The Tech News Blog

February 18, 2015

Sophisticated Global Spyware Operation Linked to NSA

Stuxnet DuquRussia-based security firm Kaspersky on Monday released a report about a mysterious and sophisticated malware distributor, dubbed Equation group, which might be linked to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).

According to Kaspersky Lab, the "Equation group"—named for its penchant for encryption algorithms—has targeted more than 30 countries, including Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and China, with a focus on those in government, nuclear research, military, and nanotechnology, as well as companies developing cryptographic technologies, among others.

Kaspersky said the Equation group has a "powerful arsenal" of Trojans with names like EquationLaser, EquationDrug, DoubleFantasy, TripleFantasy, Fanny, and GrayFish.

Equation group malware can reprogram hard drive firmware, and has been found on devices from Seagate, Western Digital, and Samsung. The exploit is undetectable and cannot be removed.

Kaspersky Equation infectionInfections have been carried out via physical interceptions, like infected USB drives and CD-ROMs. "One such example involved targeting participants at a scientific conference in Houston: upon returning home, some of the participants received a copy of the conference materials on a CD-ROM, which was then used to install the group's DoubleFantasy implant into the target's machine," Kaspersky said.

"The Equation group is probably one of the most sophisticated cyber attack groups in the world; and they are the most advanced threat actor we have seen," Kaspersky said.

Kaspersky did not identify the Equation group, but said it shared things in common with Stuxnet and Flame, which have been linked to the U.S. government. Equation group dates back to 2001, but could have been active as long ago as 1996.

"[T]he similar type of usage of both exploits together in different computer worms, at around the same time, indicates that the Equation group and the Stuxnet developers are either the same or working closely together," the report said.

The common household computer is an unlikely victim. According to Kaspersky's report, the firmware reprogramming module is "extremely rare."

"During our research, we've only identified a few victims who were targeted by this module," the report said. "This indicated that it is probably only kept for the most valuable victims or for some very unusual circumstances."

Kaspersky counted more than 500 victims worldwide; the system's self-destruct mechanism, however, means there have likely tens of thousands of infections.

February 15, 2015

PS4 Outsells Xbox One in January

XBox vs. PS4 update

Sales of gaming consoles might have been down in January as a result of the post-holiday sales slump, but that's totally fine. At least, we presume that's totally fine, since sales of Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One consoles are 60 percent higher, in total, at this point in their lifecycle compared to the exact same time period for the two company's predecessor consoles: the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

In other words, a lot more people have been buying PS4 or Xbox One consoles than the companies' previous offerings, leading to a generally larger base of video game players in total.

That said, hardware sales in January were down 23 percent. Sales of current consoles, or the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, were down 22 percent, and sales of previous-generation consoles were down 35 percent.

According to NPD, Sony's PlayStation 4 retook the crown from Microsoft's Xbox One for top console sales in January. Previously, the Xbox One was the best-selling console in the U.S. for November and December. It seems that not even Microsoft's $50 price drop in January—starting on January 16, specifically—was enough to keep it in the lead.

"PlayStation 4 was the top-selling console in January and remains the cumulative leader in the U.S., according to NPD data. Since launching in November 2013, 18.5 million PS4 units and 81.8 million software units have been sold through to consumers worldwide," read a statement from a Sony Computer Entertainment America spokesperson, as reported by Gamespot.

Nintendo claims that sales of its Wii U console and related software increased 30 percent and 45 percent, respectively, in January versus the same time period one year prior. The company hasn't offered up specific sales figures, however.

Software and accessory sales in January were up 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively, or $12.4 million and $5.4 million. However, the big hit from hardware sales managed to bring total retail sales for hardware, software, and accessories to a 6 percent decrease compared to the same time period last year.

February 15, 2015

Report: Apple Prepping Electric Car

5 Things to Know About Apple CarPlay

Earlier this month, Patently Apple discovered a patent issued to "Apple Electric Car, Inc." It was intriguing, but the patent was given to a duo out of Miami, and the tech described in the patent wasn't exactly something Apple would release.

