Can anyone figure out the foldable? Samsung hopes the third time’s the charm. Alongside its new Note 20 series, the company revealed the Galaxy Z Fold 2, with more screen on both the folding surface and the secondary outer display. The latter was a weak point on the original Galaxy Fold, a tiny mediocre screen that was hard to use.
As the line between the flagship Galaxy S and Galaxy Note series blurs — they’re all big phones now — foldables could be the new Note. Maybe.
For now, Samsung’s third folding phone still doesn’t appear to be reinventing what smartphones can offer. Expect more details (and a hefty price) on September 1st.
What you need to know about the new Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra
Do you want premium or ‘premium’ premium?
Samsung has officially revealed the Galaxy Note 20 ($999) and Note 20 Ultra ($1,299), and the more expensive model comes with some major differences. The Note 20 Ultra has a 6.9-inch screen, though it has a narrower, taller build, making it easier to handle than you might think. The Note 20 is a little smaller at 6.7 inches, but that still makes for a pretty big phone. It also has a lower resolution and the typical 60Hz refresh rate. Meanwhile, the Note 20 Ultra gets an ultra-smooth 120Hz screen. Camera specs, similarly, separate the two, making the Note 20 a harder device to recommend, at least going on spec sheets. Take a look for yourself. Continue reading.
Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live offer ‘open’ ANC and hands-free access to Bixby
They go on sale today for $170.
They’re weird looking, but Samsung’s next-generation wireless buds are here. Their curved bean shape is apparently meant to mimic the crevices of your ear, and they sit flat on the outside of your ear canal without a tip that goes inside. Instead, a pair of speakers on the underside of the Buds Live beam sound in on each side. This allows for “open” active noise cancellation (ANC) tech. Rather than piping outside noise in with an ambient sound mode, the Buds Live has vents that let you hear what’s going on around you. The ANC focuses on low-frequency noise. Continue reading.
A quick read that you’ll finish before your first cup of coffee.
Disney has no idea what it’s doing with ‘Mulan’
A $200 million Hail Mary.
Is Disney’s direct-to-streaming release of Mulan a calculated shot to kill movie theaters, a dastardly plot to eliminate movie ownership in favor of leases that keep customers hooked on Disney+ or something else? Devindra Hardawar explains the factors that make this look more like a salvage operation than strategic attack, and why fumbling the rollout could upset “premium VOD” possibilities in the future. Continue reading.
Zoom adds silly filters and more noise suppression options
Reclaim that wacky office worker crown.
Zoom’s upgraded its video conferencing app with a bunch of social media-inspired filters and overlays, as well as settings sliders to improve the brightness and fidelity of your video stream. (So they can better see your janky pirate eye-patch?)
Looking at the more buttoned-down features, background noise suppression will soon have four options — auto, low, medium and high — so you can fine tune your audio levels on calls. Continue reading.
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When it comes to smartwatches, it’s Apple against the world. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of other products to choose from — it’s more that the company has just utterly dominated the space to such a point that any other device is relegated to the realm of “Apple Watch alternatives.”
The company has been successful in the space for the usual Apple reasons: premium hardware with deeply integrated software, third-party support, a large cross-device ecosystem play and, of, course, simplicity. Taken as a whole, the Watch just works, right out of the box.
Five years after launch, the line is fairly mature. As such, it’s no surprise, really, that recent updates have largely amounted to refinements. As with most updates, the watch has gotten a processor boost up to the A14 processor, which the company claims is 20% faster than the last version.Perhaps the biggest hardware upgrade, however, is the addition of a blood oxygen sensor, an important piece in the company’s quest to offer as complete an image of wearer health as is possible from the wrist.
I wrote a pretty lengthy piece about the watch last week after wearing it for a few days. As I mentioned at the time, it was an odd kind of writeup, somewhere between hands-on and review. A week or so later, however, I’m more comfortable calling this a review — even if not too many of my initial impressions have changed much in the past several days. After all, a mature product largely means most of the foundations remain unchanged.
The Series 6 certainly looks the part. The Watch is tough to distinguish from other recent models — and for that matter, the new and significantly cheaper SE. The biggest visual change is the addition of new colors. In addition to the standard Gray and Gold, Apple’s added new Blue and (Product)Red cases. The latter seems to be the more ostentatious of the pair. The company sent me a blue model, and honestly, it’s a lot more subtle than I expected. It’s more of a deep blue hue, really, that reads more as black a lot of the time.
It’s tough to imagine the product undergoing any sort of radical rethink of the device’s design language at this point. We may see slight tweaks, including larger screen area going forward, but on the whole, Apple is very much committed to a form factor that has worked very well for it. I will probably always prefer Samsung’s spinning bezel as a quick way to interface with the operating system, but the crown does the job well and scrolling through menus even feels a bit zippier this time, perhaps owing to that faster silicon.
