apple is having trouble selling the iPhone 12 mini, and if there’s one thing Apple is good at, it’s selling phones to US customers. As much as I hate to entertain the idea, maybe we’ve gotten used to giant phones. I love how the ZenFone 8 feels in my hand and in my pocket, but I do notice how much smaller the screen and everything on it seems compared to the bigger phones I’ve used recently.

There are also a few important considerations, like the lack of compatibility with Verizon and the comparatively short support lifespan of the phone. If you need the absolute best in battery life the ZenFone 8 can’t offer that, and if you want a class-leading camera, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

All that said, the ZenFone 8 will be the right fit for a specific type of person, and I can heartily recommend it to my fellow small phone fans. You’ll get flagship-level build quality and performance quite literally in the palm of your hand.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge

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Asus introduces ZenFone 8 and ZenFone 8 Flip

Asus is taking a slightly different turn with this year’s ZenFone series. While the ZenFone 8 Flip looks a lot like previous years’ phones, with its large screen and flip-out camera mechanism, the company went back to the drawing board for the flagship ZenFone 8 and redesigned it as a smaller one-hand-friendly device: kind of an Android iPhone mini. The two phones make their global debut today, priced at €599 for the ZenFone 8 and €799 for the ZenFone 8 Flip. Asus says that only the ZenFone 8 will come to North America; it is expected this summer. The US price is still being finalized, but the company says it will cost somewhere between $599 and $799.

The ZenFone 8 and 8 Flip both use a Snapdragon 888 chipset, but that’s about as far as the similarities go. The ZenFone 8 features a 5.9-inch 1080p OLED display with a fast 120Hz refresh rate. It will be sold in configurations of up to 16GB of RAM and 256GB of storage and includes an IP68 waterproof rating. Both the 8 and 8 Flip support 5G — but when the ZenFone 8 arrives in the US, it will only work on AT&T and T-Mobile’s LTE and sub-6GHz 5G networks.

The ZenFone 8 offers just two fixed rear-facing cameras.
Photo: Asus

The ZenFone 8’s two rear cameras are borrowed from the ZenFone 7 series: a 64-megapixel standard wide with OIS that kicks out 16-megapixel images and a 12-megapixel ultrawide. Since the camera array doesn’t flip forward to play the role of a selfie camera, there’s now a 12-megapixel camera under an off-center hole punch on the front panel.

The phone’s compact size is reflected in its 4,000mAh battery, which is much smaller than previous years’ 5,000mAh cells. It supports 30W wired charging with the included charger, but it doesn’t offer wireless charging. There are dedicated dual stereo speakers and even a 3.5mm headphone jack.

The ZenFone 8 Flip’s rotating camera housing features a stronger, more durable motor this year.
Photo: Asus

The ZenFone 8 Flip is, by necessity, a much larger device with a 6.67-inch screen — a 1080p OLED panel with a 90Hz refresh rate. It offers a bigger 5,000mAh battery with 30W wired charging, includes up to 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, but it lacks an IP rating.

The main attraction, of course, is its flip-out camera array. The triple-camera hardware is borrowed from the ZenFone 7, including a 64-megapixel main camera, a 12-megapixel ultrawide, and an 8-megapixel telephoto with 3x optical zoom. Asus says the module itself has a stronger motor with better endurance; users can expect to get up to 300,000 “flips” out of it. A custom RhinoShield case will be sold separately in some markets with a sliding cover to protect the housing and a sensor that automatically activates the camera when the cover is opened.

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Slate is selling audiobooks that you can listen to through your podcast app

Slate is getting into the audiobooks business. The online magazine and podcast subscription seller is launching its own audiobook store today in partnership with multiple publishing companies. The store will list and sell popular titles but with the added benefit of making the audio accessible through listeners’ preferred podcast app instead of a separate audiobook-only platform. This is likely its biggest sell for listeners, although Slate will compete on price, too. Listeners also will buy these books a la carte, meaning they don’t have to subscribe to an ongoing membership as they may through Audible, the biggest name in audiobooks.

