Tor is getting a major security upgrade


To hackers, spies, and cyber-criminals these days, calling Tor “secure” is a bit laughable. There are so many exploits and workarounds, along with unavoidable weaknesses to side-channel attacks performed in the physical world, that in some cases the false sense of cyber-security can end up making relaxed use of Tor less secure than paranoid use of the regular internet. If you’re someone looking to buy some weed on the internet (or communicate securely with your mistress), Tor is probably alright for you. If you’re looking to sell some weed on the internet, get in contact with a government informant, or share sensitive information between foreign activists, it probably isn’t. Tor is looking to change that.

This is coming specifically in the wake of recent revelations of wide-ranging vulnerabilities in Tor’s anonymity protocols. A high-profile expose accused researchers at Carnegie Mellon of accepting a government bounty (reportedly a cool million dollars) to de-anonymize certain Tor users (those specifically mentioned in the expose include a child porn suspect and a Dark Market seller). Their attack vector and others are just what cynical hacker-forum users have been prophesying for years, things like malicious Tor nodes and directory servers that exist solely to suck up the personal info of those Tor users they serve.

TorOne major initiative involves the algorithm governing the selection and use of “guard nodes,” which are the first anonymizing nodes used by a Tor hidden service, and thus the only nodes interacting with the legitimate IP, directly. Right now, a Tor connection might use multiple guard nodes and as a result open itself up to more vulnerability than necessary — now, the developers want to make sure that Tor connections use the minimum possible number of guard nodes, and preferably just one.

Another push hopes to reinforce the wall between dark web domains, the crawlers used by search engines, and specialized server-finders. One of the strengths of a hidden service is that it’s hidden — not just the physical location of the server hosting the service, but the digital address of the service itself, unless you’re specifically handed the randomly generated onion address. Keeping hidden services off of search engine results means that a private service can remain private, used only by those people specifically handed the address. Should an attacker find that address, Tor’s anonymity protocols should protect it. But attackers can’t even try to access services they have no idea exist.

silk road head

If you’re up to delving a bit deeper into the Dark Web, and you don’t mind looking at 99 useless sites for every interesting one, boot up the Tor Browser and take a look at this ingenious hidden service indexing tool for an idea of the level of crawling that can currently be done on the Deep Web.

The Tor Project exists to provide anonymity — that is its main function, and all other functions are in service to that. So, to attack the security of a Tor user (even a legitimately horrible criminal) is to attack Tor itself. It’s a tough principle to stand behind, at the end of the day — to get mad about police efforts to catch child pornographers. Yet, the security world is united; security researcher Bruce Schneider has called Carnegie Mellon’s alleged collaboration “reprehensible,” as did numerous other academic security researchers.

silk road 2Their reasoning is sound. There is simply no way to attack the availability of anonymity to bad people without also undermining the availability of anonymity to good ones. We also need to have a class of disinterested researchers who can interface with the criminal/quasi-legal cyber underground and have meaningful, honest conversations — we need this for social understanding, the maintenance of free speech, and effective law enforcement.

That’s not a perspective that seems to exist in the government, to any extent. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have led to sustained attacks on encryption and anonymity, even before the investigation produced any evidence that the attackers had used encryption, and certainly in absence of any evidence that if they had not used encryption that they would have been detected reliably by French or international security agencies. The New York Times, which broke the story of an alleged encryption aspect to the attacks, has since pulled the story from their website.

Of course, the hacker/security community will take some time to win back, and may never return to the fold. There’s a significant number of people who still believe that Tor is an elaborate government honeypot with zero real security from government spying. That’s unlikely, but ultimately it’s the perception that counts. Can the Tor Project win back the hardcores? Perhaps not. But with its continuing, aggressive updates, it could keep us normies safer as we browse drug-lists without buying, stare uncomprehendingly at ISIS statements posted in Arabic, and just generally indulge the extremes of our intellectual curiosity.

In other words, it could keep the basic tenets of liberty alive just a little bit longer.

Tagged , , , , ,

Sky Q: What you need to know about Sky’s new TV box

Sky has unveiled what it calls the ‘next generation’ of home TV. We examine its key features including what we know about its pricing and release date

Sky Q

Since launching Sky+ in 2001, Sky has added feature upon feature to its offering, such as high-definition broadcasting, on-demand services and mobile streaming for remote viewing.

