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Yesterday — October 21st 2019Your RSS feeds

Daily Crunch: We review the Pixel 4

By Anthony Ha

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Pixel 4 review: Google ups its camera game

Brian Heater was impressed by the improvements in Google’s latest smartphone, including camera upgrades and the Recorder app.

However, he also argued that the Pixel 4 doesn’t exactly address what Google wants the Pixel to be, moving forward, especially after the Pixel 3a it was confirmed that consumers were looking for something cheaper.

2. NordVPN confirms it was hacked

The admission comes after rumors that the company had been breached, and what first emerged was that NordVPN had left an expired internal private key exposed, potentially allowing anyone to spin out their own servers imitating NordVPN.

3. Netflix to raise $2 billion in debt to fund more content spending

Despite a relatively strong earnings report last week, Netflix isn’t out of the woods just yet. Disney+ and Apple+ launch next month, and there’s more competition on the way.

4. Commercetools raises $145M from Insight for Shopify-style e-commerce APIs for large enterprises

The funding comes at the same time as commercetools is getting spun out by REWE, a German retail and tourist services giant that acquired the startup in 2015.

5. The Surface Pro 7 is a competent upgrade with USB-C, refreshed processors, but little else that’s new

The Pro 7, which is going on sale today, is a competent upgrade that gives Surface Pro users exactly what they want — even if it sticks to a tried and tested formula.

6. IPOs are the beginning, not the end

At Disrupt SF, PagerDuty’s Jennifer Tejada argued that an IPO “is part of the beginning of a long journey for a durable company that you want to build a legacy around.” (Extra Crunch membership required.)

7. This week’s TechCrunch podcasts

The Equity team talks to Greylock’s Sarah Guo about the future of software-as-a-service products, while Original Content has a review of “El Camino,” the new “Breaking Bad” movie on Netflix.

Pixel 4 review: Google ups its camera game

By Brian Heater

Google’s first-party hardware has always been a drop in the bucket of global smartphone sales. Pixel devices have managed to crack the top five in the U.S. and Western Europe, but otherwise represent less than 1% of the overall market. It’s true, of course, that the company got a late start, largely watching on the sidelines as companies like Samsung and Huawei shipped millions of Android devices.

Earlier this year, Google admitted that it was feeling the squeeze of slowing smartphone sales along with the rest of the industry. During Alphabet’s Q1 earnings call, CEO Sundar Pichai noted that poor hardware numbers were a reflection of “pressure in the premium smartphone industry.”

Introduced at I/O, the Pixel 3a was an attempt to augment disappointing sales numbers with the introduction of a budget-tier device. With a starting price of $399, the device seemingly went over as intended. The 3a, coupled with more carrier partners, helped effectively double year over year growth for the line. Given all of this, it seems like a pretty safe bet that the six-month Pixel/Pixela cycle will continue, going forward.

Of course, the addition of a mid-range device adds more onus for the company to differentiate the flagship. With a starting price of $799, the Pixel 4 certainly isn’t expensive by modern flagship standards. But Google certainly needs to present enough distinguishing features to justify a $400 price gulf between devices — especially as the company disclosed software upgrades introduced on flagship devices will soon make their way onto their cheaper counterparts.

Indeed, the much-rumored and oft-leaked devices bring some key changes to the line. The company has finally given in and added a dual-camera setup to both premium models, along with an upgraded 90Hz display, face unlock, radar-based gestures and a whole bunch of additional software features.

The truth is that the Pixel has always occupied a strange place in the smartphone world. As the successor to Google’s Nexus partnerships, the product can be regarded as a showcase for Android’s most compelling features. But gone are the days of leading the pack with the latest version of the operating system. The fact that OnePlus devices already have Android 10 means Google’s going head to head against another reasonably price manufacturer of quality handsets.

google pixel 4 009

The Pixel line steps up a bit on the design side to distinguish the product from the “a” line. Google’s phones have never been as flashy as Samsung’s or Apple’s, and that’s still the case here, but a new dual-sided glass design (Gorilla Glass 5 on both), coupled with a metal band, does step up the premium feel a bit. The product is also a bit heavier and thicker than the 3, lending some heft to the device.

There are three colors now: black, white and a poppy “Oh So Orange,” which is available in limited quantities here in the U.S. The color power button continues to be a nice touch, lending a little character to the staid black and white devices. While the screen gets a nice update to 90Hz OLED, Google still has no interest in the world of notches or hole punches. Rather, it’s keeping pretty sizable bezels on the top and bottom.

