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The Best Free PC and Console Games to Claim in May 2021

Horizon Zero Dawn (Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Everyone loves free games. Steam has a hefty collection of them, but some places offer titles for only a limited amount of time. Epic Games gives away multiple games a week. Amazon’s Prime Gaming subscription service has new titles each month. But if you’re not paying attention, you’ll lose out on a PC game you could have kept forever.

In an effort to help gamers know what’s out there to claim, we’re tracking the best free games available in a given month. While some titles are free outright, others are included as part of a subscription service. Here’s everything you can grab this month.


Best Free Epic Games Store Games

Epic Games gives away free titles every week; no need for a subscription. Head over to the Epic Games Store website or open the launcher, scroll down to the Free Games section, and hit the Free Now banner on the title you want. Then, go through the process as if you were purchasing the game. You won’t be charged, and the game will appear in your games library on the Epic Games launcher.

Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms (Until May 6)

Idle Champions is a free-to-play clicker game where you fight enemies by clicking on them, manage your collection of Champions, collect gold, upgrade their equipment, and repeat. As a Dungeons & Dragons-themed game, players can collect characters from a number of books, campaigns, and shows. If you download the game during Epic’s giveaway, you will be gifted with $100 worth of add-ons, including a set of new Champions

Pine (May 6 – 13)

Set in a world where humans must compete with evolved anthropomorphic animals, the indie adventure game Pine has you travel the land, solve puzzles, fight enemies, and trade items. The game world is constantly changing, with NPCs and villages constantly reacting to the player’s actions, with events taking place whether you’re around to see them or not.

Sludge Life (Until May 28)

This third-person 3D platformer with retro CRT graphics is really just a vandalism simulator in disguise. Sludge Life is short and sweet, allowing you to explore the game’s surreal world, meet a cast of crass characters, and tag areas with graffiti. Devolver Digital has made the game free to keep for the next year.

Rocket League (Now Free)

Rocket League combines high-speed racing with competitive sports gameplay as you play soccer with racecars. And last fall, the game moved exclusively to the Epic Game Store and became free-to-play for anyone who wants it. We previously gave it an Editors’ Choice award, praising it for a fantastic concept and over-the-top fun while maintaining enough nuance to be a competitive esports title. We consider it to be one of the best PC sports games available, and now you can get it for free.


Best Free GOG Games

GOG doesn’t have regular giveaways like some other websites do, but there is a small collection of free games, which mainly comprises classic computer games. Titles like Shadow Warrior Classic Complete and Postal: Classic and Uncut, which you would have to pay for on Steam, are free on GOG. Other classics, like Ultima 4 (1985) and Akalabeth: World of Doom (1979), are not available anywhere else.

  • Akalabeth: World of Doom (1979)
  • Ascendant (2014)
  • Beneath a Steel Sky (1994)
  • Bio Menace (1993)
  • Cayne (2017)
  • Delores: A Thimbleweed Park Mini-Adventure (2020)
  • Doomdark’s Revenge (1984)
  • Eschalon: Book I (2006)
  • Flight of the Amazon Queen (1995)
  • Jill of the Jungle: The Complete Trilogy (1991)
  • The Lords of Midnight (2013)
  • Lure of the Temptress (1992)
  • Postal: Classic and Uncut (2003)
  • Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves (2013)
  • Shadow Warrior Classic Complete (1997)
  • Stargunner (1996)
  • Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius (2014)
  • Teenagent (1994)
  • Treasure Adventure Game (2011)
  • Tyrian 2000 (1999)
  • Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar (1985)
  • Ultima World of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams (1991)
  • Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire (1990)
  • War Wind (1996)

Children of Morta (While Supplies Last)

This giveaway is a little different because it requires you to make a purchase, but you get a free game out of it. GOG and Visa are teaming up to give away 53,000 codes for the action RPG Children of Morta. Get the game by signing up at the giveaway page, then making a $25 payment using a Visa card. Save the card to your account for future purchases, and you will get your free copy of this roguelike tale of the Bergson family’s journey to free Mount Morta of the evil Corruption.

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition

GOG allows you to score a free copy of the first Witcher game if you download the GOG Galaxy desktop client. Go to the Recent view and click the giveaway button at the top of the screen. As long as you agree to let GOG send you news and offers, the game is free to claim.


Best Free Microsoft Store Games

Microsoft doesn’t usually give away games on the Microsoft Store, but there are a few titles the company has decided to make free moving forward (some you can find only on the web, and not the desktop app). If you have a game code to redeem, sign into your Microsoft Account, then enter the code at redeem.microsoft.com; from the web app, go to More > Redeem a code. If it’s a game for your Xbox console, you must first make sure remote install is set up on your console.

Crackdown (Now Free)

Initially released in 2007, Crackdown received praise as a sandbox style third-person shooter that lets you cause massive amounts of destruction to the environment as you fight a crime wave in a dystopic future.

Crackdown 2 (Now Free)

Crackdown 2 brings back much of the same gameplay as the first game but with additional superhuman abilities and expanded multiplayer. Set 10 years after the first game, the title has you fight terrorists and save the city from a mutant-creating viral outbreak.

Farming Simulator 14 & 16 (Now Free)

Farming Simulator is a popular game for those looking to grow crops, care for animals, and run a farm while operating true-to-life farming equipment. While a new edition is released every year, the editions from 2014 and 2016 are now free in the Microsoft Store, giving you a good chance to try out the games before investing in the newest version.

Phantom Dust (Now Free)

Released in 2004 for the original Xbox, Phantom Dust combines third-person combat with card collecting to create a unique real-time strategy experience. Complete missions to gain new skills and equip unique builds for each new battle. The game was supposed to get a remaster on Xbox One, but it was cancelled and instead the original game was made free for Xbox and Windows.

Too Human (Now Free)

The action RPG Too Human is a science-fiction retelling of Norse mythology, where all the gods are cybernetically enhanced humans who must stop Loki’s machine army.


Best Free PlayStation Plus Games

PlayStation Plus is Sony’s online multiplayer and games subscription service that costs $9.99 for one month, $24.99 for three months, or $59.99 for a full year. As part of the service, you can claim two new games to keep every month. They’ll be accessible as long as you have an active PlayStation Plus subscription. Subscribers who own a PS5 will also be able to keep games from a curated selection of titles.

There are two ways to claim these games from your console. Choose the PlayStation Plus icon from the PlayStation home screen to see the currently available games, plus previously claimed titles. Claimed games can be re-downloaded from this page. You can also go through the PlayStation Network Store and select PS Plus in the left-hand menu.

The other way allows you to add games to your console directly from the PlayStation Store as long as you have Automatic Downloads enabled. Once this is set up, you can choose the games you want from the web page and they will be remotely downloaded to your console.

Battlefield V (Until May 31)

The first-person World War II shooter Battlefield V includes playable stories centered around real-life events during the war. The game focuses on party-based gameplay, character customization, and several multiplayer modes, including battle royale mechanics.

Stranded Deep (Until May 31)

After surviving a plane crash, the player must gather resources, craft items, manage vitals, avoid predators, and ultimately find a way to escape a procedurally generated tropical island. The game features a large quantity of passive and predatory sea life that can affect your playthrough.

Wreckfest – PS5 Only (Until May 31)

Combining traditional car racing and demolition derby gameplay, Wreckfest focuses on vehicular combat with realistic damage and physics that affect your car over the course of a race or derby. The game features a career mode, where you can upgrade and customize your car, as well as multiplayer and custom event modes.

PlayStation Plus Collection – PS5 Only

Players who own a PlayStation 5 and subscribe to PlayStation Plus will now have access to a curated collection of PS4 games. Games can be claimed at any time and will remain playable as long as there is an active subscription. At launch, the PlayStation Plus Collection will include 20 games from Sony and partner studios:

  • Batman: Arkham Knight
  • Battlefield 1
  • Bloodborne
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops III – Zombies Chronicles Edition
  • Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy
  • Days Gone
  • Detroit: Become Human
  • Fallout 4
  • Final Fantasy XV Royal Edition
  • God of War
  • Infamous Second Son
  • Monster Hunter: World
  • Mortal Kombat X
  • Persona 5
  • Ratchet and Clank 
  • Resident Evil 7 biohazard
  • The Last Guardian
  • The Last of Us Remastered
  • Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
  • Until Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn Complete Edition (Until May 14)

Sony’s last remaining Play At Home game, Horizon Zero Dawn Complete Edition, is still up for grabs. This action RPG puts you in the role of Aloy, a hunter in a world overrun by machines. You will use various weapons, stealth skills, and new abilities on your quest through a harsh open world in order to discover the truth about her past. Claim the game from the PlayStation Store while you still can.


Best Free Prime Gaming (Twitch Prime) Games

Prime Gaming (formerly known as Twitch Prime) is a subscription service that provides in-game loot, free games, and many other perks each month. The service costs $12.99 a month with a free 30-day trial, or comes included with your $119 Amazon Prime subscription. Navigate to the Prime Gaming page, scroll down to the “Games with Prime” section, and select the Claim button next to the titles you want.