However, the hardware and basic user experience has remained familiar. The remote and set-top box are pretty much the same as is, largely, the interface used to select programmes or recordings.

In the last 14 years, the arrival of online streaming, smart TVs and YouTube has changed how we watch videos enormously. Not only is Sky’s dominance of the living room television being challenged by BT, TalkTalk and others, but the living room is no longer the only game in town, with viewers watching on-demand video on smartphones, tablets and laptops.

Sky Q technologySky Q covers the living room, additional TVs with the Sky Q mini, and tablets  Photo: Sky

In response, Sky has unveiled Sky Q, which it describes as “the next generation home entertainment system, opening up a new way of watching TV”. As well as a newly-designed interface that puts on-demand TV and recordings, as well as live TV, at the centre, it has also announced a collection of new hardware products that it says will allow users to transport the Sky experience around the house.

Sky says Sky Q will not be a replacement for Sky+ or NOW TV, its internet TV box, but a “new premium option”.

“We wanted to re-imagine TV so that it’s flexible and seamless across different screens and to put a huge choice of entertainment at their fingertips,” Sky’s chief executive Jeremy Darroch said.


At the centre of Sky Q is a new set-top box, which, as always, is connected to an outside satellite dish. It has a 2 terabyte hard disk, which can store up to 350 hours of video, and 12 tuners, which will allow watching and recording of multiple channels across devices.

Additional Sky Q “mini” boxes will connect TVs in other parts of the house, such as a bedroom or kitchen, and connect wirelessly to the main box. These offer a full, independent, Sky service on additional TVs, rather than mirroring or interfering with what’s on the main box.

A new remote uses a touch-sensitive pad, which lets users navigate menus by swiping and tapping, rather than the arrow buttons on the Sky+ remote. It connects to boxes via Bluetooth, rather than infra-red, meaning it doesn’t need to be pointed at the TV to work. And if you lose it, pressing a button on the Sky box will trigger a bleeping sound from the remote. The remote will support voice control, although this won’t be available at launch.

Sky Q boxA new remote has a touch-sensitive pad  Photo: Sky

Finally, Sky has unveiled the Sky Q hub, a new broadband router, designed to work with the other hardware. It can connect to boxes using your home’s electric wiring when this will enable a better signal than Wi-Fi, and in this case, can turn Sky Q boxes into a Wi-Fi hotspot to boost connections in parts of the house away from routers. This so-called “powerline” networking will “supercharge” your Wi-Fi, Sky says.

The TV hardware is ultra-high definition (4K) compatible, although this won’t be available until Sky launches the services later in 2016.


Sky has completely re-designed the menu, putting on-demand services and recordings at the front of the new interface. For example, searching for a show will allow you to select from recordings, catch-up TV and upcoming broadcasts.

Selecting shows, services and recordings is far more visual than under Sky+, with a new tile-based menu to browse around.

Sky Q user interfaceSky Q’s new menu  Photo: Sky

A new menu feature, called “My Q”, is designed to be a hub for what you might want to watch. For example, you can pick up a programme that you stopped watching last night, find the next episode in a series you’re watching, or open a recommendations section that will offer shows tailored to your viewing habits at different times of the day.

There are also some new menu features for sports and music. For example you can see what games or matches are being shown live, search by sport, or specific music content.

‘Fluid viewing’

At the core of Sky Q is what Sky calls a “fluid viewing” experience. Essentially, you can pick up where you left off on a different TV box, or on Sky’s tablet app, by going to the “My Q” section and pressing play.

However, although boxes and tablets are connected, they are totally independent. The 12 tuners in the main Sky box means that different programmes can be watched on five different screens, whether tablets or connected TVs, with four other channels being recorded, without interruption.

A special Sky Q tablet app will essentially replicate the experience on tablet computers, allowing access to live TV, recordings and catch-up, as opposed to the current Sky Go app, which only allows live TV and on-demand viewing. Viewers will also be able to download programmes onto their tablets for offline viewing later.

Sky Q on tabletSky Q’s tablet app replicates the TV experience  Photo: Sky

Broadly, this allows you to take the full Sky Q service with you around the house, whether you’re watching on a TV or tablet.

