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Apple’s dangerous path

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.

Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


the big thing

In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.

In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.

This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.

Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”

(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)

The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.

A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”

Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.

illustration of key over cloud icon

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.

You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.

Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.

** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.

Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.


other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.

Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.

TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.

Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.


extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1 
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”

…Part 2
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’

All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”


Thanks for reading, and again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny

Lucas Matney

Virgin Galactic looks to late September, early October for first commercial crewed flight

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Just two months after celebrating its first manned launch to orbit – which is now under investigation with the Federal Aviation Administration – Virgin Galactic wants to return to space.

The company will be conducting its first commercial mission, the 23rd for the VSS Unity rocket-powered spaceplane, in late September or early October from the company’s sprawling Spaceport America facility. The flight will carry three crew members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council, each of whom paid an undisclosed amount for the seat. A Virgin Galactic staff member will also be on board.

The role of mission lead will be held by Walter Villadei, a Colonel with the Italian Air Force; Angelo Landolfi, a physician and Lieutenant Colonel; Pantaleone Carlucci, an aerospace engineer on behalf of the National Research Council; and Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses. Michael Masucci and CJ Sturckow will pilot the spaceplane.

The goal of the mission will be to evaluate the effects of the “transitional phase” from gravity to zero G on the human body; to that end, the crew members will be wearing sensors to measure physiological activity, and Villadei will even be wearing a smart suit that Virgin says will “[incorporate] Italian fashion style and technology.”

The announcement comes just one day after the FAA said that it was investigating the first crewed flight of VSS Unity in July. The news was first reported by The New Yorker and confirmed by the aerospace regulatory, who said that the spaceplane “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.” According to journalist Nicholas Schmidle’s reporting, a red warning light appeared on the dash of the Unity during flight, indicating that it had diverged from its planned trajectory.

Virgin Galactic later issued a statement disputing the piece, saying that “athough the flights ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico.”

“At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory,” the company added.

This is not the first time Schmidle has uncovered news regarding the safety of Virgin Galactic’s supersonic operations. His book, Test Gods, also includes a previously unknown account of a 2019 test flight (confirmed in the book by former employees) which saw potentially serious issues with the plane’s wing.

Box, Zoom chief product officers discuss how the changing workplace drove their latest collaboration

By Christine Hall

If the past 18 months is any indication, the nature of the workplace is changing. And while Box and Zoom already have integrations together, it makes sense for them to continue to work more closely.

Their newest collaboration is the Box app for Zoom, a new type of in-product integration that allows users to bring apps into a Zoom meeting to provide the full Box experience.

While in Zoom, users can securely and directly access Box to browse, preview and share files from Zoom — even if they are not taking part in an active meeting. This new feature follows a Zoom integration Box launched last year with its “Recommended Apps” section that enables access to Zoom from Box so that workflows aren’t disrupted.

The companies’ chief product officers, Diego Dugatkin with Box and Oded Gal with Zoom, discussed with TechCrunch why seamless partnerships like these are a solution for the changing workplace.

With digitization happening everywhere, an integration of “best-in-breed” products for collaboration is essential, Dugatkin said. Not only that, people don’t want to be moving from app to app, instead wanting to stay in one environment.

“It’s access to content while never having to leave the Zoom platform,” he added.

It’s also access to content and contacts in different situations. When everyone was in an office, meeting at a moment’s notice internally was not a challenge. Now, more people are understanding the value of flexibility, and both Gal and Dugatkin expect that spending some time at home and some time in the office will not change anytime soon.

As a result, across the spectrum of a company, there is an increasing need for allowing and even empowering people to work from anywhere, Dugatkin said. That then leads to a conversation about sharing documents in a secure way for companies, which this collaboration enables.

The new Box and Zoom integration enables meeting in a hybrid workplace: chat, video, audio, computers or mobile devices, and also being able to access content from all of those methods, Gal said.

“Companies need to be dynamic as people make the decision of how they want to work,” he added. “The digital world is providing that flexibility.”

This long-term partnership is just scratching the surface of the continuous improvement the companies have planned, Dugatkin said.

Dugatkin and Gal expect to continue offering seamless integration before, during and after meetings: utilizing Box’s cloud storage, while also offering the ability for offline communication between people so that they can keep the workflow going.

“As Diego said about digitization, we are seeing continuous collaboration enhanced with the communication aspect of meetings day in and day out,” Gal added. “Being able to connect between asynchronous and synchronous with Zoom is addressing the future of work and how it is shaping where we go in the future.”

FAA opens probe into anomaly on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceflight

By Darrell Etherington
Mariella Moon Contributor
Mariella Moon is an associate editor at Engadget.

The Federal Aviation Administration is looking into an anomaly on the Virgin Galactic flight that carried Richard Branson to space. In a piece discussing not just that particular flight but the company’s various safety issues throughout the years, The New Yorker explained that Virgin’s spacecraft went off-course during descent, triggering an “entry glide-cone warning.” The spacecraft uses the glide cone method, which mimics water circling down the drain, for landing. Apparently, the pilots for the mission didn’t fly as steeply as they should have, causing the system to raise the alarm.

An FAA spokesperson confirmed to Reuters that the vehicle “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America” and it’s investigating the incident. The agency gives missions to space a designated airspace they can fly in to prevent collisions with commercial planes and to minimize civilian casualties in the event of an accident. Virgin’s Unity 22 mission flew out of that designated airspace for a minute and forty-one seconds before the pilots were able to correct course.

Nicholas Schmidle, author of The New Yorker piece, said he attended a meeting a few years ago, wherein the same pilots on the Unity 22 flight said a red light entry glide-cone warning should “scare the shit out of you.” Apparently, that means it’s too late, and that the safest course of action is to abort. In a statement it published after the article went out, though, Virgin Galactic said it “disputes the misleading characterizations and conclusions” in the piece and that the people on the flight weren’t in any danger as a result of the flight deviation. The company said:

“When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters. Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they were trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures. Although the flights ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico. At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.”

It also said that the spacecraft did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the mission’s protected airspace, though it did drop below the altitude of the airspace it was provided. The company added that it’s “working in partnership with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights.”

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.

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Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip 3 is the foldable to beat

By Brian Heater

I took a long walk on Saturday. It’s become a routine during the pandemic, a chance to unwind after too many hours indoors, while seeing parts of the city that would otherwise be lost to subway rides in normal years. Saturday was more purpose-driven, heading to a newly opened Trader Joe’s before Henri unleashed itself on the Eastern Seaboard.

Taking respite from the early rain, I found a food court in Long Island City, ordered a shawarma and pulled the Galaxy Z Flip from my pocket. I unfolded the phone, popped the new Galaxy Buds in my ears and watched a baseball game on the MLB.TV app. The Flip really made sense in that moment, open in landscape mode at a 135-degree angle to keep the 6.7-inch screen upright. When the game ended (spoiler, it didn’t end well), I snapped the phone shut, stuck it in my pocket and went on my way.

It doesn’t always come with a piece of new technology, but sometimes you get lucky and have an experience where it just clicks. There were plenty of jokes about the long-ago death of the clamshell when the first Flip arrived. Those won’t be going away anytime soon, of course, but the phone also offered the first sense for many that maybe Samsung was heading in the right direction with its foldable ambitions.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Setting aside the early flaws with the first Galaxy Fold (we’ve covered them ad nauseum elsewhere), the device is also unwieldy. While it’s true the foldable screen affords you the ability to carry around a screen that might otherwise be impossible, it’s a large device when folded, and the opportunities to unfold don’t readily present themselves. The Flip splits the difference nicely between screen size and portability. In terms of display size, it’s effectively a Galaxy Note that snaps in two and fits nicely in your pocket.

Most of the talk of Samsung mainstreaming foldables has centered on the Galaxy Z Fold — mostly from the company itself. Samsung has made a big to-do about positioning the Fold as its latest flagship — augmenting or, perhaps replacing, the Note in its lineup. The Fold 3 certainly blurs the lines with the addition of S Pen functionality, but the Flip is the much clearer bridge between Samsung’s existing flagships and the foldable future it envisions.

Mainstreaming foldables was always going to be a tricky proposition. Right out of the gate, they were hit with negative coverage over production issues and prices; $2,000 is a lot to pay for a product you essentially have to handle with kid gloves. You shouldn’t have to worry about accidentally damaging your daily driver through normal use. The Flip benefits from the mistakes of earlier fold generations, getting a more robust design and water resistance as a result.

Perhaps even more importantly, however, is pricing. The Galaxy Z Flip is Samsung’s first foldable under $1,000. Now, granted, it’s literally one penny under that threshold — a price point that puts it in line with expensive premium phones from the likes of Samsung and Apple. But in the world of foldables, that’s a really big win. The first couple of generations could — to some degree — survive on novelty alone.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As more of these devices make their way into the world, utility supersedes novelty. But growing popularity also means scale — and, as a result, price drops. For the first time, buying a Samsung foldable is not the financial equivalent of buying two phones. That’s a much more significant threshold than the Galaxy Fold dropping $200 over its previous generation.

The company noted this week, that “in just 10 days since announcement pre-orders for the Galaxy Z Fold3 and Galaxy Z Flip3 have already surpassed total global Samsung foldables sales in all of 2021, also making it the strongest pre-order for Samsung foldables ever.” There are a lot of factors here, including a lower price, more robust design, the absence of a new Note and an aggressive push to get consumers to preorder. But it’s safe to say the line is, at the very least, trending the right way.

Expectedly, the company’s numbers don’t break down sales in terms of Fold versus Flip. Admittedly, the Fold is more fully featured, and 7.6 inches of screen is better than 6.7 inches of screen, when it comes, to, say, watching a full movie. But for most people in most instances, the Galaxy Flip is a better choice. I can say with no hesitation: The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip is the most mainstream foldable on the market.

