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HANDS-ON REVIEW: Acer Liquid S2

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DSCF4148.JPGLanding just a few months after the original Acer Liquid S1 launched, we have to admit the Liquid S2's appearance at this year's IFA 2013 conference took us a little bit by surprise. But with headlining features such as laying claim to being the world's first phone to offer 4K video recording, the spec boost seems to justify the quick turn around. We went hands on in Berlin for this first-look review.
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Firmly sat in the "phablet" realm of smartphone sizes, the Liquid S2 measures 166 x 86 x 9 mm, with a 6-inch 1920 x 1080 full HD display. Built primarily from plastic (with a metallic rim around the edge of the device), its curved chassis doesn't quite have the premium feel of the HTC or iPhone flagships, but felt at least as sturdy as the equally-plasticky Samsung Galaxy range. It's a whopping phone though, and just like all other phablets it'll be an acquired taste, especially if you're shy about holding a six-inch anything up to your face.
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That large size affords the Liquid S2 a gorgeous screen though. Pin sharp with a 367 ppi, its colours were rich and its brightness more than a match for the harsh show floor lighting. However, there were moments when swiping through the touchscreen felt unresponsive, with swipes registering as taps and vice versa, or not at all. Admittedly, a tech conference stand isn't the best place to gauge the reliability of a product (for all we know the handset may have been dropped several times before we got our hands on it), but with no visible signs of damage, it was a concern.
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The flakey nature of the touch response also made it difficult to judge the performance of the processor, a 2.2 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 backed by 2GB of RAM. It seemed capable, and when we fired up apps or played around customising the home screen it did so speedily.
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The Snapdragon 800 also allows for the Liquid S2's 4K video recording to happen. As well as packing in a 13MP still camera, the Liquid S2 also supports the new super-high definition video standard. But before we get carried away, be aware that 4K recording on the Liquid S2 at this stage is hardly all that inspiring - to the naked eye it seems to only be managing a frame rate of around 12fps in 4K recording mode, making for very choppy playback indeed. Using the 4K feature also made the handset get incredibly hot (in fact, the Liquid S2 was running very hot throughout our test). 4K recording is a luxury of course, and still-sharp Full HD 1080p video capture was handled without issue. It's not as though you're even going to be able to play back 4K video at a native resolution on the handset, and few will have a 4K screen in their homes, so perhaps this isn't too big a deal. But those looking to buy the phone for this express purpose may wan't to think long and hard about it.
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Under the hood, the phone also supports 4G LTE, as well as including NFC connectivity and packing in 16GB of storage space (expandable by microSD cards). In terms of software, the handset is running Android 4.2.2 and, for the most part, is very close to a vanilla build of the OS. Acer's Float UI for app switching is there, but it's not too intrusive, making for quite a pleasant software experience.
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All the pieces are in place for the Liquid S2 to be a very capable handset, but there are still some crinkles that need to be ironed out. Due to launch at the end of October, a firmware update could optimise some of the problems we experienced during testing, and that screen was undeniably incredible. Don't write it off just yet.

HANDS-ON REVIEW: Sony Xperia Z1

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Sony-Xperia-Z1-preview-1.JPGSony's mobile departments have been making great strides of late, with the Xperia Z (revealed back at CES 2013) the impressive culmination of years of hard work in the Android market. Fast forward to this week's IFA 2013 conference in Berlin and its successor has already been announced, the Xperia Z1. We went hands-on with the Xperia Z1 for our first-impressions review and, even with a relatively short development time between it and its predecessor, it's looking like an incredibly worthy handset indeed.

Though at a glance similar looking to the Xperia Z, the Xperia Z1 is rammed full of improvements both internally and and in its external design. Measuring 144mm x 74mm x 85mm, and weighing just 170g, it sits more comfortably in the hand than its predecessor thanks to a chassis that's had its edges softened just a tad. There's still a glass backplate (with the phone available in either black or white), with a surrounding frame made of a single piece of anodised metal that doubles up as the phone's antenna. Plastics are used sparingly, only visible as a thin bezel around the edge of the screen.
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And that screen is a corker. A 5-inch, 1080p display, it burrows tech from Sony's HDTV lines to offer as striking an image as possible. Alongside the X Reality engine that was also present in the Xperia Z, the Z1 also uses Sony's Triluminos display tech from the Bravia range, giving colour a punchy look but without scrimping on the subtleties of life-like skin tones. Even under the harsh lighting of the IFA conference show floor the screen looked a treat, with brightness levels that bode well for viewing when out on a sunny day.

Under the hood their are ample improvements too, with the Z1 sporting the speedy 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor and 2GB RAM. Running Android 4.2.2 (though an upgrade to 4.3 "KitKat" will be delivered as soon as possible), the handset zipped through demanding applications, including a novelty AR app that had a dinosaur running around the IFA show floor (and harking back to the original demo disc that came with the first PlayStation - a reference Tech Digest readers of a certain age will surely appreciate!).
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16GB of storage is also onboard, expandable via microSD cards, will a capacious 3000mAh battery will store enough juice to see even a heavy day's worth of use through without needing to dive for a charger. Sony also offer a magnetic charging option on the Z1, allowing you to pop it into a docking station to feed it power. 4G, NFC, GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are all of course also supported.

Perhaps most impressive of all however is the new camera system onboard. Using an Exmor RS 1/2.3-inch 20.7-megapixel sensor, Bionz processor and packing in a G lens, it's borrowing tech from Sony's compact camera line, and leaving merely an optical zoom off the spec sheet. As such, our time with the camera delivered detailed shots and a speedy response time from the camera application itself. We'll reserve full judgement until we can blow the images up onto a big screen, but the early signs here are promising.
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The camera UI also has a number of interesting new features included. As well as the aforementioned AR tricks, there's a Time Shift Burst option that takes 61 shots in a go (30 before the shutter is pressed, 30 after, and one as the shutter is hit), and a Social Live option that will enable you to livestream video to Facebook in 10 minute chunks, letting viewers add comments along the way.
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Refinements have been made to the handset's waterproofing features too. Though there are still annoying flaps protecting the microUSB and SIM tray slots from a good dunking, the headphone socket is now thankfully left exposed, and yet remains safe when submerged in water. allowing you to easily plug in your cans without having to fiddle with a cover.

Very promising then. Sony executives have pinned the handset down for a release as soon as September 16th, so if you're on the market for a new Android phone this should be shooting to the top of your wishlist. We'll have more on the Xperia Z1 shortly, so stay tuned.

The iPad is a great tablet, no question about it, but anyone who argues you can get just as much work done on it as you could a Windows PC or a Mac is either a) mad, or b) an Apple executive. However, a new app called Parallels Access could change all that. It takes the concept of remotely accessing a Windows PC or Mac computer from an iPad and runs with it, "applifying" desktop-based apps with gestures and touch interface options so as to make them feel like they were designed for a tablet all along.

Parallels Access is a subscription service that (provided both your desktop PC or Mac and iPad are connected to the internet) allows you to access all of your desktop applications and files on the iPad, on the go. While this isn't anything ground breaking in and of itself, what Parallels Access excels at is making the desktop computing experience feel as though it is native to the iPad. Just look for instance at how it presents Mac and Windows desktops through the app:
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(Note that that is just the view given for your favourite apps - you can access a traditional desktop view when required too.)

It all looks very iOS, right? It doesn't end there - any computer based app accessed through Parallels Access retains practically all of the gesture controls that you've become accustomed to with iOS. Pinch-to-zoom that Excel spreadsheet? No problem. Long-press to copy and paste in a Word document? Ditto. How about using the same gesture to copy text between a native iPad application and the remotely accessed computer app? No sweat.

Perhaps where Parallels Access really shines though is in the way that it has added brand new gestures to compensate for the lack of a mouse. For instance, in an area where the precision of a mouse can't be matched by sausage-like fingers, a tap and hold gesture will bring up a magnifying glass, letting you access the more granular buttons the desktop operating systems regularly use. These few examples just scratch the surface of what it is capable of.

And then there are of course the added benefits of being able to access Windows from an iPad. Flash video and games can finally be played on the Apple slate through the remote access application and, providing you are playing slightly more sedate turn-based PC games such as Civilization or Football Manager, there's no reason why you couldn't finally have those top games on your iPad with you all the time.

