smartphone

For the first time in two years, the smartphone market shows signs of life

Posted by | Apple, canalys, hardware, huawei, Mobile, Samsung, smartphone, smartphones, TC | No Comments

All is not lost for smartphone manufacturers. On the heels of two years’ of global stagnation, the category is finally showing some signs of life. Much of the bounce back comes as manufacturers are working to correct for dulled consumer interest.

I wouldn’t put too much weight in the numbers right now, as they’re little more than an uptick. Numbers from Canalys put shipment growth at 1% from Q3 2018 to Q3 2019. In most cases, that would be a modest gain, at best, but this is notably the first time in two years that the numbers have been heading in the right direction.

Samsung saw the biggest gains — a phenomenon the analyst firm chalks up to a shift in strategy to eat some of its profits. The move has paid off for the quarter, with an 11% growth in device shipments, to 78.9 million devices shipped. That gives the company the largest global market share, at 22.4%.

Huawei, too, saw impressive growth, year-over-year, commanding second place with 66.8 million units shipped. Much of its growth came from China, which has ramped up spending on the company’s products as it has run into regulatory scrutiny overseas. Resumption of sales in some international markets helped juice growth as well. Of the top three, Apple continued to struggle the most, with a 7% loss from 2018.

For now, at least, none of the these numbers qualify as full turnaround for a stagnant category, though the upcoming roll out of 5G coverage could help move numbers in the right direction in the coming year.

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Ember’s Mug 2 and Travel Mug 2 extend your coffee temperature sweet spot

Posted by | Battery Technology, Bluetooth, Ember, Ember Technologies, equipment, food and drink, Gadgets, hardware, mug, Reviews, smartphone, TC, Zojirushi | No Comments

One of the world’s most static technologies may be the humble mug, but startup Ember decided it was time for a change when they introduced their temperature-controlled smart mug to the market in 2016. Now, the company has launched its Ember Mug 2 — a follow-up that keeps the concept and design intact, but that improves the lineup in some key ways.

There are two separate new second-generation Ember mugs — the Ember Travel Mug and the Ember Mug, designed for home and office use. Both add extended battery life, thanks to swapping its old battery technology with “the most advanced battery technology on the market,” and both gain new redesigned charging coasters, while the Travel Mug 2 gets a new control interface for adjusting the temperature of the beverage within, and it’s a bit lighter while holding the same volume.

Ember Mug 2 (from $99.95)

Ember Mug and Travel Mug 2 3This sequel to Ember’s home mug comes in black, white and a pricier copper version, as well as in two sizes: 10 oz and 14 oz. Like its predecessor, it features an internal heating element and battery, Bluetooth connectivity for smartphone control from the Ember app and a durable ceramic coating.

The Ember Mug 2 has a customizable LED that shows you when it’s working, and that you can change to whatever color you wish, which is handy if you have a couple of these in use in one household. In order to set your desired temperature, you pair it with an app on your phone (a quick and painless process).

Ember will send you notifications when the liquid within reaches the desired temperature. I’ve long used one of their first-generation products, and the one thing I found was that on my three-a-day coffee schedule, sometimes my third cup would end up cold, because the battery, while decent, would run out before my appetite for caffeine did.

Enter the sequel, which offers up to 50% better battery life than the original version. It’s hard to quantify, as the speed with which I drink my coffee differs day to day, but I will say that in testing I haven’t seen the low battery warning before I was long done actually drinking coffee for the day. In short, if you make sure to pop the mug back on its charging coaster every evening, you should have plenty of juice for a full day of use the next day without any sense of mug range anxiety.

Ember Travel Mug 2 ($179.95)

Ember Mug and Travel Mug 2 5The Travel Mug 2 gets a slight redesign, as well as battery improvements. Whereas Ember used a physical dial to control temperature adjustments without requiring you to use your phone on the last generation, now there’s a touch-sensitive area on the cup just above where the body expands out toward the top. You can slide your fingers around this to increase or decrease the temperature of whatever you have within.

This tweak is likely what allowed Ember to slim down the design while keeping the internal volume (12 oz) the same, so that it’s a bit more lightweight and travel-friendly than before (while also offering as much as three hours of battery life). Ember also took the auto sleep and wake features that it introduced with the original Ember ceramic Mug and brought them to the Travel Mug 2, meaning that it’ll turn itself on and off automatically depending on whether it detects liquid inside, or motion from being picked up, to extend battery life even further.

Ember Mug and Travel Mug 2 7The design of the Ember Travel Mug 2 is top-notch, with a smooth matte surface and hand-friendly design, along with clear, easy to red LED displays that just disappear when not in use. The bottom display shows current temperature, as well as an indicator of remaining battery life, and you can add a custom name to show for avoiding confusion if there are multiple Travel Mugs in use.

Bottom line

Ember’s follow-up hardware to its initial lineup isn’t a dramatic change — but the collection didn’t need a major overhaul because it gets so many things right. The added battery life in the new generation is great, and the appeal remains the same: If you’re a coffee or tea fanatic and don’t love returning to a lukewarm or cold cup, then this is the stuff for you.

Could you opt for a vacuum-walled mug or travel tumbler? Absolutely, and the Zojirushi lineup of insulated travel mugs will keep liquids hot for days. But Ember’s home mug is without peer for actually keeping things hot in an open-top design, and the Travel Mug’s ability to actually adjust and increase temperature on the fly is also a unique value proposition that can’t be matched by any passive insulation.

