hardware

The Galaxy Note 9 is leaking out all over the place

Posted by | galaxy note 9, hardware, Mobile, Samsung | No Comments

The Galaxy Note 9 won’t be announced until August. You wouldn’t know it by reading the internet, however. Every nook and cranny of the upcoming phablet has been bared for the world, in a series of leaks over the past several weeks.

Sure, not all of them will pan out, but plenty have come from leakers with established track records, and enough of the details line up so as to paint a wholly believable portrait of the phone we’ll finally get an official look at early next month.

And then there’s this:

That’s a picture of Samsung CEO DJ Koh using what appears to be the Note 9 at a media event. The differences are subtle, but they’re there in the camera housing, which is among a few small visible changes to the upcoming device. Like, good on DJ Koh for using the company’s products, S Pen and all, but even by Samsung’s traditionally leaky standards, that’s a little silly.

Maybe Samsung doesn’t mind. Maybe it’s just happy to have everyone talking about the Note 9, while it’s hard at work on that folding phone we’ve heard so much about.

The above camera housing is in line with another recent post from perennial leaker, EVLeaks, which shows off a full front and back render of the upcoming handset:

S Pen? pic.twitter.com/xizmWw9J2W

— Evan Blass (@evleaks) July 17, 2018

There’s also an S Pen, with a yellow coat of paint that’s in line with the image the company sent out with the invite to the August event. The fingerprint sensor has been moved below the camera there, rather than next to it as it was on the Note 8. That was a clear mistake, and Samsung fixed it for the S9. Logic follows that they would do the same on the new Note.

That, in turn, appears to confirm this photo of an actual unit from Slashleaks, which bears an extremely effective “No photo allowed/Do not leak info” sticker. At least Samsung tried, I guess.

#Samsung#GalaxyNote9 – Samsung Galaxy Note 9 live images leaked https://t.co/WEgJIsWtEy pic.twitter.com/kMwHm7kpBc

— /LEAKS (@Slashleaks) July 17, 2018

More (but not that much more, from the looks of it) will be revealed on August 9.

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Essential discounts its 360 Camera to $19, a day after its phone was half-off

Posted by | Android, andy rubin, essential, Essential Phone, hardware, TC | No Comments

At $250, the Essential Phone was arguably the best deal of Amazon Prime Day. Which is saying a lot. But no matter how you slice it, 50 percent off an Android flagship is a pretty tough deal to beat. I know of at least one TechCruncher who couldn’t resist the lure of that kind of discount.

Now that Prime Day is over, the phone’s price is back up at $499 — but the deals, it seems, keep on coming. Over on Essential’s site, you’ll find the company’s modular 360 Camera for $19. That’s a mind-boggling 90 percent off its MSRP — the kind of deal that has “fire sale” written all over it.

In other circumstances, you could chalk up a killer deal or two to an inventory refresh. Hell, it’s almost a year since the PH-1 handset hit the market, so the company could have a replacement in the works. The context of other recent news around the company, however, paints a very different picture.

In February, the company was reported to have only shipped 88,000 phones the prior year. In May, word got out that founder Andy Rubin was looking to put the company up for sale and had cancelled work on the followup phone. The company didn’t issue a flat-out denial, but instead insisted that it still had products in the works.

“We always have multiple products in development at the same time and we embrace canceling some in favor of the ones we think will be bigger hits,” it said at the time. “We are putting all of our efforts towards our future, game-changing products, which include mobile and home products.”

Indeed, the gears are still turning and the lights are on over at Essential HQ. The company announced that it was expanding to additional markets, including Canada, France, Japan and the U.K. And last month the company finally announced its second modular accessory, the Audio Adapter HD. That plug-in brings HD audio playback to the device. The company is also continuing to offer quick software support and has already promised to be one of the first to offer an update to Android P when it arrives. 

We reached out to the company for an update and received the following statement from a spokesperson, “We’re offering a great deal on the Essential 360 Camera accessory so new customers who bought our phone during Amazon Prime Day can enjoy the full Essential experience.”

So, perhaps there’s something to be said for roping people into the ecosystem and then offering a doubly deep discount on an accessory that only works with that device.

For its part, Essential has always acknowledged that it’s had a tough road ahead. At an event in New York prior to the release of the PH-1, an executive outlined a 10-year plan to become a truly successful contender in a category dominated by tech titans like Samsung and Apple. And that $300 million from Access Technology Ventures, Tencent, Foxconn and Amazon certainly didn’t hurt.

If the rumors are true, this would be a sad end for a hardware startup with good devices and a grand ambition. Given what the company laid out early on, it was clear that it’s only just getting started with its innovative approach to mobile and the smart home. But hardware is hard, as the well-trod saying goes — that’s the case even if you have boatloads of funding and happen to be the guy who created Android.

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Samsung rumored to be releasing a folding screen smartphone in early-2019

Posted by | hardware, Mobile, Samsung | No Comments

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Samsung’s working on phone with a folding screen. And it’s arriving soonish. You’d be entirely forgiven if you rolled your eyes at that one, or at the very least took the whole thing with a sufficiently massive grain of salt.

