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How the pandemic is bringing Elon Musk’s dream to connect everyone on Earth closer to reality

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In vast swathes of the United States and the world, there are millions of people who don’t have reliable internet access. These unconnected people aren’t just in far-flung places like rural America or New Zealand or Sub-Saharan Africa, either. There are plenty of people living in dense city centers who struggle to access affordable broadband. The pandemic has brought new urgency to the problem, and while companies like Google and Facebook have floated far-out ideas for solving this problem, the internet technology that’s most promising is also the one that’s already proven: satellite broadband.

In early March, just days before cities across the United States shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Elon Musk shared the latest details about his plan to build a satellite broadband service called Starlink. Speaking to an audience at a satellite conference in Washington DC, Musk described how a constellation of Starlink satellites will “blink” when they enter low-Earth orbit. As described, they almost sound like streaks of glitter in the night sky, or magic bands of flying gadgets that can beam internet down to anyone on the planet.

Combined with improvements to existing technology like DSL, cable, and fiber — not to mention 4G and 5G cellular networks — futuristic satellite broadband stands to bridge the digital divide in the US and elsewhere. And because the pandemic has prompted explosive demand for better, more widely available internet connectivity, fast progress seems more inevitable than ever.

Musk’s new satellites went online in early September, giving beta testers download speeds that rival those of terrestrial broadband. SpaceX has now put 700 Starlink satellites into orbit in the past 16 months and has plans to deliver as many as 30,000 more in the next few years. More satellites mean more bandwidth and faster speeds, and eventually, SpaceX says its low-Earth orbit satellite constellations could deliver high-speed internet to the entire US. Amazon, Facebook, and several startups have made similar promises in recent years.

The concept of satellite-based internet service is actually decades old. However, the innovative low-Earth orbit satellite technology being developed by SpaceX and others could be essential, if not transformative, for everything from telemedicine to remote learning in places that aren’t already connected. Satellite broadband could also be very profitable to whichever company figures it out first. One could imagine Amazon using satellite broadband to boost its Amazon Web Services (AWS) business or Facebook using it to ensure that more people get online and look at Facebook. And if Musk gets his way, his Starlink constellation will generate billions of dollars in profits to fund his mission to colonize Mars.

This all sounds futuristic, but satellite broadband is already a very real thing. In fact, if you’ve ever connected to the wifi on a plane or cruise ship, you’ve probably used it. The basic idea is that ground stations connected to the internet, known as gateways, can send data up to a satellite which then relays that data to antennas somewhere else on the ground — or on a ship or an airplane. The problem with this technological feat is that it’s all very expensive. It can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to launch satellites into space, and that’s not even taking into account what it takes to get over regulatory hurdles. Plenty of companies have tried and failed to crack the business model in the past 20 years, but rather suddenly, the space internet game has changed.

“The Covid-19 crisis has significantly accelerated attention to and investment in satellite technology,” Babak Behesti, dean of the College of Engineering and Computing Sciences at the New York Institute of Technology, told Recode, who added that the number of launches had gone up 10 fold from last year to this year. “Why? Because schools, local governments, and others suddenly needed to have broadband internet access in areas where there was really no infrastructure in place.”

This might sound like proof that satellite broadband is finally on its way to solving the digital divide, but the situation remains incredibly tenuous. As SpaceX started firing up its Starlink satellites, Amazon in July received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)l to launch 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites for a constellation of its own called Project Kuiper. Meanwhile, longtime satellite broadband industry leaders like Viasat can’t seem to get new satellites into the sky fast enough to keep up with demand. And along the way, the federal government is pledging billions of dollars in subsidies to companies that bring broadband to rural America.

In some ways, the dream of connecting everyone on Earth has never been closer. In other ways, it’s hard to tell if the latest innovative ideas will suffer the same pitfalls as those of years’ past.

Satellite broadband, briefly explained

Satellite broadband is exactly what it sounds like: broadband internet access delivered via satellite. The basic idea hasn’t changed much since the heyday of satellite TV in the late ‘90s, when companies would beam internet connectivity to the same dish that received your HBO signal at speeds that were faster than dialup but still slower than today’s broadband.

In 2020, there are two main ways that companies deliver satellite broadband. The key difference between them is how high the satellites orbit. Geosynchronous satellites, which orbit about 22,000 miles above a fixed place on Earth’s surface, is an older technology that companies like Viasat use for broadband connections. You’ve probably used this tech for airplane wifi. Then there are low-earth orbit constellations, which are made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller satellites that orbit between 300 and 1,200 miles above the earth. This is the approach that’s getting all of the buzz lately and the one that SpaceX and Amazon are taking.