A smartphone app will come soon, Sky says, and its director of product Andrew Olson said a version for PCs was a possibility too. In the meantime, you can send sound from apps like Spotify or Apple Music to your TV over Apple’s AirPlay or Bluetooth if you want to play music through a TV sound system.

Content and apps

While Sky has continually updated its technology, its key advantage has always been content – it invests heavily in sports rights, movies and other programming.

That hasn’t changed much with Sky Q. Sky’s own content is still at the centre of the product. However, it has added a few new features.

Sky has signed deals with several publishers, such as GoPro, GQ and Wired for a new section it calls “online video”, which will offer on-demand videos about various subjects.

Additionally, it has a few “apps” – accessed via the menu – including YouTube and music service Vevo. Sky also has its own Sports and News apps, as well as Facebook photos, that lets users browse scores, news and information on a side screen while continuing to watch video.

Sky Q VevoSky Q’s Vevo app  Photo: Sky

Other apps are likely to join the service, although Sky will have to work closely with any that want to develop them. This is unlike internet TV boxes like Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire TV, which have an open ecosystem for which anyone can develop apps.

It is unclear whether rival content providers like Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Instant Video will at some point feature.

Release date and price

Sky has not announced pricing for Sky Q, although given that it isn’t getting rid of Sky+, which charges based on what channels one might want, an educated guess might be that Sky will charge a premium above that.

Some element of the pricing could involve charging extra for additional hardware. The main box might come with the service, with Sky charging more for the “mini” boxes.

Stephen van Rooyen, Sky’s chief marketing officer, compared Sky’s strategy to a BMW, with Now TV representing the Mini brand, Sky +HD a 3 Series BMW and Sky a top-of-the-range 7 Series.

The service is due to launch in early 2016, with features like Ultra-HD, smartphone support and voice control coming later.


Sky has always had the UK’s best TV content, and has successfully been able to charge a premium for it. As time has moved on, it has added new technology – recording, high-definition, catch-up, remote viewing and so on.

Sky Q represents an evolution of this idea. Sky still has most of the best content, but viewers want to be able to watch it in their own way. The new service essentially lets users take the experience with them, with as little hassle as possible.

If you’re a “cord-cutter” – someone who does without a pay TV subscription, relying on internet services like Netflix, iPlayer and YouTube for your TV fix – this probably isn’t going to change your mind. It is not the radical re-thinking of the TV experience than some might have hoped (although nobody seems to have come up with a realistic idea of what that might be), being more of a significant upgrade than a revolution.

But for Sky’s 10 million-plus existing customers, or those on rival platforms, it is enough to keep it ahead of the competition. Pricing is likely to be crucial to how many homes this will sit in in a year’s time.


Help wanted: Obama’s tech-training project now accepting applications

Organizers of innovative training programs can now apply for a federal grant to help prepare low-wage workers for more-lucrative tech jobs.

Could high-tech training be the ticket out of a low-paying job?

The Obama administration thinks so. The White House took steps Tuesday to advance its nationwide initiative to help young, unemployed and low-skill workers get trained in technology and placed in well-paying tech jobs.

In March, President Barack Obama announced his TechHire initiative, which offers $100 million in federal grants to innovative programs that provide tech training to people with a low income, a disability, or limited proficiency in English. On Tuesday, the Department of Labor opened the application process for those grants.

The initiative comes as almost every American industry needs workers with technical skills in an array of areas, such as software development, network administration and cybersecurity. Meanwhile, more than 6 million Americans from 16 to 24 years old are out of work and not in school, the White House said.

TechHire is supposed to be a way for private industry to work with local communities to not only build a well-trained work force, but also give people the opportunity for a well-paying tech job who otherwise wouldn’t have it. The White House claims that in America the average salary in a job that requires information-technology skills is 50 percent higher than the average salary in a private-sector job.

“When these tech jobs go unfilled, it’s a missed opportunity for low-wage workers who could transform their earnings potential with just a little bit of training,” Obama said in March. “And that costs our whole economy in terms of lost wages and productivity.”

The Department of Labor competition will award money to about 30 to 40 grant recipients, according to the White House press release. At least $50 million of that grant money will go toward programs for young Americans, ages 17 to 29, who have “barriers to training and employment,” the release said. These programs are expected to help prepare them for jobs in technology, health care and advanced manufacturing.

