hardware

Happy 10th anniversary, Android

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It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

The rise and fall of the Essential phone

In 2017 Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, debuted the first fruits of his new hardware startup studio, Digital Playground, with the launch of Essential (and its first phone). The company had raised $300 million to bring the phone to market, and — as the first hardware device to come to market from Android’s creator — it was being heralded as the next new thing in hardware.

Here at TechCrunch, the phone received mixed reviews. Some on staff hailed the phone as the achievement of Essential’s stated vision — to create a “lovemark” for Android smartphones, while others on staff found the device… inessential.

Ultimately, the market seemed to agree. Four months ago plans for a second Essential phone were put on hold, while the company explored a sale and pursued other projects. There’s been little update since.

A Cambrian explosion in hardware

In the ten years since its launch, Android has become the most widely used operating system for hardware. Some version of its software can be found in roughly 2.3 billion devices around the world and its powering a technology revolution in countries like India and China — where mobile operating systems and access are the default. As it enters its second decade, there’s no sign that anything is going to slow its growth (or dominance) as the operating system for much of the world.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

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Password bypass flaw in Western Digital My Cloud drives puts data at risk

Posted by | cloud computing, computer security, computing, exploit, firmware, Gadgets, hacking, hardware, Security, software testing, spokesperson, Twitter, vulnerability, Western Digital | No Comments

A security researcher has published details of a vulnerability in a popular cloud storage drive after the company failed to issue security patches for over a year.

Remco Vermeulen found a privilege escalation bug in Western Digital’s My Cloud devices, which he said allows an attacker to bypass the admin password on the drive, gaining “complete control” over the user’s data.

The exploit works because drive’s web-based dashboard doesn’t properly check a user’s credentials before giving a possible attacker access to tools that should require higher levels of access.

The bug was “easy” to exploit, Vermeulen told TechCrunch in an email, and was remotely exploitable if a My Cloud device allows remote access over the internet — which thousands of devices do. He posted a proof-of-concept video on Twitter.

Details of the bug were also independently found by another security team, which released its own exploit code.

Vermeulen reported the bug over a year ago, in April 2017, but said the company stopped responding. Normally, security researchers give 90 days for a company to respond, in line with industry-accepted responsible disclosure guidelines.

After he found that WD updated the My Cloud firmware in the meanwhile without fixing the vulnerability he found, he decided to post his findings.

A year later, WD still hasn’t released a patch.

The company confirmed that it knows of the vulnerability but did not say why it took more than a year to issue a fix. “We are in the process of finalizing a scheduled firmware update that will resolve the reported issue,” a spokesperson said, which will arrive “within a few weeks.”

WD said that several of its My Cloud products are vulnerable — including the EX2, EX4 and Mirror, but not My Cloud Home.

In the meantime, Vermeulen said that there’s no fix and that users have to “just disconnect” the drive altogether if they want to keep their data safe.

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The Punkt MP02 inches closer to what a minimalist phone ought to be

Posted by | design, Gadgets, hardware, Light Phone, Mobile, Punkt. Tronics | No Comments

There’s an empty space in my heart for a minimalist phone with only the most basic functions. Bad for my heart, but good for a handful of companies putting out devices aiming to fill it. Punkt’s latest, the MP02, goes a little ways to making the device I desire, but it isn’t quite there yet.

Punkt’s first device included just texting and calling, which would likely have worked as intended if not for the inconvenient choice to have it connect only to 2G networks. These networks are being shut down and replaced all over the world, so you would have ended up with a phone that was even more limited than you expected.

The MP02 is the sequel, and it adds a couple useful features. It runs on 4G LTE networks, which should keep it connected for years to come, and it has gained both threaded texting (rather than a single inbox and outbox — remember those?) and Blackberry encryption for those sensitive communications.

It has nice physical buttons you can press multiple times to select a letter in ye olde T9 fashion, and also lets you take notes, consult a calendar, and calculate things. The battery has 12 days of standby, and with its tiny monochrome display and limited data options, it’ll probably stay alive for nearly that even with regular use.

Its most immediate competition is probably the Light Phone, which also has a second iteration underway that, if I’m honest, looks considerably more practical.

Now, I like the MP02. I like its chunky design (though it is perhaps a mite too thick), I like its round buttons and layout, I like its deliberate limitations. But it and other would-be minimal phones, in my opinion, are too slavish in their imitations of devices from years past. What we want is minimalism, not (just) nostalgia. We want the most basic useful features of a phone without all the junk that comes with them.

The Light Phone 2 and its nice e-ink screen.

For me, that means including a couple things that these devices tend to eschew.

One is modern messaging. SMS is bad for a lot of reasons. Why not include a thin client to pass text to a messaging service like WhatsApp or Messenger? Of course iMessage is off limits — thanks, Apple — but we could at least get a couple of the cross-platform apps on board. It doesn’t hurt the minimalist nature of the phone, in my opinion, if it connects to a modern messaging infrastructure. No need for images or gifs or anything — just text is fine.