This particular rumor has been floating around for about as long as Samsung’s been in the smartphone game, but The Wall Street Journal appears to have it on good authority that such a device may finally come to fruition early next year.

What’s more, those “people familiar with the matter” say the seven-inch handset is currently sporting the codename “Winner,” which sounds a bit like something Donald Trump would nickname his smartphone.

The design sounds more like a classic clamshell handset than the novel — though not particularly practical — dual-screen ZTE Axon M that arrived late last year. To be fair, that was more two screens fused together, rather than a “folding screen.” When the Samsung device is closed, on the other hand, it apparently sports cameras on either side and “a small display bar on the front.”

The phone will reportedly be released in smaller quantities than most Samsung smartphones/tablets at first, with wider availability later in the year. A lower than expected demand for the company’s latest flagship, the Galaxy S9 is said to be a driving force behind Samsung’s push to get this product out the door.

The category has long been a white whale for a smartphone industry intent on cramming the largest screen into the smallest footprint possible. The ability to fold it up and shove it in a pocket would certainly be a way to accomplish this. There have, however, been all manner of technical constraints along the way. 

A representative for the company offered TechCrunch a fairly boilerplate statement in response to the rumors, “ “It is Samsung’s policy to not comment on rumors and speculation.”

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This $20 DIY kit makes your NES, SNES or Mega Drive controller wireless

Posted by | 8bitdo, Gadgets, Gaming, Hack, hardware | No Comments

I have to hand it to 8BitDo. At first I thought they were just opportunistically hawking cheap hunks of plastic in an era of unparalleled nostalgia for retro games, but… well, who am I kidding? That’s exactly what they’re doing. But they’re doing it well. And these new DIY kits are the latest sign that they actually understand their most obsessive customers.

While you can of course purchase fully formed controllers and adapters from the company that let your retro consoles ride the wireless wave of the future, not everyone is ready to part with their original hardware.

I, for example, have had my Super Nintendo for 25 years or so — its yellowing, cracked bulk and controllers, all-over stains and teeth marks compelling all my guests to make an early exit. I consider it part of my place’s unique charm, but more importantly I’m used to the way these controllers feel and look — they’re mine.

8BitDo understands me, along with the rest of the wretches out there who can’t part with the originals out of some twisted concept of loyalty or authenticity. So they’re giving us the option to replace the controllers’ aging guts with a fresh new board equipped with wireless connectivity, making it a healthy hybrid of the past and present.

If you’re the type (as I am) that worries that a modern controller will break in ways that an SNES controller would find laughable, if it could laugh, then this will likely strike your fancy. All you do is take apart your gamepad (if you can stand to do so), pull out the original PCB (and save it, of course), and pop in the new one.

You’ll be using more or less all the same parts as these famously durable controllers came with (check out this teardown). The way the buttons feel shouldn’t change at all, since the mechanical parts aren’t being replaced, just the electronics that they activate. It runs on a rechargeable battery inside that you recharge with an unfortunately proprietary cable that comes with the kit.

If you’re worried about latency… don’t be. On these old consoles, control latency is already like an order of magnitude higher than a complete wireless packet round trip, so you shouldn’t notice any lag.

You will, however, need to pick up a Bluetooth adapter if you want to use this on your original console — but if you want to use the controller with a wireless-equipped setup like your computer, it should work flawlessly.

If you buy it and don’t like it, you can just slot the original PCB back into its spot and no harm is done!

There are conversion kits for the NES and SNES, the new Classic Editions of both, and the Sega Mega Drive. At $20 each it’s hardly a big investment, and the reversible nature of the mod makes it low risk. And hey, you might learn something about that controller of yours. Or find a desiccated spider inside.

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Living with the new 15-inch MacBook Pro

Posted by | Apple, Gadgets, hardware, macbook, macbook pro, Reviews | No Comments

When reviewing hardware, it’s important to integrate it into your life as much as possible. If you can, swap it in for your existing devices for a few days or a week, to really get an idea of what it’s like to use it day to day.

There are certain nuances you can only discover through this approach. Of course, that’s easier said than done in most cases. Switching between phones and computers every week isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds, especially when juggling multiple operating systems.

As a MacBook Pro owner, however, this one was a fair bit easier. In fact, there’s very little changed here from an aesthetic standpoint, and beyond the quieter keyboard and Siri integration, there’s not a lot that’s immediately apparent in the 2018 MacBook Pro refresh for me. That’s because I’m not the target demographic for the update. I write words for a living. There are large portions of my job that I could tackle pretty easily on an Apple IIe (please, no one tell the IT department).

This upgrade is for a different class of user entirely: the creative professional. These are the people long assumed to be the core user base for the Mac ecosystem. Sure, they only account for around 15 percent of Mac users, according to the company’s estimates, but they’re the people who use the machines to make art. And as such, it’s precisely the group of influencers the company needs to court.

In recent years, however, some vocal critics have accused the company of taking that key demo for granted. Apple has seemed more focused on a populist approach to its technology. The simplification of pro software like Final Cut X and the seeming abandonment of the Mac Pro have been regarded as exhibits A and B.