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Google’s Play Store is giving an age-rating finger to Fleksy, a Gboard rival 🖕

Posted by | Android, antitrust, Apps, competition, emoji, Europe, european union, fleksy, gboard, Google, Google Play, Marketplaces, online marketplaces, play, play store, Policy, smartphone, spain, Thingthing | No Comments

Platform power is a helluva a drug. Do a search on Google’s Play Store in Europe and you’ll find the company’s own Gboard app has an age rating of PEGI 3 — aka the pan-European game information labelling system which signifies content is suitable for all age groups.

PEGI 3 means it may still contain a little cartoon violence. Say, for example, an emoji fist or middle finger.

Now do a search on Play for the rival Fleksy keyboard app and you’ll find it has a PEGI 12 age rating. This label signifies the rated content can contain slightly more graphic fantasy violence and mild bad language.

The discrepancy in labelling suggests there’s a material difference between Gboard and Fleksy — in terms of the content you might encounter. Yet both are pretty similar keyboard apps — with features like predictive emoji and baked in GIFs. Gboard also lets you create custom emoji. While Fleksy puts mini apps at your fingertips.

A more major difference is that Gboard is made by Play Store owner and platform controller, Google. Whereas Fleksy is an indie keyboard that since 2017 has been developed by ThingThing, a startup based out of Spain.

Fleksy’s keyboard didn’t used to carry a 12+ age rating — this is a new development. Not based on its content changing but based on Google enforcing its Play Store policies differently.

The Fleksy app, which has been on the Play Store for around eight years at this point — and per Play Store install stats has had more than 5M downloads to date — was PEGI 3 rating until earlier this month. But then Google stepped in and forced the team to up the rating to 12. Which means the Play Store description for Fleksy in Europe now rates it PEGI 12 and specifies it contains “Mild Swearing”.

Screenshot 2019 10 23 at 12.39.45

The Play store’s system for age ratings requires developers to fill in a content ratings form, responding to a series of questions about their app’s content, in order to obtain a suggested rating.

Fleksy’s team have done so over the years — and come up with the PEGI 3 rating without issue. But this month they found they were being issued the questionnaire multiple times and then that their latest app update was blocked without explanation — meaning they had to reach out to Play Developer Support to ask what was going wrong.

After some email back and forth with support staff they were told that the app contained age inappropriate emoji content. Here’s what Google wrote:

During review, we found that the content rating is not accurate for your app… Content ratings are used to inform consumers, especially parents, of potentially objectionable content that exists within an app.

For example, we found that your app contains content (e.g. emoji) that is not appropriate for all ages. Please refer to the attached screenshot.

In the attached screenshot Google’s staff fingered the middle finger emoji as the reason for blocking the update:

Fleksy Play review emoji violation

 

“We never thought a simple emoji is meant to be 12+,” ThingThing CEO Olivier Plante tells us.

With their update rejected the team was forced to raise the rating of Fleksy to PEGI 12 — just to get their update unblocked so they could push out a round of bug fixes for the app.

That’s not the end of the saga, though. Google’s Play Store team is still not happy with the regional age rating for Fleksy — and wants to push the rating even higher — claiming, in a subsequent email, that “your app contains mature content (e.g. emoji) and should have higher rating”.

Now, to be crystal clear, Google’s own Gboard app also contains the middle finger emoji. We are 100% sure of this because we double-checked…

Gboard finger

Emojis available on Google’s Gboard keyboard, including the ‘screw you’ middle finger. Photo credit: Romain Dillet/TechCrunch

This is not surprising. Pretty much any smartphone keyboard — native or add-on — would contain this symbol because it’s a totally standard emoji.

But when Plante pointed out to Google that the middle finger emoji can be found in both Fleksy’s and Gboard’s keyboards — and asked them to drop Fleksy’s rating back to PEGI 3 like Gboard — the Play team did not respond.

A PEGI 16 rating means the depiction of violence (or sexual activity) “reaches a stage that looks the same as would be expected in real life”, per official guidance on the labels, while the use of bad language can be “more extreme”, and content may include the use of tobacco, alcohol or illegal drugs.

And remember Google is objecting to “mature” emoji. So perhaps its app reviewers have been clutching at their pearls after finding other standard emojis which depict stuff like glasses of beer, martinis and wine… 🤦‍♀️

Over on the US Play Store, meanwhile, the Fleksy app is rated “teen”.

While Gboard is — yup, you guessed it! — ‘E for Everyone’… 🤔

image 1 1

 

Plante says the double standard Google is imposing on its own app vs third party keyboards is infuriating, and he accuses the platform giant of anti-competitive behavior.

“We’re all-in for competition, it’s healthy… but incumbent players like Google playing it unfair, making their keyboard 3+ with identical emojis, is another showcase of abuse of power,” he tells TechCrunch.

A quick search of the Play Store for other third party keyboard apps unearths a mixture of ratings — most rated PEGI 3 (such as Microsoft-owned SwiftKey and Grammarly Keyboard); some PEGI 12 (such as Facemoji Emoji Keyboard which, per Play Store’s summary contains “violence”).

Only one that we could find among the top listed keyboard apps has a PEGI 16 rating.

This is an app called Classic Big Keyboard — whose listing specifies it contains “Strong Language” (and what keyboard might not, frankly!?). Though, judging by the Play Store screenshots, it appears to be a fairly bog standard keyboard that simply offers adjustable key sizes. As well as, yes, standard emoji.

“It came as a surprise,” says Plante describing how the trouble with Play started. “At first, in the past weeks, we started to fill in the rating reviews and I got constant emails the rating form needed to be filled with no details as why we needed to revise it so often (6 times) and then this last week we got rejected for the same reason. This emoji was in our product since day 1 of its existence.”

