Monthly Archives: October 2016

Galaxy Note7 to Adequate Testing

Samsung’s desire to match the iPhone 7 Plus led it to implement an aggressive design and manufacturing approach that led to problems with its Galaxy Note7 — including some instances of the smartphones bursting into flames — and eventually its global recall, Instrumental reported last week.

Instrumental engineers tore down a Galaxy Note7, and found “evidence in the design of an intellectual tension between safety and pushing the boundaries,” CEO Anna Shedletsky revealed.

Samsung engineers “designed out all of the margin in the thickness of the battery,” she noted.

It “sits within a CNC-machined pocket — a costly choice likely made to protect it from being poked by other internal components,” Shedletsky speculated.

“For something that is innovative and new, you design the best tests that you can think of, and validate that the design is OK through that testing,” she said.

However, battery testing “takes a notoriously long time, and thousands of batteries need to be tested to get significant results,” Shedletsky pointed out. “It’s possible that Samsung’s innovative battery manufacturing process was changing throughout development, and that the newest versions of the batteries weren’t tested with he same rigor as the first samples.”

If the Note7 had not been recalled, “a few years down the road these phones would be slowly pushed apart by mechanical battery swell,” she added.

A rule of thumb is to leave 10 percent of the depth of the battery pocket as a ceiling above the battery to allow for that expansion, but “our two-month-old unit had no ceiling,” said Shedletsky, and “since it breaks such a basic rule, it must have been intentional.”

 

The Long Road to Adequate Testing

It’s “impossible to test for everything,” said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“You have to consider not only testing the battery but also testing applications and the phone,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Considering how many versions of the Galaxy smartphone Samsung has released and the number of units produced, “this is like comparing the Galaxy Note7 problem to air travel,” McGregor remarked. “While crashes make the headlines, air travel is still one of the safest forms of transportation.”

 

Considering the Bigger Picture

Limitations in battery technology and increasing demands for new displays, wireless interconnects, sensors and processors in ever-shrinking sizes, the industry is “pushing these technologies to the breaking point,” McGregor said.

That will be a problem for all handsets and for wearables in the future, he predicted.

The IEEE has “known for some time that there were several fundamental limiting factors to personal electronics,” observed Michael Jude, a program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

They include “power dissipation, power consumption, and power density — how much juice you can store in a small package,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Battery technology is tricky, Jude said. “A battery is really a controlled chemical explosion. You can have a little power over a long period of time or a lot all at once. Smartphone designers walk a fine line between power consumption and battery storage density.”

 

Competition Can Kill

A smaller battery using standard manufacturing parameters would have solved the swelling and explosion issues, but that “would have reduced the system’s battery life below the level of … the iPhone 7 Plus,” Shedletsky noted. “Either way, it’s now clear to us that there was no competitive salvageable design.”

Various iPhone models had battery problems, but they were “all fixed with a replacement battery,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

Qualcomm Tuck Windows 10

Microsoft on Wednesday announced the compatibility of Windows 10 and native Windows apps with ARM-based processors, including Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, which currently powers a large percentage of Android devices.

One of the highlights at this year’s Windows Hardware Engineering Community (WinHEC) event in Shenzhen, China, the new partnership will make it possible for Windows applications, peripherals and enterprise solutions to run on new mobile, power efficient and always-connected cellular PCs.

Through the collaboration, the companies aim to encourage hardware partners to develop Qualcomm Snapdragon-powered Window 10 devices that run x86 Win32 and universal Windows apps. In addition to Microsoft’s own productivity applications, such as Microsoft Office, they could include third-party programs such as Adobe Photoshop, as well as Windows games, which are developed by numerous companies.

The applications would be the same as those meant to run on a desktop or laptop, but they would be fully compatible with cellular PCs — meaning that mobile users no longer would have to sacrifice functionality or features.

Microsoft largely was unsuccessful in its efforts to break into the smartphone space with its Windows Phone devices. Instead, it has pivoted toward cellular PCs, which will be built around the x86 code of Windows 10, utilizing the ARM architecture.

The process may not be as simple as actually running the apps directly on the small screen however.

“This continuum would allow you to plug a Windows 10 cellular PC into a dock, where it connects to a PC monitor, keyboard and mouse,” said Ian Fogg, senior director for mobile and telecoms at IHS Markit.