For the first time in recent memory, the company has serious competition for the hearts and minds of creative pros, including Microsoft, which has made the category a focus with its high-end Surface line.

But the last two years have seen Apple fighting back. The company was uncharacteristically open about the status of the Mac Pro line, which has been undergoing a fundamental rethink. In the meantime, it released the iMac Pro and added a bunch of new features to macOS aimed firmly at that category.

The new MacBook Pro continues that trend; the form factor remains the same, and the changes are largely under the hood. But these are in fact extremely powerful machines built around the premise that, in 2018, one shouldn’t have to compromise power in order to go portable. Well, maybe a little — but in those cases where you need some intense graphical processing, there’s always an external GPU, which makes the machine capable of VR and other process-intensive tasks.

The new Pros top out at a bank-breaking $6,699, presenting a healthy jump over the highest-end models money could buy last year. For the rest of us, however, the starting price remains the same, at $1,799 for the 13-inch and $2,399 for the 15.

Keys to quiet

There’s a lot going on here. First, as many pointed out in the initial announcement, Apple didn’t alter the fundamentals here — they just made the loud typing a bit quieter. That was a surprise to many, given everything that’s happened on that front over the last several months. After all, if the company was going to go out of its way to update the technology, wasn’t a fundamental rethink in order here?

A couple of things. First, things (and lawsuits) didn’t really start getting hot and heavy on that front until recently. The first major class-action suit was filed back in May. Hardware iteration happens slowly, especially with a massive company that supports so many users. After all, you want to get things right — especially when correcting a known issue. A couple of months is hardly sufficient lead time.


Old keyboard

Second, Apple says the actual instances of real keyboard failure are a small minority. I’m inclined to believe that’s the case, though the internet certainly has the tendency to amplify these kinds of things. But still, there seems a reasonable possibility that some bigger fix is in the works.

The company will also point out that, in spite of pushback, many users like the new keyboards. Based on the multiple threads of discussion we had after the news was announced, I can tell you that this is anecdotally true among the TechCrunch staff.

Things got better with gen two, and I’ve certainly become more used to typing on it. I still didn’t love it at first, but I’d say I’m pretty much keyboard-agnostic at this point.

New keyboard

Along with the mechanics, the key travel is the same. So if you had issues with the typing being too shallow for your liking, sorry, you’re out of luck here. An early teardown points to a thin, silicone membrane sitting on top of the keyboard switch that serves to help protect the undercarriage from spills, food particles and the like. I once got a small piece of something stuck under there and it hampered movement entirely.

In my case, it was nothing that a blast of canned air couldn’t fix (we don’t all have one lying around, but we really should), but clearly not everyone has been so lucky on that front. It seems as though the muffling of the sound and the extra sense of tactile pushback was a happy accident of a kind here, but hey, we’ll take it.

Here’s a longish thing we wrote after getting our hands on the system. We enlisted Anthony Ha, TechCrunch’s Loud Typing World Champion five years running (they tried to recruit him out of college, but the allure of writing about VCs was too strong) to try it out. Even with Anthony downright punishing the keys, the result was noticeable.

The new keys aren’t silent, but they’re a lot less likely to get you kicked out of the library. There’s not a huge difference between the actual decibel levels between the two, but the older model’s more staccato typewriter clacking sound has become more dull and less harsh on the ears, which likely makes it sound that much quieter.

Another tidbit here for people who focused on such things: The keys’ cap color is ever-so-slightly lighter than the last. I thought I was going crazy at first, but there you go. I mean, I still think I’m losing my mind, but for non-keyboard-related reasons.

About those specs

Apple didn’t hold back on the specs with the review unit it sent along. The model sports:

  • 2.9 GHz Intel Core i9
  • 32 GB of DDR4 memory
  • Radeon Pro 560X
  • 4TB of storage

Configured on Apple’s site, that will run you a cool $6,669 — about the same as the monthly rent on a studio apartment in San Francisco, from what I understand. It’s worth noting here that it’s the SSD storage that really pushes the cost into the stratosphere. That’s an additional $3,200 over the default 512GB.

Again, 4TB is probably overkill for the vast majority of users. All of the above configurations are, really, but they’re there if you want/need them. Apple was able to push memory up to 32GB courtesy of finally introducing DDR4 to the MacBook. That move does come with a hit to the battery life, however, so the company went ahead and increased the battery size to offset that hit.

The company says the laptop gets around 10 hours of use in its testing. I admittedly put it through something a bit more rigorous than standardized testing when incorporating it into my daily usage — recording a podcast on Skype, listening to music while working/browsing the web (it’s part of my job, I swear) — and got a few hours less than that.

As for performance, Apple’s not messing around here. Running Geekbench 4 (a popular PC benchmark), I got an impressive 5540 on the single core and 23345 with the multi-core test. Geekbench got similar — if slightly lower — results in its own tests on the high end. Here’s founder John Poole on the findings:

For the 15-inch models, single-core performance is up 12-15%, and multi-core performance is up 39-46%. Since the underlying processor architecture hasn’t significantly changed between the 2017 and 2018 models, the increases in performance are due to higher Turbo Boost frequencies, more cores, and DDR4 memory.