Asked whether he can think of any trigger for Fleksy to come under scrutiny by Play Store reviewers now, he says: “We don’t know why but for sure we’re progressing nicely in the penetration of our keyboard. We’re growing fast for sure but unsure this is the reason.”

“I suspect someone is doubling down on competitive keyboards over there as they lost quite some grip of their search business via the alternative browsers in Europe…. Perhaps there is a correlation?” he adds, referring to the European Commission’s antitrust decision against Google Android last year — when the tech giant was hit with a $5BN fine for various breaches of EU competition law. A fine which it’s appealing.

“I’ll continue to fight for a fair market and am glad that Europe is leading the way in this,” adds Plante.

Following the EU antitrust ruling against Android, which Google is legally compelled to comply with during any appeals process, it now displays choice screens to Android users in Europe — offering alternative search engines and browsers for download, alongside Google’s own dominate search  and browser (Chrome) apps.

However the company still retains plenty of levers it can pull and push to influence the presentation of content within its dominant Play Store — influencing how rival apps are perceived by Android users and so whether or not they choose to download them.

So requiring that a keyboard app rival gets badged with a much higher age rating than Google’s own keyboard app isn’t a good look to say the least.

We reached out to Google for an explanation about the discrepancy in age ratings between Fleksy and Gboard and will update this report with any further response. At first glance a spokesman agreed with us that the situation looks odd.

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Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 7 finally has USB-C, ships on October 22

Posted by | artist, computing, Gadgets, hardware, Laptop, Microsoft, microsoft surface, Microsoft Surface Event 2019, microsoft windows, smartphone, Surface, surface book, surface pro, tablet computer, TC, technology | No Comments

Today at its special hardware event, Microsoft unveiled the new Surface Pro 7. The new Surface Pro finally brings USB-C to the convertible laptop category of Microsoft hardware, which will be a welcome addition for fans who’ve been waiting for the company to adopt this now-prevalent connection technology.

The latest-generation Surface Pro starts at $749, pre-orders start today and it’s available on October 22.

Like its predecessors, the Surface consists of a 12-inch tablet component with a folding kickstand for adjustable angle viewing. There’s also a detachable keyboard cover accessory, and a Surface Pen stylus that allows for writing, drawing, note taking and more.

The Surface Pro also features “studio mics,” a new microphone array built into the new Surface Laptop.

Screen Shot 2019 10 02 at 7.38.29 AM

“Studio mics are optimized for your voice, their place perfectly tuned, so that we capture what’s coming from your mouth rather than all the background sounds around you,” said Robin Seiler, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Devices who presented the new device onstage at the event. They’ll also be used for Microsoft’s Your Phone app, which is a recently released Windows feature that connects your smartphone to your computer for calls, messaging and more.

Surface Pro is the most popular two-in-one on the market, according to Microsoft, with more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies purchasing Surface devices, according to Seiler.

Microsoft emphasized the creative potential of the Surface Pro in a video featuring an artist named Connie using the Pen for digital painting, and Seiler showed off the productivity angle via a live demo of various features of Office on the two-in-one.

Screen Shot 2019 10 02 at 7.26.23 AM

 

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Africa’s top mobile phone seller Transsion lists in Chinese IPO

Posted by | africa, Beijing, China, Egypt, ethiopia, Exit, huawei, india, initial public offering, IPO, kenya, Mobile, mobile phone, Nigeria, Opera, Samsung, shanghai, Shanghai Stock Exchange, shenzhen, smartphone, smartphones, South Africa, Startups, Tanzania, TC, technology, Tecno, telecommunications, Transsion, Wapi Capital | No Comments

Chinese mobile phone and device maker Transsion has listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s STAR Market, a Transsion spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch. 

Headquartered in Shenzhen, Transsion is a top seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand. The company has also started to support venture funding of African startups.

Transsion issued 80 million A shares at an opening price of 35.15 yuan (≈ $5.00) to raise 2.8 billion yuan (or ≈ $394 million).

A shares are the common shares issued by mainland Chinese companies and are normally available for purchases only by mainland citizens. 

Transsion’s IPO prospectus is downloadable (in Chinese) and its STAR Market listing application is available on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s website.

STAR is the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech stocks that went live in July with some 25 companies going public.

Transsion plans to spend 1.6 billion yuan (or $227 million) of its STAR Market raise on building more phone assembly hubs, and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development, including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai, a company spokesperson said.

To support its African sales network, Transsion maintains a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia. The company recently announced plans to build an industrial park and R&D facility in India for manufacture of phones to Africa.

The IPO comes after Transsion announced its intent to go public and filed its first docs with the Shanghai Stock Exchange in April.

Listing on STAR Market puts Transsion on China’s new exchange — seen as an extension of Beijing’s ambition to become a hub for tech startups to raise public capital. Chinese regulators lowered profitability requirements for the STAR Market, which means pre-profit ventures can list.

China Star Market Opening July 2019 1

Transsion’s IPO comes when the company is actually in the black. The firm generated 22.6 billion yuan ($3.29 billion) in revenue in 2018, up from 20 billion yuan a year earlier. Net profit for the year slid to 654 million yuan, down from 677 million yuan in 2017, according to the firm’s prospectus.

Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market — through its brands Tecno, Infinix and Itel — and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and before Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.

Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also attracted attention for being one of the first known device makers to optimize its camera phones for African complexions.

On a 2019 research trip to Addis Ababa, TechCrunch learned the top entry-level Tecno smartphone was the W3, which lists for 3,600 Ethiopian Birr, or roughly $125.