The Pixel 4 gets a bit of a screen size boost from 5.5 to 5.7 inches, with an increase of a single pixel per inch, while the Pixel 4 XL stays put at 6.4 inches (with a PPI increase of 522 to 537). The dual front-facing camera has been ditched this time out, instead opting for the single eight megapixel, similar to what you’ll find on the 3a.

Storage hasn’t changed, with both 64 and 128GB options for both models; RAM has been bumped up to a default 6GB from 4GB last time out. The processor, too, is the latest and greatest from Qualcomm, bumping from a Snapdragon 845 to an 855. Interestingly, however, the batteries have actually been downgraded.

google pixel 4 013

The 4 and 4 XL sport a 2,800 and 3,700mAh, respectively. That should be augmented a bit by new battery-saving features introduced in Android 10, but even still, that’s not the direction you want to see these things going.

The camera is, in a word, great. Truth be told, I’ve been using it to shoot photos for the site since I got the phone last week. This Google Nest Mini review, Amazon Echo review and Virgin Galactic space suit news were all shot on the Pixel 4. The phone isn’t yet a “leave your DSLR at home” proposition, of course, but damn if it can’t take a fantastic photo in less than ideal and mixed light with minimal futzing around.

There’s no doubt that this represents a small but important shift in philosophy for Google. After multiple generations of suggesting that software solutions could do more than enough heavy lifting on image processing, the company’s finally bit the bullet and embraced a second camera. Sometimes forward progress means abandoning past stances. Remember when the company dug its heels in on keeping the headphone jack, only to drop it the following year?

google pixel 4 010

The addition of a second camera isn’t subtle, either. In fact, it’s hard to miss. Google’s adopted a familiar square configuration on the rear of the device. That’s just how phones look now, I suppose. Honestly, it’s fine once you conquer a bit of trypophobia, with a pair of lenses aligned horizontally and a sensor up top and flash on bottom — as one of last week’s presenters half joked, “we hope you’ll use it as a flash light.”

google pixel 4 008

That, of course, is a reference to the Pixel’s stellar low-light capabilities. It’s been a welcome feature, in an age where most smartphone users continue to overuse their flashes, completely throwing off the photo in the process. Perhaps the continued improvements will finally break that impulse in people — though I’m not really getting my hopes up on that front. Old habits, etc.

The 4 and 4 XL have the same camera set up, adopting the 12.2-megapixel (wide angle) lens from their predecessors and adding a 16-megapixel (telephoto) into the mix. I noted some excitement about the setup in my write-up. That’s not because the two-camera setup presents anything remarkable — certainly not in this area of three, four and five-camera flagships. It’s more about the groundwork that Google has laid out in the generations leading up to this device.

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Essentially it comes down to this: Look at what the company has been able to accomplish using software and machine learning with a single camera setup. Now add a second telephoto camera into the mix. See, Super High Res Zoom is pretty impressive, all told. But if you really want a tighter shot without degrading the image in the process, optical zoom is still very much the way to go.

There’s a strong case to be made that the Pixel 4’s camera is the best in class. The pictures speak for themselves. The aforementioned TechCrunch shots were done with little or no manual adjustments or post-processing. Google offers on-screen adjustments, like the new dual-exposure control, which lets you manually adjust brightness and shadow brightness on the fly. Honestly, though, I find the best way to test these cameras is to use them the way most buyers will: by pointing and shooting.

[gallery ids="1900084,1900086,1900087,1900088,1900090,1900091,1900092"]

The fact is that a majority of people who buy these handsets won’t be doing much fiddling with the settings. As such, it’s very much on handset makers to ensure that users get the best photograph by default, regardless of conditions. Once again, software is doing much of the heavy lifting. Super Res Zoom works well in tandem with the new lens, while Live HDR+ does a better job approximating how the image will ultimately look once fully processed. Portrait mode shots look great, and the device is capable of capturing them at variable depths, meaning you don’t have to stand a specific distance from the subject to take advantage of the well-done artificial bokeh.

Our video producer, Veanne, who is admittedly a far better photographer than I can ever hope to be, tested out the camera for the weekend. 

[gallery ids="1900045,1900046,1900047,1900048,1900049,1900050,1900051,1900052"]

Although Veanne was mostly impressed by the Pixel 4’s camera and photo editing capabilities, here are three major gripes.

“Digital zoom is garbage.”

Google Pixel 4 digital zoom is garbage

 

“In low lighting situations, you lose ambiance. Saturday evening’s intimate, warmly lit dinner looked like a cafeteria meal.”

Pixel 4 camera sample

 

“Bright images in low lighting gives you the impression that the moving objects would be in focus as well. That is not the case.”

Other additions round out the experience, including “Frequent Faces,” which learns the faces of subjects you frequently photograph. Once again, the company is quick to point out that the feature is both off by default and all of the processing happens on the device. Turning it off also deletes all of the saved information. Social features have been improved, as well, with quick access to third-party platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.