The 2018 MacBook Pro is the most substantial upgrade (at least regarding performance) since the introduction of quad-core processors in the 2011 MacBook Pro.

Taken together, that represents a significant upgrade from last year’s model. Individual performance will vary depending on a lot of different topics, but there’s no doubt these are powerful machines.

Hey, Siri

The addition of hands-free Siri functionality didn’t get a lot of play here, but it’s an important one — if not for the computer itself, then for Apple’s broader ambitions. Like Google’s play, Siri was mobile first.

But Apple’s assistant has always been about building a broader ecosystem of contextual search that can help the company tailor its offerings to individual user needs. We saw this manifest itself last year with the addition of HomePod, a typically Apple high-end approach to the insanely popular world of smart speakers.

The assistant has actually been available on macOS since Sierra (10.12) rolled out back in late 2016. This, however, marks the first time hands-free voice interaction has been available on the desktop. Apple says it was the T2, introduced on the iMac Pro, which allowed for the capability — just one of an extremely long list of features the company has offloaded on the proprietary chip.

Like other key features, Siri is enabled during setup. If you’re the sort who sticks masking tape over your webcam, you can also simply opt out of having the MacBook’s microphones listening in for the wake word. And you can always untick the “Listen for ‘Hey Siri’” box in Settings.

Setup is more or less the same as on iOS. You’ll be prompted to speak a couple of phrases to train the AI on your voice. Device interaction functions similarly as other assistant hardware ecosystems. The moment you say, “Hey, Siri,” your iPhone/Mac/HomePod, et al. communicate with one another, prioritizing either the device that heard the query the best (likely the closest) or was most recently used.

I ended up disabling the feature on my phone in order to test it on the desktop, because there were too many instances of the phone picking it up or having Siri pop up on both at once and then disappearing on the one that was de-prioritized. When the feature was switched off the phone, however, its desktop counterpart was plenty responsive.

All of this leads to a key question: Is a desktop smart assistant ultimately very useful? The primary driver of voice functionality is the ability to free up your hands from having to type. Presumably, however, you’ve already got your hands at or near the keyboard if you’re close enough for Siri to hear you.

Multitasking seems to be the primary use-case here. Say you’re typing and want to know the weather or find movie times, you can definitely do that. Ditto for sports scores — it took a query or two, but “did the A’s win yesterday?” got me the answer I wanted, with a conversational reply, “the Athletics eked out a win over the Giants in the Bay Bridge Series by a score of 4 to 3 yesterday.”

Hey Siri, a win is a win, okay?

Multimedia functionality, which seems like one of the most logical applications, is still limited here. Siri will find and play things in Apple Music, but ask her to play something on Spotify and that’s a no-go — you’ll get an Apple Music link and Wikipedia entry instead. Siri knows which side her bread is buttered on. Ask her to play a movie and she’ll confess that she can’t do that.

More functionality is surely on the way. For now, however, Siri on the desktop is more a nice addition than necessary feature.

Toning it down

Like Siri, True Tone is opt-in during the setup process. You can toggle it on and off at the beginning, which I suggest, just so you know what you’re getting yourself into. And, like Siri, you can always go back into settings later to adjust if it’s not to your liking. Clicking Option and the Touch Bar bright icon will get you there, as well.

The effect, which debuted on the iPad Pro (and rolled out to other new iOS devices) utilizes a light sensor (new for the Mac) to determine the ambient color and brightness of its surroundings. It’s a sort of more sophisticated version of the brightness detection Apple computers have had on board for some time now.

If you’ve ever fiddled with a camera (even the one on your phone in most cases), you recognize the importance of white balance. That’s the thing that turns objects weird colors when you step into different lighting settings. It’s a key to perceiving contrast getting lifelike reproductions of images. I have two 15-inch MacBooks in front of me right now (that’s just how I roll), and it’s like night and day. You’ve got no idea how blue the screen you’ve been staring at is until you see it up against another True Tone-enabled display.

For a majority of us, it’s a nice feature, but for photographers, video producers and designers who rely on a MacBook for their work, it’s a much bigger deal. As recently published support documents point out, the feature will also work with a handful of secondary displays, including Apple’s own, and LG’s Ultrafine 4K and 5K.

Upgrade time?

I’m staring at my now 2017 MacBook Pro as I type this. It’s always tough to compete with the latest and greatest, especially when it’s been specced out like crazy. I’m going to miss the quieter keyboard and True Tone display, for sure. Hands-free Siri, I can really take or leave at the moment, based on current functionality.

But I’m not ready for an upgrade just yet. For a majority of users, the upgrades on the high end will mostly amount to overkill. Thankfully, however, the low-end price points remain the same at $1,799 and $2,399 for the 13- and 15-inch, respectively.

Those who expect a lot more from their machines will no doubt be excited to see what these laptops can do. The new MacBooks aren’t a fundamental rethink by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re a welcome acknowledgment that the company still considers creative pros a key part of its DNA.