TechHire is also looking beyond traditional modes of training workers, such as university and community college programs, and it’s providing funding to programs that offer coding boot camps and online courses to get workers trained more quickly and for less money. As part of the initiative, the Department of Education is currently accepting applications for a financial aid experiment that will let students access federal student aid to enroll in nontraditional job training programs.

Since TechHire was announced, the White House said, 35 cities, states and rural areas have joined the initiative, along with 500 employer partners. Cities already participating include New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco Washington, DC, and San Jose, California, with more expected to sign on.

In New York City, for instance, Mayor Bill de Blasio has created the NYC Tech Talent Pipeline. The effort builds on an existing relationship with the City University of New York, the Department of Education and the Department of Small Business Services to combine city, state, federal and private funding to establish a program that trains mostly women and minorities for tech jobs in the city. The program also helps set up internships or full-time software development jobs with employers, such as Etsy, Foursquare and Goldman Sachs.

Major tech companies Microsoft and Cisco are also listed on the White House website as participating in the initiative.

Tagged ,

​Mystery startup from ex-Mozilla CEO aims to go where tech titans won’t

Brendan Eich, who left the Firefox maker during a firestorm over his anti-gay-marriage views, says his new startup’s software will make the Internet faster, safer and better in ways today’s Net powers won’t pursue.

Brendan Eich is back in business.Brendan Eich

A year and a half after resigning as Mozilla’s chief executivefollowing an uproar over his anti-gay-marriage stance, Eich is spinning up a new company called Brave Software. With nine employees and $2.5 million in early funding from angel investors, the San Francisco startup has begun work on software that promises to make the Internet safer and faster when the company publicly launches it in early 2016.

Though he parted ways with Firefox maker Mozilla, the Brave CEO is carrying some of the nonprofit’s power-to-the-people ethos to his new for-profit venture. Eich won’t share any details yet but said Brave’s software will help give people independence from technology giants that often seem to care more about shareholders than users.

Companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft wield tremendous power over the technology we all use daily, from smartphones at the center of our lives to communications with our closest contacts. But anyone who doesn’t agree with such companies’ policies has little choice but to stick with them. That’s because boycotting any of them means cutting oneself off from the mainstream. Brave evidently aims to shift the balance of power back toward the user through new software that will give people some type of ability to collectively push back.

“It’s vitally important to put the user first,” Eich said in an exclusive interview. “Since all the big powers are public companies, they have to serve their shareholders…. We’re trying to innovate in dimensions that a lot of incumbents won’t innovate, where the user will have more control and maybe bargaining power.”

Helping to co-found Brave are Brian Bondy, a programmer who worked on Firefox at Mozilla and more recently was an engineer at online education specialist Khan Academy, and Kevin Grandon, who worked on Firefox OS and the WebVR technology for virtual reality on the Web.

On Tuesday, Brave plans to announce two more employees. One is Yan Zhu, previously of the Yahoo security team, who worked on the SecureDrop software for helping whistleblowers share documents, helped develop the Tor software that lets people use the Net anonymously, and a fellow of theElectronic Frontier Foundation. Another is Marshall Rose, a programmer and longtime contributor to Internet standards who developed online payment technology and more recently worked on the Internet of Things technology to spread the Net to more types of devices.

Eich rose to prominence by co-founding Mozilla, maker of the Firefox Web browser and Firefox OS software to power mobile phones, and by inventing the JavaScript programming language that makes websites interactive instead of just static documents. By 2014, he had been promoted to Mozilla chief technology officer and then to CEO, but a firestorm erupted after gay-marriage advocates discovered his 2008 donation to the Proposition 8 effort to ban gay marriage in California. He stepped down as CEO after nine days.

His new company seeks to tap into the ideals behind Mozilla’s founding. Mozilla was launched back in 1998 to keep the Internet’s inner workings open so that powerful companies like Microsoft couldn’t control it and lock people into their technology.

Firefox succeeded in that mission a decade ago, heading off the dominance of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Web browser. But that success was in large measure because Firefox was faster and had better features. Eich took that lesson to heart: He promises Brave will offer tangible benefits, not just something that appeals to a small group with philosophical motives.