Two is maps. We sure as hell didn’t have maps on our featurephones back in the day, but you better believe we wanted them. Basic mapping is one of the things we rely on our phones for every day. Whatever’s on this minimal phone doesn’t have to be a full-stack affair with recommendations, live traffic, and so on — just location and streets, and maybe an address or lat/long lookup, like you’d see on an old monochrome GPS unit. I don’t need my phone to tell me where to eat — just keep me from getting lost.

Three, and this is just me, I’d like some kind of synchronizing note app or the ability to put articles from Pocket or whatever on there. The e-ink screen on the Light Phone is a great opportunity for this very specific type of consumption. Neither of the companies here seems likely to add this feature, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the few things I regularly use my phone for.

Light Phone 2 is possibly getting music, weather, and voice commands, none of which really screams “minimal” to me, nor do they seem trivial to add. Ride-share stuff is a maybe, but it’d probably be a pain.

I have no problem with my phone doing just what a pocketable device needs to do and leaving the more sophisticated stuff to another device. But that pocketable device can’t be that dumb. Fortunately I do believe we’re moving closer to days when there will be meaningfully different choices available to weird people like myself. We’re not there yet, but I can wait.

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The iPhone SE was the best phone Apple ever made, and now it’s dead

Posted by | Apple, Gadgets, hardware, iPhone, iPhone SE, Mobile, Opinion | No Comments

I only wanted one thing out of 2018’s iPhone event: a new iPhone SE. In failing to provide it Apple seems to have quietly put the model out to pasture — and for this I curse them eternally. Because it was the best phone the company ever made.

If you were one of the many who passed over the SE back in 2015, when it made its debut, that’s understandable. The iPhone 6S was the latest and greatest, and of course fixed a few of the problems Apple had kindly introduced with the entirely new design of the 6. But for me the SE was a perfect match.

See, I’ve always loved the iPhone design that began with the 4. That storied phone is perhaps best remembered for being left in a bar ahead of release and leaked by Gizmodo — which is too bad, because for once the product was worthy of the lavish unveiling Apple now bestows on every device it puts out.

The 4 established an entirely new industrial design aesthetic that was at once instantly recognizable and highly practical. Gone were the smooth, rounded edges and back of the stainless original iPhone (probably the second-best phone Apple made) and the jellybean-esque 3G and 3GS.

In the place of those soft curves were hard lines and uncompromising geometry: a belt of metal running around the edge, set off from the glass sides by the slightest of steps. It highlighted and set off the black glass of the screen and bezel, producing a of specular outline from any angle.

The camera was flush and the home button (RIP) sub-flush, entirely contained within the body, making the device perfectly flat both front and back. Meanwhile the side buttons boldly stood out. Volume in bold, etched circles; the mute switch easy to find but impossible to accidentally activate; the power button perfectly placed for a reaching index finger. Note that all these features are directly pointed at usability: making things easier, better, more accessible, while also being attractive and cohesive as parts of a single object.

Compared to the iPhone 4, every single other phone, including Samsung’s new “iPhone killer” Galaxy S, was a cheap-looking mess of plastic, incoherently designed or at best workmanlike. And don’t think I’m speaking as an Apple fanboy; I was not an iPhone user at the time. In fact, I was probably still using my beloved G1 — talk about beauty and the beast!

The design was strong enough that it survived the initially awkward transition to a longer screen in the 5, and with that generation it also gained the improved rear side that alleviated the phone’s unfortunate tendency towards… well, shattering.

The two-tone grey iPhone 5S, however, essentially left no room for improvement. And after 4 years, it was admittedly perhaps time to freshen things up a bit. Unfortunately, what Apple ended up doing was subtracting all personality from the device while adding nothing but screen space.

The 6 was, to me, simply ugly. It was reminiscent of the plethora of boring Android phones at the time — merely higher quality than them, not different. The 6S was similarly ugly, and the 7 through 8 somehow further banished any design that set themselves apart, while reversing course on some practical measures in allowing an increasingly large camera bump and losing the headphone jack. The X, at least, looked a bit different.

But to return to the topic at hand, it was after the 6S that Apple had introduced the SE. Although it nominally stood for “Special Edition,” the name was also a nod to the Macintosh SE. Ironically given the original meaning of “System Expansion,” the new SE was the opposite: essentially an iPhone 6S in the body of a 5S, complete with improved camera, Touch ID sensor, and processor. The move was likely intended as a sort of lifeboat for users who still couldn’t bring themselves to switch to the drastically redesigned, and considerably larger, new model.

It would take time, Apple seems to have reasoned, to convert these people, the types who rarely buy first generation Apple products and cherish usability over novelty. So why not coddle them a bit through this difficult transition?