The store and its functionality are powered through Slate’s Supporting Cast, its technology that powers recurring revenue audio services, like subscription podcasts. This means that on the back end, Slate is hosting publishers’ audiobooks on its servers and creating private RSS feeds for them, which can then be inserted into any podcasting app that supports them, like Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast. The process basically looks like this: Listeners navigate to Slate’s store, buy a book, and can then either listen online or they can tap on the app of their choice to have the feed automatically inputted. They can also manually copy and paste the feed.

David Stern, vice president of product and business development, tells The Verge that its software automatically looks for suspicious activity and will revoke access if it suspects someone is sharing their private RSS link outside of a “very small flexible range.”

Initial partners include Penguin-Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Hachette. Slate wouldn’t disclose its royalty agreements with these companies. The initial catalog is small, especially compared to Audible’s thousands of titles, but Slate seems to be interested in books that its team has reviewed for the website. As evidence for why Slate thought it should pursue an audiobook business, the company says it’s generated more than $1 million through its book affiliate business, and that it tested selling Danny Lavery’s Something That May Shock and Discredit You audiobook and sold 500 copies.

Slate’s move into audiobooks continues the trend of podcast-oriented companies looking to audiobooks and audiobook companies looking to podcasts. Spotify launched audiobooks in its app, hosted by celebrity talent, earlier this year and has reportedly put the founder of Parcast in charge of its audiobook efforts, per a Bloomberg report. Audible also brought podcasts to its app for the first time last year. (Apple, for its part, sells audiobooks through its Books app, not Podcasts app.) The broader bet seems to be that people who enjoy listening to things will want to do so from one app.

“It’s sort of a no-brainer,” Stern says.

Slate is positioning itself to let people choose what app they want to listen within, although neither Spotify nor Audible support private RSS feeds.

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Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart’s tech director on making games for the PS5

We’re nearly six months into the life of the PlayStation 5, but exclusive games that really showcase the power of the hardware are still relatively rare. That’s part of what made last month’s Returnal so exciting. It’s also a big reason why the upcoming Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is so highly anticipated.

Ratchet has always been an incredible-looking franchise — just look at the 2016 reboot on the PS4, which was reminiscent of an animated movie — and the latest promises to offer new features only possible on Sony’s new console. It’s still a goofy shooter-platformer filled with weird gadgets, but Rift Apart also features incredibly detailed sci-fi worlds to explore and the titular “rifts” which let players instantly jump into new areas without any loading. (To see some of that in action, check out this recent, lengthy gameplay trailer.)

Ahead of the game’s launch on June 11th, I had a chance to talk to Mike Fitzgerald, core technology director at developer Insomniac Games, about the studio’s move into next-gen. He was able to get into the nitty-gritty of working on the console (in addition to Rift Apart, Insomniac has also released PS5 versions of two Spider-Man games), including some of the challenges of learning as you go. “This title is the first one where we made the content knowing it would only ever be running on the PlayStation 5,” he tells The Verge. “And so our artists would say ‘What kind of mesh density can I have?’ And I’d be like ‘… I don’t know.’ Because we didn’t have the hardware.”

Read on for our full conversation touching on what the team learned from Spider-Man, designing games with ray tracing in mind, why making realistic-looking metallic surfaces is so important, and much more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What were your first impressions of the PS5 when you finally learned what it was all about?

We got a briefing before seeing the hardware: “Here’s what’s coming, here’s what our priorities are going to be.” Fortunately, we have a great relationship with them — well, we weren’t a part of PlayStation then, but now we are — but we have a close relationship and got to be involved with that stuff pretty early, and that informed the game we were putting together. In that presentation in particular, I think the storage and I/O solutions really stood out to us as something that would be transformative, both in terms of development and the types of games we make.

What was that initial experience like of working on the Spider-Man games on PS5?

It was an awesome experience of peeling back layers of that hardware and realizing we need to push our engine side of things more, rather than fighting against the development hardware. The spinning hard drive of the previous gen was always a big constraint for us. Making open-world games on the PS4 is a lot of being very careful with the content you put together, how it’s packaged up, the budgets it fits under, planning ahead of time where you’re going to need to be and when.