In terms of connection speed required, Parallels Access appears to scale well. You may see a slight degradation in image quality from time to time, but as long as you have a half-decent constant web connection, it works like a charm. This isn't the reserve of fibre-broadband users.

It is, however, the reserve of those with a fair bit of spare cash. Compatible with iPad 2 or newer and computers running OS X 1.7 and Windows 7 or higher, it costs £54.99 per year for each computer being accessed. Cheaper alternatives exist (check out GoToMyPC or PocketCloud Pro), but none are as intuitively realised as Parallels Access. If remote access of your desktop machine is vital to your work flow, this could prove an indispensable tool.

Sol Republic DeckEnjoying the rare summer heatwave that Britain is currently luxuriating in, my pals and I have decamped more or less entirely to London's great parks, picnic baskets in hand, summer playlists carefully prepared. However, even the most carefully curated of tune line ups can't suit all tastes, so as well as playing a game of football, we've also reluctantly introduced another game - "Pass The Bluetooth Speaker", laboriously pairing and unpairing mobile devices in order to share each other's tunes through whatever speaker we're currently using.

It doesn't have to be this way - the latest Bluetooth standards allow for many devices to be connected to a speaker at once, a fact that lies at the heart of the design of the new Sol Republic Deck speaker. We wen't along to a preview event for the new Bluetooth tune box last week, and share our initial thoughts here.

A little smaller than a DVD case, the Deck allows for up to five Bluetooth devices to be connected simultaneously. A pill-shaped slab with a perforated grill on the front and back sides designed to offer the widest dispersal of sound from the diminutive speaker, it also has a light up strip that glows one of five colours, assigning a shade to each of the five potentially connected devices.
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And here's where things get fun. The Deck offers what the company describe as a "Heist Mode" - rather than having to manually disconnect and reconnect each individual Bluetooth device before another can play, would-be DJ's can knock each other's tunes off the device simply by pressing Play on their own players. If someone is floundering around with James Blunt b-sides, you can kick them off without fuss, allowing up to five pals to instantly take control from one another without fussing with any settings.

A potentially great party game, there's of course the potential here for the set-up to frustrate, so a simple switch on the side of the device puts the Deck back into a single-connection Bluetooth mode, giving one user ultimate control.
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The Bluetooth 1.5 standard employed here not only offers up multiple simultaneous connections, but a greater range too. Sol promise that you'll be able to get up to 45 metres away from the speaker before your tunes are lost over the airwaves.

Sonically, the Sol Republic Deck impresses too. A clear and impressively loud speaker given its size, the Sol Deck manages great bass levels thanks to a sideshot bass port, pumping out plenty of air to give a really beefy sound. Should you want to push the volume even louder when outside, an "Outdoor Boost" setting pushes mid and high tones, dropping bass (which is usually lost in open spaces regardless with a speaker this size), gaining an extra 6db. Additionally, a limitless number of Deck speakers can be daisy chained together thanks to 3.5mm in and output ports. A dual-mic array also allows the deck to work as a capable speaker phone too.

As well as a Bluetooth connection, the Deck also offers NFC technology, allowing for a simple tap-and-connect pairing method. Sol are looking into offering scripting apps to allow NFC devices to, for instance, trigger designated playlists when NFC-paired with the speaker.
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Though we were unable to test the claims, Sol Republic state that, dependent on volume levels, you'll be able to squeeze a minimum of 4 hours from the built-in rechargeable battery, and upwards of 10 hours on more conservative volume levels. If true, that's an impressive figure.

The company have also promised a protective carry case that will be available alongside the speaker, using a "transparent audio design" that doesn't inhibit sound output in any way.

Launching in a range of colours in the UK from September, the Deck will be priced at £169.99.

Early indications suggest it'll be a really neat speaker, offering the right balance between useful tech, an attractive design and solid sound. We'll be putting together a full review once we've got our hands on a review model during the coming weeks, so check back soon for our final verdict.

LG-55EA9800-currys-7.JPGA pint-sized IMAX in your living room? That's the plan behind LG's 55EA9800 Curved OLED TV. Hitting British shores for the first time at yesterday's Currys / PC World showcase, we went eye on with a screen quite unlike any we've ever seen before.

Measuring 55-inches across, the screen has a gentle concave curve when viewed from the front, similar to that seen in IMAX cinema screens. The design intention is to make viewing the television more immersive - sit within the screen's central sweetspot and your eyes are equidistant from each edge of the set. It feels like being enveloped by the action on screen (though that's a feeling that may be diminished the further away from the set you go - the Currys demo room had us sitting little more than a metre from the screen).LG-55EA9800-currys-5.JPGThe effect is bolstered by the use of OLED tech in the screen. We've written extensively about OLED TVs in the past, and LG (though taking their sweet time with it) are well in line to leading the charge with AV enthusiasts' successor to the plasma throne. Though only a 1080p display, and lacking the supreme detail of 4K sets, LG's screen delivered stunning black levels, while still managing to keep colour accuracy impressively lifelike, with both colour and contrast levels aided by the introduction of a white sub-pixel alongside the standard RGB array.LG-55EA9800-currys-4.JPGThe screen's use of OLED also has the added benefit of offering very a very wide viewing angle. Though the curved effect introduces a pronounced sweetspot (everyone will want to sit front and centre in front of this TV), those setting to extreme left and rights of the screen will not have their viewing experience suffer from any colour wash out. The speedy response times of OLED technology also offer the most comfortable 3D viewing experience possible, with the lightweight passive glasses delivering truly eye-popping visuals thanks to OLED's speedy response time, for better or worse depending on your stance on 3D.LG-55EA9800-currys-6.JPGOLED technology also allows the screen to be impossibly thin, with a carbon fibre finish to the casing that's as sturdy as it is stylish. Pencil-thin, this is very much a showpiece set, though those looking to wall mount the screen may have some problems due to the curvature.LG-55EA9800-currys-3.JPGAs one would expect from a flagship LG set, smart connectivity is also included, with the full raft of web apps and catch up TV services offered through LG's Smart TV interface. A Wii-remote like Magic Remote control makes controlling the set a breeze, with motion controls and onscreen cursor making light work of even entering text in search boxes.

Sound quality, while still no match for a dedicated home cinema system, is disarmingly impressive for a screen so svelte. Housed within a clear perspex strip below the screen (making the display itself look as though it's floating above its mount), the front-facing stereo array, paired with a down-firing subwoofer in the bottom-rear of the set, offers a warmer sound than similarly thin sets from rivals.LG-55EA9800-currys-2.JPGDue in stores by Christmas, we're still waiting on an official price for the curvalicious set. With the regular flat OLED TVs from LG already commanding a price tag of above £10,000, expect to have to sell an organ to be able to afford one.

Mad-Catz-MOJO-2.JPGOuya excited. Ouya launched. Ouya failed, with critics and owners complaining over stuttering performance and shocking controller input lag. Does that mark the untimely death of the newborn Android games console scene?

Hardly - Mad Catz are ready to pick up the baton, with their forthcoming M.O.J.O. Android gaming console. We went hands-on at a recent Amazon "Christmas in July" press event, and came away impressed.

The console itself is fairly unassuming, a black wedge with the red Mad Catz logo on top and a small power indicator light around the front. Powered by a Nvidia Tegra 3 mobile processor, it has a HDMI output on the rear (supporting 1080p resolutions), two USB ports, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a microUSB port. 16GB of built-in storage features, which can be supplemented by memory cards in the console's microSD slot. Though unassuming, it's not unattractive, easily fitting in the palm of your hand.Mad-Catz-MOJO-1.JPG
Mad Catz are probably best known for their third-party console controllers, and their expertise in this field is clearly evident in the M.O.J.O.'s controller. Riffing off the standard Xbox 360 controller design, the "CTRLR" feels reassuringly weighty in the hand, with rugged analogue sticks that have just the right amount of sponginess and give when pushing away from the deadzone. Though frustratingly battery powered, the wireless Bluetooth 4.0 connection employed by the pad should eke plenty of energy out of a pair of AAA batteries - as much as 77 hours according to the Mad Catz employee we spoke with.