To play games offered by Prime Gaming, you must download the Amazon Games launcher. Click the “Download and Play” link that appears next to the Claim button. In the pop-up window, click the link that says Download the Amazon Games Apps (Windows) to install the launcher. Once installed, Prime Gaming games can be claimed from the launcher itself.

Do Not Feed the Monkeys (Until May 7)

This game is a digital voyeur simulator, where you watch strangers on video surveillance cameras and witness their most intimate moments. Gather information about the people and objects caught on these feeds, manage your energy, health, and rent, and interact with your subjects—if you dare.

Iris and the Giant (Until May 14)

Are you ready to face your fears? This is a collectable card game, combined with RPG and roguelike elements, where you help the titular character fight monsters in an imaginary world.

Figment (May 21)

In the action-adventure game Figment, you journey through the surreal world of the human mind as you fight nightmares and solve puzzles to regain lost courage.

Edgar – Bokbok in Boulzac (Until May 28)

This point-and-click adventure game sees outcast Edgar explore the nearby city, where he uncovers a surreal conspiracy that changes everything.

A Blind Legend (Until June 1)

True to its name, The Blind Prophet is an action-adventure game that consists of no video elements and focuses solely on audio interaction. The game can be used with either a touch screen or a mouse, and 3D audio helps players navigate accurately.

Beholder (Until June 1)

In Beholder, you are a state-sponsored landlord who is tasked with spying on your tenants and reporting them to your superiors. You have the option to protect those suffering under this oppressive regime, but the choice is yours!

The Blind Prophet (Until June 1)

In this point-and-click adventure game, you play as the apostle Bartholomeus on his mission to liberate the corrupted city of Rotbork. The game includes puzzles, mini-games, and challenges to complete.

Healer’s Quest (Until June 1)

In this comedy RPG, you play as an adventuring party’s underappreciated healer. Manage your mana reserves while healing, buffing, and curing party members. Just don’t let anyone die too often or they may get moody and underperform.

Yoku’s Island Express (Until June 1)

Help a dung beetle deliver the mail in this pinball-like platformer with Metroidvania-style open world exploration.


Best Free Steam Games

Steam has many free games you can download at any time, but limited-time free titles are a rare occurrence. In the event that you do find a free game, you can “buy” it on Steam like you normally would, but it will be automatically added to your library instead of having to check out.

If you have a Steam Key code, you can claim the game by launching the Steam client and clicking Games Menu > Activate a Product on Steam. Follow the instructions to complete the process and get your game. You may also need to connect your Steam account with another online retailer (e.g. Humble Bundle) before you can enter the code.

Nubarron: The Adventure of an Unlucky Gnome (Until May 9)

In the platforming adventure game Nubarron, you must guide a gnome through the world while also avoiding the dangerous cloud following him. User the gnome’s abilities and the cloud’s lightning strikes to solve puzzles and defeat enemies, but don’t get struck yourself.

Nights Into Dreams (While Supplies Last)

It turns out that Sega has a few more Steam codes to give out from its 60th anniversary celebration. Register your email with Sega, then claim a key the classic console game Nights Into Dreams in your email.

Company of Heroes 2: Southern Front DLC

If you have the Company of Heroes 2 base game, you can grab the Southern Front DLC by linking your Steam account on the game’s website. The second game of the real-time strategy series focuses on the Eastern Front of World War II with the player primarily controlling the Soviet Red Army. The Southern Front DLC focuses on the bleak weather conditions in the spring of 1943.

Crusader King II (Now Free)

The grand strategy game Crusader Kings III has been well received, but if you’re not ready to commit, there’s a way to preview the experience for free. Paradox Interactive has made Crusader Kings II free-to-play since 2019, giving gamers a chance to see what the excitement is all about before paying up for the most recent entry in the series. While the base game is free on Steam, the game’s many DLCs are still paid.

Endless Space Collection

You can get the 4X strategy game Endless Space and its Disharmony DLC directly from the developer thanks to its Games2gether platform. Sign up for an account and open the reward page (the present icon in the top-right corner) to see your free game. Just link your Steam account to receive the free Steam key and save $10.

Total War: Shogun 2 – Battle of Kawagoe (Now Free)

If you already have Total War: Shogun 2 in your Steam library, you can grab the Battle of Kawagoe map for free. It was originally released as a pre-order bonus in 2011, but now anyone can play the legendary battle that saw the Hojo clan launch an attack against the Uesugi, Ogigayatsu, and Ashikaga clans under the cover of night.


Best Free Xbox Live Gold Games

Xbox Live Gold is the premium subscription tier of the Xbox Live online gaming service that costs $9.99 a month or $24.99 for three months. It is also included in the cost of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Among the many perks you get is free Xbox games every month. While original Xbox and Xbox 360 titles are yours to keep forever, Xbox One games can only be played as long as you have an active Xbox Live Gold subscription.

To claim your free games with an Xbox Live Gold subscription, go to the Gold section on your Xbox One console or visit this page on a computer to queue up the game for download on your console. Games are added on the 1st and 16th of every month.

Truck Racing Championship

This racing game lets you take control of giant 5-ton, 1,000-horsepower trucks on over a dozen tracks across the world. The game features five, single-player modes and three multiplayer modes.

Lego Batman: The Video Game (Until May 15)

Released in 2008, Lego Batman is the first game in the series, and the first Lego game to depict DC Comics characters. The game features an original story that sees Batman and Robin fight Riddler, Penguin, Joker, and many other villains in order to save Gotham City.

Armello (Until May 31)

Armello is an RPG strategy game that is depicted as a board game complete with dice rolls, playing cards, and hexagon-shaped tiles. Up to four players control anthropomorphic animal heroes from different clans in an effort to claim the crown.

Tropico 4 (May 16 – 31)

Rule your own country in Tropico 4, a city management and government simulation game that allows you to customize a tropical island, then meet the needs of your citizens with the parameters you have set. The game allows you to create your own leader avatar, navigate different political factions, and complete missions in a campaign mode.

Dungeons 3 (May 16 – June 15)

Dungeons 3 is a dungeon building and real-time strategy game where you create a dungeon, defend it from raiding heroes, and even release your armies on the world in singleplayer and multiplayer gameplay.


Miscellaneous Free Games

Not every free game is part of a larger program or initiative. If we find a random giveaway or a DRM-free download, we will share them below.

Apogee Classics

Before 3D Realms created the Duke Nukem series, the company created adventure games for MS-DOS under the name Apogee Software Productions. You can grab several of these games for free if you create an account at 3drealms.com. Claimed games will appear under My Games, which can then be downloaded directly to your computer. Here’s the list of Apogee games:

Blizzard Arcade Collection

The Blizzard Arcade Collection brings together the definitive editions of three classic games: 1994 action platformer Blackthorne, 1993 puzzle platformer The Lost Vikings, and 1994 isometric racing game Rock N’ Roll Racing. While Blizzard expects you to pay $20 for the upscaled versions, you can still download and play the original games without needing to pay.

The Elder Scrolls: Arena

The Elder Scrolls: Arena is the first entry in the popular Bethesda series and has been free of charge since 2004. Download the full game on the company’s website. It combines designed spaces with procedurally generated areas to create a vast, explorable game far bigger than what was usually possible back in the ’90s.

The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall

Daggerfall has been free since 2009; get it from the Bethesda website. Like Arena, Daggerfall features thousands of towns and dungeons to explore, as well as guilds to join, which offer their own questlines.

Marathon Trilogy

Before Bungie developed Halo for Microsoft, the company created Marathon, a Doom clone set in space that is considered a spiritual predecessor to Master Chief’s adventures. Bungie developed Marathon, Marathon 2: Durandal, and Marathon Infinity in the mid-90s, then publicly released the source code prior to the Microsoft purchase. Now, Aleph One continues support and development of the games, which you can download and play here.

StarCraft

Blizzard released StarCraft: Remastered in 2017, so it made the original real-time strategy game, and its sequel, free to play. You can download StarCraft Anthology, which packaged the original game with the Brood War expansion pack, and StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty for free.

What to Do If Your Headphones or Speakers Sound Terrible

(Image: Shutterstock)

There’s no feeling like turning on your new high-end speakers or noise-cancelling headphones, only to hear static-filled music. But before you start blaming your audio peripherals, it might be the computer or phone that’s to blame. If your audio has a bad case of the snap-crackle-pops, here are a few steps to troubleshoot the problem.


Lower the Volume

You might think that your new speaker is the bee’s knees, but if it’s distorting at loud volumes, it might just not have enough power for the space. Turn the volume down and see if the music still distorts—if it sounds okay, your speaker is probably underpowered for the volume you require. If you still have issues at low volumes, then read on.


Check Your Source Files

Next in the category of “obvious but necessary” tips: check the quality of the music itself. If you’re playing a song you bought from iTunes or Amazon, you can be reasonably assured it’s decent quality, but if you’re listening to an 80kbps MP3 downloaded from KaZaA in the early 2000s—or worse, streaming a YouTube video of a song someone else downloaded from KaZaA in the early 2000s—there are no settings you can tweak to make it sound good. 

Grab songs from sources you trust, and if you’re using a streaming service like Spotify or Pandora, make sure you’ve cranked the audio-quality setting as high as it goes for the best sounding music.