A lot of those problems just go out the door [on the PS5], which is a big deal. It’s not just the drive itself, but it’s the hardware decompression engine around it, it’s the memory transfers that we leveraged piece by piece, more and more as we went through the project, and realized “Oh, we can make these transitions even faster, we can do them in the middle of a fight.” It was really an evolving process with the console. And it definitely came down to roadblocks in our engine that we needed to pick apart. Some of those basic assumptions of how long it takes data to get off a drive we got to rethink.

Is your job a lot of saying “No”? An artist or designer comes to you with an idea, and, particularly on the older hardware, you have to say we just can’t do that. And how does it compare on the PS5?

Okay, probably not “Nos,” but “Yes, but…” is a common refrain. If an artist wants to accomplish something, or a designer, we try to figure out how to get there. But maybe it’s a point that the compromises are way fewer right now. Of course artists and designers also have a great sense for what the hardware can accomplish, and I think it was challenging ourselves to do new and different things now that the hardware is so different.

Given that this is the first Ratchet & Clank game you’ve worked on, what was your impression of the series? What interested you about working in this universe?

The PS4 title was gorgeous, and I think it’s been really fun to continue that march of progress from a realism perspective. This is what we did with the Spider-Man titles, and what a lot of games do. How human can your characters look? How realistic can New York City be? And then apply that same tech, and the rigor behind that tech, to a more fantastical, exaggerated animated aesthetic for the Ratchet games. That’s been fun. We have realistic materials and lighting, using ray tracing to bring more realism to it. But then we also have an alien whose entire head is an eyeball. The way the silly combines with the realistic I think brings a unique quality to the game that lets it show off the graphical techniques of the hardware.

Can you talk a bit about how you interact with other departments like art or game design? It sounds like the team is pretty collaborative.

My group is a shared group across multiple titles that we have going at the same time. Different groups within that core technology group have really close relationships with different productions. So we have some audio programmers who work really closely with the audio team, we have animation programmers who work with the animation teams, and so on and so forth. We’re pretty tightly tied in with project schedules. With projects in R&D, we let them be creative; make some mock-ups or concepts that go further than we could ever go in the engine, and then in pre-production, let’s take that and figure out how we can accomplish it and what we can put together.

So when you were working on the Spider-Man games, were you filing away ideas for things that would work well with Ratchet on PS5?

Always filing away ideas. I would even say some stuff that is essential to the Spider-Man game turned out to be cool for Ratchet, and then has some awesome quality effect on that game that we maybe wouldn’t have put in if we’d only been making Ratchet.

Do you have an example?

Spider-Man is an open-world title. We built all of this tech to stream that open world as you go through it. When you’re downtown, there’s not much Midtown in memory. You can see it from a distance, but then as you go farther north, we pull in those areas. No Ratchet game has ever been constructed that way. They’ve always been: here’s a level, load the level, now you’re in that level and you play it. But by switching over the Ratchet world to use that same streaming architecture, we can pack more and more density and content and quality in every corner of a Ratchet & Clank world, because we’re happy to ditch the west side of Nefarious City when you go to the east side, and that type of thing.

Does it make it harder to know when to stop, when you have this ability to cram so much into a game? When you no longer have the same level of technical restrictions, is it harder to say “Alright, this is ready to go”?

Yes, and I would say it’s even difficult to develop the content in the first place to some extent. This title is the first one where we made the content knowing it would only ever be running on the PlayStation 5. And so our artists would say “What kind of mesh density can I have?” And I’d be like “… I don’t know.” Because we didn’t have the hardware. And we didn’t know, as the engine evolved, how the trade-offs would manifest themselves. Even once you have the hardware, it still takes you months or a year for your engine to evolve into it where you know how you want to spend your frame budget, what you do on the GPU versus the CPU, all that kind of stuff. For this game in particular, I would say we kind of just let our artists go wild and make some incredibly detailed objects and models and textures, and then gave ourselves the challenge to make it all run well.

