VLC’s biggest-ever update is finally available for download, complete with Chromecast support

VLC, the worldwide answer to the question “do you want to use Windows Media Player to open this file?” just received its first major update in two years. VLC 3.0 is now available on all the supported VLC platforms, complete with support for HDR video, hardware decoding, and oh yeah — Chromecast compatibility. Download it here.

The update is available right now for Android, Chrome OS, Android TV, Linux, macOS, iOS, Apple TV, and Windows. There’s just one catch: Chromecast support only works on Android and Chromebooks for the time being, and it’s still a “beta” feature that will draw heavily on your device’s CPU and battery to cast.

VLC 3.0 marks a huge behind-the-scenes change that standardizes the media player across all platforms. All VLC 3.0 releases, regardless of whether they’re running on Android or macOS, share the same core code. That makes life easier for the developers going forwards, but also ensures compatibility even with old devices. VLC 3.0 can be downloaded and run on Windows machines still running Windows XP, Android devices on Gingerbread 2.3, and iOS devices on iOS 7.

Support for Chromecast on Android and Chromebooks (via the Google Play app) is undoubtedly the headline feature of this release, and something that’s likely to make VLC’s sizeable user base ecstatic. The difficult part about Chromecast support is converting local media files to play nice with Google’s preferred format, as VLC Android developer Geoffrey Métais explains:

Chromecast is not designed to play local video files: When you watch a Youtube video, your phone is just a remote controller, nothing more. Chromecast streams the video from youtube.com.
That’s where it becomes complicated, Chromecast only supports very few codecs number, let’s say h264. Google ensures that your video is encoded in h264 format on youtube.com, so streaming is simple.
With VLC, you have media of any format. So VLC has to be a http server like youtube.com, and provide the video in a Chromecast compatible format. And of course in real time, which is challenging on Android because phones are less powerful than computers.

Here’s the complete list of new features:

  • Supports hardware decoding on all platforms, for HD and UHD of H.264 & H.265 codecs, allowing 4K and 8K decoding with little CPU consumption.
  • Supports 360-degree video and 3D audio, up to thid order Ambisonics, with customizable HRTF.
  • Supports direct HDR (on Windows 10) and HDR tone-mapping (on other operating systems).
  • Allows passthrough for HD Audio codecs so external HiFi decoders can provide the best sound.
  • Allows users to browse local network drives like SMB, FTP, SFTP, NFS, and so on.
  • Supports Chromecast discovery and streaming (including audio-only), even in formats not supported by Chromecast, such as DVDs.
  • Adds a new subtitle rendering engine, supporting ComplexTextLayout and font fallback for multiple languages and fonts, including East-Asian languages.
  • Updates the user interface to support HiDPI on Windows 10, new APIs for macOS, and so on.
  • Adds support for numerous new formats and codecs, including WebVTT, TTML, HQX, CEA-708, Cineform, and many more.
  • Prepares support for AV1, both decoding and encoding.
  • Supports Bluray with Java menus (BD-J), although decryption needs to be performed outside of VLC.
  • Prepares the experimental support for Wayland on Linux, and switches to OpenGL by default on Linux (Qt5 only for now).
  • Supports Dex for Samsung’s Android devices and other keyboard-driven devices, in addition to complete Oreo support and playlists.
  • Improves performance and battery life on iOS.
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Microsoft is trying to kill passwords. It can’t happen soon enough

Microsoft is trying to kill passwords. It can't happen soon enough

Microsoft called passwords a “relic from the early days of computing” that “has long outlived its usefulness.” (Laurence Dutton / Image Bank/Getty Images)

Microsoft Corp. is trying to kill the password, and it’s about time. This month, the company said the next test version of its stripped-down Windows 10 S operating system will strip out passwords too, by default. If you go through setup as recommended, you’ll never get a password option.

But killing the password altogether will take more work and time — and the problem may get worse before it gets better.

That’s a shame. Passwords are the bane of modern digital existence. On a big-picture level, insecure passwords cause an estimated 80% of breaches, according to a 2017 report from Verizon. On a human level, they’re paralyzing; right when you need to access your utility bill, you can’t remember if you replaced the “a” with a 4 or an @ symbol. Or when, say, a missile alert has gone out to your entire state and you can’t find your password to give an all-clear.

Passwords have amassed their share of enemies. Microsoft’s latest move follows pushes from Apple, Google and others to shake up the old passcode and password system with fingerprint scans, face scans or temporary codes.