The SE appealed not just to the nostalgic and neophobic, but simply people who prefer a smaller phone. I don’t have particularly large or small hands, but I preferred this highly pocketable, proven design to the new one for a number of reasons.

Flush camera so it doesn’t get scratched up? Check. Normal, pressable home button? Check. Flat, symmetrical design? Check. Actual edges to hold onto? Check. Thousands of cases already available? Check — although I didn’t use one for a long time. The SE is best without one.

At the time, the iPhone SE was more compact and better looking than anything Apple offered, while making almost no compromises at all in terms of functionality. The only possible objection was its size, and that was (and is) a matter of taste.

It was the best object Apple ever designed, filled with the best tech it had ever developed. It was the best phone it ever made.

And the best phone it’s made since then, too, if you ask me. Ever since the 6, it seems to me that Apple has only drifted, casting about for something to captivate its users the way the iPhone 4’s design and new graphical capabilities did, all the way back in 2010. It honed that design to a cutting edge and then, when everyone expected the company to leap forward, it tiptoed instead, perhaps afraid to spook the golden goose.

To me the SE was Apple allowing itself one last victory lap on the back of a design it would never surpass. It’s understandable that it would not want to admit, this many years on, that anyone could possibly prefer something it created nearly a decade ago to its thousand-dollar flagship — a device, I feel I must add, that not only compromises visibly in its design (I’ll never own a notched phone if I can help it) but backpedals on practical features used by millions, like Touch ID and a 3.5mm headphone jack. This is in keeping with similarly user-unfriendly choices made elsewhere in its lineup.

So while I am disappointed in Apple, I’m not surprised. After all, it’s disappointed me for years. But I still have my SE, and I intend to keep it for as long as possible. Because it’s the best thing the company ever made, and it’s still a hell of a phone.

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Nintendo’s NES Switch controllers activate the nostalgia centers (and wallets) of retro gamers

Posted by | Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, NES, Nintendo, Nintendo Switch, Switch | No Comments

The news that Nintendo would be adding NES games to the Switch as part of its paid online service had a mixed reception, but the company has completely made up for this controversial decision by releasing wireless NES controllers with which to play those games. At $60 they’re a bit steep, but come on. You know you’re going to buy them eventually. Probably next week.

The controllers were revealed during the latest Nintendo Direct video news dump, alongside a host of other nostalgia bombs, like a new Animal Crossing and about a million Final Fantasy ports. But first the details of those sweet, sweet controllers.

They’re definitely NES-style down to the buttons, meaning they aren’t going to replace your existing Switch Joy-Cons. So why do they cost so much? Because Nintendo. At least they’re wireless and they charge up by slotting onto the Switch’s sides like Joy-Cons. And they do have shoulder buttons, though, for some reason.

You’ll be able to pre-order a two-pack starting on the 18th for $60, which also happens to be the launch date for Nintendo Switch Online. Yeah, it’s time to fork out for that online play Nintendo has generously given away for so long.

Fortunately, as you may remember from previous announcements, the cost is pretty low; $20 per year, and it gets you online game access and a growing library of NES classics. Ten of those games were confirmed before, but 10 more were added to the list today.

So at launch you’ll be able to play:

  • Balloon Fight
  • Dr Mario
  • Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Donkey Kong
  • Ice Climber
  • The Legend of Zelda
  • Tennis
  • Soccer
  • Baseball
  • Double Dragon
  • Excitebike
  • Ghosts ‘n Goblins
  • Gradius
  • Ice Hockey
  • Pro Wrestling
  • River City Ransom
  • Tecmo Bowl
  • Yoshi

The service will also enable cloud backups of saves and possible special deals down the line. It sounds like it’s basically a must-have, although plenty of people are angry that their virtual console games have been essentially stolen back from them. At least we have the NES and SNES Classic Editions.

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Kano’s latest computer kit for kids doubles down on touch

Posted by | alex klein, computing, connected devices, Education, Europe, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, Kano, learn to code, London, Minecraft, Raspberry Pi, United Kingdom | No Comments

Learn-to-code startup Kano, whose products aim to turn kids into digital makers, has taken the wraps off the latest incarnation of its build-it-yourself computer kit.

With the new flagship Kano is doubling down on touch interactions — urging kids to “make your own tablet”. The Computer Kit Touch packs a 10.1″ HD touchscreen, along with Kano’s now familiar bright orange wireless keyboard which comes with a built in trackpad.

While touch is becoming increasingly central to its products, Kano says the keyboard remains an important component of the product — supporting text-based coding apps which its platform also provides access to, as well as the more approachable drag-and-drop block-based coding systems that do really benefit from having a touchscreen to hand.

The kit, which Kano says is generally (but not exclusively) aimed at the 6-13 age range, is on sale from today, priced at $279.99 — via its website (Kano.me), as well as from selected retailers and e-tailers.