Obviously ray tracing is a big buzzword right now, but when you’re making a game knowing from the beginning that it’s going to be supported, does that change how you approach things like art or level design?

For the Spider-Man games, it was a lot of “This looks really cool, this will have a great effect on the buildings in the city.” That kind of thing. We had a lot of content that was in the first Spider-Man game that wasn’t necessarily authored to show that feature off, but we knew that it would be in Ratchet & Clank from pretty early on. One thing it does is, the artists know to put a lot of care into the material properties that they author. So this is a metal and it behaves this way, and all of those physical material properties, so when it comes together it fits nicely when ray tracing is turned on.

There are some big, obvious features we can see in terms of the benefits of the PS5, like the fast load times or the rifts that pull you into a parallel world immediately. But are there any examples of smaller, less obvious things that are cool or that you’re really proud of that wouldn’t have been possible on the PS4?

With the SSD, it’s easy to say there are no load times, and look how fast we can load this other area, but it has all sorts of knock-on effects. We don’t need to be as careful with how we package our data. All of the assets for an area don’t need to be collated on the spinning hard drive to get the right streaming speed out of it. It makes the game smaller on your hard drive; it means we can patch it more easily. That’s a nice bonus. We unload the things literally behind you from a camera perspective. If you spun the camera around, we could load them before you see that. That lets us devote all of our system memory to the stuff in front of you right now, that you need to experience in that moment.

The ray tracing is nice and shiny — well, literally shiny — and it’s very obvious when it’s working. But it does have a really subtle effect on the materials. There’s a part where you’re in the spaceship with Rivet and Clank, for example, and you’re not actually looking at a reflective surface per se, but just all of the metal things in that cabin, which are all curved in different ways, are all showing the effect of those characters shifting position in a realistic way. It takes us a long way toward getting the same feeling of an animated film. The way things are grounded in the environments, the way they’re animating with each other, helps us close that gap.

Is that the goal? To have it look like a high-quality animated film?

Certainly for this title, from a rendering quality perspective, we would love to be delivering stories in the same way that those films deliver stories, and having that emotional effect for players. I think between the performance capture we do know, the detail and density of the animation rigs that we have, we can tell some really good stories that I think can hit in the same way that the films hit.

Now that you’ve spent some time with the PS5, and the studio has made three games for it, what are some aspects where you’re excited to see where it goes in the future? Some feature where you can’t wait to see how Insomniac or other studios will be able to exploit it for future games. What do you think is the thing people will really be able to dig into?

Behind the scenes, there’s so much to peel back about the SSD and the I/O around it. We’re just scratching the surface of it. As a developer, that will be really cool to see how it turns out. I love seeing what the other internal PlayStation studios are doing, we have an awesome relationship with them. We don’t show each other everything all the time, so we still get that fun surprise and delight when we see what they’re doing and get to marvel at how good it looks… and then try to pick it apart and see how to do better.

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The grid needs to smarten up to reach clean energy goals

In the future, our vehicles and homes will be in constant conversation with the power grid. Smart thermostats will send information about how much energy the home is using or potentially wasting to heat or cool itself. Solar panels will say how much energy they have on hand, while electric vehicles will share information about when and where they’re charging and how much juice they need for their travels. Solar and EV batteries might even offer up the energy they’re storing in case it’s needed elsewhere.

“You just plug it in, and somehow it automatically talks to its nearest neighbors,” explains Ben Kroposki, a director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “[It] says, ‘Hey, I just want to let you know I’m out here. I can provide these kinds of services back.’”

That conversation is the backbone of what’s called a “smart grid.” While America’s aging grid system was built to send electricity in one direction — from power plants to homes and businesses — smart grids are a two-way street. Homes and buildings send information and electricity back to the grid or to other homes and buildings. An electric vehicle battery, for example, might be able to provide power to an area in the middle of a blackout. A smart grid also listens for directions from the utility, so that it charges whenever solar or other renewable energy is most abundant.