Google keeps pushing out improvements to Lens, as well. This time out, language translation, document scanning and text copy and pasting can be performed with a quick tap. Currently the language translation is still a bit limited, with only support for English, Spanish, German, Hindi and Japanese. More will be “rolling out soon,” per the company.

google pixel 4 003

Gestures is a strange one. I’m far from the first to note that Google is far from the first to attempt the feature. The LG G8 ThinQ is probably the most recent prominent example of a company attempting to use gestures as a way to differentiate themselves. To date, I’ve not seen a good implementation of the technology — certainly not one I could ever see myself actually using day to day.

The truth is, no matter how interesting or innovative a feature is, people aren’t going to adopt it if it doesn’t work as advertised. LG’s implementation was a pretty big disappointment.

Simply put, the Pixel’s gestures are not that. They’re better in that, well, they work, pretty much as advertised. This is because the underlying technology is different. Rather than relying on cameras like other systems, the handset uses Project Soli, a long-promised system that utilizes a miniature radar chip to detect far more precise movement.

Soli does, indeed work, but the precision is going to vary a good deal from user to user. The thing is, simply detecting movement isn’t enough. Soli also needs to distinguish intention. That means the system is designed to weed out accidental gestures of the manner we’re likely making all the time around our phones. That means the system appears to be calibrated to bigger, intentional movements.

picka 2

That can be a little annoying for things like advancing tracks. I don’t think there are all that many instances where waving one’s hands across a device Obi-Wan Kenobi-style is really saving all that much time or effort versus touching a screen. If, however, Google was able to customize the experience to the individual over time using machine learning, it could be a legitimately handy feature.

That brings us to the next important point: functionality. So you’ve got this neat new piece of tiny radar that you’re sticking inside your phone. You say it’s low energy and more private than a camera. Awesome! So, how do you suggest I, you know, use it?

There are three key ways, at the moment:

  • Music playback
  • Alarm Silencing
  • Waving at Pokémon

The first two are reasonably useful. The primary use case I can think of are when, say, your phone is sitting in front of you at your desk. Like mine is, with me, right now. Swiping my hand left to right a few inches above the device advances the track. Right to left goes a track back. The movements need to be deliberate, from one end of the device to the other.

And then there’s the phenomenon of “Pokémon Wave Hello.” It’s not really correct to call the title a game, exactly. It’s little more than a way of showcasing Motion Sense — albeit an extremely delightful way.

You might have caught a glimpse of it at the keynote the other day. It came and went pretty quickly. Suddenly Pikachu was waving at the audience, appearing out of nowhere like so many wild Snorlaxes. Just as quickly, he was gone.

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More than anything, it’s a showcase title for the technology. A series of five Pokémon, beginning with Pikachu, appear demanding you interact with them through a series of waves. It’s simple, it’s silly and you’ll finish the whole thing in about three minutes. That’s not really the point, though. Pokémon Wave Hello exists to:

  1. Get you used to gestures.
  2. Demonstrate functionality beyond simple features. Gaming, AR — down the road, these things could ultimately find fun and innovative ways to integrate Soli.

For now, however, use is extremely limited. There are some fun little bits, including dynamic wallpaper that reacts to movement. The screen also glows subtly when detecting you — a nice little touch (there’s a similar effect for Assistant, as well).

Perhaps most practical, however, is the fact that the phone can detect when you’re reaching for it and begin the unlocking process. That makes the already fast new Face Unlock feature ever faster. Google ditched the fingerprint reader this time around, opting for neither a physical sensor nor in-screen reader. Probably for the best on the latter front, given the pretty glaring security woes Samsung experienced last week when a British woman accidentally spoofed the reader with a $3 screen protector. Yeeesh.

There are some nice security precautions on here. Chief among them is the fact that the unlock is done entirely on-device. All of the info is saved and processed on the phone’s Titan M chip, meaning it doesn’t get sent up to the cloud. That both makes it a speedier process and means Google won’t be sharing your face data with its other services — a fact Google felt necessary to point out, for obvious reasons.

For a select few of us, at least, Recorder feels like a legitimate game changer. And its ease of use and efficacy should be leaving startups like Otter.ai quaking at its potential, especially if/when Google opts to bring it to other Android handsets and iOS.

I was initially unimpressed by the app upon trying it out at last week’s launch event. It struggles to isolate audio in noisy environments — likely as much of a hardware as software constraint. One on one and it’s far better, though attempting to, say, record audio from a computer can still use some work.

google pixel 4 004

Open the app and hit record and you’ll see a waveform pop up. The line is blue when detecting speech and gray when hearing other sounds. Tap the Transcript button and you’ll see the speech populate the page in real time. From there you can save it with a title and tag the location.