But while that patent didn't come from Cupertino, a team at Apple is apparently interested in electric cars. Sources have told Reuters and The Wall Street Journal that Apple has "several hundred" employees working on an electric car, known internally as Titan.

This comes amidst reports that Apple is prepping a Street View rival after minivans leased to Apple, equipped LiDAR sensors and cameras, were spotted driving in Claycord, Calif. Others speculated the vehicles were self-driving car prototypes.

Whatever it's testing, it remains to be seen if we'll ever actually see an electric car roll into an Apple press event. Apple, like most tech companies, often experiments with technologies it never brings to market.

Still, according to the Journal, "the size of the project team and the senior people involved indicate that the company is serious."

The paper pointed to talks with high-end car makers and Apple's work with designer Marc Newsom, who has experience with car design.

Though Apple has billions in the bank, its last big "revolutionary" product was the iPad in 2010, and even that has taken a hit in the last year. The Apple Watch is coming up in April, but many Apple watchers are waiting for Cupertino to come up with something truly surprising and dazzling.

Could an electric car be the ticket? The Journal said the car project has enticed many an Apple employee to remain with the company. Apple might be on to something there; a recent report suggested that Elon Musk and Tesla Motors have poached upwards of 150 Apple employees in recent years.

Tesla, of course, is currently one of the biggest names in electric cars. And it's not opposed to a little competition. Last year, Tesla announced that it will not file any lawsuits against companies that want to use its patented technology for electric vehicles. Tesla and Apple are not strangers, either. In 2014, Musk confirmed that he had informal talks with execs at Apple, but he denied any acquisition plans.

February 13, 2015

Rumor: Samsung Galaxy S6 to Sport 3-Sided Display

Galaxy Edge

A three-sided phone? Now we've heard everything.

No, Samsung isn't going to be making a new prism device—funny as that might be. Instead, a rumored screen that covers "three sides" of the next smartphone in its flagship Galaxy line will wrap around the device's tiny sides. So, yes, it's a three-sided smartphone, but we're not talking about a lot of extra screen real estate here. It'll probably be more along the lines of a fancy effect than anything else.

These latest rumors come courtesy of Bloomberg, which claims that Samsung will be releasing two versions of the new Galaxy S6 next month. Both will feature a 5.1-inch display, but only one will get the more fun wraparound screen treatment.

Specs were not discussed, though plenty of rumors have been circulating. Pricing was also not mentioned, but the difference between the Galaxy Note 4 and wraparound Galaxy Note Edge (pictured) was about $100 for those on contract.

A report from Business Insider last month suggested that one of the new smartphones will be made out of plastic, and the other metal. However, Bloomberg's source indicates that both smartphones will be metal—a departure from Samsung's previous, plastic designs.

Whatever Samsung has up its sleeve, you can expect to see it at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The company's big Unpacked event is scheduled for Sunday, March 1.

February 13, 2015

Microsoft Releases Windows 10 Preview for Phones

Windows 10 PC / Phone Synnergy

Microsoft today released the first preview of Windows 10 for phones, which adventurous Lumia owners can install to see some of the operating system's new features.

According to a blog post from Microsoft's Gabe Aul, the company is looking for feedback on what it's making very clear is an unfinished, buggy OS with an experience that "lacks polish."

"This preview is still very much under development and you're going to see some rough edges. We're sharing it with you so you can be with us at every step, and provide your feedback to help make this the best release ever," Aul writes.

Several key Windows 10 features are appearing in this preview, but other major features aren't there yet. You get the basic new UI, new settings, new action center, custom background images on the start screen and better voice dictation. But you don't get the new universal apps, the new Office apps, the Spartan browser, Xbox integration, Skype in Messaging, or a final version of Cortana, among other things. Aul's blog post also has a pretty lengthy bug list.