It’s a simple enough idea that for more than a decade has been sold as a way to improve the efficiency, environmental impact, and resiliency of the power sector. But electricity grids still have a long way to go to get “smart.” They’ve managed to fail spectacularly under the stressors of climate change and more extreme weather.

After years of underinvestment, there’s renewed hope that long-awaited smart grids might actually come to fruition. President Joe Biden can’t reach his goal of getting the power sector to run on 100 percent clean energy by 2035 without a smarter grid. And grids can’t get smarter without the kind of urgency that Biden has injected into overhauling America’s infrastructure.

“This probably is the most exciting time in the power system history in the last 50 years,” Kroposki says.

While Biden’s clean energy goals are vital for staving off a deeper climate crisis, the plan has exposed some weaknesses in our current grid system that a smart grid could help solve. For starters, old grids were built to accommodate a constant flow of electricity; power plants can ramp generation up and down at will to deliver as much energy as people demand.

Wind and solar power aren’t so consistent. When it’s sunny and gusty, too much energy might overwhelm the grid, leading to some of it going to waste. There also isn’t enough energy storage — aka batteries — to hold onto that excess renewable energy so that it can be used when sunshine and wind die down.

A smarter grid can better manage power demand, making use of renewable energy when it’s most abundant and preventing energy shortages. Embattled California utility PG&E, which has come under scrutiny for pervasive rolling blackouts in recent years, has partnered with BMW to implement “smart charging” for its electric vehicles. Their pilot “smart charging” program incentivizes EV drivers to charge their cars whenever there’s excess renewable energy, typically in the middle of the day.

That kind of coordination can also prevent blackouts by taking pressure off the grid when there’s peak demand, typically when people come home from work in the evening or crank up their air conditioners in the summertime. Managing that demand will become even more important in the race to electrify homes, buildings, and transportation so that they can run on renewable energy. Some cities have banned new gas hookups in favor of electricity, and California banned the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles starting in 2035. Electricity grids will have to brace themselves for all those changes. “We’re going to need to speed up the pace of the grid investments in order to keep up with everything that’s happening outside the grid,” says Karen Wayland, CEO of the GridWise Alliance whose members include utilities, tech, and energy companies.

A flood of new electric vehicles could overwhelm old, creaky grids. But EV batteries could become an asset in an updated, smarter grid. The same is true for residential solar power systems with batteries. They might provide backup power when extreme weather causes problems, like when a storm forces a power plant offline or when a heatwave drives up power demand for air conditioning. But to be able to do that, utilities need to build out a way to communicate with those batteries so that they know when they’re available and how much capacity they have.

In the middle of an outage, a smart grid can also sense excess power being wasted. It might have been able to divert power from empty downtown Houston skyscrapers to people facing freezing temperatures inside their homes during the Texas freeze earlier this year. “In laser, scalpel-like precision, you can turn the building lights off or down … and avoid having to do the rolling blackouts by being able to connect in real time to those assets,” Michael Bates, global general manager of energy at Intel, told The Verge at the time.

Seeing the potential of smarter grids, the Obama administration funneled $11 billion toward developing smart grids and the reduction of power outages. But the money wasn’t enough. Outages have been on the rise since 2009, when Biden announced the investment as part of an economic stimulus package.

Obama’s initial investments spurred the adoption of smart meters in the US, which can tell utilities how much energy a household is using at regular intervals. (Before that, utility workers had to come and read the meters). The future will be more granular; utilities may be able to read how much energy each appliance in your home is using. That initial funding was only a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s needed to unlock the full potential of smart grids. A 2011 report by the Electric Power Research Institute estimated that it would cost up to $476 billion over 20 years to fully modernize the grid. To make things harder, the Trump administration dismantled a smart grid advisory board that Obama had started and took other actions to kneecap grid modernization research.

Similarly, Obama set the US on course to slash greenhouse gas emissions — but not with the same urgency we’re now seeing under the Biden administration. That’s in part because so much time has been wasted, and the climate crisis has only grown more destructive and exacerbated by disasters that batter energy grids. “The utilities and the markets still felt like it was more of an evolution,” Bates tells The Verge. “I think everyone’s now starting to see this more as a revolution.”