The app will automatically tag keywords and make everything else searchable for easy access. In its first version, it already completely blows Apple’s Voice Memos out of the water. There’s no comparison, really. It’s in a different league. Ditto for other apps I’ve used over the years, like Voice Record.

Speaking to the product, the recording was still a little hit or miss. It’s not perfect — no AI I’ve encountered is. But it’s pretty good. I’d certainly recommend going back over the text before doing anything with it. Like Otter and other voice apps, you can play back the audio as it highlights words, karaoke-style.

The text can be saved to Google Drive, but can’t be edited in app yet. Audio can be exported, but not as a combined file. The punctuation leaves something to be desired and Recorder is not yet able to distinguish individual voices. These are all things a number of standalone services offer, along with a web-based platform. That means that none of them are out of business yet, but if I was running any of them, I’d be pretty nervous right about now.

As someone who does interviews for a living, however, I’m pretty excited by the potential here. I can definitely see Recorder become one of my most used work apps, especially after some of the aforementioned kinks get ironed out in the next version. As for those who don’t do this for a living, usefulness is probably a bit limited, though there are plenty of other potential uses, like school lecturers.

google pixel 4 005

The Pixel continues to distinguish itself through software updates and camera features. There are nice additions throughout that set it apart from the six-month-old 3a, as well, including a more premium design and new 90Hz display. At $799, the price is definitely a vast improvement over competitors like Samsung and Apple, while retaining flagship specs.

The Pixel 4 doesn’t exactly address what Google wants the Pixel to be, going forward. The Pixel 3a was confirmation that users were looking for a far cheaper barrier of entry. The Pixel 4, on the other hand, is priced above OnePlus’s excellent devices. Nor is the product truly premium from a design perspective.

It’s unclear what the future will look like as Google works to address the shifting smartphone landscape. In the meantime, however, the future looks bright for camera imaging, and Google remains a driving force on that front.

The Surface Pro 7 is a competent upgrade with USB-C, refreshed processors, but little else that’s new

By Frederic Lardinois

I’ll be the first to admit that when the first generation Surface two-in-one launched, I wasn’t sure this was a device that people actually wanted to use. But Microsoft was clearly on to something, as the proliferation of Surface Pros among coffee shop dwellers clearly shows. Earlier this month, Microsoft announced both the seventh generation Surface Pro 7 and the Surface Pro X. The X is probably the most interesting update in the Surface Pro’s recent history, with a slimmer profile, larger screen, thinner bezels and plenty of new internals. But the Pro 7, which is going on sale today, starting at $749, is a competent upgrade that gives Surface Pro users exactly what they want — even if it sticks to a tried and tested formula.

surface pro 7 usb c

It’s pretty easy to sum up what’s new in the Surface Pro 7. There’s the new 10th-generation Intel chips and a USB-C port for both charging and attaching accessories. The Surface Pen and detachable keyboard remain optional — and somewhat pricey — accessories, though Microsoft tells me that a large percentage opt to get the type cover keyboard, with fewer opting for the pen. There are new colors for the accessories, though: poppy red (which is what Microsoft provided me with my test device and which is indeed very red) and ice blue. The type cover also feels a little bit stiffer, but that’s hard to quantify.

surface pro 7 red pen

The versions with Intel’s newest i3 and i5 chips are fanless, while the i7 version does have a fan.

And that’s pretty much it. The overall design remains the same, with its bezels that are starting to feel a bit too thick these days, and a thin strip of air vents around the sides. The kickstand is something Microsoft has pretty much perfected, so it’s no surprise that it remains virtually unchanged. While Microsoft added a single USB-C port, the plug for the Surface connector is also still there to help you charge your Surface or connect it to a docking station.

Because you’re mostly going to use a Pro on the go, I don’t think only having a single USB-A and USB-C port is a major issue. If you’re using it at home, then getting the $199 Surface Dock is likely the way to go, anyway.

As for the design, if it wasn’t for that USB-C port, you’d have a hard time telling the Pro 7 from the recent Surface Pros. Everything else looks pretty much identical to last the couple of iterations.

I’ve used the i5-powered Pro 7 while traveling over the course of the last few days. Microsoft promises that the new Intel chips are up to twice as fast as their predecessors. I’m sure those numbers work out in artificial benchmarks. In daily use, I noticed that using the device did indeed feel a bit smoother than the last few Surfaces I tested that fell into the same price range as this machine. I’m among those that barely use the pen, but when I do, the experience feels seamless, with no noticeable lag in most circumstances.

surface pro 7 red keyboard

Microsoft promises full-day battery life, and that’s pretty much what I got, too, using the Surface to write for a few hours on the plane, surfing the web during a layover and watching Netflix in the evening.