Look for Dirt or Water Damage

If your problems seem tied to that specific speaker or set of headphones, focus your attention on that hardware. It’s possible they have water damage, dirt, or other debris keeping the speakers from producing clear audio. This is especially common when you’re trying to listen on your phone’s built-in speaker, so grab a toothpick and clean out any gunk you see. 

If you dropped your phone in water or ran your earbuds through the washing machine, you may be stuck buying a new pair. Nothing lasts forever—I even had a set of speakers that started making popping sounds, only to find smoke coming out of the subwoofer as they were singing their final song.


Plug Into a Different Port (If You Can)

Desktop PCs aren’t always known for having the best audio quality on the front headphone jack. (That’s why many audiophiles use separate digital-to-analog converters, or DACs.) If things sound less than stellar, try plugging your headphones into the speaker jack on the back of your PC to see if that improves anything. 

If you’re using a laptop, you won’t have another headphone jack, but you could try plugging into the 3.5mm-to-USB-C dongle that came with your phone and plugging that into a USB port to see if you notice any differences. The problem could also be with the jack itself, or with the audio drivers governing the PC’s onboard audio. (Try reinstalling the drivers to see if that helps.) 

If you’re using Bluetooth headphones, try a wired pair, and vice versa. Or, if your Bluetooth headphones support plugging in via wired mode, try that as well to see whether the problem is specific to Bluetooth or the headphones themselves.


Disable Phone Calls on Your Headphones

Let’s assume everything is good on the hardware side: now it’s time to dig into your audio settings. If your earbuds double as a headset for phone calls, it’s possible your device is sending audio using the inferior phone call path rather than treating them as high-quality stereo headphones.

In Windows, right-click the sound icon in the bottom-right corner of the taskbar and select Sounds. Here, you’ll see a list of all the speakers, headphones, and unused audio ports on your machine. Look for the device with a green checkmark—the one you’re currently using—and make sure it’s the correct one. 

If you’re using a set of wireless headphones with a built-in microphone, it may produce two entries in this list: one as a stereo set of headphones, and one as a hands-free headset designed for phone calls. If you play music through the virtual device designed for phone calls, it’s going to sound terrible, so select different items here and click the Set Default button to see if one option sounds better than another. (You can also disable the communications headset option completely.)

This is a common issue on Windows machines, but less so on phones, from my experience. But it doesn’t hurt to check: on Android, you can go into your Bluetooth settings, click the settings cog next to the headphones in question, and turn calls off to see if that solves the problem. On an iPhone, click the “i” next to your headphones in Bluetooth settings and change the Device type to see if that helps as well.


Adjust Your Equalizer and Audio Enhancements

Many phones and PCs have some audio “enhancements” you can add to your music, though these can often do more harm than good. If you’re hearing distortion, make sure all of these are turned off.

In Windows, head back to the Sound Settings as described above. Then, select the device from the list and click the Properties button. Go through the tabs here and turn off any sort of enhancements—from Spatial Sound to Bass Boost, and anything else you see. All of these things can, in theory, cause distortion in the audio. You might even try turning Exclusive Mode on or off, to see if that solves any of your issues.

If your problems are on an iPhone rather than a computer, head to Settings > Music and make sure the EQ is turned off. Do the same for the music app you’re using to listen. Android phones will have similar settings in your music app of choice, though some phones—like Samsung Galaxy devices—may have other audio enhancements in their settings, so dig around and search for features like Dolby Atmos, Equalizers, Adapt Sound, and other improvements that could be causing problems.

You may also want to change the audio codec used for Bluetooth devices: in Android, go back to your Bluetooth settings, click the cog next to your headphones, and if given the option, try the higher-quality AAC or aptX instead of the default setting. (Some phones may call it “HD Audio.”)


Disconnect Other Bluetooth Devices

I’ve noticed a strange issue with Bluetooth on some of the phones I’ve owned in the past. In random cases, my music will sound distorted if I have more than one Bluetooth device connected at a time, like another nearby pair of earbuds, or my smartwatch.

If you disconnect the secondary device, you may find your audio comes in cleaner to your main Bluetooth headphones. (If you’re using a smartwatch, you might be able to solve this by going into the watch’s settings and turning off call and media audio.)

Many of these “solutions” are not ideal, but they’ll at least help you work around the problem until you can find a more permanent, workable option. These are also far from the only causes of distortion—there are so many phones and PCs out there that any number of hardware issues, software bugs, or driver quirks could produce the same behavior. But if you’re lucky, these steps will at least help you narrow down the source so you can focus your attention on the right device.

New iPad Mini, iPad Pro, iPhone SE, AirPods, AirPods Pro for 2021: Apple Rumors Are Flying

What does Apple have in the works for 2021? Rumors are popping up all over in advance of the tech giant’s April 20 “Spring Loaded” event. Will we see new iPads, an AirPods refresh, or an unexpected iPhone SE update? Before we hop into the details, let’s cover the basics.


Apple’s Spring Event Is Set for April 20

March is historically a busy month for Apple. In 2018, it announced the iPad with Apple Pencil at an education-themed event in Chicago. In 2019, Apple Arcade, Apple Card, Apple News+, and Apple TV+ made their debuts at the Steve Jobs Theater. Last year, in lieu of a splashy event, the company quietly announced iPad Pro, MacBook Air, Mac mini, and Magic Keyboard updates.

For months, there has been a battle between journalists and influencers over just when Apple would hold its first event of 2021. Jon Prosser initially said an Apple event would be held on March 16, 2021, but that date came and went without any news from Cupertino. He then tweeted the event would happen on March 23; that prediction cost him his eyebrows. Meanwhile, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman said the event was on the books for April all along.

After months of false starts and inaccurate predictions, Apple sent out invitations, and the virtual event—with the tagline “Spring Loaded”—will be held on April, 20, 2021, at 1 p.m. EDT.


AirPods 3

Ready for a new spin on AirPods? Well, Apple is reportedly working on a substantial redesign for its next-generation AirPods. 

Apple’s AirPods are long overdue for an update.

The new AirPods will reportedly sport shorter stems along with a smaller case. We also wouldn’t be surprised if Apple adds a magnetic ring for MagSafe charging, though it may be a premium option. Though the upcoming AirPods will likely have a new wireless chip, ANC is probably not in the cards. We also don’t expect spatial audio to make an appearance. 

Pricing is expected to increase from $159 to $199 for the next-generation AirPods. It looks like we may have to wait a bit longer for an update, however, since MacRumors reports Apple will not begin mass production of AirPods 3 until the summer.


AirPods Pro 2

It’s been a few years since Apple first released its AirPods Pro, and it looks like we may be getting an update. Last year, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reported that an updated version of the AirPods Pro was scheduled for 2021 and would do away with the stem to look more like other true wireless earbuds on the market. That means the case will likely be slimmed down; 9to5Mac suggests it may magnetically attach to MagSafe chargers. 

MacOtakara, a popular Japanese site for Apple leaks, reports Apple will introduce the latest AirPods in April. This seems on track, but we’re not certain Apple will update AirPods Pro in the coming weeks since third-generation AirPods will likely be announced with the next iPhone, and the fact Apple just started a new AirPods Pro ad campaign.


AirTags

It looks like Apple may finally announce AirTags, its long-awaited long competition to Tile and other tracking devices.

AirTags use Bluetooth connectivity to find lost devices and will be integrated into Apple’s Find My app. They’re reportedly small, round, white discs with a small Apple logo. If you’re too far away from your device to connect via Bluetooth, you can activate Lost Mode for the AirTag, and you’ll be notified any time another iPhone gets close enough to pick up the signal. It also looks like Apple will provide a way for users who find an AirTagged product to contact its owner.

In April, Apple announced that a selection of third-party products now work with the Find My app; we think this announcement comes in advance of an AirTags announcement on April 20. Pricing is rumored to be $25-$35 per AirTag, though we think Apple will offer multi-packs at a discount.


Apple TV (6th Generation)

Let’s face it: Apple TV is way overdue for an update: The last refresh was in 2017. Multiple sources say the next-generation Apple TV has been ready for nearly a year. A product called Apple TV Gen X also made an appearance in Target’s inventory system last year.

According to Israeli tech site The Verifier, the upcoming Apple TV will have major hardware and software updates. We’re really hoping the remote gets an upgrade as well; if you’ve ever used an Apple TV remote you’ll know what we’re talking about.

The new Apple TV is rumored to ship with an A12 and a few storage configurations. The base model will feature 64GB of storage and it’s likely a 128GB variant will be available as well. It’s also rumored to have a U1 processor for tasks like spatial awareness and spatial audio on AirPods Pro and AirPods Max.

The updated hardware provides a few hints as to software features Apple may announce with the next-generation Apple TV or shortly after at WWDC. Expect to see improvements to HomeKit automation and possibly multi-room networking and a Handoff feature when switching rooms. Also expect to see significant improvements to the overall gaming experience when using Apple Arcade. There’s also a chance a new Kid’s Mode and the addition of Screen Time make an appearance.