In Africa, Transsion’s ability to build market share and find a sweet spot with consumers on price and features gives it prominence in the continent’s booming tech scene.

Africa already has strong mobile-phone penetration, but continues to undergo a conversion from basic USSD phones, to feature phones, to smartphones.

Smartphone adoption on the continent is low, at 34%, but expected to grow to 67% by 2025, according to GSMA.

This, added to an improving internet profile, is key to Africa’s tech scene. In top markets for VC and startup origination — such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa — thousands of ventures are building business models around mobile-based products and digital applications.

If Transsion’s IPO enables higher smartphone conversion on the continent, that could enable more startups and startup opportunities — from fintech to VOD apps.

Another interesting facet to Transsion’s IPO is its potential to create greater influence from China in African tech, in particular as the Shenzhen company moves more definitely toward venture investing.

In August, Transsion-funded Future Hub teamed up with Kenya’s Wapi Capital to source and fund early-stage African fintech startups.

China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities — further boosted in recent years as Beijing pushes its Belt and Road plan.

Transsion’s IPO is the second event this year — after Chinese owned Opera’s venture spending in Nigeria — to reflect greater Chinese influence and investment in the continent’s digital scene.

So in coming years, China could be less known for building roads and bridges in Africa and more for selling smartphones and providing VC for African startups.

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Is Amazon’s Alexa ready to leave home and become a wearable voice assistant?

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Hardware Event 2019, Android, Assistant, car accessory, computing, digital assistant, echo, Fire OS, fire phone, Gadgets, Google, hardware, operating systems, Seattle, smart speakers, smartphone, Speaker, TC, virtual assistant | No Comments

Amazon’s device event today played host to a dizzying number of product announcements, of all stripes — but notably, there are three brand new ways to wear Alexa on your body. Amazon clearly wants to give you plenty of options to take Alexa with you when you leave the house, the only place it’s really held sway so far — but can Amazon actually convince people that it’s the voice interface for everywhere, and not just for home?

Among the products Amazon announced at its Seattle event, Echo Frames, Echo Loop and Echo Buds all provide ways to take Alexa with you wherever you go. What’s super interesting — and telling — about this is that Amazon went with three different vectors to try to convince people to wear Alexa, instead of focusing its efforts on just one. That indicates a stronger than ever desire to break Alexa out of its home environment.

alexa echo amazon 9250082

The company has tried to get this done in different ways before. Alexa has appeared in Bluetooth speakers and headphones, in some cars (including now GM, as of today) and via Amazon’s own car accessory — and though the timing didn’t line up, it would’ve been a lock for Amazon’s failed Fire Phone.

Notice that none of these existing examples have helped Amazon gain any apparent significant market share when it comes to Alexa use on the go. While we don’t have great stats on how well-adopted Alexa is in-car, for instance, it stands to reason that we’d be hearing a lot more about its success if it was indeed massively successful — in the same way we hear often about Alexa’s prevalence in the home.

Amazon lacks a key vector that other voice assistants got for free: Being the default option on a smartphone. Google Assistant manages this through both Google’s own, and third-party Android, phones. Apple’s Siri isn’t often celebrated for its skill and performance, but there’s no question that it benefits from being the only really viable option on iOS when it comes to voice assistant software.

Amazon had to effectively invent a product category to get Alexa any traction at all — the Echo basically created the smart speaker category, at least in terms of significant mass market uptake. Its success with its existing Echo devices proves that this category served a market need, and Amazon has reaped significant reward as a result.

But for Amazon, a virtual assistant that only operates in the confines of the home covers only a tiny part of the picture when it comes to building more intelligent and nuanced customer profiles, which is the whole point of the endeavor to begin with. While Americans seem to be spending more time at home than ever before, a big percentage of peoples’ days is still spent outside, and this is largely invisible to Alexa.

The thing is, the only reliable and proven way to ensure you’re with someone throughout their entire day is to be on their smartphone. Alexa is, via Amazon’s own app, but that’s a far cry from being a native feature of the device, and just a single tap or voice command away. Amazon’s own smartphone ambitions deflated pretty quickly, so now it’s casting around for alternatives — and Loop, Frames and Buds all represent its most aggressive attempts yet.

alexa echo amazon 9250074

A smart spread of bets, each with their own smaller pool of penetration among users versus a general staple like a smartphone, might be Amazon’s best way to actually drive adoption — especially if they’re not concerned with the overall economics of the individual hardware businesses attached to each.

The big question will be whether A) these products can either offer enough value on their own to justify their continued use while Alexa catches up to out-of-home use cases from a software perspective, or B) Amazon’s Alexa team can iterate the assistant’s feature set quickly enough to make it as useful on the go as it is at home, which hasn’t seemed like something it’s been able to do to date (not having direct access to smartphone functions like texting and calling is probably a big part of that).

Specifically for these new products, I’d put the Buds at the top of the list as the most likely to make Alexa a boon companion for a much greater number of people. The buds themselves offer a very compelling price point for their feature set, and Alexa coming along for the ride is likely just a bonus for a large percentage of their addressable market. Both the Frames and the Loop seem a lot more experimental, but Amazon’s limited release go-to-market strategy suggest it has planned for that as well.

In the end, these products are interesting and highly indicative of Amazon’s direction and ambition with Alexa overall, but I don’t think this is the watershed moment for the digital assistant beyond the home. Still, it’s probably among the most interesting spaces in tech to watch, because of how much is at stake for both winners and losers.