An app called the Windows Phone Recovery Tool will let you roll back to Windows Phone 8.1 if you want, Aul says.

We'll likely hear more about Windows 10 for phones at Microsoft's press conference at Mobile World Congress on March 2. The final OS release is expected this summer.

How to Install the Windows 10 Preview for Phones
To get the preview, you need a Lumia 630, 635, 636, 638, 730, or 830 phone. I'm installing it right now on an AT&T Lumia 830 and it seems to be working. The blog post says that the Lumia Icon and 1520 are currently not supported because those phones can't yet dynamically increase the size of their OS partitions to do an in-place upgrade.

Go to and sign up for the Windows Insider program. Then, on your PC, go here and click the Install button to send the Windows Insider app to your phone.

Please, please make sure you have a backup now.

When you open the Windows Insider app on your phone, you'll be given the option of "fast" and "slow" build schedules. The slow schedule has improvements coming less often, but they'll also be less buggy, Microsoft says.

There will be a series of long downloads and restarts, and you'll eventually be running Windows 10 for phones. We'll have a hands on as soon as ours installs; it's been going for about two hours now.

February 9, 2015

Report: iOS 9 to Focus More on Stability Than New Features

Apple logoHoping for a whole slew of revolutionary features in iOS 9? You might be let down.

According to a new report from 9to5Mac, Apple is focusing more on improving the stability of its mobile operating system rather than adding a bunch of new features in the next big release. What you'll likely get is a mobile operating system with fewer glitches.

Kind of boring, yes, but the news should be music to the ears of anyone dealing with slow Wi-Fi and battery-drain issues that have been plaguing older iPhone and iPads since the release of iOS 8 in September. While there's no word that Apple plans to fix these specific problems, Cupertino is reportedly going on a major bug hunt for iOS 9.

"For 2015, iOS 9 is going to include a collection of under-the-hood improvements," 9to5 Mac said. "Sources tell us that iOS 9 engineers are putting a 'huge' focus on fixing bugs, maintaining stability, and boosting performance for the new operating system, rather than solely focusing on delivering major new feature additions."

With iOS 9, Apple is also reportedly planning to further reduce the amount of storage required to perform a software update. This is good news for those with 16GB devices, or anyone who has ever been forced to go on a deleting spree just to clear enough space to upgrade.

The blog suggested that Apple might limit iOS 9 support to newer devices. "If the iPhone 5c, original iPad mini, and fifth-generation iPod touch are discontinued by the end of 2015, all of Apple's 'currently available' iOS devices would be using 64-bit A7, A8, and A9 processors," 9to5Mac noted. "This could simplify iOS development for both Apple and third-party app developers."

The report comes after Apple late last month squashed a number of bugs with its latest iOS update, but ignored the major Wi-Fi, battery drain, calendar, and Bluetooth problems some users on older devices are experiencing.

February 7, 2015

Turbo Tax Stops Processing State Returns Amid Fraud Reports

Get Organized: Take Charge of Your Taxes

Trying to file your state tax return with Intuit's Turbo Tax software? You might run into some trouble.

The tax preparation software company on Friday announced it has temporarily halted e-filing for state returns across the U.S. after it found "an increase in suspicious filings and attempts by criminals to use stolen identity information to file fraudulent state tax returns and claim tax refunds." Intuit is now working with state agencies to address the issue.

"We understand the role we play in this important industry issue and continuously monitor our systems in search of suspicious activity," Brad Smith, Intuit president and CEO, said in a statement. "We've identified specific patterns of behavior where fraud is more likely to occur. We're working with the states to share that information and remedy the situation quickly. We will continue to engage them on an ongoing basis in an effort to stop fraud before it gets started."

February 5, 2015

Swatch Smartwatch to Battle Apple

As reported by Bloomberg, Swatch has already developed long-lasting batteries so thin they're bendable. And its Tissot brand has been making touch-screen watches since 1999; it now offers an altimeter, a compass, and sensors to record a diver's descent.