There’s a good chance we’ll see an update announced at Apple’s Spring Loaded event. A recent tvOS beta suggests an improved remote and FaceTime integration, leading us to think the announcement will come sooner rather than later. If pricing from Target’s inventory system is accurate, the upcoming Apple TV will come in at $179 for the 64GB model.


iPad (9th Generation)

Like iPhones, the basic iPad is updated every year, and this year should be no exception. Rumors for the entry-level iPad are all over the place. We’ve done our best to find credible sources, but you’ll want to take everything with a grain of salt. 

In a research note to investors, Apple analyst Ming Chi Kuo writes that the upcoming iPad will have a 10.2-inch mini-LED display. We believe Apple will ship the tablet with an A13 chipset and increase default storage to 64GB. 

An iPad Air-style redesign is less likely, though bezels may be minimized and the chassis may be thinner. There are a few reports stating the iPad will have USB-C charging, but all appear to originate from a suspended Twitter account, and we’re pretty confident that a Lightning port is in order. We don’t expect MagSafe charging on iPads or an updated Apple Pencil in 2021. 

For the past few years, Apple has announced the iPad in September, and that seems likely to happen this year. Even if the iPad ships with a mini-LED display, we don’t think prices will increase; Apple’s mini-LED order is expected to increase substantially in the second half of the year, and the company is working to bring costs down.


iPad mini (6th Generation)

Apple waited four years before refreshing the iPad mini in 2019. It looks like the wait will be cut in half for the sixth-generation update.

The next-gen iPad mini may look a lot different.

MacOtakura claims the new iPad mini will have a slightly larger, 8.4-inch display. We don’t believe Apple will increase its overall footprint, so there’s a good chance it will get the same redesign treatment as the current iPad Air. It’s a drastic but overdue change that would result in minimized screen bezels, a squared body, and a side-mounted Touch ID scanner. 

As for hardware, Chinese tech site MyDrivers states the iPad mini will ship with an updated A13 processor. We think there’s a possibility of a slight bump in RAM, but storage options are unlikely to change. There’s also a good chance Apple will update the 8MP rear camera on the current model to 12MP for 2021. 

The iPad mini was reportedly on the books for the first half of the year. In April, however, Reuters reported that display component shortages forced Apple to push its release back to the second half of the year. Expect a slight price bump, since Apple will likely use a mini-LED display and may offer a 5G option. 


iPad Pro (5th Generation)

Yearly iPad Pro updates are almost a given, and they’re typically announced in the spring. Despite reports of components shortages, it looks like we will see the next gen iPad Pro on April 20. Details are still pretty scarce, but we can make some educated guesses based on historical patterns, patents, and supply chain news. 

Bloomberg reports the iPad Pro will feature Apple M1 chips, a Thunderbolt port, Updated cameras are on the update list as well. The overall form factor is unlikely to change much this year, though Apple will reportedly use a mini-LED display for better battery life and to make additional room for components.

5G connectivity will likely be an option for 2021. We also expect to see MagSafe charging make an appearance, since Apple used an iPad Pro render as an example of the technology in a patent that published in 2020.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see a small price bump this year to account for more expensive components. 5G connectivity will almost certainly come at a premium.


iPhone SE 3 

Last year’s long-awaited iPhone SE refresh was a massive success, but there are still rumors the midrange smartphone will be updated again for 2021. There aren’t a lot of details on the upcoming iPhone just yet, but we can make some predictions based on supply chain information, consumer pain points, and historical data. 

Expect a much thinner box for the iPhone SE 3.

The biggest rumor at the moment is that the iPhone SE will have a 5.5-inch display. We think Apple may reduce the display bezels and incorporate a side-mounted Touch ID sensor on the phone in order to make room for the larger display while minimizing costs and changes to the phone’s overall dimensions. 

The iPhone SE will likely have an Apple A14 chipset with the same 64GB base storage configuration as the current model. We expect a larger-capacity battery this year as well, since many users found battery life on the current iPhone SE to be underwhelming. 

5G is the big question for the iPhone SE. We think it may limit connectivity to sub-6GHz, but there’s a chance 5G will be an upgrade option, with LTE serving as the standard. 

MacOtakara clams Apple will announce the iPhone SE 3 in April. That falls in line with last year’s announcement. But Kuo offers conflicting information and says we won’t see the refresh before July. Either way, pricing is not expected to change. 


There’s More to Come

We’re focused on mobile products, but Apple has plenty of other surprises in store for 2021. Check out our hardware coverage if you want to learn more about all the new M1-powered computers that should debut later this year.

Mitel MiCloud Connect – Review 2021

We reviewed an earlier version Mitel’s cloud PBX several years ago and it seems time has been good to this business voice over IP (VoIP) platform. The company says Mitel MiCloud Connect focuses on delivering the best voice experience for its customers and bases this claim on its long years of building PBXes for small to midsized businesses (SMBs), though its design shows it’s definitely focusing on midsized or even larger organizations. The platform tries to replicate and improve on the features of traditional, on-premises PBXes. This takes the form of new capabilities, like an easier interconnect between remote offices, though it takes a toll when it comes to feature integration and cost.

For example, even working as a cloud service, MiCloud Connect likes a central office target, mainly because it wants the more robust underlying network. That could be a negative for less sophisticated SMBs. It might also be a problem since working from home is looking like a permanent trend for many companies. Remote work means IT pros will be dealing with a multitude of home networks, not just a single, large office LAN.

Even once you start sending employees back to the office, MiCloud will prove a little pricey compared to other SMB offerings. With so many companies forced to support a large number distributed workers, these drawbacks keep it slightly behind our business VoIP Editors’ Choice winners, Intermedia Unite for small business phone service and RingCentral Office for larger organizations.

Mitel MiCloud Connect: Pricing and Plans

One area where Mitel’s more traditional PBX roots show clearly is pricing. While it does have a desktop softphone client as well as dedicated apps for Apple iOS and Google Android, the service strongly pushes customers towards the physical SIP desktop handsets for which it’s a reseller. Since the exact number of handsets and how they’re configured will vary per customer, there’s no transparent pricing tiers available on the Mitel website like those we found with most of its competitors. Additionally, tacking on fifty or a hundred handsets to your initial installation costs and your ongoing subscription rate will definitely have an impact on overall price.

However, a company spokesperson did share some basic cost data that you can use as a starting point. Mitel has a basic plan, called Essentials, that starts out at $20.99 per user per month. This includes telephony plus collaboration and conferencing capabilities. The next stage is the Premier plan, which costs $26.59 per user per month and adds customer relationship management (CRM) integration plus call recording. Finally, the Elite tier costs $38.49 per user per month and adds top-tier features, like call archiving plus additional operator functions.

Those prices put MiCloud Connect in the middle-to-high pricing bracket when compared to the other competitors we reviewed, depending on which tier you buy. However, those costs could go up once you add desktop handsets, professional services for installation, and any of the other features Mitel sells as extra-cost add-ons, like custom reporting or high-end video conferencing.

The MiCloud Connect User Experience

The MiCloud Connect softphone app is nice and simple on the desktop. According to the company, this is mainly because the app was built using a mobile-first design, so the desktop app is meant to resemble the mobile user interface (UI) as much as possible. Once you’re signed up with Mitel, you’ll have download access to both an Apple macOS and Microsoft Windows 10 desktop app.

Once you’ve installed the desktop client, you’ll find a minimal mode that displays links for Contacts, Recent Calls, Voicemails, Teamwork, and Events. Terms like “Conference Bridge” pay homage to Mitel’s PBX roots. Any user can host a conference call using a dial-in number or a web link. User defaults, like which devices they’d like to ring, are configured by clicking on the gear icon.

The mobile app has basically the same features as the desktop UI. You can even start a call on your desktop handset and then flip it to your mobile device should you have to move while still in conversation. The process is just a simple keypad sequence that works in either direction.

Mitel’s online training provides a comprehensive set of videos to help get administrators and users up to speed quickly. Having a robust selection of training materials will make the onboarding process easier for your staff. We went through the Visual Call Flow Editor training and found it to be well laid out with sections covering all the steps required to create or modify an existing call flow. Using this tool we had an easy time creating a call routing configuration requiring multiple steps in just a few minutes.

System Administration

While it might be focused on replicating on-prem PBX features, Mitel has done a good job designing its web-based administration portal. This has a nicely organized series of function menus and dashboards that are both intuitive and usable with a minimal click count. That said, it’s a little sparse when compared to other products aimed at larger organizations, like Vonage Business Cloud or RingCentral Office.

On the call quality side, we had no connection issues during our evaluation. Then again, our test network was small and dedicated to the testing process. We did notice that the Mitel administrator portal provides relatively few tools for diagnosing and fixing any network-related issues, like jitter, which can definitely impact call quality on larger networks. You’ll need to rely on your own network monitoring tools to detect those issues should they crop up, and if they do, you’ll likely be on the phone with Mitel customer support to fix them.

Still, as far as enabling or disabling features goes, the web portal did a good job when we were setting up our test instance. All user-related functions, such as changing permissions or roles, happens through the web portal. The Phone Manager role is assigned to someone who’ll be responsible for day-to-day system management, and this gives them full access to all MiCloud features. However, these primarily consist of user management, though it also adds MiCloud’s more advanced call routing and reporting features.