If you’re not sold on the importance of foldables, such a statement understandably doesn’t mean much. But for a vast majority of people looking to make the leap to what is increasingly looking like a key part of the mobile future, the Flip is an obvious choice. And while it’s easy to make fun of the clamshell design as a relic of a bygone era, there’s a reason phones went that way in the first place. One assumes a big part of the reason they largely went away is that — until now — smartphones weren’t foldable.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Samsung gets the design language right here. The Flip 3 is easily the company’s best-looking foldable to date. The dual-color shell is striking. The company sent along a cream color, which I’m not particularly fond of, but the green, lavender and even plain black or white are quite striking. It pairs well with the strip of black that houses the exterior display, which has been bumped from 1.1 to 1.9 inches. It doesn’t sound like a lot, sure, but that’s a healthy increase on a screen this size.

Of course, you’re losing the full exterior screen functionality you get on the Fold. The Flip’s display is effectively a quick-glance secondary screen for notifications. Pull it out, and it shows you the time, date and how much battery you’ve got left. Swipe right and you’ll see your notifications.

Swipe left and you get an alarm or timer, with the option of adding more widgets to the screen, including weather, media playback (effectively audio play/pause) and Samsung Health Metrics. It’s a small list, but one that will no doubt increase if more people pick up the Flip. Swipe down for some quick settings and Swipe up for Samsung Pause.

In a time when many of us are trying to make a concerted effort to minimize our phone use, I appreciate the dichotomy between the two screens. It’s a much clearer line in the sand than the one separating the Fold’s 6.2- and 7.6-inch screens. Phone closed = checking my notifications. Phone open = engagement. When the time comes to open the phone, the Flip is a much easier proposition than the phones. I haven’t quite mastered the art of the one-handed open just yet, but it’s much easier to execute on the fly than the Fold, which is effectively like opening a book. The biggest downside to the form factor in terms of speed is there’s no quick way to fire off a photo.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Taking photos is far more deliberate, requiring one to open the phone to see the internal view finder. You can, however, snap off some selfies by double-pressing the power button, with the small front-facing screen doubling as a small viewfinder. Swiping to the left toggles between still, while swiping up and down changes the level of zoom. It’s a bit awkward and clunky, but the pair of 12-megapixel cameras (wide and ultra-wide) will get you a much better selfie than most pinhole cameras (including the Flip’s 10 megapixel lens).

Like the Fold, the rear cameras (which are also the front-facing cameras, depending on how you look at it) are largely unchanged since the Flip 2. A dual-camera system can feel almost antiquated in 2021, but for most intents and purposes, they do the trick, coupled with Samsung’s many years of camera software experience. The 22:9 aspect ratio means more than a quarter of the screen is occupied by the controls out of necessity.

[gallery ids="2192880,2192883,2192882,2192881,2192879,2192874,2192873,2192872,2192871,2192870"]

The aspect ratio in general merits comment. It’s, like, really, really tall when open. It’s a nice amount of real estate to have when, say, scrolling through Gmail or Twitter. But when watching video, you’ll often encounter pillarboxing — letterboxing on the sides of the screen. The video world simply isn’t ready for 22:9, and quite frankly, it probably won’t ever be.

And then, of course, there’s the seam. It’s right there in the center of the lovely 2640 x 1080, 425 ppi screen. And barring some unforeseen breakthrough in foldable tech, I frankly don’t see it disappearing any time soon. I understand why that might be a deal breaker, though I’ve largely gotten used to it after spending time with these devices.

Like the Fold, the Flip runs on the Snapdragon 888 processor. Predictably, the lower cost comes with less in the way of RAM and storage, at 8 and 128GB on the Flip, to the Fold’s 12 and 256GB. Another $150 will upgrade the storage 256GB here. While Samsung mostly hasn’t skimped much on the internals, the 3,300 mAh battery does fall short.

Battery life is an issue with the Fold and an even bigger problem on the Flip — in fact, it’s the biggest complaint here. Moderate to heavy use is going to require getting near a charging cable before the day is over. Maybe not a huge deal in these pandemic days, but something to consider as we re-enter the world. Certainly long, unplugged plane rides are out of the question.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Again, I can totally sympathize with that being a deal breaker. You pay $1,000 for a phone, you want a battery that’s going to get you through a day of use, worry-free. And certainly it’s something for Samsung to focus on in gen four.

As it stands, the Galaxy Z Flip 3 has the benefit of previous generations, with a stronger aluminum frame, improved screen protector and IPX8 water resistance (no dust resistance rating, for reasons outlined in the Fold review). It’s not a perfect phone, but it’s a strong sign of how far Samsung’s foldables have come in three generations, coupled with a sub-$1,000 price point.

The device is likely to be second fiddle as the company continues to push the Fold as its flagship foldable. But for most people looking to enter the world of foldable phones, the Flip is the easy choice.

Samsung’s refined Galaxy Fold

By Brian Heater

Samsung wasn’t quite ready to declare the Galaxy Note dead. Not just yet. When we put the question to the company again after this month’s Unpacked event, a rep told us:

Samsung is constantly evaluating its product lineup to ensure we meet the needs of consumers, while introducing technology that enhances users’ mobile experiences. We will not be launching new Galaxy Note devices in 2021. Instead, Samsung plans to continue to expand the Note experience and bring many of its popular productivity and creativity features, including the S Pen, across our Galaxy ecosystem with products like the Galaxy S21 Ultra and including to other categories like tablets and laptops. We will share more details on our future portfolio once we’re ready to announce.

It’s not an answer, exactly, so much as a reiteration of its earlier announcement that there will be no new Note for 2021. Asked whether it was simply a matter of chip shortages, Samsung sent us a similarly non-committal response:

The current volatility of the semiconductor market is being felt across the entire technology industry and beyond. At Samsung, we are making our best efforts to mitigate the impact, and will continue to work diligently with our partners to overcome supply challenges.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It’s too early to declare the Galaxy Fold 3 the heir to the Note’s decade-long phablet throne. What is for certain, however, is that new features introduced for the Galaxy S line and the company’s high-end foldable have rendered the device fairly redundant. What seems most likely, meanwhile, is Samsung’s wait and see approach. A good selling Fold 3 is as compelling an argument for the Note’s redundancy as any. But that continues to be a big “if.”

Samsung was smart to position early Folds as exciting experiments. It’s never easy to be among the first to market with a new technology, especially with the sorts of scales Samsung tends to trade in. The original Fold brought with it some major questions, both in terms of reliability and adoption. Without retreading the former too much here (we’ve written plenty about it), let’s just say the company went back to the drawing board a couple of times with that first round.

As for the latter, the company revealed back in 2019 that it sold one million units that first year. It was a surprising — and impressive — figure. Obviously it can’t hold a candle to the sorts of numbers the company puts up with the S and Note Series, but for an unproven $2,000 device a few months after launch, it was certainly a positive sign that — at the very least — early adopters were along for the ride.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The Fold 2 found the company more directly addressing some of the biggest issues that arrived with its predecessor, making for a more robust and well-rounded device. The Fold 3 isn’t a radical departure by any stretch, but there are some key updates and refinements on board here. Top-level, here’s what’s new:

  • S-Pen support
  • IPX8 water resistance
  • Slightly larger external display
  • Under-display camera
  • Strengthened interior screen protector, frame and front glass

So what, precisely, does all of that add up to? For Samsung, the answer is simple: a new flagship. It’s one of those words in the mobile world with a bit of a floating definition. Samsung, after all, previously had two flagships, in the form of the S and Note series. Whether this a tech passing moment for the Note or a declaration of a third flagship for the Galaxy line is dependent on the words written above. What it does signal, however, is Samsung’s stated confidence that this is the moment its high-end foldable goes mainstream.

The first step toward mainstreaming the product is a no brainer. Price. The Fold 3 is still not, by any stretch of the imagination, an affordable device. At $1,800, it’s fittingly still the price of two flagship phones put together. But a $200 drop from its predecessor marks a considerable step in the right direction. One imagines/hopes things will continue to go down as Samsung is able to scale the tech further. Those seeking an “affordable” foldable should be taking a closer look at the new Flip, which actually ducks below the $1,000 price point. More on that in a later review.

There are bound to be issues with any new form factor — even one from a company with Samsung’s know how. I have this visceral memory of walking around gingerly with the original Fold for fear of breaking the thing. There’s a certain expectation of usage during the review process — that you’ll effectively treat the device as you would your own, but the earliest Fold didn’t afford that opportunity, leaving me a bit tense throughout that I might inadvertently damage the $2,000 phone.

And, well, I did. And I certainly wasn’t the first. There were enough issues to warrant reinforcing the device before sending it out into the broader world. It was the right move, to be sure. I don’t think anyone was expecting the Fold would be indestructible, but, again, there’s that expectation of standard usage that the earliest unit didn’t live up to.

The primary fix was two-fold: extending the protective film to the edges after the first looked far too similar to the removable screen protectors Samsung (and other) phones ship with, and second, the company added a brush mechanism to the interior of the hinge mechanism that would still allow some debris in, but would sweep it away through the process of opening the product. That would remove it before it had an opportunity to damage the screen.

The second generation upgraded to a more durable foldable glass. The new version extends those protections further. It is, notably, the first version of the Fold that doesn’t greet you with a laundry list of restrictions the moment you open the box. That’s a good sign. As a rule, I’d say users should probably adhere to a similar “normal usage.” And probably invest in one of those cases. It’s an $1,800 phone, after all.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The most notable addition on the durability front is the IPX8 rating. That’s water resistance for up to 1.5 meters for as long as 30 minutes. The company’s foldables line was a little slow on the uptake in terms of the sort of waterproofing/water resistance that has become nearly standard for premium phones — and understandably so, given the complex mechanisms required. The “X” in the rating, however, indicates that there’s no dustproofing here, for the simple reason that the hinge is actually designed to let particles in (as noted above).

The front and back of the device are now covered with Gorilla Glass Victus — Corning’s latest. Per Corning, “In our lab tests, Gorilla Glass Victus survived drops onto hard, rough surfaces from up to 2 meters. Competitive aluminosilicate glasses, from other manufacturers, typically fail when dropped from 0.8 meters. Additionally, the scratch resistance of Gorilla Glass Victus is up to 4x better than competitive aluminosilicate.” The phone’s body and hinge, meanwhile, are built out of alloy Samsung calls “Armor aluminum, which it claims is “the strongest aluminum used in modern smartphones.”