As well as the usual array of triggers, bumpers and face buttons, the CTRLR also features dedicated media playback controls near its top edge, as well as a "mouse mode" letting you simulate finger input with the left stick for Android games that don't support pads. A central glowing button lets you jump between open applications and the Android homescreen. Being Android-based, all manner of Bluetooth powered computer mice and keyboards (including, but not limited to, Mad Catz' own) will also be compatible with the M.O.J.O..

M.O.J.O. runs a near stock version of Android (the precise version has yet to be revealed), another advantage over rival Ouya in that it allows players to quickly install any games already purchased with and tied to their Google Play accounts. Navigating the mobile interface with the controller is a little clunky, but not broken, and Mad Catz promise an improved interface with better shortcut support ahead of launch.

As for gaming performance, the M.O.J.O. looks more than capable at present. The demanding Riptide GP looked great and played smoothly on the console, feeling right at home with physical rather than touch controls. Of course, visually even the best Android games sit some way behind current-gen console titles, let alone what's set to be offered by the Xbox One or PS4. But considering the M.O.J.O. console will sell for closer to £100 than the £300+ asking price for the next-gen machines, such performance differences and hardware discrepancies are to be expected.Mad-Catz-MOJO-3.JPG
What may prove to be the Mad Catz M.O.J.O.'s true trump card will be its emulator support. While ROMs are still a legal grey area, emulator gaming is a key draw to the open platform of Android, and even more so when Android is used within a home games console environment. And the M.O.J.O. hardware seems more than up to the task - we played through a quick opening level of Mario 64 on the system, and while some frame skipping seemed to be in effect, it was still a great trip down memory lane. Emulating other hardware on Android phones can be a massive battery drain, but with the M.O.J.O. running off the mains, hours of emulated gaming will be possible. Though it's not a feature that Mad Catz will find easily (or even legally) marketable, many Android die-hards will already be well aware of the potential the M.O.J.O. has here.

Interestingly, though the M.O.J.O. was in a playable state at the hands-on event we attended, and though it's approaching its "Autumn/Winter 2013" release window, the console is likely to go through another design revision before hitting stores.
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What will this redesign include? Speaking to the Mad Catz reps at the Amazon event where the console was being showcased, they teased that a processor improvement was on the way. Though they didn't give any specifics, with the current version of the machine featuring a Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, the implied upgrade seems to be to a superior Nvidia Tegra 4 chipset. To accommodate that jump, the console is expected to become slightly larger, with more ventilation ports on the rear. For those looking to emulate more technically advanced games, such as N64 or PlayStation titles, this could make a massive difference, not to mention improving already-solid performance for intensive Android games.

For now though, even in its current state, the M.O.J.O. is looking like the best realisation of an Android-powered mini console to date. We'll have more on the promising new machine ahead of its launch later this year.

PREVIEW: Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)

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We've had bikes, we've had tag-team karts, we've even had hangliders. Inevitably, for Wii U's Mario Kart 8 the only way is up.

And under. And over. And around. Mario Kart's manic racing action just got even crazier, as this latest entry into the series adds zero-gravity vehicles into the mix.
mario-kart-8-6.jpgAs well as hurtling around tarmac and dirt tracks, Mario Kart 8 introduces magnetically charged sections to some circuits, allowing the portly plumber to steer upside down and around the edges of vertically curving turns. Running in HD at 60fps, it's a visual spectacle unlike any Mario Kart game before it, forcing you to consider each track from multiple perspectives.

It does, however, play very much like the Mario Kart we all know and love. From powersliding to hopping, firing red shells to slipstreaming, pick up the controller and you'll feel right at home. Both standard button input and motion controls are available, with the Wii U gamepad surprisingly comfortable as a steering wheel alternative.
mario-kart-8-2.jpgAs well as Mario Kart 7's hang gliders and underwater vehicles returning, so too do coins littered around tracks. An on-off feature of the series since its conception, collecting them improves your handling and acceleration, while falling foul to a trap or crash causes you to lose them.

Three tracks were on offer during the demo I played: one familiar and simple Mario circuit, a seaside city race that had dozens of routes on offer and overlapping track sections, and a Luigi's Mansion-themed track. it's the latter of the three where Mario Kart 8's true potential shone through.
mario-kart-8-5.jpgThe Luigi's Mansion track not only looked the best, with moody lighting and fearful monsters, but was also the most insane of all three tracks. Avoiding environmental elements and monster attacks, it pulled together the zero-g elements, underwater sections and hangliding areas, each within moments of each other. It was gloriously disorientating, recalling the best tracks of the F-Zero series, and I hope the majority of Mario Kart 8's tracks follow in this vein.

While the copious amounts of branching paths to take on each track promise reams of secret routes to uncover and plenty of replayability, I was fearful however that it might disrupt the general flow of each race. With so many routes to choose from, I found significant stretches of some laps where I didn't encounter another racer, and with the excitement in Mario Kart coming from jostling for position with other players as well as racing towards the chequered flag, it could lead to some uncharacteristically solitary races.mario-kart-8-3.jpgWe're tentatively looking forward to Mario Kart 8. The new additions are exciting, and visually stunning, and if the track design can encourage cheeky competitive play it could all come together beautifully.

The Mario Kart 8 release date is yet to be confirmed beyond a "Spring 2014" launch window. We'll bring you more news on the game as it lands, and will have a full review closer to release.

Nintendo have not one, but two Legend of Zelda games heading out to their consoles this year, but neither is entirely new. For Wii U owners, there's the HD remake of Gamecube classic The Wind Waker, while Nintendo 3DS owners get the far more interesting A Link Between Worlds.

The latter revisits one of the greatest games of all time, the Super Nintendo's A Link To The Past. Between Worlds will recreate (almost in its entirety, aside from a few minor changes) the overworld map from the 1992 classic, as well as remixing some of its old dungeons and adding plenty of new ones to boot.a-link-between-worlds-1.jpgIt's easy to look at Between Worlds as purely a nostalgia trip, but its worth pointing out that while this wizened writer remembers A Link To The Past from the first time around, there will be plenty of 3DS owners too young to have experienced it on anything other than digital downloads or emulators.

For them, Zora's Domain and The Lost Woods will be all new areas to explore, and the densely packed world will be a true gaming treat for them to sink their teeth into.

But even returning players will get more than just a kick of nostalgia from the title, as a number of new systems will change the way those returning to this familiar world will approach it.a-link-between-worlds-2.jpgThe most significant change is hero Link's new ability to press himself flat against walls and become a hieroglyph-like version of himself. Though the game is primarily played from an overhead perspective (with subtle depth effects added throughout), activating this new ability sees the camera swing in close to Link, letting him shuffle across brickwork in his new form. It was a skill used with aplomb in the puzzles I took on during my demo time with the game, with Link using the skill to do everything from squeezing through a barred window to hugging close to a rising cube without a foothold, allowing him to reach a higher part of the dungeon. Considering the game Between World's is riffing on is a throughly 2D affair, this simple addition literally adds another dimension to gameplay, forcing you to consider the gameworld on a 3D as well as 2D plane.a-link-between-worlds-3.jpgAnother small but significant change is the removal of a finite magic meter. Instead, the use of Link's abilities and magical items is governed by a slowly recharging magic meter, depleting as you fire off arrows, use special weaponry or activate the wall-picture ability. On one hand, it frees you to use your more powerful items more liberally (providing you can wait for the bar to recharge), and on the other adds moments of desperation to the wall-hugging ability - it's terrifying to send Link teetering across a wall of unknown length high above the clouds, unsure whether he'll make it to the end before returning to his full-fat self and hurtling to the ground far below.a-link-between-worlds-4.jpgIt's all looking great too, with visuals that both update the classic Super Nintendo title and draw upon new entries into the series. I certainly felt a whiff of the underrated Minish Cap in here, and the game's 3D effects look great in motion, adding character all Between World's own.

I was skeptical going in, but found myself totally engrossed with A Link Between World's by the time the demo drew to a close. Feeling fresh yet evocative of a game now older than many of those set to play the new title, A Link Between World's should be on all 3DS owner's radars.a-link-between-worlds-5.jpgThe Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds release date is set for sometime in November 2013. We'll have a full review closer to release.

PREVIEW: Super Mario 3D World (Wii U)

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Nothing sells a Nintendo games console like a new Mario title, and there's nothing Nintendo need more now than to sell more Wii U consoles. But rather than playing it safe and putting together a "Super Mario Galaxy 3" title, Nintendo's first 3D HD outing for Mario on the Wii U is instead a semi-sequel to the 3DS handheld's Super Mario 3D Land, called Super Mario 3D World.

