The highs and lows of computing in 2018

This year witnessed some mightily impressive leaps forward when it comes to computing technology, but equally, there were a number of major fails and disappointments.

In this article, we’re going to highlight the events and launches that made the most impact for us, either positively or negatively. So, from the disastrous update that plagued Windows 10, through to the triumphant return of a compact PC from Apple, here are the computing highs and lows of 2018.

Windows 10 rolls into serious trouble

The most recent update for Windows 10 was a definite low point for Microsoft this year, for sure. Sadly, it’s the most buggy and gremlin-filled update ever released for the desktop operating system, to the point where the rollout was actually halted. Indeed, it was stopped for over a month as Microsoft sorted some serious flaws out including a bug that deleted some users’ files (the very worst kind of bug, naturally).

And when the rollout was eventually resumed, some Windows 10 users continued to be frustrated by further issues, including re-occurring problems with Intel drivers and more. In short, the whole thing has been a mess, and it isn’t surprising that the October 2018 Update has been a very sluggish process overall.

Compounding all this woe is the fact that this year, Microsoft has been busy boasting about how AI and machine learning tech has been employed to help streamline its update rollouts to be even smoother and quicker. Well, if that’s AI in action, we won’t be asking Cortana to organize our next birthday bash – not unless we decide to hold it in a brewery, in which case, we’d like to test a theory…

Huawei knocks up the best laptop in the world

It’s not often that a notebook – or indeed any device – comes straight out of left-field and completely blows us away, but Huawei’s MateBook X Pro certainly did that as one of the highs of 2018.

When this laptop was first revealed at MWC, sporting a neat new trick for hiding away the webcam, it caused gasps from the assembled press. And when the MateBook X Pro went on sale, it immediately grabbed the coveted number one spot on our best laptops list, ousting our previous firm favorite, Dell’s XPS 13, and indeed the MacBook Pro (to which the Huawei machine bears more than a passing resemblance).

Yeah, so it looks MacBook-esque, plus the display’s aspect ratio is unconventional, and the aforementioned clever webcam is actually flawed in some respects – but these are but tiny niggles. In the big picture, the MateBook is a beautifully designed portable built around a gorgeous screen, stuffed with powerful components, yet still managing to offer superb battery life, and a relatively competitive price.

All this from a firm which is known for its phones – not notebooks – making the MateBook X Pro the biggest and most pleasant surprise of 2018 for us. More of this, please, Huawei.

Intel’s cannon fails to fire (again)

One major drag in the past year was Intel’s announcement in April that – once again – its 10nm Cannon Lake processors were going to be delayed. Yes, these are the same CPUs which were expected to succeed Skylake (6th-generation) chips way back in 2016, and were subsequently delayed multiple times.

While Cannon Lake silicon is actually shipping in very tiny amounts, mass production is where it’s at, and this year, we discovered that won’t happen until 2019. Why? Intel simply can’t hone its 10nm manufacturing process to get yields where they need to be.

This constant stalling is a rather worrying state of affairs, and indeed late this year, a rumor even floated around that Intel had cancelled Cannon Lake, forcing the company to come out and clarify that it was still making ‘good progress’ on the silicon. Although that’s obviously a relative term, given the history here.

Volume production of these CPUs is expected to start in the second half of 2019, although PCs with the processors inside probably won’t be on sale until the very end of the year. Assuming all goes well, that is – but Intel can hardly afford for another round to jam in the chamber next year, as Cannon Lake being delayed until 2020 would be a major embarrassment.

We should underline that it’s not like Intel doesn’t have any competitive CPUs right now – the firm has managed to eke a good deal of mileage out of its current manufacturing processes – but the chip giant is clearly slipping, as we’ll see with our next high point…

AMD pulls off CPU coup with Ryzen 2nd-gen

AMD pulled out all the silicon stops in 2018 when it came to the launch of its Ryzen 2nd-generation processors. These CPUs were regarded as nothing short of a triumph, with the beefy Ryzen 7 2700X giving Intel a serious whipping in terms of its price-to-performance ratio, and storming right to the top of our best processor chart.