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Ricoh’s Theta Z1 is the first truly premium consumer 360 camera

Posted by | adobe lightroom, camera+, computer graphics, digital photography, Gadgets, hardware, image stabilization, oled, Photography, Reviews, ricoh, smartphone, Sony, TC, tokyo, z1 | No Comments

Ricoh has a well-earned good reputation when it comes to building smart, technically excellent photographic equipment — including the almost legendary Ricoh GR series of pocketable APS-C cameras, which are a favorite among street photographers everywhere. Earlier this year, the company released the Ricoh Theta Z1, which builds on its success with its pioneering Theta line of 360-degree cameras and delivers a step-up in terms of image quality and build that will feel at home in the hands of enthusiasts and pro photographers.

The Theta Z1 is what happens when you push the limits of what’s possible in a portable form factor 360 camera, both in terms of build materials and what’s going on on the inside. Like its more affordable, older sibling, the Theta V, it shoots both stills and video in 360 degrees — but unlike the V, it does so using two 1-inch sensors — unprecedented for a 360 camera in this category. Sony’s celebrated RX100 series was pushing boundaries with its own 1-inch sensor in a traditional compact camera, and the Ricoh is similarly expanding the boundaries of 360 photography by including not just one, but two such sensors in its Z1. That translates to unmatched image quality for 360 photographers — provided you’re willing to pay a premium price to get it.

Design and build

The Ricoh Theta Z1 feels a lot like previous iterations of the Theta line — it’s essentially a handle with two big lenses on top, which is a pretty optimal design overall for a device you’re mostly going to be holding up to take 360 photos and video. It’s a bit bulkier than previous generations, and heavier, too, but it’s still a very portable device despite the increased size.

Ricoh Theta Z1 7

With the bulkier build, you also get a magnesium outer case, which is textured and feels fantastic when held. If you’ve ever held a pro DSLR or mirrorless camera, then the feel will be familiar, and that says a lot about Ricoh’s target audience with this $1,000 device. The magnesium alloy shell isn’t only for making it feel like it’s worth what it costs, however; you also get big durability benefits, which is important on a device that you’re probably going to want to use in remote locales and off the beaten path.

The build quality also feels incredibly solid, and the button layout is simple and easy to understand. There’s a single shutter button on the front of the camera, just above an OLED display that provides basic info about remaining space for images or video, battery life and connection status. A single LED indicates both mode and capture status information, and four buttons on the side control power on/off, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections, photo and video mode switching and enabling basic functions like a shutter countdown timer.

Using the hardware buttons to control the Theta Z1 independent of your smartphone, where you can remotely control all aspects of the camera when connected via Wi-Fi and using the app, is intuitive and easy, and probably the way you’ll use the Z1 more often than not when you’re actually out and about. There’s little to worry about when it comes to framing, for instance, because it captures a full 360 image, and you can handle all of that after the fact with Ricoh’s editing tools prior to sharing.

On the bottom, there’s a USB-C port for charging and wired data transfer, and a 1/4″ standard tripod mount for attaching the Z1 to tripods or other accessories. This is useful, because if you use a small handle you’ll get a better overall image, as the Z1’s software automatically edits out the camera, and, to some extent, the thing that’s supporting it. There’s also a small lug for attaching a wrist strap, but what you won’t find is a flap or door for a micro SD card — the Theta Z1 relies entirely on built-in storage, and offers just under 20GB of usable storage.

Ricoh Theta Z1 9

Still images

Ricoh’s Theta Z1 has two 1-inch sensors on board, as mentioned, and those combine to provide an image resolution of 670×3360. The camera captures two 180-degree fields of view from each lens, and automatically stitches them together in software to produce the final image. The result is the sharpest, most color-accurate still photos I’ve ever seen from a 360-degree camera, short of the kind of content shot by professionals on equipment costing at least 10x more.

The resulting images do incredibly well when viewed through VR headsets, for instance, or when you use Theta’s own 360 viewer for web in full-screen mode on high-resolution displays. They also make it possible to export flat images that still look sharp, which you can crop and edit in the Theta+ app. You can create some truly amazing images with interesting perspective that would be hard to get using a traditional camera.

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Indoors in low-light situations, the Ricoh Theta Z1 still performs pretty well, especially compared to its competitors, thanks to those big 1-inch sensors. Especially in well-lit indoor environments, like in the restaurant example below, details are sharp and crisp across the frame and colors come out great.

In settings where a lot of the frame is dark or unevenly lit, as in the example at the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo below, the results aren’t nearly as good when operating in full automatic mode. You can see that there is some blur in the parts of the scene with motion, and there’s more grain apparent in parts of the frame, too. Overall though, the audience is pretty well captured and the colors still look accurate and good despite the many different tones from different sources.

The Ricoh Theta Z1 still does its best work in bright outdoor settings, however — which is true for any camera, but especially for cameras with sensors smaller than full-frame or APS-C. It’s still definitely capable enough to capture images you can work with, and that provide a great way to revisit great events or memories in a more immersive way than standard 2D images can accomplish.

You can adjust settings, including aperture to optimize your photo capture, as well as choosing between f/2.1, f/3.5 and f/5.6, with higher apertures offering higher-resolution images. The built-in lens has been designed to reduce ghosting, purple fringe artifacts and flare, and it does an outstanding job at this. RAW capture allows you to edit DNG files using Lightroom, and it works amazingly well with Lightroom mobile for advanced tweaks right on the same device.