Perhaps most important of all is the inclusion of a stronger reinforced screen protector that extends further to the sides, making it a lot more difficult and less tempting to try to peel it off. The added protection is necessary both for standard usage (you really don’t want a phone that’s going to get damaged from too much tapping) and opens it up for S Pen functionality. The company now has three lines that utilize its stylus and all of the productivity features contained therein.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

In addition to the S Pen Pro, the company introduced a Fold-specific model. The $50 stylus is smaller and features a retractable tip, specifically designed to lessen the pressure on the screen. I played around with both styli and didn’t notice a dramatic difference between the two, and while Samsung doesn’t explicitly warn against using the Pro, I’d go for the Fold Edition out of an abundance of caution. (The system also issues a warning if you attempt to use an older version of the S-Pen.)

The company offered TechCrunch the following statement on stylus compatibility:

Only the latest S Pen Fold Edition and S Pen Pro are compatible as they are set to a different frequency than standard S Pens. However, S Pen Pro is compatible with other S Pen-enabled devices—such as Samsung Galaxy tablets, Chromebooks, and smartphones. Users can switch the frequency of the S Pen Pro using the switch at the top.

The 7.6-inch canvas lends itself well to S-Pen functionality. Of course, the Fold — like other foldables — still has a visible crease in the center. That takes some getting used to, compared to the Note. But if you’re a stylus devotee, the functionality fits in well with a growing suite of productivity tools like multiple active windows and app split view. Samsung has compiled quite a productivity workhouse here.

Of course, unlike the Note (and like the S line), the Fold doesn’t feature a built-in slot for the S Pen. It seems likely there may have been some structural integrity issues barring its inclusion — or, at the very least, it probably would have added even more thickness to what is already a fairly thin device when folded up. Samsung does offer up an S Pen case for those serious about taking their stylus with them — and are otherwise worried about losing it.

The primary display hasn’t changed much since last year. It’s still 7.6 inches with a 120Hz refresh rate and a 2208 x 1768 resolution, with support for HDR10+. The 6.2-inch front screen doesn’t have the high dynamic range format, though it has been bumped up to 120Hz from 60Hz. The Fold 2 upgraded the exterior screen size last year, and it makes a big difference. There are plenty of times you just don’t want to deal with unfolding the thing. The aspect ratio is still much to skinny to rely on it most of the time, but App Continuity is a nice feature that lets you seamlessly jump between screens on enabled apps.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The biggest addition on the screen front is more of a subtraction, really. The pinhole camera is gone from the main screen. In its place is an under-display camera — the first on a Samsung device. The technology has been a longstanding holy grail for companies. Samsung’s not the first to offer the feature — companies like Oppo and ZTE have sported the feature for a little while now. The Fold uses similar technology, applying a thin layer of pixels above the hole punch. The spot is still visible, particularly when there’s a white image on the screen, but at first blush, it does offer something more contiguous.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

If you follow the space at all, you know that the image performance of these cameras have been less than ideal thus far. And Samsung suffers the same fate. The above shots were taken on the front 10-megapixel and under-display four-megapixels cameras respectively. There’s a haze or blur on the under-screen camera — really not up to the standards we expect from a premium smartphone in 2021.

In an earlier conversation with Samsung, the company was pretty candid about this — and the reason the Fold is the first of its phones to sport the tech. It’s here because you’ve got the additional option of the front-facing camera for selfies, so you’re not reliant on a, frankly, subpar camera. Certainly I wouldn’t rely on it for shooting photos — which is already admittedly awkward with the large form factor. I suppose it can work for teleconferencing in a pinch, but even then, you’re probably better off with the front one. File it as something Samsung can improve on in future updates, as the underlying tech improves.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The main camera system, meanwhile, is largely unchanged since the last version at:

  • 12MP Ultra Wide. F2.2, Pixel size: 1.12μm, FOV: 123-degree
  • 12MP Wide-angle. Dual Pixel AF, OIS, F1.8, Pixel size: 1.8μm, FOV: 83-degree
  • 12MP Telephoto. PDAF, F2.4, OIS, Pixel size: 1.0μm, FOV: 45-degree

It’s a great camera setup that shoots excellent photos, with the added bonus of being able to switch between a 7.6 and 6.2 inch viewfinder (honestly, again, the full screen is kind of awkward for shooting in most scenarios, so I largely stuck with the smaller one).

[gallery ids="2192373,2192378,2192379,2192377,2192376,2192375,2192374,2192372"]

The battery meanwhile, takes a small hit, down from 4,500mAh to 4,400mAh, split between two modules behind the display halves. It’s a step in the wrong direction, if only a small one. A big device like this tends to be power hungry. Depending on your usage, you should be able to get through a day. That’s not going to be huge problem so long as many of us are still largely stuck at home, but probably not something you’re going to sit around and binge videos on all day without plugging it in.

Naturally, the Fold sports the latest Snapdragon — the 888. That’s coupled with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage on the model Samsung sent us. Doubling the storage will bring the price tag up to $1,900.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It’s been impressive to watch Samsung take the Fold from troubled early adopter tech to something far more stable in the course of two generations. But while the company is ready to toss around words like mainstream in the context of its foldables, it’s hard to shake the feeling that such goals are still a long ways away.

The price is heading in the right direction, but the product is still prohibitively expensive for most. I certainly can’t answer the question of why you need such a product, though the advantages of a larger screen make themselves known pretty quickly. In many instances, the form factor is still a bit cumbersome.

If the Galaxy Note is suddenly redundant, the fault lays more with the Galaxy S series than the Fold. And if Samsung is looking for a truly mainstream foldable experience, it may want to take a longer look at the Galaxy Z Flip. In terms of size, price, flexibility and good looks, that’s looking like the one to beat. Review coming soon.

This Week in Apps: OnlyFans bans sexual content, SharePlay delayed, TikTok questioned over biometric data collection

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content

OnlyFans logo displayed on a phone screen and a website

(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Creator platform OnlyFans is getting out of the porn business. The company announced this week it will begin to prohibit any “sexually explicit” content starting on October 1, 2021 — a decision it claimed would ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform. The news angered a number of impacted creators who weren’t notified ahead of time and who’ve come to rely on OnlyFans as their main source of income.

However, word is that OnlyFans was struggling to find outside investors, despite its sizable user base, due to the adult content it hosts. Some VC firms are prohibited from investing in adult content businesses, while others may be concerned over other matters — like how NSFW content could have limited interest from advertisers and brand partners. They may have also worried about OnlyFans’ ability to successfully restrict minors from using the app, in light of what appears to be soon-to-come increased regulations for online businesses. Plus, porn companies face a number of other issues, too. They have to continually ensure they’re not hosting illegal content like child sex abuse material, revenge porn or content from sex trafficking victims — the latter which has led to lawsuits at other large porn companies.

The news followed a big marketing push for OnlyFans’ porn-free (SFW) app, OFTV, which circulated alongside reports that the company was looking to raise funds at a $1 billion+ valuation. OnlyFans may not have technically needed the funding to operate its current business — it handled more than $2 billion in sales in 2020 and keeps 20%. Rather, the company may have seen there’s more opportunity to cater to the “SFW” creator community, now that it has big names like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, Tyga, Tyler Posey, Blac Chyna, Bhad Bhabie and others on board.

U.S. lawmakers demand info on TikTok’s plans for biometric data collection

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max. Image Credits: Nur Photo/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers are challenging TikTok on its plans to collect biometric data from its users. TechCrunch first reported on TikTok’s updated privacy policy in June, where the company gave itself permission to collect biometric data in the U.S., including users’ “faceprints and voiceprints.” When reached for comment, TikTok could not confirm what product developments necessitated the addition of biometric data to its list of disclosures about the information it automatically collects from users, but said it would ask for consent in the case such data collection practices began.

Earlier this month, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, which said they were “alarmed” by the change, and demanded to know what information TikTok will be collecting and what it plans to do with the data. This wouldn’t be the first time TikTok got in trouble for excessive data collection. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed TikTok had unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Image Credits: Apple

  • ⭐ Apple told developers that some of the features it announced as coming in iOS 15 won’t be available at launch. This includes one of the highlights of the new OS, SharePlay, a feature that lets people share music, videos and their screen over FaceTime calls. Other features that will come in later releases include Wallet’s support for ID cards, the App Privacy report and others that have yet to make it to beta releases.
  • Apple walked back its controversial Safari changes with the iOS 15 beta 6 update. Apple’s original redesign had shown the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. Now the tab bar will appear below the page’s content, offering access to its usual set of buttons as when it was at the top. Users can also turn off the bottom tab bar now and revert to the old, Single Tab option that puts the address bar back at the top as before.
  • In response to criticism over its new CSAM detection technology, Apple said the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered by a developer, Asuhariet Ygvar, was a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
  • The Verge dug through over 800 documents from the Apple-Epic trial to find the best emails, which included dirt on a number of other companies like Netflix, Hulu, Sony, Google, Nintendo, Valve, Microsoft, Amazon and more. These offered details on things like Netflix’s secret arrangement to pay only 15% of revenue, how Microsoft also quietly offers a way for some companies to bypass its full cut, how Apple initially saw the Amazon Appstore as a threat and more.

Platforms: Google

  • A beta version of the Android Accessibility Suite app (12.0.0) which rolled out with the fourth Android beta release added something called “Camera Switches” to Switch Access, a toolset that lets you interact with your device without using the touchscreen. Camera Switches allows users to navigate their phone and use its features by making face gestures, like a smile, open mouth, raised eyebrows and more.
  • Google announced its Pixel 5a with 5G, the latest A-series Pixel phone, will arrive on August 27, offering IP67 water resistance, long-lasting Adaptive Battery, Pixel’s dual-camera system and more, for $449. The phone makes Google’s default Android experience available at a lower price point than the soon to arrive Pixel 6.
  • An unredacted complaint from the Apple-Epic trial revealed that Google had quietly paid developers hundreds of millions of dollars via a program known as “Project Hug,” (later “Apps and Games Velocity Program”) to keep their games on the Play Store. Epic alleges Google launched the program to keep developers from following its lead by moving their games outside the store.