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HTC’s blockchain phone is real, and it’s arriving later this year

Posted by | blockchain, cryptokitties, hardware, HTC, Mobile, smartphones | No Comments

HTC isn’t gone just yet. Granted, it’s closer than it’s ever been before, with a headcount of fewer than 5,000 employees worldwide — that’s down from 19,000 in 2013. But in spite of those “market competition, product mix, pricing, and recognized inventory write-downs,” the company’s still trucking on.

And while its claim to being “the leading innovator in smart phone devices,” is up for debate, the Taiwanese manufacturer has never shied away from a compelling gimmick. Announced earlier this year, the Exodus definitely fits the bill. The “world’s first major blockchain phone” is still shrouded in mystery, though the company did reveal a couple of key details this week at RISE in Hong Kong intended to keep folks interested while it irons out the rest of the product’s hiccups.

Chief among the reveals is an admittedly nebulous release date of Q3 this year. It’s hardly specific, but it does make the phone a little bit more real — unlike the images, which are still limited to the above blueprint picture at press time.

Here’s a quote from the company’s chief crypto officer, a position that really exists.

In the new internet age people are generally more conscious about their data, this a perfect opportunity to empower the user to start owning their digital identity. The Exodus is a great place to start because the phone is the most personal device, and it is also the place where all your data originates from. I’m excited about the opportunity it brings to decentralize the internet and reshape it for the modern user.

Prior to the launch, the company is partnering with the popular blockchain title, CryptoKitties. The game will be available on a small selection of the company’s handsets starting with the U12+. “This is a significant first step in creating a platform and distribution channel for creatives who make unique digital goods,” the company writes in a release tied to the news. “Mobile is the most prevalent device in the history of humankind and for digital assets and dapps to reach their potential, mobile will need to be the main point of distribution. The partnership with Cryptokitties is the beginning of a non fungible, collectible marketplace and crypto gaming app store.”

The company says the partnership marks the beginning of a “platform and distribution channel for creatives who make unique digital goods.” In other words, it’s attempting to reintroduce the concept of scarcity through these decentralized apps. HTC will also be partnering with Bitmark to help accomplish this.

If HTC is looking for the next mainstream play to right the ship, this is emphatically not it. That said, it could be compelling enough to gain some adoption among those heavily invested enough in the crypto space to pick up a handset built around the technology.

HTC promises more information on the device in “the coming months.”

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Canon and Nikon are reportedly both planning full-frame mirrorless cameras this year

Posted by | Canon, Gadgets, hardware, mirrorless, Nikon, Photography | No Comments

It’s going to be an exciting year for photographers — finally — as both Canon and Nikon are reportedly planning full-frame mirrorless cameras for debut before the end of 2018. It’s good news for consumers, because it means that both companies have been investing heavily in the next phase of digital photography, and that competition in the mirrorless world is about to heat up.

Photography is a difficult space right now because smartphones have been eating up the low-end and increasingly the mid-range market. Point-and-shoots are effectively extinct, and DSLRs are reserved for serious shooters — though those occupying the middle ground, such as Fujifilm with its lively X series and Olympus with its PENs and OM-Ds, have been prospering modestly.

Mirrorless cameras, which basically do away with the bulky mechanical bits of a single-lens reflex camera but have virtually no drawbacks from their absence, allow for a more compact camera that still seriously outperforms phones.

They seem quite clearly to be a big part of the future of photography, which is why every company has been investing heavily into the technology. Early results weren’t great, and it was clear that Canon and Nikon in particular have had their priorities divided: DSLR sales have been dropping, but flagship full-frame (that is, with sensors the size of 35mm film) DSLRs still represented the best of the camera world, embraced especially by professionals.

But inroads have been made, especially by Sony and Fujifilm, into even that professional space. The Alpha and X-Pro series have shown that mirrorless cameras can perform at least as well as DSLRs, and boy are they easier to carry around.

So, faced with either innovating and cannibalizing their own sales, or allowing competitors to eat their lunch, Canon and Nikon have chosen to do the former… after a couple of years of the latter, anyway. We’ve seen the early results from Canon in the form of the mid-range M50, but it seems Nikon has kept theirs under wraps.

Canon Rumors and Nikon Rumors report that the companies both plan to sell full-frame mirrorless cameras by the end of the year — in Nikon’s case maybe even by the end of the month.

Going full-frame means several things:

  • They believe their mirrorless systems are good enough to compete with SLRs at a professional level
  • They believe professionals are ready to make the transition to mirrorless
  • They are ready to do so themselves, cannibalizing and eventually winding down SLR sales

That last point is likely the scariest for them. These are companies that have been making SLR cameras for the better part of a century — it’s not just part of their core competency but key to their identity as camera makers. This is essentially a point of no return for them. Sure, SLRs will stick around for a while longer, but sooner or later the burden of improving and manufacturing them as sales decline and mirrorless systems take over will prove too much.