“To date, that experience has been hampered by the fact that x86 apps have had to run on a desktop processor,” he told TechNewsWorld. “This is suited so that the apps can run on a smartphone.”

That is not to say the user experience will be exactly the same as what one might find when using an actual desktop PC, however.

“The question is how quickly the applications run, and how much additional power they will use,” noted Fogg.

 

Types of Applications

Office, Photoshop and Windows 10 games all will be compatible.

“Microsoft called out those three because they are widely used — and in the case of Photoshop it is known to benefit from a lot of computing power,” noted Fogg.

“This could be an indicator of how the processor can handle these applications,” he suggested. “However, the question remains how well it will run. Running something like Photoshop or games at minimum level doesn’t offer the same experience as one might hope to have.”

 

Game On

Gaming does tend to require serious process power, often even more than Photoshop, but that is just one consideration that will need to be addressed. What hasn’t been explained is how the cellular PC platform will support video or sound.

“Initially, the impact on gaming will be minimal,” said Joost van Dreunen, principal analyst at SuperData Research.

“Qualcomm does not have a strong presence in the gaming market, but the emphasis in the period to come is clearly on improved visuals across the industry,” he told TechNewsWorld. “This year we already saw a big jump in visual processing power for PC gamers, for instance, and a substantial reduction in device power consumption.”

In the longer term, “porting Win10 to ARM would open the way for a bunch of gaming applications to come across more easily,” noted Roger L. Kay, principal analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

“Typically, ARM would be lower power than x86, which bodes well for mobile battery life,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Fighters Get New Free Tool

Ransomware has become a gold mine for digital criminals. In the first three months of this year, electronic extortionists squeezed US$209 million from victims desperate to recover their data after it was scrambled by the malicious software, based on FBI estimates. At that rate, ransomware could funnel as much as $1 billion into criminal coffers this year.

Ransomware typically will encrypt most of the files on a computer, but some pernicious programs are selective about what they encrypt on a machine. One such form of ransomware attacks the boot sequence of a computer.

Petya ransomware overwrites the contents of a system’s Master Boot Record, forces a system reboot, and encrypts the operating system’s Master File Table.

With ransomware that’s limited to encrypting data, it’s still possible to use an infected machine. That only makes sense, since an extortionist expects the victim to use the computer to pay the ransom and receive the key unscrambling the data on the afflicted machine.

With an attack on the MBR, however, the extortionist “bricks” the system and makes it unusable until the ransom is paid.

 

Risky Ransomware

Bricking a computer that you’re holding for ransom is a risky way to do business.

“With ransomware that encrypts the Master Boot Record, you have effectively lost the ability to use the computer,” explained Craig Williams, security outreach manager at Cisco Systems.

“That’s a little bit more risky for the attacker, because it relies on you having another way to get online and pay them,” he told TechNewsWorld, “but because the computer is unusable, you’re more likely to pay them.”

Despite the risks, there are some advantages to MBR ransomware, suggested Edmund Brumaghin, a threat researcher at Cisco and a colleague of Williams.

“One potential benefit to focusing on the MBR versus in-place encryption of files is that it can be completed quickly, regardless of the amount of user data that is stored on the system,” Brumaghin told TechNewsWorld.

“It may also be more difficult for decryptors to be made available if the boot process of the system has been manipulated or disrupted,” he continued. “Recovery may also be more difficult, as it may require a complete reinstallation of the system’s operating system, rather than just recovery of the user’s files.”

 

MBRFilter to the Rescue

To counter ransomware attacks on the Master Boot Record, Cisco Talos, the company’s threat intelligence organization, released a free program called “MBRFilter.” The program allows a user to enable the read-only default for the MBR. That prevents any program from altering the MBR.

Enabling that default can create problems from time to time, Williams acknowledged.

“Occasionally you have updates to operating systems or changes to the Linux kernel where you do need to poke at the Master Book Record and update it,” he said, “but for the vast majority of the operation of a computer, you don’t need to update it.”

Malicious software that scrambles data on systems is by far a more popular form of ransomware than programs that attack the MBR, but when you protect the MBR, you’re protecting yourself from more than just ransomware.

“The MBR is often targeted by other types of malware, such as rootkits and bootkits,” Brumaghin explained.