Augmented Reality

  • Snap on Thursday announced it hired its first VP of Platform Partnerships to lead AR, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis (“KP”). The new exec will lead Snap’s efforts to onboard partners, including individual AR creators building via Lens Studio as well as large companies that incorporate Snapchat’s camera and AR technology (Camera Kit) into their apps. KP will join in September, and report to Ben Schwerin, SVP of Content and Partnerships.

Fintech

  • Crypto exchange Coinbase will enter the Japanese market through a new partnership with Japanese financial giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). The company said it plans to launch other localized versions of its existing global services in the future.

Social

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook launched a “test” of Facebook Reels in the U.S. on iOS and Android. The new feature brings the Reels experience to Facebook, allowing users to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. Instagram Reels creators can also now opt in to have their Reels featured on users’ News Feed. The company is heavily investing its its battle with TikTok, even pledging that some portion of its $1 billion creator fund will go toward Facebook Reels.
  • Twitter’s redesign of its website and app was met with a lot of backlash from users and accessibility experts alike. The company choices add more visual contrast between various elements and may have helped those with low vision. But for others, the contrast is causing strain and headaches. Experts believe accessibility isn’t a one-size fits all situation, and Twitter should have introduced tools that allowed people to adjust their settings to their own needs.
  • The pro-Trump Twitter alternative Gettr’s lack of moderation has allowed users to share child exploitation images, according to research from the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Cyber Policy Center.
  • Pinterest rolled out a new set of more inclusive search filters that allow people to find styles for different types of hair textures — like coily, curly, wavy, straight, as well as shaved or bald and protective styles. 

Photos

  • Photoshop for iPad gained new image correction tools, including the Healing Brush and Magic Wand, and added support for connecting an iPad to external monitors via HDMI or USB-C. The company also launched a Photoshop Beta program on the desktop.

Messaging

  • WhatsApp is being adopted by the Taliban to spread its message across Afghanistan, despite being on Facebook’s list of banned organizations. The company says it’s proactively removing Taliban content — but that may be difficult to do since WhatsApp’s E2E encryption means it can’t read people’s texts. This week, Facebook shut down a Taliban helpline in Kabul, which allowed civilians to report violence and looting, but some critics said this wasn’t actually helping local Afghans, as the group was now in effect governing the region.
  • WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that will show a large preview when sharing links, which some suspect may launch around the time when the app adds the ability to have the same account running on multiple devices.

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Netflix announced it’s adding spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14, joining other streamers like HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock that have already pledged to support the new technology. The feature will be available to toggle on and off in the Control Center, when it arrives.
  • Blockchain-powered streaming music service Audius partnered with TikTok to allow artists to upload their songs using TikTok’s new SoundKit in just one click.
  • YouTube’s mobile app added new functionality that allows users to browse a video’s chapters, and jump into the chapter they want directly from the search page.
  • Spotify’s Anchor app now allows users in global markets to record “Music + Talk” podcasts, where users can combine spoken word recordings with any track from Spotify’s library of 70 million songs for a radio DJ-like experience.
  • Podcasters are complaining that Apple’s revamped Podcasts platform is not working well, reports The Verge. Podcasts Connect has been buggy, and sports a confusing interface that has led to serious user errors (like entire shows being archived). And listeners have complained about syncing problems and podcasts they already heard flooding their libraries.

Dating

  • Tinder announced a new feature that will allow users to voluntarily verify their identity on the platform, which will allow the company to cross-reference sex offender registry data. Previously, Tinder would only check this database when a user signed up for a paid subscription with a credit card.

Gaming

Image Source: The Pokémon Company

  • Pokémon Unite will come to iOS and Android on September 22, The Pokémon Company announced during a livestream this week. The strategic battle game first launched on Nintendo Switch in late July.
  • Developer Konami announced a new game, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls, which will come exclusively to Apple Arcade. The game is described as a “full-fledged side-scrolling action game,” featuring a roster of iconic characters from the classic game series. The company last year released another version of Castelvania on the App Store and Google Play.
  • Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle has now surpassed $3 billion in player spending since its 2015 debut, reported Sensor Tower. The game from Bandai Namco took 20 months to reach the figure after hitting the $2 billion milestone in 2019. The new landmark sees the game joining other top-grossers, including Clash Royale, Lineage M and others.
  • Sensor Tower’s mobile gaming advertising report revealed data on top ad networks in the mobile gaming market, and their market share. It also found puzzle games were among the top advertisers on gaming-focused networks like Chartboost, Unity, IronSource and Vungle. On less game-focused networks, mid-core games were top titles, like Call of Duty: Mobile and Top War. 

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Health & Fitness

  • Apple is reportedly scaling back HealthHabit, an internal app for Apple employees that allowed them to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and coaches at AC Wellness (a doctors’ group Apple works with) and manage hypertension. According to Insider, 50 employees had been tasked to work on the project.
  • Samsung launched a new product for Galaxy smartphones in partnership with healthcare nonprofit The Commons Project, that allows U.S. users to save a verifiable copy of their vaccination card in the Samsung Pay digital wallet.

Image Credits: Samsung

Adtech

Government & Policy

  • China cited 43 apps, including Tencent’s WeChat and an e-reader from Alibaba, for illegally transferring user data. The regulator said the apps had transferred users location data and contact list and harassed them with pop-up windows. The apps have until August 25 to make changes before being punished.

Security & Privacy

  • A VICE report reveals a fascinating story about a jailbreaking community member who had served as a double agent by spying for Apple’s security team. Andrey Shumeyko, whose online handles included JVHResearch and YRH04E, would advertise leaked apps, manuals and stolen devices on Twitter and Discord. He would then tell Apple things like which Apple employees were leaking confidential info, which reporters would talk to leakers, who sold stolen iPhone prototypes and more. Shumeyko decided to share his story because he felt Apple took advantage of him and didn’t compensate him for the work.

Funding and M&A

💰 South Korea’s GS Retail Co. Ltd will buy Delivery Hero’s food delivery app Yogiyo in a deal valued at 800 billion won ($685 million USD). Yogiyo is the second-largest food delivery app in South Korea, with a 25% market share.

💰 Gaming platform Roblox acquired a Discord rival, Guilded, which allows users to have text and voice conversations, organize communities around events and calendars and more. Deal terms were not disclosed. Guilded raised $10.2 million in venture funding. Roblox’s stock fell by 7% after the company reported earnings this week, after failing to meet Wall Street expectations.

💰 Travel app Hopper raised $175 million in a Series G round of funding led by GPI Capital, valuing the business at over $3.5 billion. The company raised a similar amount just last year, but is now benefiting from renewed growth in travel following COVID-19 vaccinations and lifting restrictions.

💰 Indian quiz app maker Zupee raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding led by Silicon Valley-based WestCap Group and Tomales Bay Capital. The round values the company at $500 million, up 5x from last year.

💰 Danggeun Market, the publisher of South Korea’s hyperlocal community app Karrot, raised $162 million in a Series D round of funding led by DST Global. The round values the business at $2.7 billion and will be used to help the company launch its own payments platform, Karrot Pay.

💰 Bangalore-based fintech app Smallcase raised $40 million in Series C funding round led by Faering Capital and Premji Invest, with participation from existing investors, as well as Amazon. The Robinhood-like app has over 3 million users who are transacting about $2.5 billion per year.

💰 Social listening app Earbuds raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Ecliptic Capital. Founded by NFL star Jason Fox, the app lets anyone share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ or comment on others’ music picks.

💰 U.S. neobank app One raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Progressive Investment Company (the insurance giant’s investment arm), bringing its total raise to date to $66 million. The app offers all-in-one banking services and budgeting tools aimed at middle-income households who manage their finances on a weekly basis.

Public Markets

📈Indian travel booking app ixigo is looking to raise Rs 1,600 crore in its initial public offering, The Economic Times reported this week.

📉Trading app Robinhood disappointed in its first quarterly earnings as a publicly traded company, when it posted a net loss of $502 million, or $2.16 per share, larger than Wall Street forecasts. This overshadowed its beat on revenue ($565 million versus $521.8 million expected) and its more than doubling of MAUs to 21.3 million in Q2.  Also of note, the company said dogecoin made up 62% of its crypto revenue in Q2.

Downloads

Polycam (update)

Image Credits: Polycam

3D scanning software maker Polycam launched a new 3D capture tool, Photo Mode, that allows iPhone and iPad users to capture professional-quality 3D models with just an iPhone. While the app’s scanner before had required the use of the lidar sensor built into newer devices like the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models, the new Photo Mode feature uses just an iPhone’s camera. The resulting 3D assets are ready to use in a variety of applications, including 3D art, gaming, AR/VR and e-commerce. Data export is available in over a dozen file formats, including .obj, .gtlf, .usdz and others. The app is a free download on the App Store, with in-app purchases available.

Jiobit (update)

Jiobit, the tracking dongle acquired by family safety and communication app Life360, this week partnered with emergency response service Noonlight to offer Jiobit Protect, a premium add-on that offers Jiobit users access to an SOS Mode and Alert Button that work with the Jiobit mobile app. SOS Mode can be triggered by a child’s caregiver when they detect — through notifications from the Jiobit app — that a loved one may be in danger. They can then reach Noonlight’s dispatcher who can facilitate a call to 911 and provide the exact location of the person wearing the Jiobit device, as well as share other details, like allergies or special needs, for example.

Tweets

When your app redesign goes wrong…

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Prominent App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou shut down his FlickType iOS app this week after too many frustrations with App Review. He cited rejections that incorrectly argued that his app required more access than it did — something he had successfully appealed and overturned years ago. Attempted follow-ups with Apple were ignored, he said. 