There’s no question passwords aren’t adapting to a modern age. “It’s quite clear to us, that the era of the password is passing. Based on the significant amount of accounts that now exist, it doesn’t scale as a system,” said William Beer, a principal at business management consultancy EY.

Microsoft has been waging a war on passwords for a while. Like others, it has poured effort into other types of authentication, namely biometric scans of your face or fingerprints — it introduced facial recognition unlocking for Windows PCs in 2015. It also has built a smartphone app to provide an ever-changing code to act as your password.

“This relic from the early days of computing has long outlived its usefulness, and certainly, its ability to keep criminals at bay,” an official blog post from Microsoft said in December.

Now Microsoft is edging even closer to pushing passwords off a cliff, at least in its lighter version of Windows — though not every feature that gets tested in early versions of operating systems makes it to consumers.

But we don’t have a lot of time to work on a slow revolution. The way we handle security is about to hit an even bigger test.

One reason passwords are awful is that there are so many of them. Dashlane, a password manager company, found in a survey of its own customers that they have an average of 130 accounts with passwords.

And password overload is poised to get worse before it gets better. Tech companies are pushing into more areas of our lives by giving “smarts” to any item that can accommodate a chip — toilets, car, beds. Securing all of those gets messy, and it’s not remotely feasible to create a secure, unique password for every home appliance, even though those appliances collect very personal data.

Another big issue: Finding the perfect password is difficult, as it requires a unique balance of “easy to remember” and “hard to hack.” And since you need more than one password, you have to find that sweet spot over and over again. In the pursuit of safety, companies often require passwords to have a complex combination of capital letters, symbols and other requirements. But those requirements can actually cause people to reuse their complex passwords or refuse to change them once they’ve committed them to memory. In 2016, Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre recommended simplifying password requirements to encourage people to change them.

All of these issues point to a system that doesn’t work, and it makes sense for companies and people to get on the bandwagon to replace it.

Yet passwords they linger like roaches in the corners of our digital lives. Alternatives such as fingerprint scans, retinal scans, voice recognition and other technologies can be hard for companies — particularly non-tech companies — to implement well. Those solutions are also imperfect, as some pairs of twins can tell you. If something requires new costs to implement and is still flawed, many companies may stick with the devil they know. (Even Microsoft is simply proposing getting rid of passwords, and only on a light version of Windows, instead of replacing it with another security alternative.)

Plus, even when companies offer something more, it’s often difficult for people to get used to a new routine, Beer said.

Changing habits will require more effort such as those from Microsoft, and a slow introduction to different methods to change people’s habits. Beer said that many of the businesses he looks at are now at least combining the old username and password combination with something else — a fingerprint scan, voice print or temporary code for those cagey about sharing biometric info (or for companies unwilling or unable to secure them).

Ultimately, Beer said, the real path to killing the password is not technology, but education.

“We’re putting all the focus on technology and not thinking about explaining to people,” he said. “I would suggest that while technology is great, it needs to be accompanied by a significant awareness campaign to explain and support users as they go through these changes.”

Tsukayama writes for the Washington Post.

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Apple’s claim that it warned us about iPhone slowdowns is corporate spin at its worst

iPhone Slowdown Apple Explanation

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Image Source: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Apple’s claim that it warned us about iPhone slowdowns is corporate spin at its worst

Chris Smith @chris_writes

February 7th, 2018 at 8:00 PM

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The US Senate asked Apple various questions about the recently discovered iPhone slowdown practice. The iPhone maker issued a response on February 2nd, which was made public on Tuesday. In it, Apple explains the whole iPhone battery mess, providing a timeline of events, existing fixes as well as other mitigations for the future.

Apple’s explanation proves that the worst thing about the iPhone slowdown is that Apple lied about having informed users of what was about to happen once iOS 10.2.1 was released last year.

The first time Apple acknowledged that it hasn’t informed its customers properly back in January 2017 was a few weeks ago. “When we did put [the software update] out, we did say what it was, but I don’t think a lot of people were paying attention,” Apple’s Tim Cook said in an interview with ABC News. “And maybe we should have been clearer, as well.”

The letter to Congress makes that sort of misinformation even clearer.

First of all, Apple released the iOS 10.2.1 update in January 2017, a month before it actually tried to tell us what the update did.

“We first delivered this power management feature to iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 6s, iPhone 6s Plus, and iPhone SE as part of iOS 10.2.1, in January 2017,” Apple explains.

Then, in February 2017, it “told” users about the slowdown.