Eich, who regrets that he didn’t push into the ranks of management earlier in his career, said he still plans to program while raising funds and running Brave.

“I’m writing code, but I need to write more,” he said. At Brave, it’s “going to be like [the movie] ‘Starship Troopers’: Everybody fights and no one quits.”

The latest Windows 10 update makes activation way easier than before

Activating your copy of Windows 10 has gotten far less tedious in Microsoft’s first major update for the operating system. You no longer have to start by upgrading from a previous install of Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 to get Windows 10 properly activated under Microsoft’s free-for-a-year policy. Now, the company will recognize any valid activation key from those prior versions (or Windows 8) and grant you a “digital entitlement” that makes your install of Windows 10 fully legitimate.

Technically, Microsoft says this is meant to work only when Windows has previously been activated on the same device that Windows 10 is being clean installed on. But testing of recent Insider builds has revealed that the company — at least for now — is being pretty generous with the new activation policy. So if you’ve got an unused key for an older Windows release, you might be able to make the jump right to 10 without any annoying upgrades in your way. There are many more improvements and fixes in the latest Windows 10 update, and you can read about them here.

Tagged , , ,

Google Maps reviewers can now earn 1 TB of free Drive storage

Google has updated its Local Guides program for Google Maps, rewarding people who regularly leave reviews, upload photos, or add information for restaurants, tourist spots, and other locations with increased Google Drive storage and early access to new products.

Guides who reach level two will get early access to new Google products and features, while level three participants will get a badge next to their name, indicating when a review or piece of information has been contributed by a trusted guide. But it’s level four that offers the most appealing prize, gifting Local Guides who reach that rank with 1 TB of Drive storage for free, an amount that’s worth $9.99 a month. In the wake of Microsoft’s recent rollbacks on OneDrive storage, this is one of the few ways to get a terabyte of cloud space for free. Those who ascend all the way to level five, after accumulating 500 points in the program, will be able to apply to attend the first Local Guides summit in 2016. Google hasn’t provided concrete details about the summit yet, but it says that those chosen as attendees will be able to “meet other top Guides from around the world, explore the Google campus, and get the latest info about Google Maps.”

The company has been slowly expanding its Local Guides program over the past year to fill Google Maps with more relevant information. In August, it tested a new feature that detected when food photos were taken at restaurants and automatically uploaded them, attaching them to the location so other users could see what they could be eating.

While Google Maps has traditionally been seen as the the mapping market leader after Apple Maps’ shaky launch, Apple has stepped up development on its product, adding public transport directions and apparently gearing up to introduce its own take on Google’s street view. But by adding real-world rewards for Local Guides, Google has made buying in to its program — and by extension Google Maps — a much more appealing concept.

Tagged , ,

Sony’s crowdfunded FES e-paper watch hits retail this month

The FES Watch, an e-paper timepiece developed by a Sony subsidiary, first broke cover a year ago on Japanese crowdfunding site Makuake. Since then it’s expanded to Sony’s own crowdfunding portal First Flight, and this month it’ll finally see a release — albeit a limited one — in Japanese stores.

The MoMA Design Store on Omotesando will carry the FES Watch from this Saturday, while Isetan in Shinjuku — the boutique department store that Apple used for the Apple Watch launch — will sell it from December 1st. In choosing these two locations, Fashion Entertainments, the Sony subsidiary producing the FES Watch, is clearly taking a design- and style-first approach to the release of its first product; Tokyo’s countless electronics stores are being left out for now.

sony FES watch

The FES watch — which really is just a watch, not a smartwatch — will be sold through the Japanese MoMA online store, too, and it’s also still available through First Flight with shipping set for Saturday. Sony isn’t revealing anything about a wider release except to say that it plans to bring the FES Watch to other stores in time. The watch sells for a tax-inclusive price of ¥29,700, or about $242.

Tagged , , , , ,

SpaceX completes testing of SuperDraco engines (with video)

SpaceX and NASA announced that the propulsion system designed to safely abort the upcoming crewed Dragon capsule — dubbed SuperDraco — has been successfully fired 27 times and completed development testing. The SuperDraco thrusters are scaled up versions of the small Draco thruster used for maneuvering and docking control on the upper stages of the Falcon 9 rocket, the upcoming Falcon Heavy, and the Dragon spacecraft. SuperDraco provides roughly 200x more thrust than its little brother, and is designed for a variety of use-cases and capabilities. Each spacecraft will be fitted with eight SuperDraco thrusters, and each thruster provides roughly 1/9 the performance of a single Merlin 1D. The Falcon-9 launches with nine Merlin 1D engines, to give you an idea of how the systems compare.