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Anyone have app ideas?

Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Classic: A well-rounded smartwatch

By Brian Heater

For smartwatches, it’s Apple against the world. Per recent numbers from CounterPoint, the Apple Watch commanded more than one-third of global shipments in Q1. Samsung/Tizen’s own market share is a distant — but respectable — second place, with 8%. With Google’s Wear OS at fifth place at just under 4%, it’s easy to see both companies — utterly dominant in other categories — are itching for competitive advantages.

For Google, the answer is two-fold. First, the Fitbit acquisition effectively doubles its existing market. Convincing Samsung to return to Wear OS after a long time in the Tizen woods. For Samsung, a return to the Google operating system made sense from the standpoint of developer access — and the resulting apps. And hey, if it means Google gets to deal with the underlying support issues, that’s all the better.

From a pure market share standpoint, Samsung has the clear upper hand here. And while building out its own version of Tizen hasn’t necessarily caught the world on fire, it has helped the electronic giant secure a solid second place. Clearly if the company was going to return to Google, it would need to do so on its own terms.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Following an announcement at Google I/O that the two companies were once again working together in the smartwatch category, Samsung finally unveiled the first fruit of that labor last week, in the form of the Galaxy Watch 4. The new wearable, available in both the standard and Classic form, runs “Wear OS Powered by Samsung.” What that means in practical terms is that Samsung worked closely with Google to build out a customized version of Wear OS — one that, effectively, looks, swims and quacks like Tizen.

It’s an effort to make a leap to a robust — if struggling — wearable OS ecosystem, without losing the familiarity of the experience Samsung spent years building out. And honestly, I’m here for it. The Samsung/Google team-up has done a fine job determining what works about their respective ecosystems and building out an experience that pulls from the best of both. It’s an ideal situation for Google, certainly, and one the company would no doubt benefit from by recruiting other big hardware makers — though none has anywhere near Samsung’s momentum in the category.

That’s coupled with several generations of hardware iteration and health improvements that go a long way toward making the Galaxy Watch 4 one of the few smartwatches that can truly go head to head with Apple. And like Apple, the new wearable is explicitly tied to the Samsung ecosystem — after all, even the other week was nothing if not an ecosystem play.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The new Galaxy Buds are arguably the best earbuds for a Samsung user, and the same can be said for the company’s solid new smartwatch. As much as the company is opening things up to third parties by way of Wear OS (fewer than Apple, but a step in the right direction), this is still decidedly a Samsung smartwatch that works best with first-party Samsung apps on Samsung’s mobile hardware. It’s the sort of gamble you can take when you’re the No. 1 smartphone maker in the world. Let the Huaweis, Garmins and Fitbits fight for the rest of the non-iOS market.

As with its smartphones and earbuds, the Galaxy Watch line hasn’t always been the most straightforward, in terms of how things break down. The company has flirted with different models and SKUs over the years, but I think it’s finally hit on a setup that makes sense. Effectively, the lower-end, haptic bezeled Galaxy Watch Active is now the standard Galaxy Watch, and the standard Galaxy Watch is now the Galaxy Watch Classic.

Now that I’ve typed that, I recognize that it’s not as straightforward as it sounded in my head. Basically it breaks down thusly: Galaxy Watch 4 = thinner, lighter, sportier. Galaxy Watch 4 Classic is a bit classier looking, trading the digital bezel for Samsung’s trademark rotating hardware bezel.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I’ve said it before and I’ll say again: The spinning bezel is Samsung’s ace in the hole. It’s the place where the company unequivocally has Apple beat in the smartwatch category. Apple’s crown is fine, but the bezel is currently the best way to navigate a smartwatch interface. I was, frankly, baffled when the company ditched it for the Galaxy Watch 2 in favor of a digital version. The company clearly thought better of it, bringing it back for the 3.

If you read my earlier review, you know my biggest sticking point with earlier Samsung watches was size. The things were giant. I’m not a small man, nor do I possess an abnormally small wrist, but even I had issues walking around with them on. Some people like big, clunky watches, but only making these devices available in the one size is severely limiting your potential audience right out of the gate.

Thankfully, you’ve got a number of choices here. The Galaxy Watch is available in 40mm and 44mm versions ($250 and $300, respectively), while the Classic comes in 42mm and 46mm ($350 and $380, respectively). You’re already talking about a pretty sizable premium for what mostly amounts to design differences. Add LTE onto the classic and you’re talking $379 and $429. Of course, that still compares favorably to the Apple Watch Series 6’s $399 starting price.

I opted to go somewhere in the middle, with the 42mm Galaxy Watch Classic. Having worn the device for several days now, I’m feeling pretty good about the choice. Given the design, I’m fairly certain the 46mm would have been too much watch for my day to day use. And certainly it would have been too large to attempt to sleep in.

I’m still curious how the 44mm version of the standard Watch would have fit, but if you’ve got the choice of rotating bezel, go for rotating bezel. A 40mm version of the Classic would be a nice option for users with smaller wrists looking for that functionality, but Samsung’s heading in the right direction here, with four distinct sizes.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Like much of the competition, Samsung is leading with health offerings here. I’ve been trying to up my exercise game, a year and half into the pandemic, and the watch does a solid job with workout detection. It’s about on par with the Apple Watch, in terms of auto detecting walks and runs. I’ve gotten into the rowing machine at the gym of late, and it does a solid job there, as well. It understandably is considerably more difficult with my morning HIIT routines, and yoga was a wash, so you’re best starting those manually, unless you’re using one of the company’s connected routines.

There’s an ECG on-board to detect heart irregularities. It’s a quickly standardizing tool that many medical professionals have begun to recommend for detecting early heart issues. Body Composition is a standout new feature here that offers key health metrics like skeletal muscle, body water, metabolic rate and body fat percentage by placing two fingers on the device.

Sleep tracking offers solid insight, including blood oxygen, light/deep/rem and total sleep score (hint, mine is low). If you’re able/willing to sleep with your phone near you, the app will also let you know how much time you’ve been snoring during the night. Taken together, the numbers can offer some good, actionable insight into your sleeping patterns.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Of course, wearing a watch to sleep is not only a matter of comfort — it’s also a matter of battery life. The life on the Watch Classic is okay — I was able to go a day and a half of standard to light usage. That’s enough to do fitness and sleep tracking, assuming you can find some time in the morning or around lunch to charge it up again. Perfectly acceptable for most usage, but not really anything to write home about.

All of these elements add up to a solid smartwatch experience. The Galaxy Watch 4 is the best smartwatch for Samsung users, and there’s a strong case to be made for it being the best Android-compatible smartwatch, period.

 

Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 review: Getting out of their own way

By Brian Heater

Earlier this year, Nothing launched the Ear (1) with a grand idea: earbuds as fashion accessories. Sure, the company talked a lot about the non-invasiveness of transparent design, but at the end of the day, the product’s launch on StockX betrayed a focus on the fashion forward.

In that respect, Samsung’s new Galaxy Buds 2 are the anti-Nothing. They’re almost aggressively unassuming in their approach. It’s in keeping with previous generations of Buds, but still in stark — and refreshing — contrast for a company that prides itself on creating some of the world’s most ostentatious smartphones. Look no further than the two (!) new foldables launched along with the headphones at the Unpacked event.

Samsung’s almost casual approach to its headphones is something of a mixed blessing. The company could certainly be clearer with the branding of what seems to be an ever-shifting lineup of models. I asked for clarification of how things break down ahead of this week’s launch, and the company responded thusly:

As our premium offering, the Galaxy Buds Pro leverage cutting-edge technology to deliver immersive audio, intelligent Active noise cancelling, and effortless connectivity. For those looking to show off their unique style, the Galaxy Buds Live combine high quality sound with an eye-catching design.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

So, the short answer is there are three versions of Galaxy Buds on the market: Buds 2, Buds Pro and Buds Live. The above quote should confirm any suspicion you may have had that the new $149 version of the entry-level Buds make the $170 Buds Live Buds more or less redundant. Barring some major upgrade, they’re probably not long for this world, leaving a clearer two-level offering of the Buds 2 and the higher-end Buds Pro.

I’ve mentioned this before — the world of wireless earbuds were quick to reach a consensus of “pretty good.” Frankly, you’d have to go out of your way to find a bad pair for over $100. And for many or most intents and purposes, I’m inclined to recommend people go with a pair made by the company that made their phone. There’s a definite market advantage in having direct access to a device’s hardware and software.

That, of course, is a decided advantage for a company with as massive a global market share as Samsung. And the Galaxy Buds 2 are the epitome of “pretty good” in the pretty good way. They’re not flashy, and with a design that’s 15% smaller and 20% lighter than the already compact original Galaxy Buds, they’re designed to practically disappear, with minimal surface area exposed.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The size and shape makes for an extremely comfortable pair of buds. I’m not sure why I’m blessed with the gift of ear pain with roughly half of the earbuds I try out, but these are ergonomic and designed for the long haul. There’s enough surface area to access the touch control on the exposed side. The biggest downside to the small size is there’s really no way to adjust them in your ear without accidentally triggering that touch. That became a nuisance when I constantly found myself adjusting them to deal with sweaty ears during a run — a bad time to have to worry about dealing with music controls.

The sound is solid, courtesy of Samsung subsidiary AKG. Not exceptional, but pretty much exactly what you need/want out of a pair of $149 buds. I was impressed with the active noise canceling, as well. A perfectly good, totally unexceptional experience — utilitarian, really. Again: in a good way. If better sound is a must, the Pros are an easy upgrade — or else, there’s Nura’s new buds or Sony’s, depending on how lavish you want get. The Buds Pro also bring features like 360 Audio — which is likely only a make-or-break for an exceedingly small number of potential buyers.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Wireless charging for the case is a welcome touch, which along with ANC, catapults them above a number of other entry-level pairs. The battery is rated five hours with ANC and 7.5 with it off. The glassy little case bumps that up to a respectable 20 hours. The IPX2 water resistance, meanwhile, is good for sweat, but otherwise can be added to the list of things the company can improve next around.