Geosynchronous satellites are the more mature, more proven technology. Viasat and a company called Hughes, which is the former parent company of DirecTV, have been around for decades. (DirecTV actually used its dishes and infrastructure to offer a satellite internet service called DirecPC back in the late ‘90s.) Viasat and Hughes are also the two companies that most likely offer satellite broadband in remote parts of the US right now. If you’re someone who lives in the New Hampshire wilderness, where there are no terrestrial broadband options, you can get a version of DSL, which operates on existing copper telephone lines, that’s essentially as sluggish as dial-up or you can sign up for geosynchronous satellite broadband through Viasat or Hughes and get speeds comparable to basic broadband: about 25 megabits-per-second. Plans start at $40 to $50 a month and get more expensive if you want more bandwidth.

Though they are dependable, these geosynchronous satellite systems have some issues. The main one is latency. The satellites are thousands of miles above Earth’s surface, so it takes time for data to travel — and that might mean a slight delay between sending and receiving. This isn’t a problem if you’re just browsing the web. It’s a significant problem if you’re trying to stream video games or do video calls, something we’re all doing more than ever before. Just think about remote TV news correspondents who have to wait half a beat between when the anchor in the studio asks the question and when they hear it in their earpiece, as the signal travels up to a communications satellite and then back down to the surface.

Low-Earth orbit constellations, like the ones SpaceX and Amazon are building, promise to solve the latency problem. Because the satellites are closer to the ground, the data doesn’t have to travel as far. Musk says this means latency on SpaceX’s Starlink satellites,which will orbit at around 340 miles above the surface, will offer high latency, thus reducing the risk of lag. The latency question is a big deal to the FCC and its decision to hand out billions of dollars in subsidies, by the way. The agency says it will prioritize networks that offer low latency when giving out funding.

Still, there are other unanswered questions about just how fast and dependable newly designed low-Earth orbit constellations will be. Unlike geosynchronous satellites, which are fixed above one spot, low-Earth orbit satellites circle the planet every 90 to 120 minutes. They’re designed to stay connected to the ground station and to the end user by staying connected to each other, but if this chain gets broken, it would disrupt the connection. These constellations are also made up of thousands of relatively small satellites — Starlink satellites weigh less than 600 pounds — which means they require multiple launches, which are expensive.

“As more satellites go up, they optimize the network architecture,” explained Manny Shar, Head of Analytics at Bryce Space and Technology. “In the next couple of years, we should see decent improvements in rural areas where there’s really limited capability, and there’s limited competition to improve that. So at the very least, there will be an alternative option that those rural users can take advantage of.”

Shar’s point about limited competition is an important one to highlight. Many parts of the United States, for instance, have access to slower DSL connections thanks to telephone lines, but because upgrading that infrastructure is so expensive, the telecom companies that serve those areas often have little incentive to do so. That leaves residents depending on a mix of poor wired connections and often spotty cellular networks.

New technology like 5G could ostensibly bring faster cellular speeds to remote areas, but again, building that infrastructure takes time and money. Satellite broadband, meanwhile, can beam fast, reliable, and potentially affordable internet access down to nearly anywhere on Earth. This also requires time and money, but what we’re seeing in 2020 is that the pandemic is attracting all kinds of investment in the technology, which means more satellites are launching.

Both geosynchronous and low-Earth orbit satellite broadband systems have pros and cons. The former is already viable, albeit not perfect. The latter holds promise, albeit unfulfilled. Inevitably, though, to get to that goal of connecting more people, it will all come down to money.

Slow march of progress

The future of satellite-based broadband largely depends on who can get the most bandwidth into space for the least amount of money. Each individual satellite, by design, can offer a limited amount of bandwidth, so companies are either making lots of satellites to launch at once — this is what SpaceX is doing — or they’re investing technological improvements and launching new satellites every few years. This is Viasat’s strategy, and the company plans to launch a new satellite called Viasat 3 next year that’s expected to vastly improve its network. This satellite and others like it weigh tens of thousands of pounds, so these launches are expensive.

So one could see the appeal of launching lots of smaller satellites over time, especially if you’re a company like SpaceX and own your own rockets. Amazon and its Project Kuiper, similarly, have the benefit of being owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns the rocket ship maker Blue Origin. It’s so far unclear how Blue Origin might factor into Project Kuiper, however. In fact, Amazon has revealed very little about the project other than it plans to offer affordable high speed, low-latency internet service through low-Earth orbit satellites.