The new Solo Loop bands hit a bit of a hiccup out of the gate. I’ve detailed that a bit more here, but I suspect that much of the problem came down to the difficulty of selling a specifically sized product during a strange period in history where in-person try-ons aren’t really an option. In other words, just really bad timing on that front.
Personally, I quite like the braided model. I’ve been using it as my day to day band. It’s nice and blends in a lot better than the silicone model (I’ve frankly never been much of a fan of Apple’s silicone bands). But I do need to mention that Apple sent me a couple different sizes, which made it much easier to find the right fit. I recognize that. Especially when the braided Solo Loop costs a fairly exorbitant $99. The silicone version is significantly cheaper at $49, but either way, you’re not getting off cheap there. So you definitely want to make sure you get the right fit.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
This is doubly important given the fact that the Series 6’s biggest new feature — blood oxygen monitoring — is highly dependent on you getting a good fit. The sensor utilizes a series of LEDs on the bottom of the watch to shine infrared and red light through the wearer’s skin and into their blood vessels. The color of light that reflects back gives the watch a picture of the oxygen levels in the blood. The whole thing takes about 15 seconds, but only works if your fit is right. Even with the right Solo Loop on, I found myself having to retake it a few times when I first started wearing the watch.
Beyond the on-demand measurements, the watch will also take readings throughout the day and night, mapping these trends over time and incorporating them into sleep readings. The overall readings will give you a good picture of your numbers over time. Honestly though, I get the sense that this is really just the tip of the iceberg of future functionality.
For now, there’s really no specific guidance — or context — given as far as what the numbers mean. Mine are generally between 90-100%. The Mayo Clinic tells me that’s good, but obviously there are a lot of different factors and variations that can’t properly be contextualized in a single paragraph — or on a watch. And Apple certainly doesn’t want to be accused of attempting to diagnose a condition or offer specific medical guidance. That’s going to be an increasingly difficult line for the company to walk as it gets more serious about these sorts of health tools.
If I had to venture a guess, I would say that the combination of sleep tracking in watchOS 7 and the on-board oximeter opens the door pretty nicely for something like sleep apnea tracking (again, more focused on alerts of irregularity versus diagnosis). We’ve seen a small handful of companies like Withings tackle this, so it seems like a no-brainer for Apple, pending all of the regulatory requirements, et al. There are all sorts of other conditions that blood oxygen levels could potentially alert the wearer to, if not actually diagnose.
Sleep was probably the biggest addition with the latest version of watchOS. This was probably the biggest blind spot for the line, compared to the competition. At the moment, the sleep tracking is, admittedly, still pretty basic. Like much of the rest of the on-board tracking, it’s mostly compared with changes over time. The metrics include time in bed versus time asleep, as well as incorporating heart rate figures from the sensor’s regular check-ins. More specific breakdowns, including deep versus light versus REM sleep haven’t arrived yet, but will no doubt be coming sooner than later.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
The door is also wide open for Apple to really get mindfulness right. The company has incorporated a mindfulness reminder for a while now, but it’s easy to imagine how the addition of various sensors like heart rate could really improve the picture and find the company going all-in on meditation, et al. The company could partner with a big meditation name — or, more likely, disrupt things with its own offering. The forthcoming Fitness+ offering could play an important role in the growth of that category, as well.
The other issue that sleep brings to the front is battery life. I was banking on the company making big strides in the battery department — after all, a big part of sleep tracking is ensuring that you’ve got enough charge to get through the night. Apple really only briefly touched on battery — though a recent teardown has revealed some smallish improvements on battery capacity (perhaps owing, in part, to space freed up by the dropping of Force Touch).
The company has also made some improvements to energy efficiency, courtesy of the new silicon. Official literature puts it at a “full-day” ofbattery life, up to 18 hours. I found I was able to get through a full day with juice to spare. That’s good, but the company’s still got some ground to make up on that front, compared to, say, the Fitbit Sense, which is capable of getting nearly a week on a charge. I think at this point, it’s fair to hold wearables to higher standards of battery life than, say, handsets. More than once, I’ve found myself intermittently charging the device — 20 minutes here and 20 minutes there — in order to have enough juice left by bedtime.
If you can spare more time than that, you should be able to get up to 80% in an hour or 100% in an hour and a half, courtesy of faster wireless charging. All told, the company has been able to shave significant time off of charging — a definite plus now that you’re not just leaving it overnight to charge. The latest version of watchOS will also handily let you know before if you don’t have enough charge to make it through a full night.