The Raspberry Pi powered computer is also getting increased storage capacity in this upgrade — of 16GB. But the main refresh is around updating Kano OS, Kano’s kid-friendly Pi topper, with expanded support for touch controls, according to founder Alex Klein .

Last year Kano combined touch and keyboard based interaction into a single product, the Computer Kit Complete — calling that a DIY laptop.

The 2018 refreshed version looks much the same, with enhancements generally behind the scenes and/or under the hood.

“The big moves this year are advancing the software and content ecosystem,” says Klein. “How it’s all integrated together.”

He points to another coding kit the team has up for pre-order, slated to ship next month — a co-branded Harry Potter gizmo in which kids get to build a motion-sensitive “coding wand” and use it to cook up their own digital spells, helped along by Kano’s software — adding: “With the Potter kit we’re bringing Kano code — to create a system, the ability to blend and change physics engines and sounds and particle systems — to tablets. So we’ve now got a touch-based interaction model for that e-product, as well as mouse and keyboard, and so we’ve brought that software system now to the Computer Kit Touch.

“You can code by dragging and dropping blocks with your fingers, you can paint and draw. You can change the pitch of a loop or a melody by running your fingers up and down and then using a change of a parameter mess with how quickly that melody changes, mess with the number of layers, you can make a beat or a loop using a touch-based digital audio workstation style X-Y plane. You can go into any one of our creative coding apps and pull in touch-based interactions, so instead of just using a mouse, a click and point, you can make an app that responds to swipes and taps, and different speeds, and in different locations.”

“On the touch kit itself there’s also a set of new content that demystifies how touchscreens work and peels back the layer of the screen and shows you what’s behind, and you’re kind of touching the intersection of the different copper wires and seeing what’s happening beneath,” he adds.

“There’s obviously a big hardware upgrade with the new ability to touch it, to take it with you. We’ve refined a lot of the components, we’ve improved the speed, the battery life. But really the core of it is this upgraded software that integrates with all the other kit.”

Talking of other kit, the learn-to-code space is now awash with quasi-educational gizmos, leaving parents in Western markets spoiled for choice of what to buy a budding coder.

Many more of these gizmos will be unboxed as we head into the holiday season. And while Kano was something of a startup pioneer here — a category creator, as Klein tells it — there’s now no shortage of tech for kids promising some kind of STEM-based educational benefit. So it’s facing an ever-growing gaggle of competition.

Kano’s strategy to stand out in an increasingly contested space is to fix on familiar elements, says Stein — flagging for example the popular game Minecraft — which runs on the Kano kit, and for which there’s a whole subsection of the Kano World community given over to hacking Minecraft.

And, well, aside from block-headed Minecraft characters it’s hard to find a character more familiar to children than the fictional wizard Harry Potter. So you can certainly see where Kano’s trying to get with the coding wand.

“We broke our first month pre-order target in one day,” he says of that forthcoming e-product (RRP ~$130). “There was massive coverage, massive traffic on our site, it was picked up all over the place and we’re very happy with the pre-orders so far. As are our retail partners.”

The Potter co-branding play is certainly Kano trying to make its products cast a wider spell by expanding the appeal of coding from nerdy makers to more mainstream child consumers. But how successful that will be remains to be seen. Not least because we’ve seen this sort of tactic elsewhere in this space.

Sphero, for example, is now rolling back the other way — shifting away from Star Wars co-branded bots to a serious education push focused on bringing STEM robotics to schools. (Although Kano would doubtless say a programmable bot that rolls is not the same as a fully fledged kit computer that can run all manner of apps, including familiar and fashionable stuff like Minecraft and YouTube.)

“We’re very pleased to see that this category that we created, with that Kickstarter campaign in 2013 — it’s become more than what some people initially feared it would be which was niche, maker ‘arcanery’; and it’s becoming a major consumer phenomenon,” he says. “This notion that people want to make their own technology, learn how to code and play in that way. And not just kids — people of all ages.”

On the hard sales front, Klein isn’t breaking out numbers for Potter kit pre-sales at this stage. But says the various incarnations of its main computer kit have shipped ~360,000 units since September 2014. So it’s not Lego (which has also moved into programmable kits) — but it’s not bad either.

In recent years Kano has also branched out into offering Internet of Things kits, previewing three code-your-own connected devices in 2016 — and launching Kickstarter campaigns to get the products to market.

It’s since shipped one (the Pixel kit) but the other two (a build-it-yourself camera kit and a DIY speaker) remain delayed — leaving crowdfunder backers waiting for their hardware.

Why the delay? Have Kano’s priorities shifted — perhaps because it’s focusing efforts on cobranded products (like the Potter wand) vs creating more of its own standalone devices?

“We are still committed to shipping the speaker kit, the camera kit,” Klein tells TechCrunch. “A big reason for [the delay] is not only the fact that the company is in a position now where we have mass distribution, we have great partners — perennially testing new product ideas — and we want to make sure that products are going to resonate with, not just a small group of people but many, many people, of many different age groups and interests before we release them.”