Video

The Ricoh Theta Z1 does video, too — though the specs for the video it produces are essentially unchanged from the Theta V on paper. It can capture 4K video at 30 fps/56 mbps or 2K video at 30fps/16mbps, and live stream in both 4K and 2K. There’s a four-channel built-in microphone for immersive audio recording, and it can record as much as 40 minutes of 4K or 130 minutes of 2K footage, though each individual recording session is capped at 5 minutes and 25 minutes for 4K and 2K, respectively.

Ricoh has tougher competition when it comes to video in the 360 camera game — Insta 360’s One X has been a clear winner in this category, and has led to this camera even finding some fans when compared to action cameras like the GoPro Hero 7 and the DJI Osmo Action, thanks in large part to its fantastic built-in image stabilization.

The Ricoh Theta Z1 just frankly doesn’t impress in this regard. The sensors do allow for potentially better image quality overall, but the image stabilization is definitely lacking, as you can see, and overall quality just isn’t there when measured against the Insta360 One X. For a fixed installation for real-time live-streaming, the Ricoh probably makes more sense, but video isn’t the device’s strength, and it’s a little disappointing given its still shooting prowess.

Features and sharing

The range of editing options available either via Theta+ or using the DNG files in both mobile and desktop photo editing software for the Theta Z1 is outstanding. You can really create and compose images in a wide variety of ways, including applying stickers and text that stick to the frame as a viewer navigates around the image. Sharing from the Theta app directly works with a number of platforms, including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and theta360.com, where you can get embeddable 360 images like those found in this post above.

Ricoh has done a great job making sure you can not only capture the best possible 360 images with this camera, but also share them with others. It’s also leading the pack when it comes to the range of options you have for getting creative with slicing up those 7K spherical images in a variety of ways for traditional flat image output, which is not surprising, given the company’s heritage.

Bottom line

Simply put, the Ricoh Theta Z1 is the best 360 camera for still photos that you can buy for less than $1,000 – even if just squeaks under that line. It’s the best still photo 360 camera you can pick up for considerably more than that, too, given its sensor arrangement and other technical aspects of the device, including its selectable aperture settings and RAW output.

The $999.95 asking price is definitely on the high end for this category — the Theta V retails for less than half that, as does the Insta360 One X. But I mentioned the Sony RX100 above, and the pricing is similar: You can get a compact camera for much less money, including very good ones, but the latest RX100 always commands a premium price, which people are willing to pay for the very best-in-class device.

If what you want is the best still photography 360 camera on the market, the Ricoh Theta Z1 is easily it, and if that’s the specific thing you’re looking for, then Ricoh has packed a lot of cutting-edge tech into a small package with the Z1.

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The Sony RX100 VII is the best compact camera you can buy

Posted by | Apple, cameras, Cyber shot, Digital Cameras, Gadgets, Google, hardware, image stabilization, iPhone, real estate, Reviews, smartphone, Sony, TC, tokyo | No Comments

Sony’s latest advanced compact camera is the highly pocketable RX100 VII, the seventh iteration of the RX100. Since its debut, this line of cameras has proven a very popular option among enthusiasts looking for a great travel camera, vloggers and even pros who want a compact backup option just in case. The RX100 VII should suit all those needs very well, provided you’re okay with coughing up the $1,200 asking price.

Not that $1,200 is too expensive for what you’re getting, as Sony has packed in tremendous value, including an extremely versatile 24-200mm (35mm equivalent) zoom range, 20fps continuous burst mode shooting, a flip-up touch screen, built-in image stabilization and the same powerful autofocus technologies you’ll find on its flagship full-frame interchangeable lens pro cameras.

Sony RX100 VII 2

Pocket power

The Sony RX100 VII satisfies a specific need, but it’s one that a lot of people probably have: Striking a balance between image quality, range and portability. On the convenience end of the spectrum, the ultimate device is probably your smartphone, since you have that with you always. On the IQ and range side, you’re looking at a top-end DSLR with a high-quality, low aperture zoom lens that can weigh more than a large dog. The RX100 VII manages to be so impressive because it can deliver nearly the portability of a smartphone, with some of the photography chops of a setup that typically requires its own suitcase.

Inside the RX100 VII you’ll find a 1-inch sensor, which is very big relative to smartphone imaging sensors. This is important because it means there’s no contest between which will capture a better image, with lower noise, greater depth-of-field and better color rendering. For all the software magic that companies like Apple and Google can bring to the photography table, nothing yet can totally compensate for simply having a larger sensor.

Sony RX100 VII 4

The RX100 VII’s compactness isn’t just impressive because of the large sensor it packs inside, however; you also get an EVF, an integrated flash, an external microphone jack and an articulating LCD display. To get all of this into a package this small is astounding — the EVF in particular is a great feature for anyone who wants to be a bit more direct and particular with their shot composition, while the flip-up LCD means you also can have a great selfie screen and monitor for use when vlogging.

Sony RX100 VII 5

Last but not least in terms of its portability benefits, you can charge the RX100 VII via USB directly so that you can leave any additional charging hardware at home. The camera has a micro USB port for both data and power, and while it would’ve been nice to see this upgraded to USB-C on this camera to keep up with the latest in terms of computer and smartphone charging, it’s still better than requiring an external charger.

Zoom zoom

Sony decided on a very long zoom range for the RX100 VII, which sports a 24-200mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8-4.5 powered retracting zoom lens. That’s the same range and aperture as the RX100 VI, which opts for more range over the brighter 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 lens found on the V and earlier.

While you’ll lose some ability to separate your subject from the background versus a brighter lens, you get a lot more reach for shooting action or wildlife. The added range definitely makes it a better all-around travel camera, too, and makes it possible to get some shots you otherwise just wouldn’t be able to get at all with a shorter lens.