That revolution is gaining momentum. A new advisory council formed last week to push for funding to modernize the power sector. Representatives from labor and environmental groups, utilities, and tech companies are all part of the council calling for a $50 billion investment. That would go toward making sure every household has a smart meter, plus installing sensors, controls, and other equipment across the grid to analyze and respond to energy supply and demand. There’s also a need for a better communications infrastructure for utilities — either through fiber optic or wireless networks.

The council is also backing Biden’s sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which proposes laying down new high-voltage transmission lines to make more resilient grids.

Beyond garnering the money and political will necessary to really get the ball rolling on modernizing the grid, there are more technical details to hammer out. Keeping an increasingly digital power system safe from hackers is one of them. So Wayland’s group is calling for $1 billion in funding for the Department of Energy to deploy cybersecurity technologies, and another billion to split between monitoring cyber threats and developing a cybersecurity workforce for the energy sector. In April, the Biden administration launched a 100-day action plan to safeguard utilities’ control systems from “increasing cyber threats.”

A security breach at a water treatment plant in Florida in February is one example of how vulnerable utilities can become. In that case, hackers tried to increase the concentration of a chemical in the water to poisonous levels. The attempt failed because a person working at the plant figured out what was going on and adjusted chemical levels back to safe levels. Safeguards in a smarter grid could prevent a similar attack on the power sector, Wayland says, by blocking any commands that fall outside a predetermined range of operations.

Another crucial detail to troubleshoot will be to figure out how electricity rates and energy bills will differ under a smart grid system. To better manage power demand, experts say that smart grids should respond in real time to changing electricity rates.

Smart grids could one day make suggestions for, or even automate, when people charge their cars or heat their homes. But it has to offer an incentive to get people to agree to do that. The personal payoff is taking advantage of lower electricity rates based on the time of day that you purchase electricity.

Right now, most residences pay fixed rates for electricity, which insulates their bills from sudden price changes related to supply and demand. On the other hand, with so-called time-of-use rates (which is more common for heavy industry than for residences), electricity rates can vary by the hour. During the Texas freeze, a similar kind of rate system shocked many homeowners. While people who signed up for that rate system might have saved money by paying wholesale prices throughout the year, some saw their electricity bills skyrocket by thousands of dollars because of fuel shortages. Electricity rates under a smart grid would be similarly variable, so there will need to be protections put in place to ensure that doesn’t happen under a new rate system with smart grids.

“Now that may only occur once every nine years, but when that occurs you get really upset,” says Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard Kennedy School. “And you run to your elected officials and you run to the regulators to say that they’re ripping me off.”

That complication illustrates the need for policy changes on top of advances in infrastructure and tech. “You have to build in some safeguards, you know, from that happening,” NREL’s Kroposki says.

Things will probably continue to get more complex in the race to “get smart.” After all, what a fully fledged smart grid really looks like is sort of a moving target. The realm of what’s possible will only grow with more technological breakthroughs.

“For me, it’s a portfolio of continually evolving solutions,” says Luis Munuera, an energy technology analyst at the International Energy Agency. “I don’t see so much an endpoint as a process.”

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Razer’s Blade 15 Base is $400 off its usual price at Best Buy

Best Buy is hosting a one-day flash sale on a few items, and its small assortment of gaming laptops stood out from the rest. The Razer Blade 15 Base seems like a good midrange laptop with its hexa-core Intel Core i7-10750H processor, Nvidia’s GTX 1660 Ti graphics chip, and 16GB of RAM. This model costs $1,100 today only, down from $1,500. In terms of other noteworthy specs, it has a 1080p display with a 120Hz refresh rate and Thunderbolt 3 for fast data transfer, or to connect to the company’s own external GPU enclosure.

It’s a bit disappointing that it comes with a paltry 256GB of storage, though it has an extra M.2 slot available to stick in another NVMe or SATA M.2 SSD. You can check out Razer’s page for more detailed specs of this specific laptop model right here, which lists it at $200 more than this deal at Best Buy.