He also points out that any backers of the two devices who want refunds can get them in full.

Though he also says some are choosing to wait — adding that Kano remains committed to shipping the devices, and saying for those that do wait there will be a few extra bells and whistles than originally specced out in the crowdfunder campaign.

The delay itself looks like the market (and consumer tastes) moving quicker than Kano predicted — and so it finds itself wishing its products could deliver more than it originally planned (but without a wand to wave to instantly achieve that).

This is also a pitfall with previewing anything months or years ahead of time, of course. But the expense and complexity of building hardware makes crowdfunding platforms attractive — even for a relatively established brand like Kano.

“The delay is really unfortunate,” he adds. “We did say they would ship earlier but what we have done is we’ve offered any backer a full refund on the camera and the speaker if they don’t want to wait. But if they do wait they will receive incredible camera, incredible speaker. Both of them are going to benefit from the advancements made in low cost computing in the last year.

“The speaker as well is going to have elements that weren’t even part of the original campaign. On our side it’s critical that we get those products absolutely right and that they feel mass, and that they demystify not only coding and the Internet of Things, which was part of the original purpose, but in the case of the camera and the speaker there are elements that have come to the fore in more recent months like voice interaction and image recognition that we feel if our mandate is to demystify technology and we’re shipping a camera and a speaker… that’s kind of part of it. Make it perfect, make it of the moment. And for any backer who doesn’t want to wait for that, no problem at all — we’ll refund you 100%.”

Beyond reworking its approach with those perhaps overly ambitious connected devices, Kano has additional release plans in its pipeline — with Klein mentioning that additional co-branded products will be coming next year.

He says Kano is also eyeing expanding into more markets. “There’s a significant market for Kano even beyond our traditional leading position amongst 6-13 year olds in the US and the UK. There’s a really strong market for people who are beyond the US and the UK and we’re now at a scale where we can start really investing in these distribution and localization relationships that have come our way since year one,” he says.

And he at least entertains the idea of a future Kano device that does away with a keyboard entirely — and goes all in on touch — when we suggest it.

“Would we move to a place where we have no keyboard in a Kano computer? I think it’s very possible,” he says. “It might be a different form factor, it might be smaller, it might fit in your pocket, it might have connectivity — that kind of stuff.”

Which sort of sounds like Kano’s thinking about making a DIY smartphone. If so, you heard it here first.

The five and a half year old London-based startup is not yet profitable but Klein flags growth he dubs “fast enough” (noting it doubled sales year-over-year last year, a “trend” he says continued in the first half of this year), before adding: “It’s not impossible for us to get to profitability. We have a lot of optionality. But at the moment we are making investments — in software, in team — we have partner products coming out like Harry, we’ll have more coming out next year. So in terms of absolute positive EBITDA not yet but we are profitable on a units basis.”

Kano closed a $28M Series B last year — and has raised some $44.5M in all at this stage, according to Crunchbase. Is it raising more funding now? “I think any entrepreneur who is looking to do something big is always in some sense keeping an eye out for sources of capital,” replies Klein. “As well as sources of talent.”

He points by way of a connected aside to this study of C-suite execs, carried out by Stripe and Harris poll, which found that access to software developers is a bigger constraint than access to capital, saying: “I read that and I thought that that gap — between the 1% of 1% who can develop software or hardware and the rest of us — is exactly the challenge that Kano set out to solve from a consumer and education perspective.”

“In terms of fundraising we do get a lot of inbound, we have great investors at the moment,” he adds. “We do know that the scale of this particular challenge — which is demystify technology, become synonymous with learning to code and making your own computers — that requires significant support and we’ll be continuing to keep our eyes out as we grow.”

 

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The 7 most egregious fibs Apple told about the iPhone XS camera today

Posted by | Apple, Apple Hardware Event 2018, Gadgets, hardware, iPhone, iPhone XS, Photography | No Comments

Apple always drops a few whoppers at its events, and the iPhone XS announcement today was no exception. And nowhere were they more blatant than in the introduction of the devices’ “new” camera features. No one doubts that iPhones take great pictures, so why bother lying about it? My guess is they can’t help themselves.

To be clear, I have no doubt they made some great updates to make a good camera better. But whatever those improvements are, they were overshadowed today by the breathless hype that was frequently questionable and occasionally just plain wrong. Now, to fill this article out I had to get a bit pedantic, but honestly, some of these are pretty egregious.

“The world’s most popular camera”

There are a lot of iPhones out there, to be sure. But defining the iPhone as some sort of decade-long continuous camera, which Apple seems to be doing, is sort of a disingenuous way to do it. By that standard, Samsung would almost certainly be ahead, since it would be allowed to count all its Galaxy phones going back a decade as well, and they’ve definitely outsold Apple in that time. Going further, if you were to say that a basic off-the-shelf camera stack and common Sony or Samsung sensor was a “camera,” iPhone would probably be outnumbered 10:1 by Android phones.