And that's no bad thing - the 3DS outing was a breath of fresh air for the franchise, and with the Wii U's added processing grunt, Super Mario 3D World totally won over the Tech Digest team. The Wii U may be about to get another much-needed must-have title.super-mario-3d-world-1.jpgPlayed primarily from a dynamic isometric perspective, Super Mario 3D World actually feels more like a game bridging the gap between the Galaxy titles and the afore-mentioned 3DS adventure. While there's still the time-attack focussed stages race-to-the-finish level design, Mario has the full complement of his 3D moveset here, from crouches to long jumps.

But its not just Mario along for the ride. At the beginning of the five demo stages we tried at yesterday's hands-on event, we oculd choose to play as either Mario, Toad, Luigi or Princess Peach. Sound familiar? That's because it is - the oft-overlooked Super Mario Bros. 2 let you do just the same, and just like that title, each character handles slightly differently. Mario controls just how you'd expect, but Luigi has a fluttering lingering jump that stretches slightly higher, Peach can float for a more delicate and directed landing from onto platforms and Toad (the weakest jumper of the four) is the fastest on foot.super-mario-3d-world-4.jpgThis ties into the game's manic multiplayer modes. Each level can be played with up to four pals simultaneously, across Wiimotes and the Wii U gamepad. Like the New Super Mario Bros titles, you can either approach each level competitively or co-operatively, launching each other up to out-of-reach areas or (as I sneakily did to a fellow journalist) over the edge of a ravine, towards their doom.

It's gleeful fun, and well suited to the spacious 3D levels on show here. Whereas the 2D multiplayer Mario platformers feel like bunched up chaos, the extra space afforded in Super Mario 3D World's more expansive levels allow for a more considered multiplayer approach, with each player afforded the option to take alternative routes to each other in many cases. It feels a more natural multiplayer fit. Competitive players can enjoy chasing higher-scores than their competitors, delivered at the end of each stage and ranked based on number of coins collected, enemies defeated and secrets found.super-mario-3d-world-3.jpgCo-operative sections of levels also seem more cleverly designed. Bouncing off a string of enemies simultaneously with pals may trigger a secret to appear, as will lighting up a number of trigger pads together. There was even an entire level where players get to ride on a giant Yoshi dinosaur and hurtle down some river rapids - in order to avoid the routes many traps, players need to jump and turn in tandem to steer the dino-boat.

Visually, Mario has never looked better, with the game mining 30 years worth of Mario titles for inspiration. The block-like level design is most reminiscent of Super Mario 3, albeit rendered in 3D.

There are however a number brand new additions added into the mix. Firstly, there are now transparent warp pipes to jump into, often with multiple exit points and routes to take. You'll see Mario and co sucked around these pipes, and you'll need lightning-fast reactions to steer the gang out of the right exit point, as well as guiding them towards coins and power-ups within the pipes, and away from enemies lurking inside.
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Then there's the Cat Suit, which seems to be the main new power-up for the game. It plays into the added sense of verticality among the levels, and gives Mario and friends the ability to pounce, run a little faster, slash with claws and run up walls. It controls intuitively and is great fun to use, and will likely be the weapon of choice for those looking to speed-run through levels.

If there's a problem anywhere, it's potentially with the game's perspective - whereas the 3DS cousin of this game had the handheld's depth effect to help judge jump landings, it can be quite easy to misread distances and landing spots, leading to some unnecessary, frustrating falls. A little tweak to each character's shadow to help better judge landing spots would be a quick and easy fix for this ahead of release.
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We're incredibly excited about Super Mario Bros 3D World, easily our favourite title in Nintendo's winter release schedule. The Super Mario 3D World release date is pencilled in for some point in December 2013, and we'll look to bring you a full review closer to release.

Sony-Vaio-Duo-13-slider-hands-on-06.JPGWe're a fickle bunch us tech heads - first we're dying to throw away our digital stylus pens in favour of finger-sensitive controls, now (somewhat egged on by the success of Samsung's Galaxy Note mobile range) we're all for them again. Toshiba this week revealed new stylus-equipped Android tablets, and now it's Sony turn to show the pen is mightier (or at least as useful as) the finger with the unveiling of their latest Sony Vaio Duo convertible laptop/tablet. We had a brief hands-on play with the 13-inch device at a press preview event yesterday.Sony-Vaio-Duo-13-slider-hands-on-07.JPGA little larger than last year's 11-inch model, the Vaio Duo 13 offers the best of both the tablet and ultrabook worlds, with a sliding hinge mechanism that lets the device's touchscreen sit upright behind a full-size keyboard, or flat across the keys for something akin to a traditional tablet experience.Sony-Vaio-Duo-13-slider-hands-on-10.JPGWeighing in at 1.35kg it's reasonably light, though should be seen as an alternative to carrying both a notebook and tablet around, rather than being on a par in terms of size with the thinnest individual tablets or ultrabooks. 13-inches for a tablet may prove a little unwieldy for some too, though it's great to have it as an optional set up.Sony-Vaio-Duo-13-slider-hands-on-05.JPGRunning Windows 8, the Sony Vaio Duo 13 also comes with a digitiser stylus pen for scribbling down handwritten notes. Updated to include a clip to house the pen when its not in use, removing the stylus from its housing automatically fires up Sony's Note Anytime app, allowing you to start writing straight way without having to first fire up the appropriate app. Paired with a lovely, vibrant 1920 x 1080 display enhanced by Sony's X-Reality, Bravia and Triliminos technologies, the pen proved responsive to our inputs, and also felt comfortably similar to a standard ballpoint.Sony-Vaio-Duo-13-slider-hands-on-01.JPGLikewise, despite being relatively small, the Vaio Duo 13 had a comfortably spaced keyboard with good travel. What seems to have been compromised as a result however is the size of the trackpad, which is just a thin slice below the keys. With both touch and stylus input also supported, and the ability to plug a mouse into the device's USB port, perhaps that's not such a big problem, but may cause difficulties when trying to hammer some work out with the Vaio Duo 13 on your lap.Sony-Vaio-Duo-13-slider-hands-on-02.JPGThose worried about the sturdiness of the supporting slider hinge should be able to rest easy. In our brief test it seemed solidly constructed and moved smoothly from one position to the next. Sony reps at the event also showed us a video of the vigorous stress testing the design has undergone, showing the Vaio Duo 13 hinge withstanding some pretty mean twists and bends. Sony-Vaio-Duo-13-slider-hands-on-08.JPGMultiple configuration of the Vaio Duo 13 will be available, and can include 4th-gen Intel Haswell Core i7 processors, as much as 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. There's no option for a discrete graphics solution though, with only Intel's HD4400 offered at the top end. Connectivity as standard across the range includes USB 3.0, HDMI output, an SD card slot, NFC, GPS and 4G LTE too. Battery life is quoted as 15 hours, but we weren't able to confirm that during our brief test.Sony-Vaio-Duo-13-slider-hands-on-09.JPGIn a clever feat of engineering, the Vaio Duo 13's battery pack also houses an Ethernet port, which then allows you to turn the charger into a router, acting as a Wi-Fi hotspot for multiple other devices.

Set to launch in black and white colour options, Sony have yet to reveal pricing for the Vaio Duo 13. Early impressions however are positive, making Sony's latest slider one to watch.