Razer Blade 15 Base

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Razer’s Blade 15 Base is thicker than the Advanced model, but it has the same good build quality, comfortable keyboard, and a Thunderbolt 3 port.

If you’re okay with a gaming laptop that makes no effort to look subtle, Asus’ ROG Strix G15 isn’t a bad deal at $850, also at Best Buy (normally $1,000). Compared to Razer’s laptop above, this one has the same processor, but with a bigger 512GB SSD and a slightly faster 144Hz refresh rate display. Though, it likely won’t be as good for gaming since its Nvidia GTX 1650 Ti is a notch below the 1660 Ti in terms of performance, and it has half the amount of RAM as Razer’s option above. Still, this seems like a fine machine if you don’t play the most graphically demanding games.

Asus ROG Strix G15 (electro punk color)

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Asus’ bold-looking ROG Strix G15 might be an excellent fit for someone who’s looking for an entry-level gaming laptop under $1,000. It has a fast 144Hz refresh rate display and a capable processor, but its GTX 1650 Ti graphics chip and 8GB of RAM may not be enough to make every game look and run well at higher settings.

A speedy USB-C wall adapter is a good thing to have on hand for your Android phone, iPhone, or any other device like a Nintendo Switch or a laptop that can recharge from the reversible plug. RavPower has a two-pack of its 20W USB-C adapters selling for just $11.69 (before tax) at Amazon by clipping the 10 percent off coupon located right beneath its listing price. Many power-hungry devices require more than 20W to recharge at full speed, but these are a perfect fit for most phones — especially the latest iPhones, which don’t include a charger with purchase. Apple sells one separately, but it costs $20 for one instead of nearly half that price for two.

RavPower 20W USB-C charger

Prices taken at time of publishing.

At Amazon, you can get a two-pack of RavPower’s 20W USB-C chargers for $11.69 by clipping the coupon on the product page. Compared to Apple’s $20 charger, this is a great deal.

Lastly, Daily Steals is offering a good deal on the unlocked Google Pixel 3 XL with 128GB of storage. You can get the “not pink” version of the phone that’s new with a one-year warranty from Google for $240 by using the offer code VERGEPXL3 at checkout. Despite being a few years old at this point, this phone still has good photography chops and it will be among the first devices to get the upgrade to Android 12 software later this year (though it will likely be the last major update coming to this phone, security patches aside). Check out Dieter Bohn’s original review here for photo samples and more.

Google Pixel 3 XL

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Released in 2018, the Google Pixel 3 XL is a solid contender for a smartphone that includes great cameras at a competitive price.

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Dota 2’s The International returns in August with $40 million prize pool

One of the biggest esports tournaments in the world is coming back for 2021. Today, Valve announced that The International, the annual Dota 2 championship, will return after a one-year hiatus caused by the pandemic. This year’s iteration will take place in Stockholm, with the group stage starting on August 5th. The International is well-known not only for its intense, global competition, but also for being incredibly lucrative: this year’s tournament will feature a prize pool of $40 million.

While we know that the tournament will be taking place, it’s not clear yet whether fans will be in attendance. “As we continue to plan the event around the shifting landscape presented by the ongoing global pandemic, our focus remains on finding ways to hold a high quality tournament in the safest way possible,” Valve wrote in a blog post. “This means we’re waiting to release additional details on attendance options as we gather more information on developments heading into summer. We expect to be able to share more with the community during the month of June.”

As part of the announcement, Valve also introduced a new Dota 2 feature called supporters clubs. Players are able to buy in-game items like badges and loading screens, with 50 percent of sales going directly to their favorite esports team. The feature will support 17 teams starting today, with more expected to be added over time. “As more content from other teams is submitted and approved, they will be added to this list regularly,” Valve said.

In 2020, the pandemic forced most esports competitions across the world to shift to online competition. However, this year, some in-person events have slowly started to return. Riot is currently holding League of Legends and Valorant tournaments in Iceland, while the Overwatch League is planning to hold multiple live matches in China.

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