Other updates include the addition of the always-on Altimeter, which, along with the brighter screen doesn’t appear to have had a major impact on the battery. I’ll be honest, being stuck in the city for these last several months hasn’t given me much reason to need real-time elevation stats. Though the feature is a nice step toward taking the Watch a bit more seriously as an outdoor accessory in a realm that has largely been dominated by the likes of Garmin.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
Of course, the company now has three watches on the market — including the Series 3, which just keeps on ticking, and the lower-cost SE. The latter retains the design of the Series 6, but drops a number of the key sensors, which honestly should be perfectly sufficient for many users — and $170 cheaper than the 6’s $399 starting price ($499 with cellular).
Taken as a whole, the Series 6 isn’t a huge leap forward over the Series 5 — and not really worth the upgrade for those who already own that recent vintage. But there are nice improvements throughout, augmented by good upgrades to watchOS that make the best-selling smartwatch that much better, while clearly laying the groundwork for Apple Watches of the future.
Amazon’s Alexa is more relevant than it’s ever been because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The giant retailer’s hardware execs hammered that point over and over Thursday during Amazon’s fall product launch event, emphasizing the value of smart home features for those of us who are stuck at home. And they doubled down on gear and services to entertain us, help us connect and keep an eye on our homes.
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“Nobody anticipated the pandemic, and we certainly didn’t plan for it,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s hardware chief, said in an interview after the event. “But I think our homes are now our offices, they’re our schools, they’re our movie theaters. A lot of our products became even more applicable in this environment.”
Obviously, Amazon is OK with this development because it keeps people hooked to its portfolio of services and products. Limp said video streams are way up and billions of hours are watched each month through Amazon’s Fire TV devices. The same goes for book reading on Kindle gadgets and listening to music on Echo speakers. Toss in all the stuff people are buying online on Amazon.com, and quarantine has worked out fairly well for the company.
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Amazon’s hardware chief talks Alexa, privacy and flying…
Some might say Alexa’s growing influence is a bad thing. It’s troubling that one of the biggest and wealthiest corporations on the planet has so many connections to our home life, giving it even more ability to collect plenty of data about us. There are a lot of security problems — such as an Amazon-brand Ring camera being hijacked by a hacker — to give consumers pause.
But there are reasons to be grateful too. These types of products won’t replace visiting loved ones in person, but they sure are helpful for communicating when we have to be remote.
Ultimately, consumers will decide how much or how little Alexa they want in their lives. If history provides any clues, they will want a lot more, especially as the pandemic prompts interest in videoconferencing, security systems and streaming services.
“The pandemic brought everything to Amazon’s business model,” Bret Kinsella, founder of voice tech site Voicebot.ai, said of Amazon’s new devices. “If you look at our times and you look at just responding to customer needs and interest, which is what Amazon focuses on first and foremost, I’d say they really nailed it.”
Amazon is banking on that happening. At its event, the company introduced plenty of new ideas that could work well during the altered reality the pandemic has caused.
The company unveiled a new program called Care Hub, an Alexa feature that lets people watch over their family members from afar. After you and a family member agree to set up a Care Hub connection, you’ll be able to monitor that person’s activity feed with Echo devices. If your family member doesn’t make any Alexa queries by a certain time of day, you can get an alert. The family member can also set you up as an emergency contact and reach you by saying, “Alexa, call for help.”
“We can all relate to the idea that there’s a lot of family that we can’t see right now. Even if they were nearby, we wouldn’t be able to see them. I’m in that situation,” said Daniel Rausch, Amazon’s vice president of smart home. He mentioned that he’s testing out the service now with his mom.
Alexa hardware executive Miriam Daniel said her team wanted to help with remote learning, so it created Reading Sidekick. The feature, which works with hundreds of books, allows Alexa to read along with children, encouraging them if they are doing well or offering support if they are struggling.
Amazon also worked to make its devices useful for video conferencing and communication, allowing video calling on your TV through a Fire TV Cube device and a Logitech webcam. The $250 Echo Show 10 smart display provides a 10-inch screen for video calls and is equipped with Skype and group calling. It’ll get Zoom later this fall.
A new set of Eero router devices should also help people get more reliable connections at home.
Because the pandemic has us spending more time at home, Amazon’s Ring unit was sure to get a prominent spot at the hardware event. Ring’s surveillance equipment and police partnerships are already a worry for privacy advocates. Their concerns are likely to get directed at the $250 Ring Always Home Cam, an autonomous drone that flies around inside your home to keep an eye on many rooms on a set flight path. The device, which is coming out next year, will even automatically fly somewhere in the home if it’s triggered by a suspicious motion.