The nameless smartwatch will operate via near-field communication (NFC) technology, and let users make mobile payments and sync with Android and Windows software.

Perhaps most notable: Swatch's device will not need to be charged, Bloomberg reported, citing CEO Nick Hayek. It remains unclear just how long the battery will last, or how it will remain juiced up for so long. But Hayek tipped a recently awarded patent for batteries based on new materials that can double their performance.

"We'll implement all of those into new products," Hayek told Bloomberg. "Some of them, such as the battery, will take a few years though, and are also destined for other industries, like the automotive industry."

A more immediate feature: mobile payments, about which the company chief remained mum, saying only that Swatch is in talks with retailers. He also declined to specify when the smartwatch will arrive, suggesting "two to three months."

Demand for and production of smartwatches continues to rise, and Hayek is finally feeling the pressure to produce a product he previously dismissed. Concerned about small screens and charging requirements, Hayek once called Swatch's luxury brands smartwatches because "they make you look smart," Bloomberg said.

Swatch did not respond to a request for comment.

Apple, meanwhile, is set to launch its highly anticipated Apple Watch in April to the tune of $349 or more, depending on which version you pick.

February 5, 2015

iOS Tops Android in U.S. for First Time Since 2012

iPhone 6 Review

For the first time since 2012, Apple is once again the king of the U.S. smartphone market.

Apple's iOS overtook Android during the fourth quarter of 2014, taking back the lead it lost two years earlier by "the slimmest 0.1 percent margin," according to new smartphone sales data from Kantar Worldpanel ComTech.

The iPhone 6 was the best-selling smartphone in the U.S. throughout the holiday quarter, and was also the most popular phone to give as a gift. Samsung retained its No. 2 spot, largely thanks to its Galaxy S5, which was the second best-selling smartphone.

"While the success of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is unprecedented, this quarter's performance also points to Apple having its strongest portfolio ever," Kantar's Chief of Research, Carolina Milanesi, said in a statement. "With a range of devices available at different price points in both contract and pre-pay Apple was able to take advantage of a weaker Android offering at the premium end of the market."

Apple's iOS was found on 47.7 percent of all smartphones sold in the U.S. during the fourth quarter, narrowly beating out Android's 47.6 percent share of the market. Microsoft's Windows, which is soon to be Windows 10, nabbed a modest 3.8 percent share.

Meanwhile, Apple's share of smartphone sales also grew in the big five European markets — Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain — as well as China during that all-important holiday period, Kantar found. Across Europe, Android's share dropped 3.8 percentage points year over year to 66.1 percent, while iOS rose by 6.2 percentage points.

The new smartphone sales data comes after Apple last week revealed it sold a record 74.5 million iPhones during the fourth quarter. That's almost double the 39.3 million iPhones the company sold in the third quarter, though buyers were undoubltedly waiting for the fall launch of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Apple's latest large-screen smartphones.

February 3, 2015

PlayStation Network Returns After Yet Another Outage

PlayStation NetworkSony's PlayStation Network (PSN) was once again offline this weekend, this time during Sunday's Super Bowl XLIX.

"We're aware that some users are experiencing issues signing into PSN," PlayStation tweeted on Sunday. "Engineers are investigating. We'll keep you posted."

The Ask PlayStation account posted an update on Monday, saying that PSN services "are in the process of being restored." A later reply ensured that the network was back online, and suggested users "power cycle" their devices and try again.

Sony did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This, of course, is not the first time the PSN has left gamers in the lurch. As folks were digging into their newly unwrapped PlayStation 4 consoles on Christmas Day, they found themselves locked out of the network. Microsoft's Xbox Live was also targeted by hackers who go by the name Lizard Squad.

Sony extended its holiday and flash sales as a result of the PSN's December downtime. Deals included PS4 titles like Alien: Isolation for $36, Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition for $40, and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare for $45.