If you’re in the market for a Surface Pro, this is obviously the one to get. If you own a Pro 5 or 6 and you’re still happy with their performance, then there’s no real reason to upgrade. Depending on your use case, the Surface Pro X may be the one to get anyway, but that’s still two weeks out and we’ll have to see how well it performs in the real world and if it’s worth the higher starting price of $999. Come back in two weeks and we’ll let you know.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

The new iPhone is ugly

By Devin Coldewey

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit old-fashioned when it comes to phones. Everyone scoffs at my iPhone SE, but the truth is it’s the best phone Apple ever made — a beautiful, well designed object in just about every way. But damn is the iPhone 11 Pro ugly. And so are the newest phones from Samsung and Google, while we’re at it.

Let’s just get right to why the new iPhones are ugly, front and back. And sideways. We can start with the notch. Obviously it’s not new, but I thought maybe this would be some kind of generational anomaly that we’d all look back and laugh at in a year or two. Apparently it’s sticking around.

I know a lot of people have justified the notch to themselves in various ways — it technically means more raw screen space, it accommodates the carrier and battery icons, it’s necessary for unlocking the phone with your face.

Yeah, but it’s ugly.

If they removed the notch, literally no one would want the version with the notch, because it’s so plainly and universally undesirable. If Apple’s engineers could figure out a way to have no notch, they’d have done it by now, but they can’t and I bet they are extremely frustrated by that. They try to hide it with the special notch-camouflaging wallpaper whenever they can, which is as much as saying, “hey, we hate looking at it too.”

nonotch

You can forget for a few seconds. But in the back of your mind you know it’s there. Everyone knows.

It’s a prominent, ugly compromise (among several) necessitated by a feature no one asked for and people can’t seem to figure out if they even like or not. Notches are horrible and any time you see one, it means a designer cried themselves to sleep. To be fair that probably happens quite a bit. I grew up around designers and they can be pretty sensitive, like me.

I’m not a big fan of the rounded screen corners for a couple reasons, but I’ll let that go because I envision a future where it doesn’t matter. You remember how in Battlestar Galactica the corners were clipped off all the paper? We’re on our way.

Having the screen extend to the very edge of the device on the other hand isn’t exactly ugly, but it’s ugly in spirit. The whole front of the phone is an interface now, which would be fine if it could tell when you were gripping the screen for leverage and not to do something with it. As it is, every side and corner has some kind of dedicated gesture that you have to be wary of activating. It’s so bad people have literally invented a thing that sticks out from the back of your phone so you can hold it that way. Popsockets wouldn’t be necessary if you could safely hold your phone the way you’d hold any other object that shape.

 

iphone 11 pro

The back is ugly now, too. Man, is that camera bump bad. Bump is really the wrong word. It looks like the iPhone design team took a field trip to a maritime history museum, saw the deep sea diving helmets, and thought, Boom. That’s what we need. Portholes. To make our phone look like it could descend to 4,000 fathoms. Those helmets are actually really cool looking when they’re big and made of strong, weathered brass. Not on a thin, fragile piece of electronics. Here it’s just a huge, chunky combination of soft squares and weirdly arranged circles — five of them! — that completely take over the otherwise featureless rear side of the phone.

The back of the SE is designed to mirror the front, with a corresponding top and bottom “bezel.” In the best looking SE (mine) the black top bezel almost completely hides the existence of the camera (unfortunately there’s a visible flash unit); it makes the object more like an unbroken solid, its picture-taking abilities more magical. The camera is completely flush with the surface of the back, which is itself completely flush except for texture changes.

The back of the iPhone 11 Pro has a broad plain, upon which sits the slightly higher plateau of the camera assembly. Above that rise the three different little camera volcanoes, and above each of those the little calderas of the lenses. And below them the sunken well of the microphone. Five different height levels, producing a dozen different heights and edges! Admittedly the elevations aren’t so high, but still.

hero gallery color story m6kjl7t4boqm large

If it was a dedicated camera or another device that by design needed and used peaks and valleys for grip or eyes-free navigation, that would be one thing. But the iPhone is meant to be smooth, beautiful, have a nice handfeel. With this topographic map of Hawaii on the back? Have fun cleaning out the grime from in between the volcanoes, then knocking the edge of the lens against a table as you slide the phone into your hand.

Plus it’s ugly.