The long end of the zoom range also offers stunningly sharp images, especially in bright, daylight conditions. In the examples below, you can see some of the 200mm samples shot on the RX100 VII next to the 24mm wide versions of the same scenes to get a sense of just how close you can get with this lens, and the quality of the images possible even at those extreme zoom lengths.

At the wide end, you have plenty of real estate to capture great sweeping architectural or landscape shots, and the sharpness is also fantastic in great light. There’s some distortion, but it’s mostly corrected by Sony’s software on JPG output. That 24mm wide angle is also the right width for arm-length selfies, though you’re probably going to want at least a short selfie stick for vlogging applications to give yourself a little more in the way of framing options.

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Sticky AF

Leaving aside the fact that this is one of the better sensors available on the market for a camera this size, there’s another very compelling reason to pick up this camera, and one that likely gives it the edge over competitors from other companies. I’m talking about Sony’s autofocus system, and the RX100 VII gets the latest and greatest that Sony has developed, which is found only in much more expensive cameras from the company, like the A9 and the new A7R IV.

You get face and eye tracking, for both human and animal subjects, and these are both best-in-class when compared with other camera makers’ systems. The animal one in particular is a Sony specialty, and worked amazingly well on my real dog — and on Sony’s Aibo robot dog, captured at the Sony Ginza experience center in Tokyo.

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The face and eye detection settings are available in both still shooting and movies, and you can set eye preference (left or right), too. The newest AF feature, however, is object tracking, which allows you to point your AF point at a specific object and have the camera automatically track that object as you zoom or move, or as the object moves within frame. You can choose from a range of options regarding how large of a focal area to track, and this works in tandem with human face detection so that the camera will automatically focus on the subject’s face when it’s visible, and on them more generally when it’s not, which is amazing for sports or action photography.

In practice, this works extremely well. Sony’s claims about how well this sticks, and how good it is at picking a subject back up after it moves behind an object, for instance, are spot on. This is really the best AF system available on a camera in the pocketable category, at any price point, and it’s truly amazing to experience. In the shots below, you can see how it allowed me to capture a very clear picture of a soaring hawk at the 200mm tele zoom, how it tracked a bike in motion and got a clear image of the rider’s face and how it froze a motor bike in motion during a burst series (all the shots were in focus, by the way).

Low light

Another area where Sony’s RX100 VII and its 1-inch sensor are going to have a leg up on your smartphone is in sub-optimal lighting conditions. Bigger sensors mean bigger pixels and less noise, with better blacks and shadows. Sony is also using a backside illuminated stacked sensor, and there’s built-in optical image stabilization, which means you can take sharper photos at lower shutter speeds, letting in more light for clearer images.

In practice, what you get are pretty good low-light photos, especially outdoors with ambient light present, or in decently well-lit indoor settings. In poorer lighting conditions or when you’re trying to freeze action in low light, you’re going to get fairly noisy results, especially when compared to an APS-C or full-frame camera. Sony’s tech can do a lot to make the most of less than ideal photographic conditions, but at some point, it runs up against the limits of what’s possible.

Sony also doesn’t get quite as aggressive with computational photographic techniques for digitally compensating for lower available light, as do the Pixel phones and the latest iPhone 11. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though — the images from the RX100 VII present more accurate night and indoor photos, by comparison, and you can still get much better indoor images with the RX100 VII than you can with any smartphone.

As you can see in the gallery above, the camera does extremely well as long as there’s one well-lit subject or element in frame. It’s less effective when the image overall is uniformly dim, but if you’re looking for great photos in those conditions, you should probably consider upgrading to a larger camera with a larger sensor.

Movie maker

The RX100 VII’s greatest strength might just be how good it is at shooting video for a device this size. Video out of the camera with very minimal adjustment from the default shooting settings produces highly usable results, for both home video enthusiasts and for YouTubers or vloggers looking to produce great-looking content without lugging an entire film production studio along with them on their travels.

Once again, the versatile zoom range really shines here, and you can even shoot at the tele end of the zoom handheld and get totally usable footage, provided you’re a bit careful about movement, as you can see in the third clip in the sequence below, which was shot at the 200mm range. Low-light footage looks great, as is evident from the second clip in sequence, and at the wide end you can capture sweeping landscape vistas or flip up the screen and turn the camera around for selfie-style video.

The added microphone port makes it an even more powerful filmmaking tool, and if you pick up their optional VCT-SGR1 shooting grip, combined with a small shotgun mic or something like the Rode Wireless Go, you’ve got everything you need to create very compelling travel diaries in an incredibly lightweight package that will be able to produce quality and get zoom and wide shots that are impossible on a smartphone.

Bottom line

The RX100 VII is a delight of a camera and an easy recommendation to make. There’s nothing that compares in this size category in terms of the range of features, autofocus capabilities, video prowess and performance as a general all-rounder. This is the do-everything travel camera that you could really only dream of five years ago, and it’s become more ideal for this use with every generation that Sony introduces.

Whether you’re looking to step up your photographic possibilities from your smartphone, or you want to supplement your professional or advanced enthusiast equipment with a pocket camera that’s available as a b-camera for video or to grab a few choice stills, the RX100 VII is hard to top. Its only downside is that $1,200 asking price, which is definitely above average for a compact camera — but on a value basis, $1,200 isn’t at all expensive for everything this camera has to offer.