What about the cameras themselves? There are supposedly two from each company. Nikon’s have lots of rumored details, the most important of which are that there will be one high and one low megapixel model, in-body stabilization (allows for smaller lenses), a new lens mount and naturally an electronic viewfinder. Less is known (or rumored anyhow) about the Canons, but they will likely share many of these characteristics.

Don’t expect a lower cost to accompany this shift. These cameras will likely cost in the $2,500-$4,000 range, just like the SLRs they’re replacing.

This is also a chance to really go to town on the features and shooting experience; both companies need to make a big impression, not just with the customers they’ve lost to rival systems but to their own loyal shooters. So there may be other major changes, such as to the interface, layout and so on. Expect lots of digital integration like wireless tethering as well — better than the junk they’ve been foisting on us for the last few years.

Will this reverse the tide of smartphones taking over the photography world? No, but it’s heartening to see these rather inertia-bound companies finally embrace the future. I love SLRs, and I plan to shoot on them forever in one way or another, but as an occasional serious photographer I’ll be glad to give these new systems a try.

I’ve asked both companies about the rumors, but I doubt they’ll comment. On the other hand, if the rumors are true, we won’t have long to wait before they turn into facts.

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Samsung’s new India phone factory is ‘world’s largest’

Posted by | hardware, india, Mobile, Samsung | No Comments

This week Samsung is opening what it’s calling the world’s largest mobile phone factory in the world’s second largest smartphone market. Expansion, which will be fully complete in 2020, is expected to nearly double Noida (New Okhla Industrial Development Authority), India’s current phone producing capabilities from 68- to 120 million phones per year.

The electronics giant has been producing phones in the country for well over a decade (while the original factory dates back to 1996), while much of the competition has mostly been dabbling. Earlier this year, for instance, Apple started a manufacturing trial run of the iPhone 6S, after having previous done a small batch of the iPhone SE.

Along with bringing jobs, such localized manufacturing could also go a ways toward helping bring the cost of devices down. India’s government, naturally, is excitedly embracing the announcement as art of its “Make in India” initiative. As such, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on-hand for the opening ceremony, along with South Korean president Moon Jae-in, repping his home country’s largest company.

“Our Noida factory, the world’s largest mobile factory, is a symbol of Samsung’s strong commitment to India, and a shining example of the success of the Government’s ‘Make in India’ program,” Samsung India CEO HC Hong said in a release tied to the news. “Samsung is a long-term partner of India. We ‘Make in India’, ‘Make for India’ and now, we will ‘Make for the World’. We are aligned with Government policies and will continue to seek their support to achieve our dream of making India a global export hub for mobile phones.”

India represents a massive — and growing — smartphone market. Last year the country passed the U.S., becoming the number two market after China. A commitment to local manufacturing will no doubt go a long way for Samsung, which currently ranks as the number two smartphone maker in the country, behind Xiaomi.

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Hands on with the Echo Dots Kids Edition

Posted by | Amazon, children, echo dot, family, Gadgets, hardware, kids, parents, TC | No Comments

Earlier this year, Amazon introduced an Echo Dot for kids, with its $80 Echo Dot Kids Edition device, which comes in your choice of a red, blue, or green protective case. The idea is to market a version of Amazon’s existing Dot hardware to families by bundling it with an existing subscription service, and by throwing in a few extra features – like having Alexa encourage kids to say “please” when making their demands, for example.

The device makes sense in a couple of scenarios – for helicopter parents who want to fully lock down an Echo device before putting it in a kid’s room, and for those who were in the market for a FreeTime Unlimited subscription anyway.

I’ve been testing out an Echo Dot Kids Edition, and ran into some challenges which I thought I’d share. This is not a hardware review – I’m sure you can find those elsewhere. 

Music Filtering

As a parent of an 8-year old myself, I’ve realized it’s too difficult to keep her from ever hearing bad words – especially in music, TV and movies – so I’ve just explained to her that while she will sometimes hear those words, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to say them. (We have a similar rule about art – sometimes people will be nude in paintings, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to walk around naked all the time.)

Surprisingly, I’ve been able to establish a level of shame around adult and inappropriate content to the point that she will confess to me when she hears it on places like YouTube. She will even turn it off without my instruction! I have a good kid, I guess.

But I understand some parents will only want kids to access the sanitized version of songs – especially if their children are still in the preschool years, or have a tendency to seek out explicit content because they’re little monsters.

Amazon FreeTime would be a good option in that case, but there are some caveats.

For starters, if you plan on using the explicit language filter on songs the Echo Dot plays, then you’re stuck with Amazon Music. While the Echo Dot itself can play music from a variety of services, including on-demand offerings from Pandora and Spotify, you can’t use these services when the explicit filter is enabled as “music services that do not support this filter will be blocked,” Amazon explains.

We’re a Spotify household, so that means my child’s favorite bedtime music playlist became unavailable when we swapped out her existing Echo Dot for the Kids Edition which had the explicit filter enabled.

Above: Parent Dashboard? Where? Maybe a link would help?

You can disable the explicit filter from the Parent Dashboard, but this option is inconveniently available just via the web. When you dig around in the Alexa app – which is where you’d think these controls would be found, there’s only a FreeTime On/Off toggle switch and instructions to “Go to the Parent Dashboard to see activity, manage time limits, and add content.”