We found that reporting is focused mainly on phone functionality with stats like the percentage of calls answered by a person instead of an IVR or simply voicemail. You can also measure total talk time for both inbound and outbound calls among other things. You can export these reports as Excel or CVS files, and if you “subscribe” to one, the system will automatically generate and email it to you on a periodic basis. As part of your web dashboard, Mitel keeps this analytics data for 25 months and then deletes it. That means you’ll need to export your data regularly should you need it for a longer time.

The real downside to Mitel’s reporting is customization. While you can get a customized report, you can’t build it yourself. You’ll need to sit down with your Mitel sales or professional service representative and build the new report together. Mitel will then incorporate it into your account, and charge you extra for the process. Having a customizable reporting template would be a boon here, even a limited one like you get with Dialpad.

Mentioned above, the MiCloud Connect Visual Call Flow Editor is one of the more innovative features of the system. Much like RingCentral Office’s Visual IVR editor, you’ll find a step-by-step UI that lets you add whatever system components you need to build your own, automated response system. This makes it easier to implement some of the more sophisticated capabilities, like a Pickup Group, which just requires an Extension List component. You’ll find a total of nine call flow components for features like groups and schedules, the Auto Attendant, and more.

Mitel Teamwork and Integrations

Mitel Teamwork is a collaboration platform that’s a separate app, but part of the MiCloud Connect platform, so you can opt to enable the integration or not as your needs dictate. Designed similarly to RingCentral’s Glip, Teamwork isn’t quite as robust, but it does add all your basic collaboration features. The app provides direct and group chat plus a task or to-do list for handing out and tracking assignments to team members. You can attach and share files for other team members, and conduct web meetings and video conferencing, too. Together that’s a nice set of team-oriented capabilities. However, we found Teamwork to be missing some key capabilities around granular team thread organization and more advanced collaboration features, like whiteboarding tools or a meeting assistant. So while it nicely rounds out a VoIP platform, this isn’t a one-to-one replacement for a dedicated team messaging app, like Slack.

On the more traditional side, MiCloud does have an email-to-fax feature that lets you send and receive faxes via email. There’s also a browser extension for Google Chrome so you can integrate MiCloud with Google Workspace for email and scheduling. This is a fully bi-directional integration, so you can do things like search through both your Google Workspace and Mitel contacts when scheduling. Mitel Connect for Chrome also gives you the option to add a phone bridge when scheduling a conference call.

Mitel also has a freely available plug in for Microsoft Outlook, but this isn’t quite as deep as the one for Google Workspace. It allows a click-to-dial capability that lets users dial an Outlook contact on their Mitel-provided phone even while they’re inside Outlook.

A PBX in the Cloud

Overall, Mitel delivers a very functional VoIP system, but one that feels a lot like a traditional, on-premises PBX. That can certainly be valuable, but probably more so to larger organizations that are used to what a PBX can offer rather than smaller businesses that have never used anything other than VoIP. While it covers all the basics a PBX administrator might be seeking, more work on its productivity integrations, web-customizable reporting, as well as more transparent pricing are all things that would make MiCloud Connect more competitive with other small business VoIP platforms.

If you’re a buyer for a larger business, however, Mitel MiCloud Connect has a lot going for it. Good support for physical handsets, options for higher-end features like video conferencing for smart meeting rooms, and especially the company’s attention to compliance requirements, like HIPAA, all combine to make this a solid contender for midsized and larger organizations.

Need to Switch a PNG to JPG? How to Convert Image and Web Files

Image file formats are plentiful, from PNG and JPEG to the dreaded WebP. But what happens when you want to convert something from one file type to another? The conversion process was once an arduous process, but there is now built-in functionality within Windows, macOS, and even your web browser to get it done. Not to mention the many (many) online tools. Here’s everything you need to know to easily convert these file types.


Change File Extension

To easily convert JPEG (or JPG) to PNG, PNG to JPEG, or Google’s WebP web file format to JPEG or PNG in Windows, open File Explorer, and make sure the box next to File name extensions is checked under View. Click on the file you want to convert, delete the extension, and add your preferred extension.

Mac users have been able to do this for a long time now. Right-click an image and select Get Info from the pop-up menu. Under Name & Extension, delete the extension and add your own, then press Enter. You should notice that your computer now refers to the file in its new format.


Convert in Microsoft Paint

Windows users can also use Microsoft Paint as a simple file converter by opening an image (including WebP format), then saving it as a different file type. Go to File > Save as and open the Save as type drop-down menu. You can then select JPEG and PNG, as well as TIFF, GIF, HEIC, and multiple bitmap formats. Save the file to your computer and it will convert.


Use a Web Browser

Results may vary with this tip; some sites support it, others do not. But if you plan to download and then convert an image from the internet, try changing the format from your browser. In Chrome or Edge, right-click the image you want to download and select Open image in new tab (View Image in Firefox). You will see that the URL of the image contains or ends with a file extension. If you have a .jpg or .webp (-rw for images in Google Play), replace it with .png to convert the image to a PNG file upon download. On Chrome, Edge, and Safari, you can only convert to PNG on supported sites. Firefox will only convert to .jpg.


Try a Chrome Extension

Another option is a Chrome extension. Convertio and File Converter support many different file extensions and media, but I would recommend Save Image as Type for its simplicity if you’re only working with JPG, PNG, and WebP files.

While other options may link you back to their website to perform the conversion, this extension does not. Add Save Image as Type to your browser, then right-click an image and hover over Save Image as Type in the pop-up menu to save the image as a JPG, PNG, or WebP file.


Online Converters

There are more online converters than one can count these days, but if you’re looking for a reliable name, Adobe has its own. You can follow these links to convert JPG to PNG or PNG to JPG. Other services, such as CloudConvert, Convertio, and Online-Convert.com allow you to choose among dozens of file extensions, upload multiple files at once, and convert files via direct upload, Google Drive, Dropbox, and URL.

If you’re shopping around for a professional service, look into their data collection and retention policies. Both CloudConvert and Convertio collect a negligible amount of data, delete your uploads within 24 hours, and have no access to your documents. They also have server infrastructure located in Germany, making them adherent to GDPR regulations.


Do UV Light Phone Sanitizers Really Work?

The best ways to protect yourself against COVID-19 and other contagious illnesses include frequent hand washing, social distancing, and using appropriate personal protective equipment such as masks. If you’re looking to take your precautionary game to the next level, you might be eyeing any number of UV light sanitizers that have recently flooded the market. But do they work? And if so, which one should you buy? We’re here to help you figure it out.

Does UV Light Kill Bacteria? 

UV light is one type of electromagnetic radiation that comes naturally from the sun and can also be created artificially with specialized bulbs. There are three types of UV radiation—UV-A, UV-B, and UV-C—none of which can be observed with the naked eye. Of the three, UV-C has the smallest wavelengths (180-280nm) and is the one required for UV disinfection.  

Most commercial UV products are sold as sanitizers, and it’s important to note that sanitation and disinfection aren’t synonymous. Sanitization reduces the number of germs on a surface. Disinfection, on the other hand, “eliminates many or all pathogenic microorganisms, except bacterial spores, on inanimate objects,” per the CDC.

UV-C light is just one disinfection method shown to inactivate the COVID-19 virus in multiple studies. The EPA keeps a list of COVID-19-approved disinfectants that can be used on various surfaces. But make sure to read the directions carefully, as many of these products aren’t friendly to tech devices.

Note that over the past year, we’ve learned a great deal about COVID-19 transmission. Early studies and news stories that focused on COVID-19 contamination looked for traces of viral RNA; however, viral RNA is not infectious. Further studies show the virus is rarely viable on surfaces, and the CDC states that transmission from contaminated surfaces “is not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads.”

Do UV Sanitizers Work?

While the evidence that UV sanitizers destroy the novel coronavirus is inconclusive, The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine believe the technology should work. UV light is effective against other coronaviruses, including the one that causes MERS, and the US government continues to work with industry leaders to define standards for UV-disinfection-technology settings.

Furthermore, CleanSlate, a company that sells UV-C sanitizing solutions to the healthcare, hospitality, and food-processing industries, released data in July showing that UV-C light can kill 99.979% of MS2 bacteriophage, a surrogate for viral human pathogens such as the novel coronavirus, in just 20 seconds. Since most commercial laboratories don’t meet containment standards for handling the novel coronavirus, such testing is as close as we can get, for the time being. 

Many hospitals already use UV light to disinfect against superbugs and have ramped up efforts in hopes that it will have the same effect on COVID-19. Duke University’s network of hospitals have used UV disinfection for years. And in 2017, a study published in The Lancet, funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found UV disinfection can reduce transmission of the four most common superbugs—MRSA, VRE, C. difficile, and Acinetobacter—by a cumulative 30%. 

Airlines and hotels are also betting big on the technology. JetBlue started testing a UV light robot last year that’s able to disinfect an entire airline cabin within 10 minutes, and the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts created an extensive health and safety protocol in conjunction with Johns Hopkins Medicine International, called Lead With Care, that includes the use of ozone technology for air purification and/or UV technology for HVAC systems at its properties.   