Is the iPhone one of the world’s most popular cameras? To be sure. Is it the world’s most popular camera? You’d have to slice it pretty thin and say that this or that year and this or that model was more numerous than any other single model. The point is this is a very squishy metric and one many could lay claim to depending on how they pick or interpret the numbers. As usual, Apple didn’t show their work here, so we may as well coin a term and call this an educated bluff.

“Remarkable new dual camera system”

As Phil would explain later, a lot of the newness comes from improvements to the sensor and image processor. But as he said that the system was new while backed by an exploded view of the camera hardware, we may consider him as referring to that as well.

It’s not actually clear what in the hardware is different from the iPhone X. Certainly if you look at the specs, they’re nearly identical:

If I said these were different cameras, would you believe me? Same F numbers, no reason to think the image stabilization is different or better, and so on. It would not be unreasonable to guess that these are, as far as optics, the same cameras as before. Again, not that there was anything wrong with them — they’re fabulous optics. But showing components that are in fact the same and saying it’s different is misleading.

Given Apple’s style, if there were any actual changes to the lenses or OIS, they’d have said something. It’s not trivial to improve those things and they’d take credit if they had done so.

The sensor of course is extremely important, and it is improved: the 1.4-micrometer pixel pitch on the wide-angle main camera is larger than the 1.22-micrometer pitch on the X. Since the megapixels are similar we can probably surmise that the “larger” sensor is a consequence of this different pixel pitch, not any kind of real form factor change. It’s certainly larger, but the wider pixel pitch, which helps with sensitivity, is what’s actually improved, and the increased dimensions are just a consequence of that.

We’ll look at the image processor claims below.

“2x faster sensor… for better image quality”

It’s not really clear what is meant when he says this. “To take advantage of all this technology.” Is it the readout rate? Is it the processor that’s faster, since that’s what would probably produce better image quality (more horsepower to calculate colors, encode better, and so on)? “Fast” also refers to light-gathering — is that faster?

I don’t think it’s accidental that this was just sort of thrown out there and not specified. Apple likes big simple numbers and doesn’t want to play the spec game the same way as the others. But this in my opinion crosses the line from simplifying to misleading. This at least Apple or some detailed third party testing can clear up.

“What it does that is entirely new is connect together the ISP with that neural engine, to use them together.”

Now, this was a bit of sleight of hand on Phil’s part. Presumably what’s new is that Apple has better integrated the image processing pathway between the traditional image processor, which is doing the workhorse stuff like autofocus and color, and the “neural engine,” which is doing face detection.

It may be new for Apple, but this kind of thing has been standard in many cameras for years. Both phones and interchangeable-lens systems like DSLRs use face and eye detection, some using neural-type models, to guide autofocus or exposure. This (and the problems that come with it) go back years and years. I remember point-and-shoots that had it, but unfortunately failed to detect people who had dark skin or were frowning.

It’s gotten a lot better (Apple’s depth-detecting units probably help a lot), but the idea of tying a face-tracking system, whatever fancy name you call it, in to the image-capture process is old hat. What’s in the XS may be the best, but it’s probably not “entirely new” even for Apple, let alone the rest of photography.

“We have a brand new feature we call smart HDR.”

Apple’s brand new feature has been on Google’s Pixel phones for a while now. A lot of cameras now keep a frame buffer going, essentially snapping pictures in the background while the app is open, then using the latest one when you hit the button. And Google, among others, had the idea that you could use these unseen pictures as raw material for an HDR shot.

Probably Apple’s method is a different, and it may even be better, but fundamentally it’s the same thing. Again, “brand new” to iPhone users, but well known among Android flagship devices.

“This is what you’re not supposed to do, right, shooting a photo into the sun, because you’re gonna blow out the exposure.”

I’m not saying you should shoot directly into the sun, but it’s really not uncommon to include the sun in your shot. In the corner like that it can make for some cool lens flares, for instance. It won’t blow out these days because almost every camera’s auto-exposure algorithms are either center-weighted or intelligently shift around — to find faces, for instance.

When the sun is in your shot, your problem isn’t blown out highlights but a lack of dynamic range caused by a large difference between the exposure needed to capture the sun-lit background and the shadowed foreground. This is, of course, as Phil says, one of the best applications of HDR — a well-bracketed exposure can make sure you have shadow details while also keeping the bright ones.

Funnily enough, in the picture he chose here, the shadow details are mostly lost — you just see a bunch of noise there. You don’t need HDR to get those water droplets — that’s a shutter speed thing, really. It’s still a great shot, by the way, I just don’t think it’s illustrative of what Phil is talking about.

“You can adjust the depth of field… this has not been possible in photography of any type of camera.”