The sides of the phones aren’t as bad as the front and back, but we’ve lost a lot since the days of the SE. The geometric simplicity of the + and – buttons, the hard chamfered edge that gave you a sure grip, the black belts that boldly divided the sides into two strips and two bows. And amazingly, due to being made of actual metal, the more drops an SE survives, the cooler it looks.

The sides of the new iPhones look like bumpers from cheap model cars. They look like elongated jelly beans, with smaller jelly beans stuck on that you’re supposed to touch. Gross.

That’s probably enough about Apple. They forgot about good design a long time ago, but the latest phones were too ugly not to call out.

Samsung has a lot of the same problems as Apple. Everyone has to have an “edge to edge” display now, and the Galaxy S10 is no exception. But it doesn’t really go to the edge, does it? There’s a little bezel on the top and bottom, but the bottom one is a little bigger. I suppose it reveals the depths of my neurosis to say so, but that would never stop bugging me if I had one. If it was a lot bigger, like HTC’s old “chins,” I’d take it as a deliberate design feature, but just a little bigger? That just means they couldn’t make one small enough.

sung 10

As for the display slipping over the edges, it’s cool looking in product photos, but I’ve never found it attractive in real life. What’s the point? And then from anywhere other than straight on, it makes it look more lopsided, or like you’re missing something on the far side.

Meanwhile it not only has bezels and sometime curves, but a hole punched out of the front. Oh my god!

Here’s the thing about a notch. When you realize as a phone designer that you’re going to have to take over a big piece of the front, you also look at what part of the screen it leaves untouched. In Apple’s case it’s the little horns on either side — great, you can at least put the status info there. There might have been a little bit left above the front camera and Face ID stuff, but what can you do with a handful of vertical pixels? Nothing. It’ll just be a distraction. Usually there was nothing interesting in the middle anyway. So you just cut it all out and go full notch.

Samsung on the other hand decided to put the camera in the top right, and keep a worthless little rind of screen all around it. What good is that part of the display now? It’s too small to show anything useful, yet the hole is too big to ignore while you’re watching full-screen content. If their aim was to make something smaller and yet even more disruptive than a notch, mission accomplished. It’s ugly on all the S10s, but the big wide notch-hole combo on the S10 5G 6.7″ phablet is the ugliest.

galaxy s10 camera

The decision to put all the rear cameras in a long window, like the press box at a hockey game, is a bold one. There’s really not much you can do to hide 3 giant lenses, a flash, and that other thing. Might as well put them front and center, set off with a black background and chrome rim straight out of 2009. Looks like something you’d get pointed at you at the airport. At least the scale matches the big wide “SAMSUNG” on the back. Bold — but ugly.

Google’s Pixel 4 isn’t as bad, but it’s got its share of ugly. I don’t need to spend too much time on it, though, because it’s a lot of the same, except in pumpkin orange for Halloween season. I like the color orange generally, but I’m not sure about this one. Looks like a seasonal special phone you pick up in a blister pack from the clearance shelf at Target, the week before Black Friday — two for $99, on some cut-rate MVNO. Maybe it’s better in person, but I’d be afraid some kid would take a bite out of my phone thinking it’s a creamsicle.

pixel 4

The lopsided bezels on the front are worse than the Samsung’s, but at least it looks deliberate. Like they wanted to imply their phone is smart so they gave it a really prominent forehead.

 

I will say that of the huge, ugly camera assemblies, the Pixel’s is the best. It’s more subtle, like being slapped in the face instead of kicked in the shins so hard you die. And the diamond pattern is more attractive for sure. Given the square (ish) base, I’m surprised someone on the team at Google had the rather unorthodox idea to rotate the cameras 45 degrees. Technically it produces more wasted space, but it looks better than four circles making a square inside a bigger, round square.

And it looks a hell of a lot better than three circles in a triangle, with two smaller circles just kind of hanging out there, inside a bigger, round square. That iPhone is ugly!

HTC releases a cheaper blockchain phone

By Brian Heater

Whatever you might say about HTC (and believe me, there’s plenty to say), at least the company takes some fascinating chance. As newly minted CEO Yves Maitre admitted to me at Disrupt a couple of weeks back, the once mighty smartphone giant has lost the thread in recent years. But if nothing else, the Exodus project marks a glimpse at some potential smartphone future.

With this weekend’s launch of the Exodus 1s at Berlin’s Lightning conference, HTC aims to make it clear that the project is more than just a one-off. The new device lowers the barrier of entry to €219 (~$244). All said, not a bad price for those looking to dabble in the technology. Oh, and obviously it’s available in all of the various equivalent cryptocurrencies.

Exodus1s 6V 19Oct1

The specs are fittingly pretty dismal. There’s a Snapdragon 435, running Android 8.1. The screen is a 5.7 inch HD+, coupled with a decent 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. Oh, and there’s a microUSB port and, good news, a headphone jack. Honestly, it’s a pretty low-end device, all told.

