Alienware 13 R3: Powerful and pretty, if you don’t mind junk in the trunk

It’s a good time to be in the market for a gaming laptop that doesn’t look stupid. Higher-powered laptops have begun to tick crucial checkboxes across the board, with smaller, super-powered GPUs landing in much less garish designs. In some cases, the result is a laptop you’ll love using—and won’t be ashamed to be seen using in public.

One of the latest to catch our eye is Alienware’s “R3” update to its 13-inch model. While some of its SKUs may not win affordability awards, the R3 officially counts as a damned good laptop, gaming or otherwise. If your budget has room for a single portable productivity machine, Alienware might have the right balance of power, weight, design, and functionality for you, not to mention decent battery life in a pinch.

But first, let’s talk about this laptop’s tushie.

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Board game review: New Angeles is the capitalist dystopia we need

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com—and let us know what you think.

Welcome to a world of unimaginable wealth and rampant inequality, a world where monolithic corporations act as a law unto themselves, where automation and technological progress threaten to undermine the very foundations of society, and where frightened, forgotten, and furious citizens turn in droves towards political extremism.

This is Fantasy Flight’s dystopian Android universe. While you could be forgiven for mistaking it for the world of 2017, it’s actually a cyberpunk setting best known as the backdrop for the card game Android: Netrunner, which pits elite hackers against corporate security systems.

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Elite: Dangerous 2.3 expansion adds camera, multicrew—and a certain 7 exoplanets

More than two years after its official release back in December 2014, spaceship simulator Elite: Dangerous continues to grow and add content. The latest update is called “The Commanders,” and it bumps the game’s version number to 2.3 (or 1.8, if you’re not running the “Horizons” expansion). There are plenty of new features in 2.3, including a vastly updated camera system for taking in-game images or movies; a “commander creator” feature for players to create and customize their avatars; and the ability to join friends on their ships and fly as a single crew.

But one feature will be showing up as a last-minute addition: the newly-discovered TRAPPIST-1 star system, complete with its seven exoplanets, will become part of the game’s simulated galaxy.

NASA broke the news about the discovery only days before the 2.3 update was set to enter semi-open (paywall) beta testing among the Elite: Dangerous playerbase. Between that announcement and some last-minute bugs, publisher and developer Frontier decided to slip the beta date from February 23 to February 27 to try to add bug fixes and the TRAPPIST-1 system to the game. The bad news is that the newly discovered exoplanets won’t make it into Monday’s beta release; the good news is that TRAPPIST-1 will be in the second beta release, which will come some days or weeks after the initial beta.

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Decrypted: The Expanse: OK, so we broke a few laws of physics here

Welcome to week four of Decrypted: The Expanse, our podcast devoted to the TV we’re currently obsessed with. This week, Detective Miller was still left holding the bomb—quite literally—on an Eros station that appears both self-aware (for some value of that term) and able to ignore the laws of physics. Eros is headed right for Earth, where there’s an awful lot of mistrust happening in the UN’s war room. Is this whole thing a Martian plot?

Of course, we the viewers know that it’s really Jules-Pierre Mao and his stooge Errinwright, although the former has disappeared from view, presumably hoping his vast wealth will let him escape the consequences of his science experiment.

Back on Eros, we’ve finally gotten to see what the protomolecule is really up to. Miller gets to retrace his earlier visit to the station, taking in the pachinko parlor and ending up back at the Blue Falcon Hotel, the last resting place of Julie Mao. Our hangdog detective finally gets to meet his missing person, for the protomolecule has incorporated Julie Mao as its control structure of sorts. With Eros able to break the laws of physics to defend itself, it’s up to Miller to persuade it/her not to crash into Earth.

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Valve surprise-announces middleware 3D sound toolkit, gives it away

Every hopeful gaming thread on the Internet has at least one person making this kind of guess: Valve Software will one day drop its next major project as a previously unannounced, out-of-nowhere surprise for immediate download. And it’ll do it for free, just for funsies.

Valve did exactly that on Wednesday. The release even kinda-sorta has a “3” in the title, but it’s pretty much the polar opposite of what you might expect: a massive, multi-functional middleware solution for more realistic and efficiently rendered 3D audio.

What’s more, this toolkit—dubbed Steam Audio—doesn’t even require its namesake digital delivery service to function. Developers can head to github right now and grab the tools, either as a Unity plugin or a C API, should developers wish to integrate it into their own engines. (Official support for Unreal Engine 4, FMOD, and Wwise has been announced but is not yet available for download.)

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Oculus affirms its commitment to open VR standards

LAS VEGAS—With everybody and their brother seemingly working on their own mutually exclusive virtual reality platform these days, it would be nice if everybody could somehow agree on some standards that allow VR games, hardware, and accessories to be easily interoperable with each other. Facebook-owned Oculus has gained a reputation for defending its own platform in order to protect access to exclusive content. In a presentation at the DICE conference this week, though, Oculus Head of Content Jason Rubin pushed back on this reputation and highlighted the company’s work on developing standards in the VR space.

“This is actually a place where we agree with the industry more than most people think,” Rubin said. “We support an open standard… We want everybody in the PC business to join an open standard that’s a platform where everybody gets to say what’s important to them.”

Here, Rubin is referencing Oculus’ work with the Khronos group (of OpenGL fame) on developing a common set of industry-wide VR standards. Announced back in December, the effort aims to create a set of “APIs for tracking of headsets, controllers and other objects, and for easily integrating devices into a VR runtime. This will enable applications to be portable to any VR system that conforms to the Khronos standard, significantly enhancing the end-user experience, and driving more choice of content to spur further growth in the VR market.”

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Halo split-screen combat is coming back—and it’s here to stay

LAS VEGAS—In a Thursday speech at the gaming-minded DICE Summit, Microsoft’s head of its 343 Industries group (meaning, all things Halo) confirmed a return to split-screen modes in the series’ first-person shooter games.

“We will always have split-screen support going forward” for all first-person shooter games in the series, 343 chief Bonnie Ross told the Vegas crowd. Ross did not clarify if that ruling would apply to either cooperative or competitive modes in the series going forward, nor did she clarify how split-screen modes would work in any potential “Xbox Play Anywhere” entries in Halo that work on Windows 10. (This month’s Halo Wars 2 is the first true “Play Anywhere” game in the Halo series.) We have reached out to Microsoft to seek clarification, and we will update this report with any response.

2015’s Halo 5: Guardians was a peculiar release in the series for a few reasons, but one stands out to the couch-combat fans at Ars Technica: its lack of split-screen combat, either in four-player local versus modes or in its campaign, which revolved around four-player co-op battling (as opposed to many prior games that limited campaign co-op to two players). While the game was in development, a 343 developer told fans via Twitter that Halo 5 would include split-screen modes, but the studio eventually walked that statement back.

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Nintendo Switch impressions: Out of the box and into our hands

We’ve had the Nintendo Switch here in Ars’ orbiting HQ for a few days now, and while we’re still working on a more thorough review ahead of launch, we’re now able to share some initial impressions of the final retail system to add to our hands-on time from last month.

So far, testing out the Switch has exclusively meant playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the only one of nine confirmed launch games we have our hands on as of yet. Any significant non-gaming or online functions are tied to a “Day One” system update that likely won’t be available in time for pre-launch reviews. Further thoughts on the experience of motion controlled games (like 1-2-Switch), or games that support individual Joy-Cons held horizontally (like Super Bomberman R) will also have to wait.

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