It’s not even hyperlinked!

You have to just know the dashboard’s URL is parents.amazon.com. (And not www.parents.amazon.com, by the way. That doesn’t work.)

Then to actually disable the filter, it’s several more steps.

You’ll click the gear icon next to the child’s name, click on “Echo Dot Kids Edition” under “Alexa Settings,” then click “Manage Music.” Here, you can turn the switch on or off.

If you don’t have a subscription music service, the Echo Dot Kids Edition also ships with access to ad-free kid-safe stations on iHeartRadio Family.

Whitelisting Alexa skills…well, some skills!

Another issue with the way FreeTime works with Alexa, is that it’s not clear that nearly everything your child accesses on the device has to be whitelisted.

This leads to a confusing first-time user workflow.

Likely, you’ll start by browsing in the Alexa app’s Skills section or the Skills Store on the web to find some appropriate kid-friendly skills for your child to try. For example, I found and enabled a skill called “Math Facts – Math Practice for Kids.”

But when I instructed “Alexa, open Math Facts,” she responded, “I can’t do that.”

She didn’t say why.

As I hadn’t used FreeTime in quite a while, it didn’t occur to me that each Alexa skill would have to be toggled on – just like the third-party apps, videos, books and audiobooks the child has access to that didn’t ship with FreeTime Unlimited itself.

Instead, I mistakenly assumed that skills from the “Kids” section of the Skills store would just work.

Again, you’ll have to know to go to parents.amazon.com to toggle things on.

And again, the process for doing so is too many clicks deep in the user interface to be immediately obvious to newcomers. (You click the gear by the kid’s name, then “Add Content” – not “Echo Dot Kids Edition” as you might think! Then, on the “Add Content” screen, click over to the “Alexa Skills” tab and toggle on the skills you want the child to use.)

The issue with this system is that it prevents Echo Dot Kids Edition users – kids and adults alike – from discovering and enabling skills by voice. And it adds an unnecessary step by forcing parents to toggle skills on.

After all, if the parents are the ones signing in when visiting the Skills store in-app or on the web, that means they’re the ones choosing to enable the Skills, too.

And if they’re enabling a skill from Kids section, one would assume it’s for their kids to use on their device!

The problem, largely, is that FreeTime isn’t really integrated with the Alexa app. All of this – from explicit content filters to whitelisting skills to turning on or off calling, messaging and drop-ins – should be managed from within the Alexa app, not from a separate website.

Amazon obviously did minimal integration work in order to sell parents a pricier Echo Dot.

To make matters more confusing is the fact that Amazon has partnered with some kids skill publishers, similar to how it partnered with other content providers for apps and movies. That means there’s a list of skills that don’t appear in your Parent Dashboard that also don’t require whitelisting.

This includes: Disney Stories, Loud House Challenge, No Way That’s True, Funny Fill In, Spongebob Challenge, Weird but True, Name that Animal, This or That, Word world, Ben ten, Classroom thirteen, Batman Adventures, and Climb the Beanstalk.

But it’s confusing that you can immediately use these skills, and not others clearly meant for kids. You end up feeling like you did something wrong when some skills don’t work, before you figure out this whole whitelisting system.

In addition, it’s not clear that these “Premium” skills come with the FreeTime subscription – most are not available in the Skills store. If your FreeTime subscription expires, it seems you’ll lose access to these, as well.

Overall, the FreeTime experience for Echo feels disjointed, and there’s a steep learning curve for new users.

Your FreeTime Unlimited 1-year Subscription

It’s also frustrating that there’s no information on the FreeTime Parents dashboard about the nature of your subscription.

You can’t confirm that you’re currently subscribed to the paid product known as FreeTime Unlimited. You can’t see when that subscription expires, or when your first free year is up. It’s unclear if you’ll just be charged, or when that will take place. And there’s no toggle to turn the subscription off if you decide you no longer need it.

Instead, you can only “modify” which credit card you use with Amazon’s 1-click. Seriously. That’s it.

Above: want to manage your subscription?

Below: hahaha, good luck with that!

I still don’t know where to turn this subscription off – I guess the option to disable it doesn’t even appear until your free year is up? (Even clicking on “FreeTime Unlimited” from Amazon.com’s subscription management page routes you back to this useless Parent dashboard page for managing your 1-Click settings.)

So, ask me in a year, maybe?

That said, if you are in the market for both a FreeTime Unlimited subscription and an Echo Dot, you may as well buy the Kids Edition.

FreeTime Unlimited works on Fire tablets, Android devices, Kindle, and as of this month, iOS devices, providing access to over 15,000 kid-safe apps, games, videos, books and educational content. On Amazon devices, parents can also set screen time limits and educational goals.

The service by itself is $2.99 per month for Prime members (for one profile) or $4.99 per month for non-members. It’s more if you buy the Family subscription. Meanwhile, the regular 2nd gen Echo Dot is currently $49.99. So you’re basically looking at $50 + $36/year for FreeTime Unlimited if you bought these things separately as a Prime member.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition comes with one year of FreeTime Unlimited and is $79.99. So you’re saving a tiny bit there. Plus, you can always turn FreeTime off on the device, if you’d rather just use the kids Echo Dot as a regular Echo Dot – while still getting a free year of FreeTime for another device, like the kid’s iPad.