Full sample gallery

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After conquering smartphones, PopSocket sets its sights on beverages

Posted by | colorado, Gadgets, hardware, iPhone, smartphone, songs, zeitgeist | No Comments

In its first half-decade of existence, PopSocket has grown into one of the most popular — and imitated — smartphone accessories on the market. In 2018 alone, the company generated $90 million in profit. Not too bad for a little Colorado-based upstart.

So, where does an utterly dominant accessory maker go from here? Beverages, naturally. Delish was the first to report the existence of the PopThirst line. You may well have missed it in the wake of this week’s iPhone news. I was on a plane with limited Wi-Fi access, I swear. Whatever the case, the weird little retractable phone holder that has captured the world’s imagination $15 at a time is now headed for the lucrative field of refreshments. 

It’s an odd evolution of the brand, to be sure. But why not strike while the iron (and coffee) is hot? I know plenty of people who swear by the phone accessory, and the pop-out gripper looks to fit pretty well on a matching koozie for hot and cold beverages, alike. Pop it on a can of La Croix to find yourself on the cutting edge of the 2016 zeitgeist.

The cupholders feature a wide range of styles, from leopard print to camo. They’re up for pre-order on PopSocket’s page for $15 a pop. They’ll go on sale September 15.

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iFixit gives Fairphone 3 a perfect 10 for repairability

Posted by | Apple, apple inc, Europe, Fairphone, GreenTech, hardware, ifixit, iPhone, Mobile, phil schiller, repairability, smartphone, smartphones, sustainability | No Comments

Here’s something the hermetically sealed iPhone can’t do: Score a perfect 10 for repairability.

Smartphone startup and social enterprise Fairphone’s latest repairable-by-design smartphone has done just that, getting 10/10 in an iFixit Teardown vs scores of just 6/10 for recent iPhone models.

The Fairphone 3, which was released in Europe last week with an RRP of €450, gets thumbs up across the board in iFixit’s hardware Teardown. It found all the internal modules to be easily accessible and replaceable — with only basic tools required to get at them (Fairphone includes a teeny screwdriver in the box). iFixit also lauds visual cues that help with disassembly and reassembly, and notes that repair guides and spare parts are available on Fairphone’s website.

iFixit’s sole quibble is that while most of the components inside the Fairphone 3’s modules are individually replaceable “some” are soldered on. A tiny blip that doesn’t detract from the 10/10 repairability score

Safe to say, such a score is the smartphone exception. The industry continues to encourage buyers to replace an entire device, via yearly upgrade, instead of enabling them to carry out minor repairs themselves — so they can extend the lifespan of their device and thereby shrink environmental impact.

Dutch startup Fairphone was set up to respond to the abject lack of sustainability in the electronics industry. The tiny company has been pioneering modularity for repairability for several years now, flying in the face of smartphone giants that are still routinely pumping out sealed tablets of metal and glass which often don’t even let buyers get at the battery to replace it themselves.

To wit: An iFixit Teardown of the Google Pixel rates battery replacement as “difficult” with a full 20 steps and between 1-2 hours required. (Whereas the Fairphone 3 battery can be accessed in seconds, by putting a fingernail under the plastic back plate to pop it off and lifting the battery out.)

The Fairphone 3 goes much further than offering a removable backplate for getting at the battery, though. The entire device has been designed so that its components are accessible and repairable.

So it’s not surprising to see it score a perfect 10 (the startup’s first modular device, Fairphone 2, was also scored 10/10 by iFixit). But it is strong, continued external validation for the Fairphone’s designed-for-repairability claim.

It’s an odd situation in many respects. In years past replacement batteries were the norm for smartphones, before the cult of slimming touchscreen slabs arrived to glue phone innards together. Largely a consequence of hardware business models geared towards profiting from pushing for clockwork yearly upgrades cycle — and slimmer hardware is one way to get buyers coveting your next device.

But it’s getting harder and harder to flog the same old hardware horse because smartphones have got so similarly powerful and capable there’s precious little room for substantial annual enhancements.

Hence iPhone maker Apple’s increasing focus on services. A shift that’s sadly not been accompanied by a rethink of Cupertino’s baked in hostility towards hardware repairability. (It still prefers, for example, to encourage iPhone owners to trade in their device for a full upgrade.)

At Apple’s 2019 new product announcement event yesterday — where the company took the wraps off another clutch of user-sealed smartphones (aka: iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro) — there was even a new financing offer to encourage iPhone users to trade in their old models and grab the new ones. ‘Look, we’re making it more affordable to upgrade!’ was the message.

Meanwhile, the only attention paid to sustainability — during some 1.5 hours of keynotes — was a slide which passed briefly behind marketing chief Phil Schiller towards the end of his turn on stage puffing up the iPhone updates, encouraging him to pause for thought.

Apple 2019 event

“iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 are made to be designed free from these harmful materials and of course to reduce their impact on the environment,” he said in front of a list of some toxic materials that are definitely not in the iPhones.

Stuck at the bottom of this list were a couple of detail-free claims that the iPhones are produced via a “low-carbon process” and are “highly recyclable”. (The latter presumably a reference to how Apple handles full device trade-ins. But as anyone who knows about sustainability will tell you, sustained use is far preferable to premature recycling…)

“This is so important to us. That’s why I bring it up every time. I want to keep pushing the boundaries of this,” Schiller added, before pressing the clicker to move on to the next piece of marketing fodder. Blink and you’d have missed it.

If Apple truly wants to push the boundaries on sustainability — and not just pay glossy lip-service to reducing environmental impact for marketing purposes while simultaneously encouraging annual upgrades — it has a very long way to go indeed.

As for repairability, the latest and greatest iPhones clearly won’t hold a candle to the Fairphone.

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