This just isn’t true. You can do this on the Galaxy S9, and it’s being rolled out in Google Photos as well. Lytro was doing something like it years and years ago, if we’re including “any type of camera.” Will this be better? Probably – looks great to me. Has it never been possible ever? Not even close. I feel kind of bad that no one told Phil. He’s out here without the facts.

Well, that’s all the big ones. There were plenty more, shall we say, embellishments at the event, but that’s par for the course at any big company’s launch. I just felt like these ones couldn’t go unanswered. I have nothing against the iPhone camera — I use one myself. But boy are they going wild with these claims. Somebody’s got to say it, since clearly no one inside Apple is.

Check out the rest of our Apple event coverage here:

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XS, XR, XS Max? The difference between the new iPhones

Posted by | Apple, Apple Hardware Event 2018, Apple Hardware Event 2018 - iPhone, Gadgets, hardware, iPhone, Mobile, TC | No Comments

XS is the normal one. XR is the cheap one. XS Max is the big one. That’s a good start to understanding Apple’s confusing naming scheme for its new line of iPhones. Apparently jealous of Android’s fragmentation, Apple decided it needed three different models, three different storage sizes and nine different colors.

You can think of the XS as the updated iPhone X, the Max as the new Plus and the XR as a revival of the great-for-kids budget iPhone SE. Here’s a comparison of their features, prices, options and release dates.

The iPhone XS — standard, smaller, sooner

Apple’s new flagship phone is the iPhone XS. If you want the best Apple has to offer that will still fit in your pocket, this is the one for you.

It’s got a 5.8-inch diagonal OLED “Super Retina” HDR screen with 458 pixels per inch, which is actually taller than the old 8 Plus’s 5.5-inch screen, but it’s a little thinner, so it has less total screen volume. Dual 12 megapixel cameras offer stabilization and 2X optical zoom, plus the new depth control Portrait mode feature. It’s $999 for the 64GB, $1,149 for the 256GB, or $1,349 for the 512GB.

It comes in silver, gold and space gray, all in stainless steel that’s waterproof to two meters. Pre-orders start Friday, September 14th, and they ship and hit stores on September 21st.

The iPhone XS Max — bigger screen, bigger price

If you love watching movies, browsing photos and shooting videos on your phone, you’ll want the iPhone XS Max.

The 6.5-inch OLED “Super Retina” HDR screen is the biggest ever on an iPhone, dwarfing the 8 Plus’s screen, yet with a similar device size since the XS Max takes up more of the phone’s face. The twin 12 megapixel lenses stabilize your images and offer 2X optical zoom, as well as Portrait mode depth control.

It also comes in stainless steel silver, gold and space gray that are all waterproof to two meters, and costs $100 more than the XS at $1,099 for 64GB, $1,249 for 256GB or a whopping $1,449 for 512GB. As with the XS, pre-orders start Friday, September 14th, and you can get it in your hands on September 21st.

The iPhone XR — colorful, cheaper, duller

Don’t need the sharpest or biggest new screen and want to save some cash? Grab an iPhone XR. Its size comes in between the XS and XS Max, with a 6.1-inch diagonal LCD “Liquid Retina” screen with 326 pixels per square inch.

Fewer pixels and no HDR display means the XR won’t look quite as brilliant as the XS models. The XR also only has one 12 megapixel camera lens, so it doesn’t offer stabilization or 2X optical zoom like its XS siblings, but it still gets the cool Bokeh-changing Portrait mode depth control.

The XR is only waterproof to one meter instead of two like its expensive sisters, and lacks 3D Touch for quick access to deeper features.

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As a bonus with the XR, you do get 1.5 hours of additional battery life and six color options in the aluminum (“aloominium” if you’re Jonny Ive) finish: white, black, blue, yellow, coral and red. And it’s cheaper at $749 for 64GB, with $799 for 128GB and $899 for 256GB.

If that’s not cheap enough, you can now get the iPhone 7 for $449 and the iPhone 8 costs $599 — though there are no more iPhones with headphone jacks now that the 6S and SE are getting retired. In hopes that you’ll buy a pricier one, the XR arrives a month later than the XS models, with pre-orders on October 19th and shipping October 26th.

Apple may find this level of customization lets everyone find the right iPhone for them, though it could simultaneously produce decision paralysis in buyers who aren’t confident enough to pay. While it’s a headache at first, you’ll end up with a phone fit for your style and budget. Though without a ton of improvements over the iPhone X, you might not need an “iPhone Excess.”

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Ebay’s HeadGaze lets motor-impaired users navigate the site with head movements

Posted by | accessibility, Apps, augmented reality, eBay, Gadgets, hardware, TC | No Comments

The sophisticated head-tracking system like the one built into the iPhone X may have been intended for AR and security purposes, but it may also turn out to be very useful for people with disabilities. A proof of concept app from an eBay intern shows how someone with very little motor function can navigate the site with nothing but head movements.