Toshiba-WT310-tablet-1.JPGWindows 8 as a desktop OS hasn't quite had the impact in the enterprise or education markets that Microsoft had hoped for, with new stats revealed today showing the operating system has only had 0.53% penetration in the enterprise sector. But we're living in the post-PC age, right? It's all about the tablet for the future of Windows, right? Right? Toshiba certainly believe so, showing off today their new WT310 Windows 8 Pro tablet. We had a brief play with it a little earlier.Toshiba-WT310-tablet-4.JPGA 11.6-inch tablet with a full HD touch screen, it's a highly configurable tablet aimed at both the education and business sectors, which can be equipped with either an Atom chip or the latest Core i5 Haswell processors.Toshiba-WT310-tablet-6.JPGSSD storage in every imaginable capacity (within reason) is available, as well as the same DigitizerPen for text input and handwriting recognition that we saw earlier in the Android-based Toshiba Excite Write tablet.Toshiba-WT310-tablet-2.JPGThough it's not the most exciting design, the WT310 did offer a wide variety of useful ports in a chassis that looked as though it could withstand the rigours of both business trips and the classroom. Measuring 229mm x 189mm x 12.4mm and weighing 825g, it has a single USB 3.0 port, a microHDMI output, an SD card slot and internal support for LTE mobile data connections and Intel WiDi screen sharing. Silver-coloured plastic edging also houses a docking port. But though the majority of the tablet seemed sturdy, the home button however can be described as flimsy at best, and looked worryingly loose on the demo model at today's event.Toshiba-WT310-tablet-7.JPGAn optional docking cradle is also available for the WT310, folding down for maximum portability. It houses an additional USB 3.0 port, as well as an SD card slot and Ethernet port. It's pricing has not yet been disclosed, but looks like a sensible add-on for those intending to use the tablet as a laptop or desktop replacement.Toshiba-WT310-tablet-8.JPGPricing will vary wildly depending on the specifics of the configuration, maxing out at around the £700-£800 mark according to the Toshiba rep on hand today. Expect to see these up for sale before the summer is out.

Toshiba-Qosmio-X70-7.JPGAlongside all-in-one PCs and high-spec Android tablets, Toshiba also had a premium gaming laptop on show today. Packing in the latest Nvidia notebook GPU and Haswell Intel processor, the Toshiba Qosmio X70 is a (relatively) portable gaming beast. We went hands-on earlier in a hotel playing host to Toshiba's press event and share our thoughts here.Toshiba-Qosmio-X70-6.JPG"Relatively portable, you say?" That's right - though billed as a gaming laptop, there's some serious heft to the Toshiba Qosmio X70. Exact measurements haven't been made available yet (and we didn't attend today's press event with weighing scales and a tape measure in our rucksack), but you're looking at a laptop at the very least an inch thick at it's chunkiest point, and weighty enough to make you think twice about carrying it over to a mate's house. This is as much a desktop replacement as a laptop.Toshiba-Qosmio-X70-1.JPGIn its defence, there's some incredible power tucked under the hood though, and that space is needed to house it all and keep air flowing over all the hot-running components. The Qosmio X70 can be configured to include a Haswell Quad-Core i7 CPU, Nvidia's GeForce GTX 770M, a whopping 32GB of RAM over 4 slots and a 3TB HDD paired with a 256GB SSD. Though it'd push your bank balance into the red, that's a formidable configuration.Toshiba-Qosmio-X70-8.JPGIt's certainly enough power to see many games shine on the machine's 17.3 inch 1080p display. With an 8ms response time and LED backlighting it's both responsive enough for hardcore gamers and vibrant enough for enjoyable Blu-ray playback from the included high-def disc drive, if a little reflective.

The Qosmio also continues the line's in-your-face design sensibilities, with matte and gloss black plastics sitting alongside brushed aluminium elements and red accents. The keyboard too features red-glowing backlighting.Toshiba-Qosmio-X70-3.JPGWe had a brief play through the introductory chapter of recent PC release Metro: Last Light on the laptop. The performance was incredibly impressive, given how demanding a title the game is. Running at the display's native full HD resolution and all graphical settings set to their highest value (tessellation and anti-aliasing effects maxed out, and texture settings cranked up too), the game ran incredibly smoothly. Though we didn't have the means to run a proper framerate test, to the naked eye it looked as though the game was hovering around a consistent 30fps mark - not a buttery smooth 60fps, but very playable indeed nonetheless. The machine obviously has some mean gaming chops, and should have no problem playing the current generation of top-tier, demanding PC games.Toshiba-Qosmio-X70-5.JPGWe did make two slightly concerning observations however during the brief testing session. Firstly, the Qosmio X70 was running hot. Like really hot; we stood to the side of the machine to take a few photos (next to where its ventilation system is placed), and we thought for a moment that someone had turned the hotel's radiators on, despite it being a summers day. Of course, gaming laptops always run hot, what with the powerful components crammed into such a tight space, but this seemed worryingly toasty.Toshiba-Qosmio-X70-2.JPGOur second issue came with the trackpad. Though comfortably sized and responsive, it wouldn't allow us to move our Metro: Last Light character forward while also turning. Having not played the game on another computer, this could potentially be a quirk with the title as opposed to the machine (please do chime in in the comments section below if that's the case), or maybe a problem with the pre-production model we were testing, or even an elusive setting having been activated. It's probably nothing, but worth pointing out at this stage if it's a system-wide problem that rears its head again upon release. We'll keep an eye out.

Despite the concerns, the Qosmio X70, like last year's model, again has the potential to be a winner. It's certainly powerful enough to tempt pro gamers, who will wan't to keep an eye out for it's launch come Q3 2013. You'll need to start saving now though if you're interested, with prices starting at a high £1,499.

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Toshiba-Excite-Write-10.JPGAs well as a range of laptops and an all-in-one PC, Toshiba took today to refresh their tablet line-up, bringing their Excite range to the UK for the first time. Though the company has had a chequered history in the tablet space, they seem to be on the right track with their new top-end models, the Excite Pro and Excite Write. Each packs in a high-resolution display, while the Excite Write with stylus support targets the market cornered by Samsung's Galaxy Note range, being particularly similar to Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1.Toshiba-Excite-Write-05.JPGMeasuring 10.1 inches in size and running Android Jelly Bean 4.2, both the Excite Write and Excite Pro are essentially the same tablet, powered by Nvidia Tegra 4 quad-core processors and employing a very attractive 2560x1600 resolution display. 8MP rear camera's feature on both too.Toshiba-Excite-Write-06.JPGWhere they differ however is in the Excite Write's support of stylus input and handwriting recognition. Adding a digitising layer to the screen and coming complete with a stylus pen that (thankfully) feels very comfortable due to it closely resembling a standard ink ballpoint, you can scribble notes and sketches on the display. Toshiba's pre-loaded TruNote application (though worringly unstable and prone to crashing during our short hand-on time with a pre-release model) seemed particularly promising, accurately turning our spider like scrawl into typed text and allowing us to search the web with handwritten notes of export them to the tablet's mail app. Input was recognised with only a split-second delay, making writing at speed reasonably comfortable on the tablet.Toshiba-Excite-Write-01.JPGHowever, with both tablets sharing the same 260mm x 179mm x 10.5mm casing, there's no slot to tuck that digital pen safely away into, so you'll have to be careful not to lose it. Likewise, the overall design lacks inspiration, weighing a considerable 632g and featuring a thick black border around its edge. A nicely textured chrome-look back panel does make the tablet comfortable to grip though.Toshiba-Excite-Write-02.JPGOver specs include 2GB of RAM, 16GB or 32GB storage options, micro USB and HDMI ports, Bluetooth 4.0, 3G, LTE support in the 32GB version, microSD storage expansion and a 3.5mm headphone socket.Toshiba-Excite-Write-08.JPGSet to be exclusives to PC World and Currys a little later this summer, the Excite Pro will command prices starting at £349, while the Excite Write will start at £499 (the higher price seemingly justified by pen input). That's a fairly premium price, but it's also a relatively premium spec sheet. That screen in particular is gorgeous, making the Excite Pro a slightly pricer alternative to Google's Nexus 10. Toshiba-Excite-Write-09.JPGA sturdy, optional keyboard case will also be available for the pair, though pricing hasn't been announced yet.

We'll have more hands-on first looks at Toshiba's latest gear throughout the day, so keep checking back for more details.

Qosmio-PX30t-10.JPGToshiba have today unwrapped their 2013 laptop, tablet and PC lines at a preview event in London, and Tech Digest went hands-on with a number of forthcoming products from Tosh. First up, the Qosmio PX30t 23-inch touchscreen all-in-one PC, set to challenge Apple's iMac for self-contained desktop dominance.Qosmio-PX30t-08.JPGRunning the touch-friendly Windows 8 operating system, runs at a full HD 1920 x 1080p resolution, with 10-point multitouch input accepted.