“Once we verified that the feature was effective in avoiding unexpected shutdowns, we updated the iOS 10.2.1 ReadMe notes in February, 2017. Specifically, the iOS 10.2.1 ReadMe notes said that this update ‘also improves power management during peak workloads to avoid unexpected shutdowns on iPhone,” Apple said.

I’m sorry, Apple, but telling users in an updated change log, a month after the update, that the update “also improves power management during peak workloads to avoid unexpected shutdowns on iPhone” will not make me realize that the phone will be slowed down in certain cases.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand why Apple had to revert to this fix. I happen to have been an iPhone 6s user right until the iPhone X rolled out, but I never noticed the slowdowns. Nor did I experience annoying iPhone shutdowns before the iOS 10.2.1 rolled out, although it may have shut down a few times overnight from what I can recall. I did replace the battery of the iPhone 6s long before the iPhone slowdown scandal was unearthed, as I was preparing it for a new life with a family member. Finally, I’m also a non-believer in the theory that Apple intentionally slows down iPhones to sell newer models.

But telling iPhone users that you warned us about what was going to go down, is a pretty huge “alternative fact,” Apple. That has been my main complaint all along. I wish I knew in advanced that iOS is clever enough to slow down the iPhone so that it doesn’t die unexpectedly. I wish I had the option of turning the feature down, just like it’ll happen from now onward.

Republican Senator John Thune, who penned the initial letter to Apple, also acknowledged in a statement that Apple’s disclosures of the update “came up short.”

“I appreciate Apple’s response to my inquiry and the company’s ongoing discussions with the committee,” Thune said, according to Business Insider. “In those conversations, Apple has acknowledged that its initial disclosures came up short.”

“Apple has also promised the committee some follow-up information, including an answer about additional steps it may take to address customers who purchased a new battery at full price,” he added.

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Ransomware gets easier for would-be crooks as developers offer malware-as-a-service

A new ransomware-as-service scheme offers tools and tutorials for getting started with GandCrab, in return for a cut of the profits — and a promise not to attack Russia.

A recently-released form of ransomware, which has the unusual distinction of being distributed via two different exploit kits, is now being sold ‘as-a-service’ on hacking forums.

GandCrab first emerged in January and was found to be distributed by the RIG exploit kit and GrandSoft exploit kit, two sets of tools which provide attackers with all the tools they need to exploit vulnerabilities to deliver malware.

Usually, exploit kits used to distribute trojans and coin-miners, but they’re also proving to be effective for this form of ransomware.

Those behind GandCrab aren’t keeping their tools to themselves. Researchers at Flashpoint have described to ZDNet how the ransomware being advertised on what’s described as a ‘top-tier Russian hacking forum’.

A translation of a post made on the forum offers would-be crims a ‘partnership program’ for the ransomware, with the creators taking up to 60 percent of the ransom fees paid to their clients. However, successful crooks could earn up to 70 percent of the ransom payments for themselves.

In exchange for taking a cut of the profits, GandCrab’s authors offer their users support and updates for the ransomware — including, if necessary, offering step-by-step instructions via the use of a ticketing system and other features associated with legitimate, rather than criminal, software. It’s all to make the ransomware as easy as possible to distribute and use.

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“GandCrab described the ransomware as being designed for maximum usability for both the operators and victims,” said Vitali Kremez, director of research at Flashpoint.

istock-480718824.jpg

Those behind GandCrab are offering it to others — in return for a cut of their profits.

Image: iStock

For those who are more cyber-savvy than the lowest level users, GandCrab offers customisation options, allowing the operator to altering the ransom payment — manually, or automatically depending on where in the world the victim is located, to ensure a better chance of payment — and change the file extensions which the ransomware targets for encryption.

Free download: IT leader’s guide to the threat of fileless malware

There aren’t many terms and conditions for buyers of GandGrab-as-a-service to adhere to — but the authors explicitly instruct users not to target Russia or any other country in the Commonwealth of Independent States of former Soviet republics.

While the delivery of GandCrab via exploit kits isn’t normal, once it is on a targeted system, it operates like any other form of ransomware, encrypting the files with a .GDCB extension and demanding a ransom in exchange for giving them back.

However, while most ransomware demands payment in bitcoin, GandCrab instead opts for payment in the lesser known Dash cryptocurrency. While that’s likely, at least partially, down to volatility and hype around bitcoin slowing down transactions, Dash also offers increased privacy compared to bitcoin.

“Dash remains to be favoured by the criminal gang behind GandCrab due to the currency implementations of instant transactions and private transactions that might be favoured in their money laundering operations,” Kremez told ZDNet.