Although UVC-C irradiation destroys Covid-19, it should be used as a second line of defense against viruses and microbes in general, since hand-washing, masks, and social distancing are easier and more effective. It’s also worth mentioning that the UVC-C irradiation systems used in commercial settings are dramatically different than those of consumer products. In fact, we’ve found very few consumer products in this category that we can recommend at this time.

What the Experts Say About UV Sanitizers

Hundreds of UV sterilizing bags, cases, and wands have flooded the market since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but few manufacturers offer any in-depth details about their products, let alone lab tests that show they offer any protection whatsoever.

Amest Adalja, MD, a senior scholar and assistant professor at the John Hopkins University Center for Health Security, is skeptical about the efficacy of consumer UV sanitizers. In an interview with NBC News, he said, “I just have a hard time trying to find a role for [UV sanitizers] that is effective in the general public where you have an actual, meaningful impact, and not just some kind of marginal benefit that’s not really worth it.”

Richard Webster, a clinical researcher and methodologist at the CHEO Research Institute in Ontario, Canada, also has doubts about consumer-grade UV sanitizers. In an interview with the CBC, he said, “We think the amount of UV you need is about 20,000 joules per metre squared and you probably aren’t going to get that in your hand-held device.”

Andrea Armani, a professor of engineering at the Armani Lab at the University of Southern California, worked with a team of researchers and published “Build-at-home UV-C disinfection for healthcare settings early in 2020. In an interview with Discover, Professor Armani discussed her concerns about UV sanitation wands in particular. She says there is no way for consumers to test UV sanitizer wands and recommends people read carefully before making purchases. The product specifications should state the wand is 260 nanometers in range and give a specific duration that is no more than seconds. Since most consumer UV sanitizers require a few minutes to complete a cycle, Dr. Armani’s recommendation all but knocks out hand-held wands.

Professor Armani also recommends looking at prices, since a high-powered UV-C LED costs about $15, and you’ll need several for adequate sanitation. If you find a wand for $20, it’s most likely not going to provide any protection whatsoever. Finally, she—and other medical professionals—urge users to remember UV-C light is harmful to the skin and eyes. 

How to Use a UV Sanitizer

It’s clear that UV light shouldn’t be your only defense against COVID-19 and other contagions. But if you’re going to use it in addition to well-established methods, such as washing your hands, you should make sure that you are using it correctly.

UV disinfection works best on nonporous objects without a lot of nooks and crannies. If the light isn’t able to reach all the exposed surfaces of a device, it won’t be very effective. That means you’ll want to take your phone (or other device) out of its case and make sure all the ports are open for the best results.

While your device is in the UV sanitizer, you might want to clean the case and the outside of the sanitizer itself with an EPA-approved disinfectant such as Lysol. Once the sanitization cycle is complete for your device, place it on a different disinfected surface, let the sanitizer run a second cycle (this is automatic on many units), then place your case in the sanitizer and run yet another sanitization cycle.

The Best UV Sanitizers

The jury’s still out on UV sanitizers, but if you’re going to buy one, you should at least get it from a company that backs up its claims.

Belkin is a respected name in tech accessories, and its UV Sanitizer and Wireless Charger is among the few products we recommend. The sanitizer is larger enough to fit your phone and other small items, and it eliminates up to 99.99% of bacteria.

Within its three-minute cycle, the Belkin Sanitizer and Wireless Charger kills up to 97% of E. coli; if you’re looking for heavy-duty sanitization, you’ll want to go with the 10-minute cycle. Since wireless charging is built in, this is a great accessory for the nightstand.

PhoneSoap has been in the UV sanitizer business for years and is one of the only companies to offer extensive lab-testing results. One of its newest products, the PhoneSoap Pro, is large enough to fit just about any cell phone and can take on smaller items, including jewelry, cash, AirPods, and even credit cards. 

The PhoneSoap Pro uses four UV-C bulbs and is the only consumer sanitizer with a vacuum-plated aluminum inner shell for additional reflectivity to aid in the disinfection process. It disinfects items in just five minutes and has both manual and automatic settings. It’s also one of the few sanitizers we’ve found to have a nonporous plastic exterior that can easily be cleaned with disinfectant wipes. 

HomeSoap is PhoneSoap’s solution for larger items. It’s big enough to hold a 12.9-inch iPad Pro and can easily fit smaller things such as remotes, game controllers, and baby bottles and pacifiers. It has two large UV-C lights and a reflective inner surface to aid in the disinfection process, which takes 10 minutes. Like the PhoneSoap Pro, the HomeSoap sports a nonporous outer surface for easy disinfection, as well as automatic and manual modes. 

Moshi’s soon-to-be-released Purple UV Sanitizers is one of our favorite products. This foldable sanitizer can easily fit in a diaper or overnight bag and has a few features you won’t find on other products.

The Deep Purple’s LumiClear platform is a clear base that raises your phone from the surface of the interior. You can sanitize your phone and other small objects in four minutes with a single tap. And since it uses a USB-C cable and power adapter instead of a hardwired plug, you can easily use a portable charger or power bank to operate the Deep Purple on the go.

If you’re looking for a UV sanitizer that’s made for your car, Utilimedic has an excellent option: Its In-Car UV Sanitizer and Wireless Charger features a non-slip silicone mat for easy dashboard or console placement.

Utilimedic also added adjustable legs in the chamber to prevent your phone from slipping while you’re driving and has a passthrough port for wired charging. When you’re not using the sanitizing feature, there’s a 10W Qi wireless charging pad on top of the chamber. A complete sanitization cycle takes just five minutes.

Outside of these products, there aren’t any other UV sanitizers we feel comfortable recommending at this time, but we will update this section if and when we do. And remember, UV light isn’t a substitute for washing your hands, social distancing, or wearing a mask.

For more, see our stories on how 5G does not cause COVID-19 and how to spring clean your electronics.

Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti for Laptops Spotted on Asus Website

(Credit: Asus)

Asus may have accidentally leaked details about an Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti GPU coming to laptops. The GPU model is mentioned in the tech specs for one of Asus’s latest laptops, the TUF Dash F15, which went on sale last month. 

The product’s web page originally listed a mysterious “GN20-P0” chip under the graphics options you could buy for the laptop. But on Friday, Twitter user “@momomo_us” noticed the tech specs had been updated to explicitly state the name RTX 3050 Ti. 

Credit: Asus

Based on the web page, the 3050 Ti will feature 4GBs of GDDR6 RAM, which is down from the 6GBs found in the laptop-based RTX 3060.

Specs for the currently available RTX 3000 GPUs for laptops. (Credit: Nvidia)

Asus did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But if the 3050 Ti is real, the GPU will probably be packed in laptops under $1,000, opening the door for more affordable PC gaming with the latest graphics technology. Currently, the TUF Dash F15 with the RTX 3060 is being sold for $1,099 via Best Buy. 

In January, Nvidia announced the first trio of RTX 3000 GPUs for laptops with the RTX 3060, 3070, and 3080. PC vendors including Alienware, Gigabyte, and Razer have all begun to incorporate them into their gaming laptops at prices from $1,000 to $2,000 plus.

The GPUs also provide an alternative for anyone struggling to buy the desktop graphics cards in the RTX 3000 series, which continue to sell out in minutes at all the major retailers. 

However, if you decide to buy a laptop with an RTX 3000 GPU, we’d advise you to first check out reviews of the specific product model. PCMag recently tested the laptop-based RTX 3070, including on the Asus TUF Dash F15, and we noticed that performance can vary depending on how the GPU is implemented on the hardware. It’s also important to note GPUs built for laptops usually pack less performance than the desktop versions.

Hotspot Shield VPN – Review 2021

A virtual private network, or VPN, shields your web traffic from the prying eyes of your ISP, making it harder for spies and advertisers to track you online. Hotspot Shield VPN has a handsome app and an array of security services that go far beyond VPN protection. It also boasts an impressive collection of servers around the globe, giving you many options for spoofing your location. The core VPN product is expensive, however, and its privacy policies are transparent but hurt by a few tradeoffs. While other VPNs have worked to make clear and concise arguments about how they protect their customers, Hotspot Shield continues to be a complicated story.

How Much Does Hotspot Shield Cost?

Hotspot Shield is one of the few VPN services that offers a free subscription tier. That comes with limitations, however. The free Basic subscription of Hotspot Shield restricts you to only US VPN servers, one simultaneous connection, and 500MB of bandwidth per day. That’s generous, compared to TunnelBear’s free version, which limits users to 500MB per month. Editors’ Choice winner ProtonVPN, meanwhile, places no limit on the amount of data free users can consume.

The generosity ends there, though. Hotspot Shield takes the unusual measure of throttling free accounts to just 2Mbps. That’s extremely slow, even for mobile devices. Hotspot Shield also monetizes its free version on Android. See below for more on the privacy implications of this practice.

The Premium subscription offers five simultaneous connections, provides full access to Hotspot Shield’s servers, and has no data limit. It costs $12.99 per month and is the tier I used in testing. The highest tier, called Premium Family, increases the number of simultaneous connections to 25 across five member accounts and costs $19.99 per month.