All in all, it’s a pretty short list, however. The Galaxy Buds 2 are solid, unassuming and an easy addition for those in the Samsung Galaxy ecosystem.

https://www.wired.com/story/samsung-galaxy-unpacked-august-2021/

 

Here’s everything Samsung announced this morning

By Greg Kumparak

While it was one of the less hyped gadget debuts in recent memory, Samsung blasted out a series of announcements at an Unpacked event bright and early this morning.

Too busy to tune in? Still asleep when it all went down? Here’s the slimmed down version of everything you need to know.

Galaxy Watch 4

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Samsung is back with another set of smartwatches, this time with a twist: after years of focusing on their own operating system with Tizen, these latest watches are back on Google’s Wear OS. Or, at least, Samsung’s take on it — this software build will be called “Wear OS Powered by Samsung”, and will borrow some of the best bits of Tizen while being Wear OS at its core.

Samsung went deep on health metrics this time around, focusing much of the announcement on the Watch’s ability to constantly monitor things like blood pressure, blood oxygen, and body composition.

This year’s watch comes in two forms: Galaxy Watch 4, and Galaxy Watch 4 Classic. The standard Watch 4 is a bit thinner and lighter, with a touch-sensitive bezel for controlling the interface; Watch 4 Classic bulks things up a bit, with a bezel that physically spins. Watch 4 starts at $250 and comes in 40mm or 44mm, while Watch 4 Classic bumps the base price to $350 and comes in 42mm or 46mm.

Read the full announcement post here

Galaxy Z Fold 3

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Pricey and with plenty of problems to work out of the earliest versions, folding smartphones haven’t exactly taken over the world. Hell, most people probably still haven’t seen a folding phone in person. But Samsung isn’t done in this space just yet!

This morning the company announced the Galaxy Z Fold 3, its third iteration on the hotdog-style folding phone approach. They’ve managed to drop the price tag a bit (from $2000 to $1800), while bumping up the overall build quality — its got a stronger aluminum frame, a more durable folding display, and it’s waterproofed (a first for the Samsung foldables!) up to an IPX8 rating. (One catch: that “x” means it’ll survive an accidental dunk in the tub, but you still want to keep it away from dust/debris.)

The Fold 3 will be the first Samsung device with an under-display camera — an awesome trick, albeit one that generally comes at the expense of picture quality. The back of the device brings in three more (more standard, less hidden) lenses — ultra wide, wide-angle, and telephoto, all coming in at 12 megapixels each. Oh, and it supports the S Pen stylus now!

Expect this one to start shipping on the 26th of this month.

Find more specs and details in our full post here.

Galaxy Z Flip 3

Image Credits: Brian Heater

While the flagship Fold 3 took up most of the folding spotlight today, Samsung’s relatively entry-level (clamshell!) foldable gets an update too with the announcement of the Galaxy Z Flip 3.

The Flip 3 will get many of the same durability improvements coming to the aforementioned Fold 3, including the improved aluminum body, more durable display, and IPX8 water resistance. It’s got a 10MP selfie cam on the inside, with two 12MP cameras (ultra wide and wide Angle) on the outside. At $999 — nearly $400 less than the last one — it’s the first time Samsung has managed to drag its foldable line into the sub-$1k price range. It’s got a bigger cover screen (the screen that shows whenever the device is folded shut) this time around, at 1.9″ versus last-gen’s 1.1″.

As with everything else announced today, it starts shipping on August 26th. Find our full post on the Flip 3 here.

Galaxy Buds 2

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Samsung also debuted a new generation of its entry-level wireless earbuds today, and everything you need to know could fit in a tweet: they’re smaller and lighter and have active noise cancellation, and will ship on August 26th for $149.

Want more details? Here’s the full post.

Less plastic!

They kinda snuck this one in at the end, but it’s worth a highlight: Samsung is committing to eliminating all single-use plastic from its phone packaging by 2025, with plans to dramatically increase its use of recycled material across its mobile products by the same year. Given that Samsung ships more phones per quarter than any other company on the planet, thats huge — and, hopefully, an example others will follow.

WhatsApp gains the ability to transfer chat history between mobile operating systems

By Sarah Perez

WhatsApp users will finally be able to move their entire chat history between mobile operating systems — something that’s been one of users’ biggest requests to date. The company today introduced a feature that will soon become available to users of both iOS and Android devices, allowing them to move their WhatsApp voice notes, photos, and conversations securely between devices when they switch between mobile operating systems.

The company had been rumored to be working on such functionality for some time, but the details of which devices would be initially supported or when it would be released weren’t yet known.

In product leaks, WhatsApp had appeared to be working on an integration into Android’s built-in transfer app, the Google Data Transfer Tool, which lets users move their files from one Android device to another, or switch from iOS to Android.

The feature WhatsApp introduced today, however, works with Samsung devices and Samsung’s own transfer tool, known as Smart Switch. Today, Smart Switch helps users transfer contacts, photos, music, messages, notes, calendars, and more to Samsung Galaxy devices. Now, it will transfer WhatsApp chat history, too.

WhatsApp showed off the new tool at Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked event, and announced Samsung’s newest Galaxy foldable devices would get the feature first in the weeks to come. The feature will later roll out to Android more broadly. WhatsApp didn’t say when iOS users would gain access.

To use the feature, WhatsApp users will connect their old and new device together via a USB-C to Lightning cable, and launch Smart Switch. The new phone will then prompt you to scan a QR code using your old phone and export your WhatsApp history. To complete the transfer, you’ll sign into WhatsApp on the new device and import the messages.

Building such a feature was non-trivial, the company also explained, as messages across its service are end-to-end encrypted by default and stored on users’ devices. That meant the creation of a tool to move chat history between operating systems required additional work from both WhatsApp as well as operating system and device manufacturers in order to build it in a secure way, the company said.

“Your WhatsApp messages belong to you. That’s why they are stored on your phone by default, and not accessible in the cloud like many other messaging services,” noted Sandeep Paruchuri, product manager at WhatsApp, in a statement about the launch. “We’re excited for the first time to make it easy for people to securely transfer their WhatsApp history from one operating system to another. This has been one of our most requested features from users for years and we worked together with operating systems and device manufacturers to solve it,” he added.

 

Samsung’s latest Galaxy Z Flip starts at $1,000

By Brian Heater

The Galaxy Z Flip is probably destined to forever play second fiddle to the Fold. And with its older and larger sibling now ascending to the ranks of “flagship” with a slew of new features like S-Pen functionality, the designation is probably all but inevitable.

But for those seriously considering the world of foldables, there’s something to be said for the clamshell devices. It has always been the more compact and — dare I say — accessible member of the Galaxy Z family. Of course, at $1,380 — well, let’s just say “accessibility” is relative.” At today’s Unpacked event, however, Samsung announced that the Galaxy Z Flip 3 is getting an even larger price drop than the Fold.

At $999.99, again, we’re speaking relatively here. But at the very least, a nearly $400 price drop brings the Flip into the realm of mainstream flagship pricing (the Fold 3, while cheaper than its predecessor, is still $1,799). Add onto that the learnings that come with a third-generation device, and there’s a case to be made that this is Samsung’s (and, probably the industry’s) most mainstream foldable to date. I mean, anything beats the original Razr foldable, right?

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Obviously we’re going to hold out for a review unit until we’re able to say something more definitive on the matter. But while Samsung continues to lead with the Fold, don’t sleep on the alternative. Both devices have (understandably) prioritized durability among their new features. That includes a stronger protective film made of PET plastic, coupled with a reconfiguration of the display panels aimed at reinforcing what has traditionally been the weak link on these products.

Also on board is Samsung’s new proprietary Armor Aluminum for the body, Gorilla Glass Victus for the exterior of the device and IPX8 water resistance. That means the new foldables can withstand significantly more water than their predecessors. The “X” in the rating means it’s not rated against debris, due to the nature of the hinges, but Samsung believes the sweeping mechanism it introduced on previous models can make quick work of particulate matter that could potentially fall behind the screen and damage it in the process of pressing.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The phone has also gotten a striking redesign. When closed, I’d say it’s a considerably better-looking device than the Fold — not to mention significantly easier to port around in your pocket. The device now comes in Cream, Green, Lavender and Black, coupled with a variety of different grips and straps. If you get it online, you can also choose a Gray, Pink or White version. The internal display is effectively the same as its predecessor at 6.7 inches (2640 x 1080), but the front screen has been further increasing from 1.1 to 1.9 inches — a not insignificant bump when we’re dealing with those sizes.

The cameras remain roughly the same as the Flip 2:

  1. Front: 10MP Selfie. F2.4, Pixel size: 1.22μm, FOV: 80-degree
  2. Rear: 12MP Ultra Wide. F2.2, Pixel size: 1.12μm, FOV: 123-degree
  3. Rear 2: 12MP Wide-angle. Dual Pixel AF, OIS, F1.8 Pixel size: 1.4μm, FOV: 78-degree

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The battery is (understandably) a fair bit smaller than the Fold’s at 3,300mAh, split over two modules (because, folding). It supports fast-wired and wireless charging, as well as Samsung’s Wireless PowerShare for giving some juice back to your other devices. Like the Fold, the new flip is powered by the Snapdragon 888. Here that’s coupled with 8GB of RAM and either 128 or 256GB of storage.

Like the other devices announced today, the Flip is now up for preorder and starts shipping August 26. Preordering will get you a $150 Samsung Credit.

Samsung’s latest Galaxy Fold adds stylus support, waterproofing and an under-display camera

By Brian Heater

Behold, Samsung’s latest flagship. With the Galaxy Note out of the way — for this year, at least — the company used today’s Unpacked event to breathe added legitimacy into its foldable line. The original Galaxy Fold, introduced in 2019, represent a sort of experiment for the company (along with all the hiccups that entailed), as the first foldable from a major hardware manufacture, whereas last year’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 found the company correcting some of the glaring issues with its predecessor.