The big difference here being the the inclusion of a hardware wallet and Bitcoin node access. “We gave users the ability to own their own keys, and now we’ve gone one step further to allow users to run their own full Bitcoin node,” HTC’s Phil Chen said in a release tied to the news. “We are providing the tools for access to universal basic finance; the tools to have a metaphorical Swiss bank in your pocket.”

Exodus1s PerRight 19Oct1

Maitre told me the other week he still believes mainstream use of blockchain on these devices is more than two or three years out. What the 1s provides, however, is an inexpensive way to see what the technology provides today. Interested parties in Europe, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE can order it online starting today.

Exclusive: 2019 HAX report reveals hardware startup trends

By Matt Burns

Hardware startups are expanding from the world of consumer tech; global hardware accelerator HAX knows this better than most and details the latest trends in its yearly report. One of the most active early-stage hardware investors, the group today released exclusively to TechCrunch its yearly report with insights on hardware startups.

The report highlighted several vital insights: hardware companies are increasingly entering the public market, and more privately-held hardware startups are exceeding a valuation of $1 billion. Of those unicorns, more than 50% are Chinese hardware companies.

New Nvidia Shield Android TV streaming device leaks via Amazon listing

By Darrell Etherington

The fact that Nvidia is updating its Shield TV hardware has already been telegraphed via an FCC filing, but a leak earlier today paints much more of a detailed picture. An Amazon listing for a new Nvidia Shield Pro set-top streaming device went live briefly before being taken down, showing a familiar hardware design and a new remote control and listing some of the forthcoming feature updates new to this generation of hardware.

The listing, captured by the eagle-eyed Android TV Rumors and shared via Twitter, includes a $199.99 price point, specs that include 3GB of RAM, 2x USB ports, a new Nvidia Tegra X1+ chip and 16GB of on-board storage. In addition to the price, the Amazon listing had a release date for the new hardware of October 28.

If this Amazon page is accurate (and it looks indeed like an official product page that one would expect from Nvidia), the new Shield TV’s processor will be “up to 25% faster than the previous generation,” and will offer “next-generation AI upscaling” for improving the quality of HD video on 4K-capable displays.

It’ll offer support for Dolby Vision HDR, plus surround sound with Dolby Atmos support, and provide “the most 4K HDR content of any streaming media player.” There’s also built-in Google Assistant support, which was offered on the existing hardware, and it’ll work with Alexa for hands-free control.

The updated @Nvisia Shield TV is on https://t.co/er7yzgQKLY ?
Comes with Dolby Vison, new Tegra X1 + processorhttps://t.co/IXOFlEvVCS pic.twitter.com/TGEWEZD2zM

Android TV Rumors (@androidtv_rumor) October 17, 2019

The feature photos for the listing show a new remote control, which has a pyramid-like design, as well as a lot more dedicated buttons on the face. There’s backlighting, and an IR blaster for TV control, as well as a “built-in lost remote locator” according to the now-removed Amazon page.

This Amazon page certainly paints a comprehensive picture of what to expect, and it looks like a compelling update to be sure. The listing is gone now, however, so stay tuned to find out if this is indeed the real thing, and if this updated streamer will indeed be available soon.

UPDATE: Yet another Nvidia leak followed the first, this time through retailer Newegg (via The Verge). This is different, however, and features a Shield TV device (no “Pro” in the name) that has almost all the same specs, but a much smaller design that includes a microSD card, and seems to have half the amount of on-board storage (8GB versus 16GB) and a retail price of around $150.

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Logitech’s MX Master 3 mouse and MX Keys keyboard should be your setup of choice

By Darrell Etherington

Logitech recently introduced a new mouse and keyboard, the MX Master 3 ($99.99) and MX Keys ($99.99) respectively. Both devices borrow a lot from other, older hardware in Logitech’s lineup — but they build on what the company has gotten really right with input devices, and add some great new features to make these easily the best option out there when it comes to this category of peripherals.

Logitech MX Keys

This new keyboard from Logitech inherits a lot from the company’s previous top-of-the-line keyboard aimed at creatives, the Logitech Craft keyboard. It looks and feels a lot like the premium Craft — minus the dial that Logitech placed at the top of that keyboard, which worked with companion software to offer a variety of different controls for a number of different applications.