For those looking at a more palatably priced mid-range processor, the six-core Ryzen 5 2600X offers immense performance for around the £200 or $200 (about AU$280) mark.

The Ryzen 3 2200G was also our pick of the budget CPU crop this year, with AMD sweeping the board in the categories where it really matters. Perhaps it’s no wonder we’ve recently seen figures suggesting that AMD is making great gains in terms of taking processor turf.

Google Duplex

Google’s AI becomes hair-raisingly honed

When it emerged in May, we dubbed Google Duplex as the first real AI gamechanger. At the Google I/O developer conference, where the AI assistant was first demonstrated making a booking for a haircut on behalf of its user, jaws were on the floor.

The idea is that Google Duplex is an artificial intelligence which can make calls for you, organize your life, and deal with folks on the other end of the phone just like a real human would, holding natural conversations. This is all about convenience – booking restaurant tables for you, and the like – but it’s also Google’s big plan to enable access to information that isn’t readily available on the internet.

So, for example, if a shop doesn’t list its opening hours on its website, Duplex can step in, ring the business up, and find out when it’s open for you. This really is a big leap forward in AI and an exciting prospect, and indeed Duplex is already available to some Pixel owners in select cities in the US.

But while this is a tech high of 2018 on the face of it, we actually have somewhat mixed feelings about Duplex, because there is a potential dark side to the AI. If it gets into the hands of scammers or spam-callers, we could be in for a world of more pain via our landlines. And then there’s the prospect of businesses plaguing rival firms with floods of false calls from AI bots.

There is potential for abuse, then, and Duplex certainly needs to be watched carefully in that respect, but we guess that’s true of anything in the realm of artificial intelligence as it gets more and more advanced.

Facebook fails come thick and fast

Mark Zuckerberg’s social network had a truly lamentable year featuring multiple disasters, the biggest of which came to light back in March.

The scandal that truly rocked Facebook in 2018 was that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, plundered the personal data of perhaps close to 90 million users in an effort to influence the voting decisions of US citizens (by potentially swaying them with targeted ads).

Following that, in June, we witnessed further revelations that the social network had given smartphone makers access to data on its users, then a nasty bug cropped up which turned private posts public for millions of Facebookers.

And there was plenty more where that came from, with the other highlights – or rather lowlights – including Facebook getting hacked in October, spilling data from 30 million accounts, and very recently, we saw an app data bug that exposed the private photos of almost seven million users.

Or how about this scandal which popped up just as we were putting the finishing touches to this article, with Facebook accused of sharing far more user data with its corporate partners than was previously thought.

The truth is we simply haven’t got the space to cover every disaster that struck Facebook during the course of the year. We’re talking about an embarrassment of embarrassments, quite simply, and ‘must do better’ doesn’t even begin to cover it as we look to 2019.

Apple’s tiny box of computing delights

One of the definite highlights for Apple in 2018 was the launch of the new Mac mini. This compact computer packs an unbelievable amount of power into its small chassis, with new 8th-gen Intel Core processors (up to hexa-core) and the ability to cram in 64GB of system RAM, no less. That’s four times the amount of memory that could be specified in its predecessor, and funnily enough, the Mac mini 2018 is four times quicker than the 2014 model.

The revamped mini PC targets creative types and professionals, offering immense flexibility. It’s a powerful enough standalone product, the only weak point being the integrated graphics – but if you hook it up to an external GPU box on your desk (and perhaps a monitor to boot), you’ve suddenly got a powerhouse machine to cope with truly demanding tasks.

Apple has got the pitch and design of the Mac mini just right, and perhaps the only downside is the starting cost of the new machine. That said, given what you’re getting for the outlay, the Mac mini is more than competitive with rival compact computers such as Intel’s Hades Canyon NUC.

  •  Huawei’s MateBook X Pro topped our best laptops of 2018 list


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