Still, watch out because Echo Dot often goes on sale – and probably will be on sale again for Prime Day this summer. Depending on the price cut it gets, it may not be worth it to buy the bundle.

Other Perks

There are other perks that Amazon tries to use to sell the Echo Dot Kids Edition to families, but the most notable is “Magic Word.”

This feature turns on when FreeTime is enabled, and thanks kids for saying “please” when they speak to Alexa. Yes, that seems like a small thing but it was something that a lot of parents were upset about. They thought kids were learning bad manners by barking commands at Alexa.

I don’t know about that. My kid seems to understand that we say “please” and “thank you” to people, but Alexa doesn’t get her feelings hurt by being told to “play Taylor Swift.” But to each their own!

This feature will thrill some parents, I’m sure.

Parents can also use FreeTime to pause the device or configure a bedtime so kids don’t stay up talking to Alexa, but honestly, LET ‘EM.

It’s far better than when they stall bedtime by badgering you for that extra glass of water, one more blanket, turn on that light, now crack the door…a little more…a little less…Honestly, escaping the kid’s room at bedtime is an art form.

If Alexa can keep them busy and less afraid of the dark, I’m calling it a win.

FreeTime with the Echo Dot Kids Edition also lets you set up “Character Alarms” – meaning, kids can configure Alexa to wake them up with an alarm click featuring characters from brands like Disney and Nickelodeon.

This is hilarious to me.

Because if you have a kid in the preschool to tween age range who actually requires an alarm clock to wake up in the morning instead of getting up at the crack of dawn (or maybe one who has gone through years of training so they DON’T ALSO WAKE YOU UP AT THE CRACK OF DAWN OH MY GOD) – then, I guess, um, enjoy character alarms?

I’m sorry, let me stop laughing….Hold on.

I’m sure somebody needs this.

Sorry for laughing. But please explain how you’ve taught your children to sleep in? Do they go to bed at a decent hour too? No seriously, email me. I have no idea.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition can also work as a household intercom, but so do regular Echo devices.

You can turn off voice purchasing on the Kids Edition, but you can do that on regular devices, too (despite what Amazon’s comparison chart says.)

Plus, kids can now control smart home devices with the Echo Dot Kids Edition – a feature that shamefully wasn’t available at launch, but is now.

And that cute protective case? Well, a regular Echo Dot is actually pretty sturdy. We’ve dropped ours probably a dozen times from dresser to floor (uncarpeted!) with no issues.

I like how Amazon tries to sell the case, though:


I guess if your kid plans to do CHEMISTRY EXPERIMENTS by the Echo Dot, you may need this.

In reality, the case is just cute – and can help the Echo better match the kid’s room.

The Echo Kids Edition, overall, is not a must-have device. You’ll have more flexibility with a regular Echo and a little old-school parenting.

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This clever case pops open to protect your phone when you drop it

Posted by | accessories, Gadgets, Germany, hardware, Mobile | No Comments

That moment when you drop your phone and everything stops. You can hear your heart beat — the buzz of the world around you is silenced — all cognition stops — you see as if in slow motion the pirouette of your $700 piece of electronics toward the cement. How will it land? Will you get lucky this time? Or is this it? But if you had this case on it, you’d then see it spring horns and land with a jaunty bounce.

This “active damping” case, a bit like an airbag for your phone, is the brainchild of Philip Frenzel, an engineer at Aalen University in Germany. His idea won the top award from the German Society for Mechatronics, which considered projects from students all over the country, and you can see him explain its genesis in a video here.

Frenzel, like me, doesn’t like compromising his phone’s aesthetic with some ugly protective shell, but he likes even less the shattered countenance that inevitably results from this aesthetic decision.

Why not something that only deploys when the phone is in danger, then? He got to work. The activation mechanism he arrived at early: sensors that detect when the phone is in free fall and activate the next step.

But what was that step? In his tinkering, he initially thought of installing an actual airbag mechanism on the phone. But that, and a foam-based alternative, and a few others, simply didn’t prove practical.

Finally inspiration struck. Instead of something soft, why not something springy? Perhaps… springs.

As you see above, what he arrived at is a set of eight thin metal curls that normally lie flat inside the case. But when released, they pop out and curl up, protecting the edges of the phone from impact and softening the blow considerably compared with a full stop on the concrete.

When you pick up your (hopefully undamaged) phone, you simply fold the springs back into their holsters, priming them for their next deployment.

Of course, there’s the consideration that having these things deploy while the phone is still in your pocket would be at best embarrassing and at worst rather painful. One assumes there are considerations in place for that — tapping into the phone’s proximity sensor, for instance, to see if it’s in a pocket or bag.

Frenzel has already applied for a patent, and even printed T-shirts with a catchy logo. So this thing is practically for sale. Next stop: Kickstarter.

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