Available in both 3rd generation Ivy Bridge and brand-spanking-new 4th generation Haswell processor configurations, we tested a model packing a Core i7-4900MQ processor clocked at 2.8GHz, backed by 16GB of RAM. As well as Intel HD 4000 graphics being offered, optional Nvidia GeForce GT 740M discrete graphics options can also be configured.Qosmio-PX30t-12.JPGAs well as offering as much as 3TB of storage space, the Qosmio PX30t also boasts a side-mounted Blu-ray drive, 2x USB 2.0 ports, 4x USB 3.0 ports, wireless connectivity (including Intel WiDi and Miracast) and HDMI input. That HDMI port can be used to carry 4K content to an external compatible display, while the Qosmio PX30t display itself can also double up as a standalone monitor.Qosmio-PX30t-04.JPGAll is housed within a reasonably compact black plastic chassis with chrome trim, sitting on an attractive aluminium stand. Each will also come with a wireless mouse and keyboard, the mouse having an angular yet comfortable design. HarmonKardon supply the audio tech, with the screen housing built-in 20W stereo speakers, tuned with DTS Studio Sound.Qosmio-PX30t-11.JPGThough our time with the Qosmio PX30t was limited, it felt a snappy and responsive AIO. Even over the din of a busy showroom the speakers seemed very capable, lining the machine up as (at the very least) a competent media player, while the screen itself reacted well to touch input and was richly colourful thanks to LED backlighting. It was fairly reflective, though again the bright lights of the showroom may not be the best place to judge it in this respect.Qosmio-PX30t-05.JPGLove it or loathe it, jumping about the Windows "Modern" or "Metro" UI was snappy too, and though we couldn't put the graphics chip through its paces with something a little more demanding like Crysis 3, the Qosmio PX30t handled racing title Drift Mania Championship 2 without a stutter, suggesting that some casual gaming wont tax the system, nor will some older 3D titles.

Available from Q3 2013, entry level configurations of the Qosmio PX30t will start at £799. We'll have more from today's Toshiba press conference a little later.

2KG_TheBureauXD_Sectoids.jpgWhat would you get if you crossed Mass Effect with Mad Men? Something probably quite close to The Bureau - XCOM Declassified.

Yanking the XCOM universe from a turn-based near-future and moving it to an alternate-reality 1962 with third-person squad-based gameplay, it's not only a departure for the series, but a departure from the vision of the game that was first revealed back at E3 2010.

At that point, the game was merely called XCOM, and was a first person shooter. But, debuting to a somewhat muted reception and with the intervening years seeing the critical and commercially successful X-COM: Enemy Unknown released, this new title has evolved into something quite different. We went hands-on to see if it can live up to strong pedigree of its much-loved namesakes.2KG_TheBureauXD_CarterSquad.jpg

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The Bureau - XCOM Declassified will reveal the origins of the intergalactic peacekeeping force that has been central to the series since its debut back in 1994. The Bureau focusses around Special Agent William Carter, whose team had initially been pulled together by President Kennedy to battle the threat of invasion from communist forces. It quickly transpires however the threat is not from communism, but from the stars, and The Bureau must adapt rapidly to learn how to defend themselves and their country from alien foes.

We played a mission roughly halfway through The Bureau's campaign that saw the fedora-wearing Carter lead a three-man team into a small suburban town suffering the effects of an alien invasion, with its human inhabitants turned into sleep-walking, black-goo drooling zombies. Carter's team are tasked with finding out what's going on in the town, and to extract a fellow agent called Da Silva who has been pinned down by aggressive alien forces.2KG_TheBureauXD_DaSilva.jpgAction plays out very similarly to Mass Effect's combat system. Played from a third-person perspective, all shootouts occur in real-time, but you still retain full tactical control of your squad-mates. Each is assigned a different class with different associated abilities (an engineer can lay down turrets, a commando can unleash a shockwave), with many skills picked up over the course of the game's story as The Bureau agents gain access to alien technologies.

Controlling these abilities is handled through a pop-up radial menu that lays over the onscreen action, slowing time to a crawl as you select targets for your squad and unleash abilities, as well as selecting when to fall back, regroup or precisely where they should be taking cover.

Though it can at times be a little sluggish picking out cover spots for team-mates (the game at this point tends to get snagged on sticky cover areas), the system works well, with a good mix of abilities that can be combined to great tactical effect. Taunting a powerful alien bad guy into a well-placed mine for instance is very satisfying, as is placing and then "force lifting" a turret to give it a height advantage over foes.2KG_TheBureauXD_BattleFocus.jpgThose alien foes will be very familiar to any who have played one of the many earlier XCOM games, from big-headed grey Sectoid grunts to Muton elites. With shielded and armoured enemies littering the battlefields (themselves offering plenty of tactical positioning options), you'll have to focus fire on weak spots to fell baddies most efficiently. Weapons range from period-accurate handguns and rifles to futuristic laser weaponry, unlocking as you progress through the game.

As with classic XCOM, your fellow agents will also become more efficient and skilful the more battle experience they gain. Dotted across levels are resupply stations that allow you to swap agents in and out, adjust yours and your teammates arsenal and select perk upgrades as squad members level up. 2KG_TheBureauXD_SignalFight.jpgEach squad member can be customised too. And, as with classic XCOM, death here is permanent, meaning your top-ranking officers can be wiped out for good, with you losing all their skills as a result. Our experience so far with the game suggests it's going to be a little easier than the usual XCOM bloodbaths, which may make this a somewhat moot point unless difficulty ramps up beyond the halfway point.

Though it's not a breathtakingly gorgeous game (we played on a high-end PC), The Bureau benefits from a well directed sense of time and place. The now-retro-chic of 1960s furniture and fashions is well used here, bringing to mind LA Noire and its well-realised historical location. Faces and lip syncing may be a bit rubbery, but those slim-fit suits and formica furniture ground the sci-fi shenanigans in a colourful and relate-able world not often explored in gaming. The story too looks set to be an intriguing one, and a brief conversation with Da Silva midway through our demo session suggested that there may be room to direct its outcome beyond the blasting with branching conversation trees.2KG_TheBureauXD_SquadRevive.jpgThere are a few things that need to be ironed out ahead of release. "Roadie Running" into cover feels incredibly tank like, making it very difficult to turn while keeping your head down, and guns are lacking a bit of punch at the moment, as well as the afore-mentioned squad-cover snags. But there's a unique aesthetic here that we're very keen to see more of. The B-Movie style and "Space Race" setting have never properly been exploited in gaming, and The Bureau seems so far to have managed the marriage between real-time shooting action and XCOM's more studied tactical action well.

The Bureau - XCOM Declassified is headed to Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on 23 August. We'll have a full review ahead of release, so keep checking back for our final verdict.

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pl-eink-front.JPGAfter stealing the show at CES 2013 with their flexible e-paper concepts, Plastic Logic have really captured the zeitgeist with their latest prototype, a smartwatch using a flexible colour e-paper display. Could this be what to expect from Samsung's upcoming smartwatch and the rumoured Apple iWatch? We went along to have a closer look at a press event earlier today.

Using an organic TFT active matrix backplane paired with E-Ink and toped off with a colour filter, the watch (made of a single Plastic Logic e-paper sheet) is flexible enough to wraparound a wrist and is paper-thin at under a staggering 900μm. Though no touch panel is implemented in the Plastic Logic prototype, one could be easily added for a marginal increase in thickness.

Showing off potential functions such as a timeface, heart-rate monitor and incoming caller information from a connected smartphone, colours remain vibrant despite the usual e-paper limitations. Plastic Logic achieve these intense colours by using positional colour filters surrounding the standard monochrome E Ink array, allowing them to send individual dynamic colour information to select regions of the display as required by an application.plastic-logic-watch-faces.jpg"Effectively unbreakable" according to Plastic Logic engineer Jim Watts (who had no qualms with throwing a separate flexible display sheet onto the ground), the technology is certainly robust enough to withstand the rigours of everyday use. With Plastic Logic prototyping displays with a 300ppi, the visual fidelity could potentially be superb too. Using bi-stable E Ink technology, power draw would be minimal too, with the watch requiring no extra juice to power once a static image has been produced onscreen.