“There are still too many places where broadband access is unreliable or where it doesn’t exist at all,” Amazon senior vice president Dave Limp, Senior said in a statement following the FCC’s approval of the first Project Kuiper launch. “Our $10 billion investment will create jobs and infrastructure around the United States that will help us close this gap.”

It’s worth pointing out a difficult truth here. Selling affordable satellite broadband to individual customers in rural areas will not generate enough revenue to send the needed satellites to space. Again, each launch costs hundreds of millions of dollars, and selling service for $40 a month to individual households can’t cover the startup costs. And even then, not everyone that needs internet access can afford that. This economic challenge is part of the reason why the dream of offering satellite-based internet service to anybody on earth — or any other kind of reliable, high-speed internet service — has been so elusive.

This is why companies that have been successful at building satellite broadband networks have approached the challenge from different angles. Viasat, for instance, spent years building out an enterprise business, selling bandwidth to the military and governments, not to mention helping you get wifi on airplanes. Now, the company says that demand from the consumer market has been on the rise and has simply exploded since the pandemic hit. And that demand isn’t necessarily coming from the most remote areas.

“It turns out that a lot of the demand tends to be around the major metro areas,” said Viasat CEO Mark Dankburg. “In the highest demand markets — in the Midwest, in the Southeast — we’ve been out of bandwidth for two years. So we can’t have that many more customers until we get our next satellite.” Dankburg added that Viasat is developing technology that would involve connecting its existing geosynchronous satellites with its own low-Earth orbit satellites, as well as cellular networks, for faster, lower latency connections.

As Recode’s Emily Stewart recently explained, broadband access isn’t just a problem in rural Montana. Even in city centers and suburbs, the infrastructure to offer high-speed internet access either doesn’t exist or is too expensive for many people to afford. This means that new options, including space internet, could stand to connect millions of Americans more quickly than it would take to expand existing terrestrial infrastructure.

That doesn’t make providing access to those in far-flung regions any less of a priority, and government subsidy programs are helping to make this happen, albeit slowly. Coincidentally, just as the pandemic pushed the country into lockdown, the FCC launched its Digital Rural Opportunity Fund, which will provide up to $16 billion to telecom companies that expand internet access in rural areas. SpaceX has applied for funding, although it must prove that its service offers the low latency and high speeds required by the agency to get the money. Viasat received $87.1 million in funding from a similar FCC program last year.

Again, in the absence of government funding, companies like SpaceX and Amazon are in a unique position to take the lead in the satellite broadband industry because building such an infrastructure will come in handy for other reasons. SpaceX is in a unique position to deliver its satellites into low-Earth orbit. The benefit of Amazon owning its own satellite broadband network also seems apparent. When it goes online, Project Kuiper could be an immediate boon to the company’s AWS business.

“Amazon is essentially, effectively going to be its own biggest customer to really prime the pump for the revenue stream,” said Behesti, who is also a senior member of IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). “And then, obviously, the additional revenue streams would come from the residential individual consumers.”

The benefits of satellite-based internet services have been obvious for years. However, for years, companies have struggled to make those ambitions meet reality. It’s not for lack of trying — and trying creative approaches, too. Alphabet continues to pursue a project called Loon, which started out as a Google experiment about 10 years ago. Loon involves using high-altitude balloons that beam internet access down to rural areas. After being deployed in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, a fleet of Loon balloons started delivering service to millions of people in Kenya in July, marking the first commercial application of the technology.

Meanwhile, Facebook has had its own far-fetched plans. Its initiative called Internet.org that aims to connect the entire planet suffered a big setback in 2016, when a SpaceX rocket carrying a satellite designed to deliver internet access to sub-Saharan Africa exploded on the launch pad. There was also Project Aquila, which involved sending solar-powered drones 60,000 feet into the atmosphere to connect rural areas. The company abandoned the project in 2018.

Big internet companies like Facebook and Google have also faced backlash for their lofty connectivity projects. While projects like Loon and Internet.org are billed as charitable initiatives to serve the public good, critics say they stand to violate the principles of net neutrality and serve the companies’ best interest, rather than the public’s. After all, a free or low-cost internet service from Facebook or Google could simply steer billions of people to Facebook and Google’s products and services, balkanizing the internet as we know it.

With all of these efforts, there’s bound to be more failures and possibly more backlash in the future. Elon Musk’s goal of offering high-speed broadband to everyone on Earth is a lofty one. We do know that such a thing is technically possible. It’s expensive, and plenty of smart people are figuring out how to pay for it, while other promising tech, like 5G, continues to roll out. But if anything would motivate such a tremendous disruption in the internet service business, the pandemic should do it. Never before have we depended so much on connectivity. We might just have to leave planet Earth to get it.

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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Open Sourced logo

Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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