SuperDraco is a 3D printed engine that’s designed to be throttled from 20% to 100% of thrust and can be restarted multiple times. The SuperDraco engines are going to be used to ensure that a crew capsule can abort a mission safely and either land or splashdown. Spacecraft that carry the SuperDraco system will also have redundant parachutes to ensure that the crew’s survival doesn’t depend on a single mechanism, and the SuperDraco engines have enough thrust to safely abort a mission even with one engine failure.


One of the unique capabilities of the SuperDraco is its ability to perform what’s known as “propulsive landing.” When Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, it was far too heavy to perform aerobraking in the thin Martian atmosphere. NASA designed a rocket-powered hovercrane to perform the operation instead, and SuperDraco could perform a similar maneuver with a much heavier payload. The engine is designed to use a storable liquid propellant for fuel (meaning it doesn’t need to be kept cryogenically cold). A video of the most recent test firing is embedded below.

The extensive abort capabilities of the Dragon V2 passenger-rated capsule are a departure from NASA’s traditional philosophy. The Space Shuttle may have been an icon of human exploration for thirty years, but it had limited abort capabilities, no crew ejection mechanism, and no way to safely return a crew to Earth if a problem developed in orbit. The investigation into Challenger’s destruction indicated that the crew survived the initial explosion and may have been alive and conscious until the crew cabin slammed into the ocean at more than 200 miles per hour, while there was no way to save Columbia’s crew short of an emergency attempt to bring Atlantis to readiness (and that plan was not attempted).

NASA’s goal with the new Dragon V2 capsule and the crew module being worked on at Boeing is to avoid ever having to face such scenarios again and to safeguard against multiple failure modes that could lead to the death of a crew. The flexibility and capability of the new SuperDraco should help achieve that goal.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

UK law mandates software backdoors, jail for disclosing vulnerability

It’s the hottest trend in spooking: Take law-abiding citizens, usually business owners, and use the justice system to compel them into being your enthusiastic deputies. People pitch in by opening their doors, both physically and digitally, so the government can make use of any supposedly private user data they might have. The seeming enthusiasm of the collaboration comes from the fact that these same orders make it a crime to reveal the collaboration, so service providers must also actively deceive their own users about the true level of privacy they provide.

Now the UK is getting in on the action, as it’s been revealed that under the upcoming Investigatory Powers Bill it will have the ability to order companies to build software “backdoors” into their products, and revealing that collaboration could result in up to a year in prison. More than that, the government is also empowering itself to enlist the services of talented individuals like hackers, and to also legally restrain these people from revealing the work they’ve done — even in open court. In the US, these orders are called as National Security Letters (NSLs), and they have come to be routinely served to everyone from a small business owners to major corporate executives.

cameron head

The bill, widely referred to as the Snoopers Charter, could also mean that citizens subjected to these secret orders, who decide to defy them, would be tried by secret courts and appeal to secret tribunals with zero public accountability or even disclosure of its decisions. This fundamentally makes resistance impossible — try to make a stink about what you see as improper use of government power in the UK, and the UK government may soon be able to respond with a judicial system not all that different from a black bag over the head.

The most famous battle over a National Security Letter in the US came when the creator of Lavabit decided that the only way to alert his customers to government snooping without going to jail was to shut down the service without notice or explanation. These sorts of laws, which not only grant powers but build into the system secrecy about those powers, stultify the discourse and make democracy fundamentally impossible. How do you set defense policy when you are not legally allowed to discuss the full range of defensive practices?

snoopers 2In the documentary CitizenFour, among many other places, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden makes a point of saying that of all the Western intelligence powers, GCHQ, the signals intelligence agency of the United Kingdom, is the most invasive. While NSA has a strong sense of entitlement to push the boundaries of its constitutional limitations, it does exist within the context of those limitations and the tyranny-phobic American system in general.