Muratcan Çiçek is one such person, and relies on assistive technology every day to read, work and get around. This year he was interning at eBay and decided to create a tool that would help people with motor impairments like his to shop online. Turns out there are lots of general-purpose tools for accessibility, like letting a user control a cursor with their eyes or a joystick, but nothing made just for navigating a site like eBay or Amazon.

His creation, HeadGaze, relies on the iPhone X’s front-facing sensor array (via ARKit) to track the user’s head movements. Different movements correspond to different actions in a demonstration app that shows the online retailer’s daily deals: navigate through categories and products by tilting your head all the way in various directions, or tilt partway down to buy, save or share.

You can see it in action in the short video below:

It’s not that this is some huge revolution in interface — there are some apps and services that do this, though perhaps not in such a straightforward and extensible way as this.

But it’s easy to underestimate the cognitive load created when someone has to navigate a UI that’s designed around senses or limbs they don’t have. To create something like this isn’t necessarily simple, but it’s useful and relatively straightforward, and the benefits to a person like Çiçek are substantial.

That’s probably why he made the HeadGaze project open source — you can get all the code and documentation at GitHub; it’s all in Swift and currently only works on the iPhone X, but it’s a start.

Considering this was a summer project by an intern, there’s not much of an excuse for companies with thousands of developers to not have something like it available for their apps or storefronts. And it’s not like you couldn’t think of other ways to use it. As Çiçek writes:

HeadGaze enables you to scroll and interact on your phone with only subtle head movements. Think of all the ways that this could be brought to life. Tired of trying to scroll through a recipe on your phone screen with greasy fingers while cooking? Too messy to follow the how-to manual on your cell phone while you’re tinkering with the car engine under the hood? Too cold to remove your gloves to use your phone?

He and his colleagues are also looking into actual gaze-tracking to augment the head movements, but that’s still a ways off. Maybe you can help.

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This unique vacuum-extraction coffee maker is Colombia’s own

Posted by | Coffee, Crowdfunding, design, food, Gadgets, hardware, TC | No Comments

If you had a cup of delicious coffee this morning, there’s a good chance those beans came from Colombia, which has famously been growing and selling them for centuries. But the country hasn’t produced any coffee makers — until now, anyway. The FrankOne is a clever device that puts a versatile vacuum-extraction technique in a compact, single-cup form factor.

Of course, it’ll have to hit its Kickstarter goal first. Eduardo Umaña, the designer of the FrankOne, explained that he encountered the idea one day when chatting with a Colombian roaster.

“He was making coffee then by using the ‘reverse french press’ method and I thought I could improve on that,” Umaña told me in an email. “Some time after, I got very curious to test what high vacuum brewed coffee would taste like. I did some simple experiments and was very surprised by the rich and sweet flavor. One thing led to another and I ended up designing a new product.”

The FrankOne is closest in operation to the big glass vacuum drippers you might have seen in fancy coffee shops. This interesting and quite old method uses the gas pressure created by the boiling action to force the water upwards through a tube into the grounds, and then as it cools, the brewed coffee is pulled back down through a filter by the changes in air pressure. The siphons you’ve seen are elegant but not exactly convenient.

“They implement a similar principle in a very different way,” Umaña said. His device doesn’t require this dance of hot and cool; you put the cylindrical device, about the size of “a big burger,” on the included carafe and add the ground coffee. Pour in the hot water, put the lid on and wait a bit for the oils and such to extract. Then hit the button on top and let it do its thing.

A pump extracts air from the carafe, drawing the coffee down through the metal filter. In a minute or so the process is done, leaving what Umaña says is the bitter crema up in the grounds. The result is a sweet and clear cup of coffee. Its taste (I haven’t tried) is likely closest to AeroPress, as opposed to drip, due to the active force pushing (pulling, actually) the water through the grounds.

The device will accept various grinds and amounts of coffee, producing a different cup — not a possibility with French press and not advised with pourover or espresso. And it’s definitely a lot smaller than an AeroPress.

It does run on a battery, but with 150 cups per charge, you probably won’t have to worry much about it. And there’s no bait and switch with custom filters or something — you just wash the thing and it’s ready to go again.

Incidentally, I had to double-check with Umaña that no one from Colombia had gone on to create a coffee maker. The industry is so old and so important there that it seemed impossible.

“Unbelievable, right?” he wrote. “It was also very meaningful to me as Colombian to work on the first Colombian designed coffee brewer. Perhaps through this project we can bring some much needed economic development to the country by innovating in coffee; it grows right in our backyard and we can do so much more than we are currently doing!”

Umaña and his company, Frank de Paula (after the second president of Colombia, who started the coffee export business there in the 19th century), are looking for $120,000 to finance the device. At $50 for the early birds it’s likely a steal, at least if you’re a coffee brewing fiend like me — I collect stuff like this. Everyone needs a hobby, right? It’ll cost a bill when it comes out in retail, so if you like the idea, save yourself a couple bucks and support good design with a pledge.

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