A few issues would need to be considered for any manufacturer looking to employ one of the Plastic Logic displays in their smart watches however. Though the screen technology itself is startlingly thin, there's still a need to house the transistors and silicone chips (the jumble of wires and circuitry you can see in the image below). A clasp or rubberised band could do the job here, but that micro thinness would be lost. Likewise, a tiny battery would need to be installed somewhere, and though that would be fine if just simply refreshing the screen every once in a while, connecting to, say, a smartphone over Bluetooth could have a dramatic impact on a battery you would assume would be of a low capacity given the size. There's also the need for some sort of lighting unless the watch be completely useless in the dark, another battery drain.pl-eink-rear.JPGThough designed only as an example of the potential of the Plastic Logic technologies, and not destined yet for a commercial smart watch product, the device does offer a glimpse at what could be featured in similar products in the future. Alongside Apple's rumoured iWatch, Samsung also recently confirmed that they are working on a connected wrist watch.

Most tellingly, on-hand Plastic Logic reps revealed that they are currently in talks with a "leading sporting brand" with the possibility of developing the technology for a sports-orientated wristwatch. One could easily speculate as to who that could be - you need only glance at Nike or Adidas's shift in focus to connected accessories to see how Plastic Logic's innovations could tempt them.

disgo-8400g-tablet-1.JPG7-inch sizes are quickly becoming the dominant form factor for the tablet market. Cheaper and more portable, the likes of Google's Nexus 7 and Amazon's Kindle Fire HD have been able to corner the budget end of a market where Apple's iPads (Mini included) don't dare to tread. However, if you're looking to go truly portable, you're going to want a 3G mobile data connection too, something that neither the Nexus 7 nor Kindle Fire lines offer, and only the premium 3G iPad Mini (starting at a pricey £369) has.

The new disgo 8400G tablet then is compelling on two counts. An Android 4.1.3 7.9-inch tablet, it's both aggressively priced at £149.99 and packs in a 3G connection too.disgo-8400g-tablet-2.JPG"There has been a massive premium on 3G models in the tablet market, sometimes upwards of £100," said Luke Noonan, purchasing director at disgo whilst we went hands on with the forthcoming tablet.

"We're half the price of an iPad, but much, much more than half the experience."

Though budget priced, the tablet has plenty of features usually missing from the bargain-basement Chinese Android tablets that clutter this price bracket of the market. As well as the 3G connection, there's full access to the Google Play Store and the full raft of Google services apps pre-installed, including Maps, Gmail and more.disgo-8400g-tablet-4.JPGFurther setting it apart is the inclusion of a Qualcomm Snapgradgon S4 processor, dual-core running at 1.2GHz with an Adreno 203 2D/3D graphics core. It's not a lightning fast quad-core chipset that top-tier tablets now ship with, but it's no slouch either. Though you may experience some lag when inputting text and a little judder with high-resolution videos, our short time with the tablet saw it play perfectly fine with web browsing and diving around the Android interface. If you're reading this on a first-generation iPad, it's a similar level of responsiveness.

Similarly, concessions are made with the 7.9-inch screen, but none that are deal-breakers. Running at 1024x768 resolution, its viewing angles are a little tight and its brightness levels average, but it's still offering reasonable performance given the price tag.disgo-8400g-tablet-6.JPGThe 3G connection also allows the tablet to be used as a telephone, with Android's stock dialler and contacts book included. Though some smirk at the idea of a 7-inch phone, the growing trend towards "phablet" devices of over 5-inches (not to mention wildcards like the ASUS FonePad) mean it's becoming increasingly acceptable to wield a giant telephone. Even conservative users could subtly hook the 8400G up to a Bluetooth headset.

Under the hood, you'll find 4GB of built-in storage (expandable via microSD cards), and a 4800mAh battery that disgo claim is good for 8 hours of average use (i.e a bit of web browsing, video playback and music listening over 3G and Wi-Fi.) GPS, A-GPS and Bluetooth 3.0 connectivity options are also included, with disgo pulling in some low power elements of Bluetooth 4.0 to tempt B2B buyers in the health sector. Two cameras are included too; a 0.3MP front unit and 2MP rear-facing snapper.disgo-8400g-tablet-8.JPGMeasuring 205 x 140 x 9mm, the disgo 8400g offers a durable build that's solid, if not all that sexy. A wide black bezel, finished with silver edging, sits around the screen, while a textured plastic composite backing adds some grip to the back of the device.disgo-8400g-tablet-7.JPGThere's certainly a gap in the market for a low-priced, reliable 3G Android tablet, and though the disgo 8400g wont set pulses racing, it could prove a sturdy bargain for those looking to test the tablet waters on a tight budget. Available from this month, you'll be able to pick the slate up from Currys and PC World, as well as select online retailers.

We'll be conducting a full review of the disgo 8400g in the coming weeks, so check back soon for a our full, final verdict.

tosh-4k-1.JPGBigger is better, and for Toshiba's forthcoming 84-inch 4K Series 9 Ultra HD TV, that counts for pixel count as well as size. We went eyes-on with the new flagship set at a recent Toshiba press event. Here are our first impressions.

Measuring a massive 84-inches from corner to corner, Toshiba's top-of-the-range 9 Series 4K TV is an intimidating sight to behold. Though also set to be available in 58 and 65-inch sizes, those looking for the "cinema in the living room" experience should look no further. It dwarfs all those who stand next to it (small-of-stature star Tom Cruise was by chance staying at the hotel where Toshiba held the press event, and we can't begin to imagine what he'd have looked like beside the screen, Cuban heels and all).tosh-4k-2.JPGIn terms of design, Toshiba have kept things relatively simple. A solid-looking chrome base supports the gigantic screen (it'd take some work to get this wall mounted), with the chrome styling extending to the lower edge of the screen. The rest of the bezel is finished in black with slightly rounded corners, and though not the thinnest bezel we've ever seen remains unobtrusive due to the sheer size of the screen. 4 HDMI ports will be on offer, as well as 2 USB ports and an SD card reader. Active shutter 3D is also supported, though was not on show during our time with the TV.

It's the 4K resolution that really impresses though. Running at four times that of Full HD for a whopping 3840x2160 resolution count, it provides a pin sharp picture when native resolution content is thrown at it. A show real including colourful demo footage was shown alongside Square Enix's next-gen E3 2012 reel, and the result was often stunning; colours were vibrant while the screen was bright, with movement (aided by the 800 Active Motion and Resolution system) smooth and judder free. tosh-4k-3.JPGThough impressive, it wasn't wholly perfect however. Edge-LED illumination is used to add brightness and backlighting to the panel, though it's intensity often meant it seeped into darker scenes, even in a relatively well-lit room, a problem only intensified when viewing the screen from an acute angle.

Likewise, an 1080p-to-4K upscaling demo on a 58-inch Series 9 model showing off a clip of Disney's John Carter movie proved troublesome. Toshiba's CEVO processing engine added a lot of noise to the image as it tried to push it towards ultra HD standards, while the motion processing effects gave all movement onscreen a watery look. It's common practice for companies to have all their TV's post-processing effects cranked up to the max during demo days, which was likely the case here. We'd imagine with a more subtle approach the issues here wouldn't have been so pronounced, so we'll be keen to see the screen performs in a real-world setting. Given the current lack of 4K content on the market however, the screen will regularly rely on its upscaling chops, so it's worth noting.tosh-cloud-tv-2.JPGBuilt in Wi-Fi powers Toshiba's new Cloud TV interface on the set, a feature that goes right across the company's 2013 connected TV range.

Looking to unify Toshiba's connected TV services, it allows users to personalise their interface through individual logins, with the potential to organise a homescreen to show apps and video streaming services that most interest individual users. As users use the Cloud TV interface the TV will begin to recognise viewing habits too, and suggest recommendations to view.

Plenty of the big-name video apps are included, such as Netflix, YouTube, BBC iPlayer and Blinkbox, while a universal search engine built by Rovi hunts down content across all services, including the built-in Freeview HD. It sounds great in theory, and if in practice the engine supports metadata pulled in from other connected devices such as Sky TV boxes, Freesat or YouView, it'll really come into its own.tosh-cloud-tv-1.JPGThere's also a full Twitter client, with support #hashtag searching and picture-in-picture views, with the app picking up trending shows and topics. Whether or not we'd actually use a Twitter client on our living room screens is another matter when it's so easy to tap away on a laptop or phone, but the picture-in-picture view with a Twitter feed side-by-side a live TV show could prove amusing for "social" shows such as X-Factor.

Skype video calling is also supported (provided you have Toshiba's sold-separately camera unit), as well as Intel's Wi-Di wireless screen sharing protocol.