There’s currently no free means of decrypting files locked with GandCrab, but given how it uses known vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer and Flash Player to launch attacks, users can go a long way to protecting themselves from falling victim to it by ensuring all of their software is up to date.

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Microsoft goes after Windows ‘scareware’ that tries to pressure you for payment

It’s a scare tactic that is all too familiar to computer users. An application purportedly scans your PC and finds multiple instances of “errors.” These programs then promise to clean up your PC. But the catch is, you have to pay to “fix” the problem.

Microsoft wants to put an end to this.

“There has been an increase in free versions of programs that purport to scan computers for various errors, and then use alarming, coercive messages to scare customers into buying a premium version of the same program,” Barak Shein, with Microsoft’s Windows Defender Security Research, wrote in a blog post this week.

These programs, generically referred to as “cleaner” or “optimizer” applications, claim to fix a problem detected by the free version if a user pays for a premium version of the software.

This can pressure customers into “making unnecessary purchase decisions,” Microsoft said.

Kevin Haley, director of security response at Norton by Symantec, noted that many of them charged between $30 and $90 for a license to fix the so-called issue. “In reality, many of them did not fix anything,” he said.

Starting March 1, Windows Defender Antivirus and other Microsoft security products will detect and remove programs with coercive messages, Shein added.

“We should laud Microsoft on taking this initiative in blocking these programs, because historically these types of cleaners found as shareware came laden with Malware,” Kowsik Guruswamy, Chief Technology Officer with Menlo Security, told Fox News.

Guruswamy added that less-sophisticated users are often tricked into buying the software.

Microsoft says it is encouraging customers to submit programs that exhibit this kind of behavior “or other unwanted or malicious behaviors in general.”

“We of course do not want to block customers from running legitimate programs on their computers [but] it can be difficult to separate incompetent from attempts to deceive,” said Haley, whose company offers anti-virus software and other security products.

“It’s not untypical for these programs to find [many] ‘errors’ or ‘issues’ that are actually quite trivial,” he added.

“The millions of shareware programs purporting to clean out registries and ‘optimize’ disks, are a good indication of how big of a problem this is,” Menlo Security’s Guruswamy said.

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Getting a Fresh Start With Windows 10

The Fresh Start feature in newer versions of Windows 10 provides another way to do a clean installation of the system on the computer. Credit The New York Times

Q. How do you do a clean installation of Windows 10 these days with no DVDs to reload the program?

A. Microsoft added a new “Fresh Start” utility to the system last year with its Windows 10 Creators Update. The tool is designed to preserve all your personal data and settings before downloading a clean, uncluttered copy of Windows 10, installing it on your computer and restoring your files and settings.

However, the Fresh Start operation removes any apps you may have installed yourself that are not part of the standard Windows system. If you added new programs from the Windows App Store or elsewhere — including security software, games and even Microsoft’s own Office suite — they will get wiped out with Fresh Start.

Before you begin, make sure you have copies of your third-party software available, including the product registration keys and licenses for apps you need to download or install again from their original sources. You should also back up all your personal files and folders to an external drive or disc, just in case. Make sure you have several gigabytes of free space available on your PC for Fresh Start to maneuver.

The Fresh Start tool lives within the Windows Defender Security Center. Instructing the Cortana assistant to “open the Windows Defender Security Center” is probably the fastest way to get there. If you prefer to leave Microsoft’s virtual helper out of it, open the Windows 10 Settings from the gear-shaped icon in the Start menu, select the Update & Security icon, choose Windows Defender on the left side of the box and then click or tap the Open Windows Defender Security Center button in the center.

Once you are there, select the Device Performance & Health icon. Below the various diagnostic reports on your computer’s current state, you can find the Fresh Start utility. Select “Additional Info” to get started.

While the Fresh Start option is one of Microsoft’s newer solutions for reinstalling the Windows 10 operating system, older methods like downloading a copy of the software from Microsoft’s site and creating a DVD or USB drive to use for installation can still work if you are leery of the automated approach. The company’s site has a list of other recovery options if you are having trouble with your Windows 10 system.

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Set up a second screen for your computer

Second screen

Double your display and spread out your apps.

You may get along just fine with only one computer screen, but adding a second can give you much more room to work. This upgrade isn’t just for creative professionals or seasoned programmers—it lets anyone spread out their apps, edit documents side by side, and multitask like a pro. That, in turn, will boost your productivity and efficiency.

On top of the benefits, it’s easy and cheap to hook up that second screen to your desktop or laptop computer. Here’s how to get started, from purchasing a good monitor to setting it up properly.