Today’s event finds the company making the case for Galaxy Z Fold 3 as something beyond an experiment or a curiosity. The task will almost certainly be an uphill battle for the next few generations. Unlike the latest version of the Flip, which starts at a price reduced considerably from its predecessor, the new Fold drops the entry price $200, down to $1,800. Any price reduction is a step in the right direction — and something that should be increasingly feasible as the technology continues to scale. But even in the world of premium flagships, that will continue to be a tough pill to swallow.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

What the upgraded Fold truly brings to the table, however, is a continued refinement to build materials that make the foldable screen a feasible option for day to day usage. This, of course, is precisely what hamstrung the original. Sure, the company did a lot of testing in controlled rooms, but once the product got out into the world (and into the hands of non-Samsung employees), problems of durability began cropping up, resulting in displays that were unintentionally damaged in a variety of imaginative ways.

The Galaxy Z Fold features a stronger frame made of “Armor Aluminum,” new protective film for the foldable display, Gorilla Glass Victus on the front-facing screen and an IPX8 rating — representing the first waterproof rating for the company’s foldable. Waterproofing has, of course, become something of an industry standard, but obviously things complicate quickly when you add folding mechanisms into the equation.

In fact, that’s why the rating has an “X” stuck in the middle of it. It’s effectively protected from accidental dunks in water, but not dust and debris. This is due to the hinge mechanism created for earlier models that allows some particulate matter through, but sweeps it away with a built in brush that moves as the device opens. That effectively protects it from getting behind the screen, where it could damage the phone with a finger press on the other side.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Of course, the stronger protective film is the thing. It’s what’s (hopefully) standing between you and damaging your phone’s biggest selling point with an overzealous finger press — or, for that matter, a stylus. The Fold, after all, is following in the footsteps of Samsung’s S series by blurring the line with the Note (which handily opted to sit this round out).

In fact, Samsung actually went out of its way to create a special Fold Edition of the S-Pen specially designed to not damage the Fold display. It’s optional, of course, and as with the S21, there’s slot for the stylus in the handset — that’s to be expected, given the relatively fragility of the product. There will, of course, be a case with a built-in S-Pen holster.

The Fold Edition S-Pen is smaller and features a spring-loaded tip designed to retract so you don’t damage the screen by writing/drawing too hard. Certainly the Fold is a clear candidate for stylus functionality, given its 7.6-inch canvas that puts even the Note Ultra’s 6.9-inch screen to shame. Of course, the feasibility of this combination has been severely hampered by structural integrity issues with the screen. It will be interesting to see how the company has managed to navigate that.

At 7.6 inches (2208 x 1768, 374 ppi), the primary screen is largely unchanged. The cover screen, too, is about the same, at 6.2 inches — though it now joins the main screen with a 120 Hz refresh rate. 

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Notably, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the first Samsung device to add an under-display camera. That, along with foldable displays, has been one of the biggest holy grails in the smartphone category for the past several years. Samsung’s not the first to introduce the technology. A handful of Chinese manufacturers, including Xiaomi and Oppo, have either released or plan to release devices sporting the technology.

It’s telling that the company opted to test the water with the Fold. Aside from the obvious aspect of creating a contiguous display, it gives the company the opportunity to test out another mainstream technology. The dirty little secret about the first generation of under-screen cameras is that the picture quality tends to suck. Samsung surely knows this and has opted to stick it on a device that already has a selfie camera above its front display.

The company describes new tech as follows, “the minimum pixels applied on top of the camera hole, Z Fold 3 features an increased viewable area so users get an unbroken canvas for their favorite apps.” The thinking here is that the internal camera simply doesn’t get as much use, save for things like teleconferencing (which is, granted, something we’ve been doing a lot more of in the past year). As currently configured, it’s a bit of a compromise on both ends. Picture quality takes a hit and the camera hole is still semi-visible. So, either the best or worst of both worlds, depending on what you’re looking for.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The under-display camera is four megapixels (when was the last time you saw one of those?), verses the 10-megapixel front/cover camera. The rear camera setup is virtually identical to its predecessor:

  • 12MP Ultra Wide. F2.2, Pixel size: 1.12μm, FOV: 123-degree
  • 12MP Wide-angle. Dual Pixel AF, OIS, F1.8, Pixel size: 1.8μm, FOV: 83-degree
  • 12MP Telephoto. PDAF, F2.4, OIS, Pixel size: 1.0μm, FOV: 45-degree

The battery has taken a bit of a hit, down from 4,500 to 4,400mAh (spread out over two modules, as is the foldable way). The Fold also supports fast charge/fast wireless and Wireless Powershare to use that 4,400mAh battery to power other gadgets. Samsung generally doesn’t offer battery estimates for phones prior to release, so wait on the review for that. The whole thing is powered by a Snapdragon 888 chip (market depending), coupled with 12GB of RAM and either 256 or 512GB of storage.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Like the rest of the devices announced today, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is up for preorder now and starts shipping on the 26th. The $1,800 price tag continues to be a roadblock toward more mainstream adoption, though the company has moved a number of these devices to early adopters already. Preorders get a $200 Samsung Credit.

Samsung brings active noise cancellation to its entry-level Galaxy Buds

By Brian Heater

In what has quickly become the busiest Unpacked of the virtual era, Samsung just dropped a new version of its wireless earbuds. The Galaxy Buds 2 add active noise canceling to the entry-level model, while retaining the $149 price point.

For those keeping track, the current Galaxy Buds offerings are Buds 2 ($149), Buds Live ($170) and Buds Pro ($200). The addition pretty clearly blurs the line between the first two. Asked for clarification on how the offerings now shake out, Samsung tells TechCrunch:

As our premium offering, the Galaxy Buds Pro leverage cutting-edge technology to deliver immersive audio, intelligent Active noise cancelling, and effortless connectivity. For those looking to show off their unique style, the Galaxy Buds Live combine high quality sound with an eye-catching design.

So, design and sound are the differentiators. The Buds Live were, of course, introduced during a time when ANC was more of an exception than a rule for nonpremium-priced earbuds, so I wouldn’t be too surprised to see them start to be phased out.

As I’ve said in the past, Samsung’s earbuds have always been quietly solid. They don’t get the love of Apple or Sony in that department, but the company has consistently produced solid buds, and I don’t see any reason to expect these will be any different. Of course, the Pros still sit at the high end, in terms of sound quality, 360 audio, etc.

Samsung says the new Buds are their smallest and lightest to date. Indeed, the Buds, the case and everything are quite compact (and surprisingly glossy!). They retain the familiar ovular shape that sits up against the wearer’s ear. They’re built specifically to pair with the company’s mobile devices, but you should be able to connect them to any Bluetooth device.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Like the rest of today’s devices, the Buds 2 are now up for preorder and start shipping on August 26. Look for a review in the not too distant future.

Samsung returns to Wear OS with the Galaxy Watch 4

By Brian Heater

Samsung’s watches have long been something of an anomaly. While the company embraced Wear OS (then Android Wear) in its earliest days with the massive Gear Live, the company quickly shifted to Tizen, an open-source operating system largely used by Samsung for wearables and smart TVs.

That’s no doubt been a kind of bugbear for Google, which has long struggled to crack a significant portion of the smartwatch market. Samsung, meanwhile, has had its share of success with its products while doing its own thing. But there’s always more market share to be grabbed.

Third-party apps have long been an issue for basically every smartwatch maker but Apple (it’s the main reason Fitbit bought Pebble, if you’ll recall), and clearly Samsung saw the opportunity in reigniting its partnership with Google. The deal — first mentioned at I/O and discussed more recently at MWC — is now seeing the light of day on the brand new Galaxy Watch 4 and Galaxy Watch 4 Classic.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The companies refer to it as “the new Wear OS Powered by Samsung.” What that means, practically, is that Wear OS serves as the code base. Design and other elements of Tizen exist in here, but for all practical intents and purposes, it’s a custom built version of Google’s wearable operating system, which Samsung helped build out.

The company will stress that latter bit as an important bit of clarification — that it didn’t just slap a new coat of paint on the OS here. The company’s One UI Watch sits atop all of that, in a bid to create a unified user experience across Samsung’s mobile devices and wearable line.

Per a release:

Galaxy Watch 4 Series is also the first generation of smartwatches to feature Wear OS Powered by Samsung — a new platform that elevates every aspect of the smartwatch experience. Built by Samsung and Google, this cutting-edge platform lets you tap into an expansive ecosystem right from your wrist — with popular Google apps like Google Maps, and beloved Galaxy services, like Samsung Pay, SmartThings and Bixby. The new platform also includes support for leading third-party apps, like Adidas Running, Calm, Strava and Spotify.

In a blog post this morning, Google breaks down its end of the partnership thusly,

We’re taking what we’ve learned from Wear OS and Tizen to jointly build what smartwatch users need. Compared to previous Wear OS smartwatches, the Galaxy Watch4 features a 2.5x shorter set up experience, up to 40 hours of battery life, optimized performance with app launch times 30 percent faster than before and access to a huge ecosystem of apps and services.

And there are more ways to get more done from your wrist with Wear OS. We’re introducing more capabilities and a fresh new look based on Material You design language for Google Maps, Messages by Google and Google Pay apps as well as launching a YouTube Music app. There are also new apps and Tiles coming to Wear OS for quicker access to your favorites.

The software giant singles out turn-by-turn directions on Google Maps, the ability to download and listen to songs on YouTube Music and improved app discovery via Google Play. The news also finds Google Pay on Wear OS coming to 16 additional countries, including Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, Taiwan, Ukraine and United Arab Emirates.

The other key focus on the line continues to be health — it’s the field on which all smartwatches are currently competing. The monitoring is built around a smaller version of the company’s BioActive Sensor, which measures optical heart rate, electrical heart (ECG) and Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis. The trio of sensors measure a bunch of different metrics, including blood pressure, AFib monitoring, blood oxygen and now body composition/BMI. So now, for better or worse, your watch will tell you your body fat percentage [post-pandemic grimace face emoji]. Says Samsung, “In about 15 seconds, your watch’s sensor will capture 2,400 data points.”