At $12.99 per month, Hotspot Shield is significantly more expensive than the $10.05 per month average from among VPNs we have tested. You can also opt for a one-year subscription. The Premium subscription costs $95.88 per year and the Premium Family subscription costs $143.88 per year. Again, that’s pretty hefty compared to an average of about $71.93 among the services we’ve tested. We advise readers to avoid long-term subscriptions—at least at first. You won’t know whether a VPN will work for you until after you try it. So, grab the short-term deal or free version and then upgrade if the service works well for you.

Other standalone VPNs come in significantly less costly than Hotspot Shield. Mullvad, an Editors’ Choice winner, costs a mere €5 ($5.55 USD at the time of writing) per month, and a limited ProtonVPN account can be had for just $5 per month. 

You can pay for a Hotspot Shield subscription by using a major credit card or PayPal. Other services offer more privacy-friendly options. ProtonVPN, Mullvad, and Editors’ Choice winner IVPN accept cash mailed to their corporate HQs. Cryptocurrency support is also fairly common among VPNs, but it’s not an option with Hotspot Shield.

As with nearly every VPN service we’ve reviewed, Hotspot Shield lets you use P2P file sharing and BitTorrent on its network. It also includes a split-tunneling feature, which lets you designate what traffic flows through the tunnel and what can travel in the clear—handy for streaming video or using a bank that frequently blocks VPN traffic.

As noted, a Premium subscription with Hotspot Shield lets you use five devices simultaneously, which is average for the VPNs we’ve tested. That seems to be changing, however. Several competitors now offer more, and some have ditched this limitation altogether. Avira Phantom VPN, Encrypt.me VPN, Ghostery Midnight, Surfshark VPN, and Windscribe VPN all place no limit on the number of simultaneous connections.

(Editors’ Note: Encrypt.me is owned by J2 Global, the parent company of Ziff Davis, the publisher of PCMag.com.)

Hotspot Shield doesn’t provide access to the Tor anonymization network. That’s okay, since you don’t need a VPN to access this free anonymization network. Hotspot Shield also doesn’t include multihop connections, which route your traffic through a second server for enhanced security. Both Editors’ Choice winner NordVPN and ProtonVPN offer these rare—if also rarely needed—features.

It’s important to know what a VPN can and can’t do, however. To really disguise yourself online, you should route your traffic through the labyrinthine Tor network. You should also protect your machine with standalone antivirus, protect your accounts by activating two-factor authentication wherever it’s available, and use a password manager to create unique, complex passwords for every site and service.

The Allure of Aura

With a paid Hotspot Shield VPN subscription you get free subscriptions for 1Password password manager, Robo Shield call blocker, and Identity Guard identity theft protection service. Recently, Hotspot Shield’s parent company also launched an antivirus product as an optional add-on purchase for $5.99 per month or $39.99 per year. 

These additional services are offered by Aura, which absorbed Hotspot Shield in July 2020. While the previous branding, called Pango, has disappeared, the services appear to remain the same. A representative assured me that customers will not be charged extra for these services, and that they will remain available for as long customers maintain a Hotspot Shield account.

This review focuses on Hotspot Shield as a standalone product, but it’s impossible to ignore this sizable bundle. It’s certainly a lot for your dollar, and nearly puts Hotspot Shield in the same category as a security suite that includes a VPN, or a more privacy-focused tool like Ghostery Midnight. 

Some other VPNs offer additional services. ProtonVPN is the sibling of ProtonMail and a host of privacy-focused tools. Editors’ Choice winner TunnelBear offers a password manager, as does NordVPN, which also throws in an encrypted file locker. The difference is that most of these add cost to the VPN subscription, while everything you get with Hotspot Shield is included.

Hotspot Shield’s VPN Protocols

For years, we considered OpenVPN the best option for creating an encrypted VPN connection. A new player, WireGuard, uses newer encryption technology and seems to offer better speeds. It hasn’t seen widespread adoption yet, and Hotspot Shield supports it only on Linux. That’s alright for now, but WireGuard is poised to become an industry standard.

Hotspot Shield created its own protocol, called Catapult Hydra, and, until recently, used it exclusively to power Hotspot Shield. To be clear, the company didn’t create a new encryption protocol. A new encryption protocol would require an enormous amount of scrutiny since an undiscovered flaw could be used to break it. A company representative explained that Catapult Hydra uses the Open SSL library to encrypt the data and that the new protocol is simply “an enhancement of the transport protocol.” The company had also previously told me that Hydra creates multiple channels for data to travel to increase speed and reliability.

IKEv2, a secure and modern option, is available on Windows and iOS. OpenVPN, the open-source protocol which I prefer, is available only on routers. Notably, Hotspot Shield took the title of fastest VPN in 2020, and while it didn’t manage a repeat performance in 2021 (see below) it held its own against other services equipped with WireGuard.

Servers and Server Locations

Hotspot Shield says it provides servers in “80+” countries. That’s a strong selection, and not far behind the 94 countries served by ExpressVPN. Servers in more places gives you more options for spoofing your location, and it means there’s likely to be a server near your location.

Especially notable is the variety of locations served by Hotspot Shield. It has servers in four African countries and servers across South America, two regions frequently ignored by VPN companies. Hotspot Shield also provides servers in regions with repressive internet policies, such as China, Russia, Turkey, and Vietnam. 

Hotspot Shield has a respectable 1,800-some servers available. CyberGhost has the biggest fleet we’ve seen, with over 6,800. Having more servers doesn’t necessarily mean better service, but it does generally mean you have more options to find something that works.

Many VPN services use virtual servers, which are software-defined servers. A single machine could play host to several virtual servers. Similarly, a virtual location is a server that’s configured to appear somewhere other than where it physically resides. Neither is inherently problematic, but we prefer that companies be clear about their infrastructure and where it is located. If your data passes through a given country, you might be subject to that country’s laws or surveillance regimes.

Hotspot Shield tells me that it relies only on hardware servers. That said, it was more vague on virtual locations, saying only that 90% of its fleet was physically located where it appeared to be. The company needs to be more transparent about these practices, especially in its app. In contrast, Mullvad VPN lets you know exactly where the server is, whether it’s owned or rented, and what company physically possesses the server.

An Aura representative confirmed for me that Hotspot Shield shares server infrastructure with five other VPN companies owned by Aura. They are: Betternet, Hexatech, TouchVPN, VPN360, and VPN in Touch. Hotspot Shield VPN has been white-labeled in the past, so it’s not surprising to see that it’s sharing space with sibling companies.

The company takes measures to secure its infrastructure but does not own all its servers, which is not unusual. Some VPN companies, such as ExpressVPN, have migrated to RAM-only servers to prevent tampering. Hotspot Shield says it has other security mitigations in place.

Your Privacy With Hotspot Shield

If it were malicious, a VPN could see everything you do online. That’s why it’s important to understand what efforts a company makes to protect your privacy. Remember that security is built on trust. If you do not feel that you can personally trust a VPN company, you should switch to one you do. There are plenty to choose from.

Hotspot Shield VPN is owned and operated by Pango Inc. dba Aura, which is incorporated in the US state of Delaware. The company says it has a “distributed workforce” in the US and Ukraine. The parent company for Aura is WC SACD Holdings Inc. Some companies tout their offshore HQs as a check against requests for information by governments and law enforcement, but Aura does not. 

Many VPN companies release third-party audits of their products to establish security and privacy bona fides. Hotspot Shield VPN has yet to release the results of an audit. TunnelBear, on the other hand, has delivered annual audits for several years.

Hotspot Shield company issued a lengthy and detailed transparency report for 2016 through 2018, which indicates it has never released user information despite numerous requests. However, this report is not easy to find—here’s a PDF link to it—and the company should commit to releasing updated reports annually.

Two documents cover your privacy with Hotspot Shield. The first is a broader policy related more to Aura’s overall operation. The second is focused solely on VPN products. I looked at both documents. There’s been some effort to bridge the gaps between the two, with the former calling out specific differences with the latter. To its credit, the company is transparent in all of its documents. I absolutely understand what the company says it’s doing and why, even if I don’t always agree with it. 

The company says that it does not store any information on users’ browsing activity. The company does gather your IP address to match you to the best VPN server, but that information is encrypted during use and deleted at the end of your VPN session. The company says it does not have the ability to connect activity at a given server with a specific person using that server. This is a better practice than some other VPNs.

The company does log session duration and the amount of data used, to enforce its policies. It also stores device hashes (that is, theoretically anonymous identifiers), but the company says these are not linked to user activity. The company says that it must collect this information because it does not require users to create an account to use the product. Other companies can provide services without these practices.

Company representatives explained to me that Hotspot Shield also logs the domains—but not complete URLs—of sites accessed by each VPN server, with a timestamp. This is also outlined in the privacy documentation. The company tells me there is no way to connect this information to individual users, and that this is done to improve service. Some competitors have similar practices, but I’d like to see Hotspot Shield find creative ways to further protect user data.

A Thorny Question of Free Privacy

It’s always difficult to ascertain whether a VPN is acting in its customers’ best interests, but even more so with Hotspot Shield, because it chooses to monetize its free subscription in a way that other companies we’ve reviewed simply do not. Hotspot Shield deserves credit for its efforts at transparency, but the consequences of the company’s decision to profit from its free users mean that its efforts toward privacy will always come with an asterisk. 