Cables and adapters

Most computers have the built-in ability to power a second screen. To get started, check out your laptop or desktop to find a HDMI or DisplayPort socket. If you own an older computer, you might be looking for a white DVI or a blue VGA socket instead. All four types of ports let you connect your computer to a television, projector, or other secondary screen.

If your computer has one of these ports, all you need is the proper cable. However, some of the thinner and lighter laptop models lack a compatible port. For those, you may have to add an adapter into the mix.

For example, slimmed-down laptops like the Apple MacBook and the Google Pixelbook rely on USB-C ports for data transfer, charging, and video output. A few monitors do accept USB-C, but not all do. In that case, you’ll need an adapter to covert USB-C to HDMI (like this $20 dongle) or to DisplayPort (such as this $15 adapter cable) before you plug the laptop into your monitor.

Other computers will require other dongles. Take Microsoft’s 2017 Surface Pro: It includes a Mini DisplayPort that accepts a Mini DisplayPort-to-DisplayPort cable (like this $10 cable), which in turn will plug into any monitor with a DisplayPort. Alternatively, if you prefer an HDMI monitor, you could connect the Surface to a Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI dongle (such as this $17 adapter), then a standard HDMI cable.

When picking your cables or adapters, look for the maximum resolutions they can support, and make sure they match the monitor you buy. You should also check the refresh rate the cable supports, which is measured in hertz (Hz). A higher refresh rate means the screen can change more quickly, which improves the viewing quality for everything from gaming to watching movies.

The second screen

You don’t necessarily have to buy your second screen. If you’ve got an old monitor lying around the house, see if it can work with your laptop or desktop computer before getting rid of it. Even if it’s a bit dated by today’s standards, you should be able to find an adapter to help. This will help you avoid spending any money for your extra display.

However, you may have to buy new gear to complete your second-screen setup. Now that you’ve checked your computer’s ports, you’ll need a monitor that matches them—or that can be made to do so with a suitable adapter. Ideally, look for monitors with USB-C, HDMI, or DisplayPort inputs, as these are the most common modern standards.

Once you’ve decided on the correct input, you can check on other specs, such as screen size, resolution, and price. Bigger, higher-resolution screens give you more room for your movies, spreadsheets, and video games, but they inevitably cost more too. It’s up to you where you want to make the compromise, but in general, you want to go for the biggest, highest resolution screen your budget can accommodate.

However, if you’re on a laptop, be aware that powering more pixels will take more graphics processing power and therefore use up more battery life. In other words, the bigger the second display, the bigger the drain on your battery.

Other specifications to look out for include contrast ratios (the difference between the white and black pixels), response time (how quickly the screen responds to your inputs), and viewing angles (from how acute of an angle you can see the screen). But as usual, online reviews are the best way to measure the quality of a display. That said, Dell and LG have a particularly good reputation for their screens.

Setup

Setting up your new screen is extremely easy: As soon as you plug in a second monitor, your computer will recognize it without requiring any extra software or complicated setup process. However, you can take a few optional steps to configure it exactly as you like it. The exact process will depend on your computer’s operating system.

On Windows, tap Windows+P to switch between four display modes: PC screen only (only the original computer screen is active), Duplicate (the two screens show the same thing), Extend (the two screens act as one large display), or Second screen only (only the external monitor is active). Most of the time, you’ll want the Extend option, which allows you to open apps and windows independently on both screens. To further configure your second display, open the Start menu, click the Settings icon (the cog symbol on the left), and choose System followed by Display. From here, you can configure the brightness, resolution, and orientation of both screens. If you’re using two displays as one extended screen, you can also use this menu to set which monitor will be on the left and which on the right.

Over on macOS, open the Apple menu, choose System Preferences, and then click Displays. Under the Arrangement tab, you can change the relative positions of your displays—which one is on the left screen and which is on the right. Using the Mirror Displays checkbox, you can also switch between mirrored mode (the two screens act as duplicates) and extended mode (the two screens act as one display). In addition, you can set the screen resolution from this same menu.

If you’re on a Chrome OS computer, click the information panel in the lower right-hand corner (where the clock appears). Then select the cog icon, go to the Settings panel, and choose Displays. From this menu, you can configure whether the second display acts as an extension or a duplicate of the first one, set the resolution and the orientation of your displays, and position them in virtual space.

Finally, you can sit back and enjoy using your second screen. If you’re operating in extended mode, you can drag program windows between displays and maximize them on either screen. And whenever you disconnect or switch off the second monitor, your operating system will automatically revert back to its default configuration.

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