As a Canadian, someone who has tried investigating even minor details about Canada’s SIGINT body, let me just say that while things may be getting worse in America, they are absolutely not the worst out there. The current parliamentary democracies, whether in Britain, Canada, or elsewhere, have the capacity to produce far less restricted governments and government agencies, while also subjecting those agencies to less meaningful public oversight.

Not that Americans should become any less noisy or demanding about their digital rights — things may be bad all over the Western world, but the fact that Americans are willing to complain so loudly is the only reason things haven’t gotten even worse than they are today.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

SteamOS, Ubuntu, or Windows 10: Which is fastest for gaming?

For years, game support on Linux has seriously lagged behind Windows, to the point that the OS was basically a non-option for anyone who wanted to game on a PC. In recent years, that’s begun to change, thanks to increased support for the OS via Valve and SteamOS. From the beginning, Valve claimed that it was possible to boost OpenGL performance over D3D in Windows, and it’s recently put a hefty push behind Vulkan, the Mantle-based API that’s a successor to OpenGL.

Two new stories took OpenGL out for a spin compared with Windows 10, on a mixture of Intel and Nvidia hardware. Ars Technica dusted off their Steam machine for a comparison in the most recent version of SteamOS, while Phoronix compared the performance of Intel’s Skylake Core i5-6600K with HD Graphics 530. The results, unfortunately, point in the same direction: SteamOS and Ubuntu simply can’t keep up with Windows 10 in most modern titles.


Ars tested multiple titles, but we’ve included the Source-based results here, because these are the games that the industry titan has direct control over. In theory, Valve’s own games should show the clearest signs of any OGL advantage, if one existed. Obviously, it doesn’t — L4D2 shows similar performance on both platforms, but TF2, Portal, and DOTA 2 are all clear advantages for Windows 10.

That doesn’t mean Linux gaming hasn’t come a long way in a relatively short period of time. All of these titles return playable frame rates, even at 2560×1600. There’s a huge difference between “Windows 10 is faster than Linux,” and “We can’t compare Linux and Windows 10 because Linux and gaming are a contradiction in terms.” It’s also possible that Valve is throwing most of its weight behind Vulkan and that future games that use that API will be on a much stronger footing against Windows in DX12 titles.

The penguinistas at Phoronix also took Windows and Ubuntu out for a spin with Intel’s HD Graphics 530 and a Skylake processor. Again, the results are anything but pretty for Team Penguin — while some titles, like OpenArena, ran nearly identically, most 3D applications showed a significant gain for Windows 10. Again, driver support is a major issue; Intel’s Linux drivers remain limited to OpenGL 3.3, though OpenGL 4.2 support is theoretically forthcoming by the end of the year. Under Windows, OGL 4.4 is supported, which gives that OS a decided advantage in these types of comparisons.

A complex situation

There are two, equally valid ways of looking at this situation. First, there’s the fact that if you want to game, first-and-foremost, Windows remains a superior OS to Mac or Linux, period, full-stop. There is no Linux distribution or version of Mac OS X that can match the capabilities of Windows for PC gaming across the entire spectrum of titles, devices, and hardware — especially if you care about compatibility with older games, which can be persnickety in the best of times.

That conclusion, however, ignores the tremendous progress that we’ve seen in Linux gaming over a relatively short period of time. There are now more than a thousand titles available for Linux via Steam. If you’re primarily a Linux user, you’ve got options that never existed before — and as someone who hates dual-booting between operating systems and refuses to do so save when necessary for articles, I feel the pain of anyone who prefers to game in their own native OS rather than switching back and forth.

Furthermore, it’s probably not realistic to expect Valve to close the gap between Windows and Linux gaming. Not only does that assume that Valve can magically control the entire driver stack (and it obviously can’t), it also assumes that Valve does anything within a 1-2 year time frame (it doesn’t). The launch of Vulkan means that Linux users will get feature-parity and very similar capabilities to DX12 gamers on Windows, but Nvidia, AMD, and Intel will need to provide appropriate driver support to enable it. Hopefully, since Vulkan is based on Mantle, AMD will be able to offer support in short order.

In short, it’s not surprising to see that Windows still has a strategic and structural advantage over Linux, and we shouldn’t let that fact obscure the tremendous progress we’ve seen in just a handful of years.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,