That concept may be too much for plenty of customers. But the $200 Ring Car Cam probably won’t be. The Car Cam flips the script on Ring’s relationships with the police. The dash-mounted camera will record your traffic stop if you say, “Alexa, I’m being pulled over.” That device could provide a valuable layer of transparency at a time when police brutality and excessive force have become a leading social concern. In June, Apple introduced a similar feature on its iPhone.
Privacy advocates have called out Amazon for creating a bevy of devices with cameras and microphones built into them. When asked about these concerns, Limp noted his team has done a lot to make its products more secure, including adding two-factor authentication and stronger passwords for Ring.
“We’re going to have to continue to invent in the privacy front and the security front,” he said. “You’re never done.”
With the holiday season and Prime Day coming up, Amazon will find out soon enough if customers agree with Limp’s sentiment. And they’ll decide how many of these new devices they want to bring into their quarantined lives.
Little more than a month after Facebook called out Apple for collecting its App Store fee on a new feature aimed at helping small businesses, the iPhone maker is changing course.
Facebook announced on Friday that businesses hosting paid events on the social platform will be able to keep all of their online event earnings through December 31.
Previously, small businesses holding paid events and classes on Facebook were subject to the commission Apple charges for transactions made through the App Store, which can reach up to 30%. That’s because Apple requires apps in the App Store to use its in-app payment system rather than their own.
But Apple’s App Store policies also stipulate that apps offering goods and services experienced outside of the app — like a class, for example — can offer other alternative payment methods besides Apple’s in-app purchase system.
However, many of these businesses have gone virtual during the pandemic, meaning this rule technically wouldn’t apply since the event is being experienced in the same app through which the access was purchased. Apple is giving Facebook, and other apps like ClassPass and Airbnb, until the end of the year to implement an in-app purchase system for businesses hosting online paid events through their platforms.
Facebook acknowledged that it had approached Apple about reducing its commission or enabling Facebook to use Facebook Pay to absorb the costs back in August when it announced that businesses would be able to earn money from online events hosted on Facebook.
Facebook said at the time that Apple had dismissed its requests.
Now, however, Facebook says it will be permitted to process paid events using Facebook Pay rather than Apple’s payments system, meaning businesses will be able to avoid the 30% commission through the end of 2020.
Creators on Facebook Gaming, the company’s Twitch rival, however, and will still be subject to Apple’s usual rules.
“Apple’s decision to not collect its 30% tax on paid online events comes with a catch: gaming creators are excluded from using Facebook Pay in paid online events on iOS,” Vivek Sharma, vice president of Facebook Gaming, said in a statement. “We unfortunately had to make this concession to get the temporary reprieve for other businesses.”
Facebook has also said it will not collect any fees from paid online events until at least August 2021.
Apple’s App Store policies, particularly its commission on in-app purchases, have been a point of contention for app developers and lawmakers who argue that the rule gives Apple an unfair advantage in the industry. Apple CEO Tim Cook testified on the topic alongside the CEOs of Facebook, Google parent Alphabet, and Amazon in July, where lawmakers grilled Cook on whether Apple treats all developers fairly.
Apple commissioned a report ahead of the hearing showing that its 30% commission on App Store transactions is standard for the industry, drawing comparisons to other online marketplaces.
But part of those concerns center not only on the fee itself, but the ways in which Apple enforces them. Documents revealed during the House antitrust subcommittee’s investigation have shown that Apple offered Amazon a special deal that only charged a 15% fee on subscriptions, for example.
Apple said in a statement to Business Insider that its App Store guidelines are “clear” and “consistent” and apply to all developers.
“The App Store provides a great business opportunity for all developers, who use it to reach half a billion visitors each week across 175 countries,” the company said. “To ensure every developer can create and grow a successful business, Apple maintains a clear, consistent set of guidelines that apply equally to everyone.”
App makers have started to speak out about their concerns more prominently over the last year. After publicly accusing Apple of unfair treatment, companies like Spotify, Epic Games, Basecamp, and Tile among others have created an advocacy group called the Coalition for App Fairness.
“Fortnite” maker Epic Games has also been locked in a legal spat with Apple recently over the game’s removal from the App Store after it intentionally skirted Apple’s payment policy.
Facebook has also come under increased scrutiny when it comes to the size and scope of its business. Lawmakers’ concerns around Facebook have hinged on the reasoning behind its acquisitions of rivals like Instagram.
The ability for small businesses to avoid Apple’s App Store commission is just one change to Apple’s policies that Facebook has been pressing for recently. Facebook is now pushing for Apple to enable Facebook Messenger to be a default messaging option on the iPhone, according to The Information. Facebook has also spoken out about how changes in Apple’s iOS 14 iPhone update could hurt its advertising business.
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