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Design is the primary distinction between the two models. The Galaxy Watch 4 is the thinner and lighter of the two — more in line with the Galaxy Watch Active. It sports a touch bezel, versus the Classic’s physical spinning bezel — arguably Samsung’s best innovation in the category.

Also, of note: Both models come in two sizes. That’s always been a bit of a sticking point for me on Samsung Watches. If your devices are large and only come in the one size, you’re essentially knocking out a sizable portion of your customer base right off the bat. The Watch 4 comes in 40mm and 44mm and the Classic is available in 42mm and 46mm. The models start at $250 and $350, respectively. Another $50 will get you LTE connectivity.

The watches go up for preorder today and start shipping on August 26. Preordering will get you a $50 Samsung Credit. The company is also launching a limited-edition Thom Browne version of the Classic in September, which will almost certainly cost an arm and/or leg.

Watch Samsung introduce its latest foldables live

By Brian Heater

Samsung is set to introduce a whole bunch of new products, starting today at 7 AM PT/10 AM ET. I wrote a whole bunch of words about what to expect from the company’s latest Unpacked event. It’s a long list and a kind of return to the pre-pandemic days, back before companies started taking liberties by holding separate events for all their new products.

You can stream the proceedings here:

Here’s the short bulleted version, based on a deluge of leaks over the past several weeks and months:

  • Galaxy Z Fold 3
  • Galaxy Z Flip 3
  • Galaxy Watch 4
  • Galaxy Buds 2

Samsung has more or less confirmed the first three already. The company gave some substantial details on its forthcoming foldables. We’ve also heard a good deal about the new smartwatch — from a software standpoint, at least. Both Samsung and Google have been discussing their upcoming joint software platform.

More info on all of the above, soon. And perhaps even a surprise or two? Perhaps. We’ll be following along with the latest.

Connected car insurance startup Flock raises $17M Series A led by Chamath Palihapitiya

By Mike Butcher

Cast your mind back to that scene in Minority Report where all those autonomous cars are whizzing through the city. The more practically-minded of you may well have gone: “Yeah, but what about the insurance…?”.

Among the startups building the on-demand, connected insurance world for the vehicles of tomorrow right now are UK-based Zego which has raised $201.7 million. Another is Flock.

Emerging from an academic project to look at drones, Flock shifted into providing drones insurance then commercial vehicle insurance. The twist is that it hooks into the telematics of cars so that the vehicle only triggers insurance cover when it’s actually moving, not when it’s sitting on the lot, incapable of causing any accidents.

Flock has now raised $17 million in a Series A funding led by Social Capital, the investment vehicle run by Chamath Palihapitiya, best known as a SPAC investor and Chairman of Virgin Galactic. Flock’s existing investors Anthemis and Dig Ventures also participated. This round brings Flock’s total funding to $22 million. Justin Saslaw (Social Capital’s Fintech Partner) joins Flock’s Board of Directors as does Ross Mason (Founder of Dig Ventures & MuleSoft).

Ed Leon Klinger, CEO of Flock said: “Transportation is changing faster than ever, but the traditional insurance industry can’t keep up! The proliferation of electric cars, new business models such as ridesharing, and the emergence of autonomous vehicles pose huge challenges that traditional insurers just aren’t equipped for.”

He added: “Modern fleets need an equally modern insurance company that moves as fast as they do. Commercial motor insurance is a $160Bn market, crying out for disruption. The opportunity ahead of us is enormous.”

In a statement Chamath Palihapitiya, CEO of Social Capital said: “Flock is bridging the gap between today’s insurance industry and tomorrow’s transportation realities. By using real-time data to truly understand vehicle risk, Flock is meeting the demands of our rapidly evolving, hyper-connected world. Flock has the potential to help unlock and enable a truly autonomous world, and even save lives. We’re excited to be a part of their journey.”

Speaking to me over a call, Klinger outlined how the company had hit a sweet spot by hooking into Telematics APIs for cars, or by doing special integrations with existing providers and OEMs: “We’ve built our own integrated approach whereby we partner with some and we build bespoke integrations with them. Often they are not as advanced as others. So we’ll either use our integration platform or or we’ll use their approach. We’re highly flexible. The core value proposition at Flock is its flexibility, so we don’t force our own integration approach.”

Untitled Ventures joins the scramble for Russian & Eastern European startups with a $118M warchest

By Mike Butcher

Sorry Mr. Putin, but there’s a race on for Russian and Eastern European founders. And right now, those awful capitalists in the corrupt West are starting to out-gun the opposition! But seriously… only the other day a $100 million fund aimed at Russian speaking entrepreneurs appeared, and others are proliferating.

Now, London-based Untitled Ventures plans to join their fray with a €100 million / $118M for its second fund to invest in “ambitious deep tech startups with eastern European founders.”

Untitled says it is aiming at entrepreneurs who are looking to relocate their business or have already HQ’ed in Western Europe and the USA. That’s alongside all the other existing Western VCs who are – in my experience – always ready and willing to listen to Russian and Eastern European founders, who are often known for their technical prowess.

Untitled is going to be aiming at B2B, AI, agritech, medtech, robotics, and data management startups with proven traction emerging from the Baltics, CEE, and CIS, or those already established in Western Europe

LPs in the fund include Vladimir Vedeenev, a founder of Global Network Management>. Untitled also claims to have Google, Telegram Messenger, Facebook, Twitch, DigitalOcean, IP-Only, CenturyLinks, Vodafone and TelecomItaly as partners.

Oskar Stachowiak, Untitled Ventures Managing Partner, said: “With over 10 unicorns, €1Bn venture funding in 2020 alone, and success stories like Veeam, Semrush, and Wrike, startups emerging from the fast-growing regions are the best choice to focus on early-stage investment for us. Thanks to the strong STEM focus in the education system and about one million high-skilled developers, we have an ample opportunity to find and support the rising stars in the region.”

Konstantin Siniushin, the Untitled Ventures MP said: “We believe in economic efficiency and at the same time we fulfill a social mission of bringing technological projects with a large scientific component from the economically unstable countries of the former USSR, such as, first of all, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, but not only in terms of bringing sales to the world market and not only helping them to HQ in Europe so they can get next rounds of investments.”

He added: “We have a great experience accumulated earlier in the first portfolio of the first fund, not just structuring business in such European countries as, for example, Luxembourg, Germany, Great Britain, Portugal, Cyprus and Latvia, but also physically relocating startup teams so that they are perceived already as fully resident in Europe and globally.”

To be fair, it is still harder than it needs to be to create large startups from Eastern Europe, mainly because there is often very little local capital. However, that is changing, with the launch recently of CEE funds such as Vitosha Venture Partners and Launchub Ventures, and the breakout hit from Romania that was UIPath.

The Untitled Ventures team:
• Konstantin Siniushin, a serial tech entrepreneur
• Oskar Stachowiak, experienced fund manager
• Mary Glazkova, PR & Comms veteran
• Anton Antich, early stage investor and an ex VP of Veeam, a Swiss cloud data management company
acquired by Insight Venture Partners for $5bln
• Yulia Druzhnikova, experienced in taking tech companies international
• Mark Cowley, who has worked on private and listed investments within CEE/Russia for over 20 years

Untitled Ventures portfolio highlights – Fund I
Sizolution: AI-driven size prediction engine, based in Germany
Pure app – spontaneous and impersonal dating app, based in Portugal
Fixar Global –  efficient drones for commercial use-cases, based in Latvia,
E-contenta – based in Poland
SuitApp – AI based mix-and-match suggestions for fashion retail, based in Singapore
• Sarafan.tech, AI-driven recognition, based in the USA
Hello, baby – parental assistant, based in the USA
Voximplant – voice, video and messaging cloud communication platform, based in the USA (exited)

Samsung will announce new foldables on August 11

By Brian Heater

Samsung just sent out invites for its next Unpacked event. There are those companies that like to sneak hints into their invites — and then there’s Samsung. The note leads with the big, bold words “Get ready to unfold” and features a pair of flat-colored objects that can reasonably be said to resemble the form factors of the Galaxy Z Fold and Flip, respectively.

In keeping with…the general state of the world over the past year-and-a-half, the event will be held virtually on Wednesday, August 11. Interestingly, the company is also opening up preorders on its “next flagship,” sights and specs unseen. Perks for early preorders include “12 free months of Samsung Care+, up to an extra $200 trade-in credit and a special pre-order offer.”

But honestly, it’s generally best to wait until you actually see the thing and maybe even read a review or two.

There’s a lot to unpack (so to speak) ahead of the event. First, I’m probably not alone in expecting that the company would focus its next big event on the upcoming Galaxy Watch. The big event at MWC was a bit of a dud (not unlike MWC itself), offering up more information on the upcoming wearable partnership with Google, in lieu of announcing any hardware.

As the company noted at the time, “The upcoming One UI Watch will debut at an upcoming Unpacked event later this summer, sporting the new UI, as well as the forthcoming joint Samsung/Google platform.”

It seems reasonably likely that this will be the event where that will occur, even if the new watch doesn’t get top billing. For one thing we’re running out of summer. For another, rumors have the new Galaxy Watch set for a late-August (the 27th) release.

pic.twitter.com/cLlE0ot4fO

— Evan Blass (@evleaks) July 10, 2021

All told, this could well be a pretty huge summer event for the company, bucking last year’s trend of meting out devices one by one at virtual invents. Word on the street is we could be seeing a Galaxy Watch 4, Galaxy Z Fold 3, Galaxy Z Flip 3, Galaxy S21 FE (“Fan Edition” — basically the latest version of the company’s budget flagship) and even the Galaxy Buds Pro, which will more directly take on the AirPods Pro (which are getting a bit long in the tooth).

What’s missing in all of this? No points if you said the Note. Samsung’s well-loved phablet is reportedly not coming this year, as chip shortages continue to plague the industry. That would be a big hit to Samsung’s six-month cycle, though we’ll see how that all plays out soon enough.

The August 11th event kicks off at 10AM ET / 7AM PT.

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