Which leaves of course price. Due out in the summer, Toshiba aren't yet revealing how much the Series 9 sets are going to sell for. But considering Sony's comparably sized 4K screen is set to sell in the region of £22,000, don't expect Toshiba's 84-inch offering to come much cheaper.

Aftermath_1.jpgWith Gears of War 3 wrapping up the series quite succinctly, the developers over at Epic Games and People Can Fly have had to think a little outside of the box with Gears of War Judgment. And that's not only with how they're going to appease UK fans miffed over the Americanisation of the word "judgement". Where's the extra "E" guys?

The fourth title in the series, it acts as both prologue and epilogue to the original Gears trilogy, and focusses for the first time not on Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago, but unlikely fan-favourite Damon Baird. The wise-cracking pain-in-the-ass from the first trilogy takes a leading role in a narrative that sees the series catastrophic "Emergence Day" explored in depth for the first time.

The tale is told through a framing story that sees Baird being trialled for war crimes, 14 years prior to the first Gears game. The details of this accusation are revealed through playing each level, which act as Baird's testimony.Action_shot_Estate_dof.jpgIt's an interesting idea that plays directly into some of the new systems at play in the game. At its core, this is still the Gears you know and love, with chunky brutes running riot over war-torn maps, shooting from cover and blasting grunts into grisly pieces. But there's far more flexibility in the way you approach each level this time around. Judgement will not be a wholly linear experience.

That's not to say missions and levels can be attempted out of order, or that there's an open-world mechanic at play. Rather, you'll have control over the nature of Baird's testimony, choosing whether or not to withhold or reveal information. This is done by interacting with red hotspots around each level, and choosing to activate "Declassified" missions.

Declassified missions, though set in the same area as regular missions, see Baird revealing the true hardships that he and his team had to endure on the battlefield, and as a result see the difficulty level ramp up incredibly. And we mean incredibly. Though we got through the first Declassified mission without too much trouble, it quickly became clear that as the game progresses these missions will test even the mightiest Gears pro. From hardened enemy waves to time limits to weapon restrictions, you'll really be up against it.

Overcoming Declassified missions however will be the only way to fully explore the game's layered narrative, as well as earn the top "Three Star" rankings on each level. The more stars a player earns, the quicker they'll have access to all unlockables, so there's a real incentive beyond even the extra story layer to persevering with Declassified missions.Action shot_Rig_DOF.jpgWith the challenge now ramped up as high as it's ever been in a Gears game, it's good to see the series' tight controls and top-notch level design remain intact. It's as satisfying as ever to wield the Lancer rifle, while the wider open areas brought to mind the first Gears game's great potential for tactical flanking options. Mission objectives (especially with the Declassified modifiers taken into account) look nicely varied too. In our short time with the game we did everything from storm a museum to setting up a last stand barricade for a wave defence to hunting down hidden egg clutches of the giant centipede-like serapede.

Tonally, the game feels a lot darker too. Baird barely has a friend in the world thanks to his trial by the looks of things, while the level design on show so far hinted at inspiration being taken from London's World War II Blitz. The ruins of homes and shops lie smouldering as air raid sirens squeal and tracer fire lights up the smokey sky. It's as beautiful as grey, oppressive wartime shooters get.

MINOR GEARS OF WAR 3 SPOILERS FOLLOW

Once the main campaign concludes, players will then unlock the "Aftermath" campaign. It's here that we catch up with the later part of the Gears storyline; set 24 hours before the release of the Immulsion Core that eventually sees the Gears squad prevail in Gears of War 3, we finally get to find out what Baird was up to whilst Marcus was taking care of business. Though we only saw a few brief scenes of the Aftermath campaign (including a foggy shootout with a horde of explosive tickers and a dash from a landslide in the seaside town of Halvo Bay), it looks to be a nice bookend for the series.

SPOILERS END
Enviro_shot_OilRig.jpgMultiplayer will also see some changes. Though fan-favourite modes such as Horde and team deathmatch return, Judgment adds for the first time an all-vs-all deathmatch and a new class-based mode called Overrun. Class-based competitive matches are again another first for the series. A team of Cog soldiers will have to defend against Horde-like waves, but will be made up of specific classes. There's a medic who dishes out health packs, a solider who throws down ammo packs, an engineer who rebuilds defences and a sniper that can highlight enemies that the rest of the team can then track from afar. It's a fun concept, but right now the balancing felt a little off - while the medic, sniper and soldier classes are great, the engineer feels a little impotent as it takes far too long to fix up defences. And unless more than one player takes up the engineer role (which seems unlikely), defences on the other side of the map will quickly be overrun, making all the prior work pointless.

Aside from those Overrun issues, Judgment looks on course to be another stellar entry into the series. Due out in the UK on 22 March and 19 March in the US, check back to Tech Digest soon for our full Gears of War: Judgment review.

Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 15.53.35.pngStar Trek The Video Game is looking to boldly go where no licensed video game has gone before. Free of the standard (and destructively short) 9 to 12 month development cycle of the usual movie-to-game adaptations, Star Trek The Video Game has been offered the unheard of luxury of a full three year's worth of development and unparalleled access to the creative minds behind the films that spawned it. From art teams and set designers to the entire cast of J J Abrams reboot (returning here for voice over duties), Star Trek The Video Game is aiming for a level of authenticity that other movie tie-ins can only dream of.

The goal here is also to not only accurately recreate the Star Trek universe in game form, but to build a game that's worthy of attention in its own right. In a wise move, the developers have chosen to set the game between 2009's Star Trek and the forthcoming Star Trek Into Darkness movie. Though still canonical, they've got an original story to build levels around (one that sees Kirk and crew take on fan favourites the Gorn, here given a 21st century makeover since their rubber-suited days), giving them creative freedom to create the sort of interactive experiences that they want to bring to the table without being tied to an established narrative.Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 15.53.44.pngFrom the game's unveiling it's been branded quite unfairly as a Mass Effect knock off. Though J J Abrams' take on the Star Trek universe may well have taken inspiration from Mass Effect, it's worth remembering that Star Trek was pretty much the blueprint for Mass Effect to begin with. And in reality, they're two very different games.

While Mass Effect is an RPG with branching narratives and character customisation, this is very much a focussed action game, more in line with the likes of Uncharted or Gears of War. As well as cover-based shooting (the game has over 25 weapons each with dual-firing modes) you'll do a fair bit of puzzle solving and platforming too, running, jumping, hanging and shimmying around recognisable locations from the franchise.Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 15.53.37.pngThe Gears of War comparison is perhaps the most apt of all. No, Kirk and co haven't been turned into muscle-bound meatheads, but just as Gears of War had a keen focus on co-operative play, so too does Star Trek. Whether playing in single player or online multiplayer, every Kirk will have a Spock to accompany them and vice versa, whether controlled by a human or the AI.

This leads to many moments in the game where players will have to work together - one instance saw a disarmed Spock carrying an injured Kirk around a ship infested with Gorn soldiers. Kirk has to keep the enemies at bay until Spock can carry him to an operating table. Here, the player being Spock will have to quickly complete a minigame before Kirk is overwhelmed by enemies. Elsewhere gamers will be able to highlight points of interest for each other and request the other interacts with an out-of-reach object (or sends the AI buddy off to do their bidding). It's a thoughtful approach, considering Star Trek at its very core centres around the relationship of the two Enterprise officers. You'll even get a chance to pit Kirk and Spock against each other in mortal combat at one point, mirroring the classic scene.Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 15.54.55.pngThe game also wont be afraid of a set piece or two. A fun hands-off sequence demoed showed Kirk careering through space debris as he attempted to infiltrate the hi-jacked Enterprise unnoticed, while another saw Spock and Kirk dart from safe point to safe point around a large engine as dangerous rays intermittently fired towards them.

Easter eggs abound (keep an eye out for the number of red shirt deaths, while the fan-favourite tricorder now acts as an Arkham-style objective hint system), and care has been taken to re-create key locations such as the iconic Bridge in great detail. However, the level design on show so far seemed sparse and bland, as were effects such as explosions and lighting. Lip syncing looked awkward too, which could undermine the cinematic approach the game is aiming for.

The ambition is definitely there with Star Trek The Video Game, but were yet to be convinced of the execution. We'll have more on the game in the run up to its launch on 26 April. Keep checking back for more.

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