In all of my conversations with the company over many years, representatives have stressed that they feel a moral obligation to provide a free VPN product to help people living under oppressive regimes. But they also insist that they must pay for it with ads on the Android version of its app. 

This is done with ad network SDKs and Google Ads, both of which gather user information to target advertisements. I should stress that this is only an issue for the free Android version of the app; these privacy concerns do not apply if you purchase a subscription or use the free subscription on a different platform.

You could argue that targeted advertising in the free Hotspot Shield Android app is no worse than any other ad-supported app, or even browsing most websites, and that the cost in privacy is weighed fairly against free VPN protection for everyone. Yet ProtonVPN and TunnelBear both also offer free subscription tiers but do not monetize their users. A VPN is intended to improve your privacy, and we believe it must be held to a higher standard than the average mobile game. The company has gone to great lengths to minimize the privacy concerns that stem from monetizing its free version, but a far simpler solution would be to simply not serve ads.

Hands On With Hotspot Shield

Hotspot Shield provides apps for Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows. Several streaming devices, including Android TV and Amazon Fire Stick, also support Hotspot Shield apps. There’s also a command line app for Linux, and the company provides instructions on how to configure your router to use Hotspot Shield. In my testing, I used an Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7BEH (Bean Canyon) desktop running the latest version of Windows 10.

The Hotspot Shield client looks much more at home on Windows 10 than other VPN apps. It’s a simple, dark blue window with snazzy cyan highlights. It looks and feels solid and modern. 

Opening the app for the first time, I was greeted by a large button labeled Connect to VPN. A menu in the lower right corner displayed which server would be used. I really like this approach, since it gave me an obvious action to take and made clear what would happen.

Once you connect your device to a server, the main page shows upload and download speeds, latency, the load on the server you’re using, and your apparent IP address. A map in the upper left shows a stylized view of the world. You can select a new location from the menu above. There are also panels showing your daily data usage and what network connection is active. Easy to miss is a Stop button at the very bottom of the app. This disconnects your device from the VPN server.

When you go to select a new location, you see a grid of available server locations with the flag of that region. A search bar at the top makes short work of the numerous server locations. If there is more than one location within a region, you can choose where you’d like to connect—usually nothing more fine-grained than a city. This is pretty good, but we prefer services that let you choose specific servers and display information on the usage load of a server or region. 

The Settings section is fairly light but has useful tools. You can choose your preferred VPN protocol from the Protocols section or let the default setting make that choice for you. There’s a Kill Switch, which cuts off all internet traffic should your VPN become disconnected. Perhaps the most powerful tool is the Smart VPN (aka split-tunneling), which lets you designate which apps or URL domains must use a VPN connection or must bypass the VPN. If you have an app or service that’s frequently blocked when using a VPN, this could help. The problem is that the app confusingly uses “Bypass” and “Pause” as the possible actions for apps and URLs, instead of something more descriptive.

When you use a VPN, you expect that your IP address and DNS information are not leaked. To confirm that’s the case, I use the DNS Leak Test tool. My tests showed that my IP public address was changed and that my DNS information was secure. Keep in mind that I only tested one server. Other servers may be incorrectly configured. 

Using a VPN often prevents you from accessing Netflix, even if you’re connected to a VPN server within the US. Unfortunately, when I tried streaming video from Netflix while connected to a US-based server I was only able to access Netflix Originals content. This might not always be the case. Services that work one day are frequently blocked the next, so keep that in mind when looking to purchase a VPN.

Speed and Performance

VPNs usually have a negative effect on your internet speeds. To get a feel for the impact of using a VPN, we perform a series of tests using the Ookla SpeedTest website, and find a percent change between test results with and without the VPN. You can read more about my testing, including its limitations, in the aptly named article How We Test VPNs. Note that Ookla is owned by PCMag’s publisher, Ziff Davis.

In 2020, I determined that Hotspot Shield was the fastest VPN available. That’s no longer the case, but it is remarkable how well it held up against services using WireGuard. My testing showed that Hotspot Shield VPN reduced download and upload speed test results by 31.3% and 60%, respectively. It increased latency by 42.9%.

In previous years, we conducted all VPN speed tests back-to-back for a bird’s-eye view. This year, we’re using a rolling system that will bring you fresher data. This new approach is also necessary because of COVID-19 restrictions that limit my access to the PCMag Labs test network. The most recent results are below.

In general, we don’t believe that speed is the most important factor when choosing a VPN. Price, privacy, and trustworthiness are far more valuable than a quick download. It’s also worth noting that my tests can’t be viewed as the final word on speed. Our tests are just a snapshot, and your experience will almost certainly differ. 

A Shield for Your Hotspot?

All products have tradeoffs, but Hotspot Shield has more than average. It boasts strong speed test scores but doesn’t offer WireGuard on the most popular platforms. It’s expensive but offers a free option. That free subscription option is fairly generous, but it throttles data and pushes ads to free users on Android. It has an excellent collection of servers, but you can’t select individual servers. It offers access to a range of other privacy and security services, but that may not be valuable to you. Its privacy policy is quite transparent, but what’s in there isn’t always great.

What hurts Hotspot Shield the most, and why its score has dipped slightly, is that other companies offer VPN protection without all those caveats. Some competitors have even decided to forgo customer data and monetization in the name of better privacy. Hotspot Shield is still a compelling product, but its competitors are simply able to make clearer arguments for their value and security.

PCMag has several Editors’ Choice winners to recommend. ProtonVPN offers the best free subscription option, which may appeal to Hotspot Shield users. IVPN and Mullvad VPN both offer outstanding privacy protections for far less than Hotspot Shield. TunnelBear VPN has an interface that could not be friendlier, or easier to use. Lastly, NordVPN has a similar price to Hotspot Shield, but has a large server network and just about every tool you could want in a VPN.

Nvidia Opens the Door for More PC Games to Use Frame-Rate Boosting DLSS Tech

(Credit: Nvidia)

Nvidia is now letting more PC games incorporate the company’s DLSS technology, which can dramatically boost the frame rates. 

On Friday, Nvidia announced it was making the DLSS technology available to all developers on Unreal Engine 4, one of the most popular game engine platforms on the market. The support for DLSS, which stands for Deep Learning Super-Sampling, will arrive through an official plugin.

“Unreal Engine 4 developers can benefit from the boosted frame rates and beautiful, sharp images that DLSS enables. No application is required for access. Unlock the power of NVIDIA’s deep learning neural network today,” Nvidia wrote over the official DLSS website. 

Previously, Nvidia made the technology only available to a select group of game developers. Hence, DLSS’s adoption has been confined to about two dozen titles. Games that currently feature DLSS include Cyberpunk 2077, Control, Death Stranding, Fortnite and Metro Exodus. 

With DLSS enabled, a PC title can significantly increase, and even double the frame rates you’d normally see in the game — without sacrificing the image quality. The frame rate uplift can be especially pronounced when you’re gaming at 1440p or 4K. 

DLSS benchmarks for MechWarrior 5. (Credit: Nvidia)

The technology works with the help of AI algorithms, which can be trained to generate high-quality images in real-time during the game play. Tapping the AI algorithms also frees up the GPU’s processing power, paving the way for higher frame rates without diminished image quality.

Unfortunately, PC gamers will only be able to enjoy the DLSS technology if they have an Nvidia’s RTX 2000 or 3000 graphics card.

Apple’s Electric Car Expected 2025 With 18-Minute Fast Charge

(Picture: Hyundai)

Recent particulars are rising concerning the long-rumored Apple Automotive, solely this time they arrive from well-respected Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo and embrace some primary specs.

As 9To5Mac stories, Kuo believes that Hyundai would be the manufacturing companion for the Apple Automotive, however extra importantly, Apple will use Hyundai’s E-GMP electrical automotive chassis, which Hyundai introduced again in December.

E-GMP is Hyundai’s first devoted Battery Electrical Car (BEV) platform. It is anticipated to supply a 500km (310 mile) vary on a full cost, but in addition supply a quick cost to 80 p.c capability in simply 18 minutes. That successfully permits 248 miles of vary from a really fast recharge. Hyundai additionally claims that E-GMP presents 0-60mph acceleration in beneath 3.5 seconds and may attain a prime velocity of 160mph.

Whereas definitely no match for the most effective Tesla has to supply proper now, Apple is beginning with what appears like a really spectacular platform to construct upon. There’s additionally each motive to suppose Apple will wish to enhance upon E-GMP to make the Apple Automotive stand out from different electrical automobiles utilizing it.

Kuo predicts that Apple intends to launch its automotive in 2025, however that the discharge window might simply slip as that is the corporate’s first try at creating a car. Additional delays may additionally happen based mostly on numerous elements together with self-driving know-how, element provides (or lack thereof), and determining combine a automotive with Apple’s present units and companies.

There’s additionally an opportunity Hyundai’s title could not seem alongside Apple’s eventual PR in regards to the automotive. 9To5Mac additionally stories that Apple is ready to do a take care of Kia Motors, a subsidiary of Hyundai, with a plan to provide 100,000 automobiles a 12 months beginning in 2024. That definitely matches with a deliberate 2025 launch. So an Apple automotive utilizing Hyundai tech, constructed by Kia.