The Craft’s dial was always a bit of a curiosity, and while probably extremely useful for certain creative workflows, where having a tactile dial control makes a lot of sense (for scrubbing a video timeline during editing, for instance), in general the average user probably isn’t going to need or use it much.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 5The MX Keys doesn’t have the Craft’s dial, and it takes up less space on your desk as a result. It also costs $70 less than the Craft, which is probably something most people would rather have than the unique controller. The MX Keys still have excellent key travel and typing feel, like its bigger sibling, and it also has smart backlighting that turns on automatically when your hand approaches the keys — and which you can adjust or turn off to suit your preference (and extend battery life).

MX Keys has a built-in battery that charges via USB-C, and provides up to 10 days of use on a full charge when using the backlight, or up to five months if you disable the backlight entirely. For connectivity, you get both Bluetooth and Logitech’s USB receiver, which also can connect to other Logitech devices like the MX Master series of mice.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 3The keyboard can connect to up to three devices at once, with dedicated buttons to switch between them. It supports Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS out of the box, and has multi-marked keys to make it easier to transition between operating systems. Plus, when you’re using the MX Keys in tandem with the MX Master 3 or other Logitech mice that support its Flow software, you can transition seamlessly between computers and even operating systems, for doing things like copying and pasting files.

AT $99.99, the MX Keys feels like an incredible value, as it offers very premium-feeling hardware in an attractive package, with a suite of features that’s hard to match in a keyboard from anyone else — including first-party peripherals from Microsoft and Apple .

Logitech MX Master 3

When it comes to mice, there are few companies that can match Logitech’s reputation or record. The MX Master series in particular has won plenty of fans — and for good reason.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 9The MX Master 3 doesn’t re-invent the wheel — except that it literally does, in the case of the scroll wheel. Logitech has introduced a new-school wheel with “MagSpeed” technology that switches automatically between fluid scrolling and more fine-grained, pixel-precise control. The company claims the new design is 90% faster and 87% more precise than its previous scroll wheel, which is pretty much an impossible claim to verify through standard use. That said, it does feel like a better overall scrolling experience, and the claim that it’s now “ultra quiet” is easy to confirm.

Logitech has also tweaked the shape of the mouse, with a new silhouette it says is better suited to matching the shape of your palm. That new shape is complimented with a new thumb scroll wheel, which has always been a stellar feature of the Master series and which, again, does feel better in actual use, though it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why. Regardless, it feels better than the Master 2S, and that’s all that really matters.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 10In terms of tracking, Logitech’s Darkfield technology is here to provide effective tracking on virtually all surfaces. It tracks at 4,000 DPI, which is industry-leading for accuracy, and you can adjust sensitivity, scroll direction and other features in Logitech’s desktop software. The MX Master 3 also supports up to three devices at once, and works with Flow to copy and past between different operating systems.

One of the most noteworthy changes on the MX Master 3 is that it gains USB-C for charging, replacing Micro USB, which is fantastic news for owners of modern Macs who want to simplify their cable lives and just stick with one standard where possible. Because that matches up with the USB-C used on the MX Keys, that means you can just use one cable for charging both when needed. The MX Master 3 gets up to 70 days on a full charge, and you can gain three hours of use from a fully exhausted battery with just one minute of charging.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 7Bottom line

Logitech has long been a leader in keyboard and mice for very good reason, and the company’s ability to iterate on its existing successes with improvements that are smart and make sense is impressive. The MX Keys is probably the best keyboard within its price range that you can get right now — and better than a lot of more premium-priced hardware. The MX Master 3 is without a doubt the only mouse I’d recommend for most people, especially now that it offers USB-C charging alongside its terrific feature set. Combined, they’re a powerful desktop pair for work, creative and general use.

Farewell, Google Clips

By Brian Heater

Amid a slew of updated hardware, Clips has gone missing from Google’s online store. Odds are you probably don’t remember what Clips is. If you do, odds are you’re not surprised by this turn of events.

We’ve reached out to company to confirm whether this is, indeed, definitively the end for the niche device. All I can say for now is that the future doesn’t look bright for a product neither reviewers, consumers nor Google itself figured out. One the company knew for sure what that the Clips was unequivocally not a life-logging camera. The answer of what it was, however, was a far more difficult one.

The device was a kind of showcase for the company’s AI technologies, designed to capture candid life moments, so users weren’t stuck behind their cameras. I reviewed it and if nothing else got this fun Gif of my rabbit, Lucy:

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So not a total loss, I guess. Certainly not enough to justify paying $249, however. One colleague jokingly asking me ahead of this week’s Pixel event whether a Clips 2 was on the way. I suppose we know the answer now.

The discovery follows news that the company has discontinued its Daydream View, VR headset. Such is the Google circle of life. The lukewarmly reviewed first-gen Pixel Buds have been pulled from the store, as well. That line, at least, still has a future

Sentons launches SurfaceWave, a processor and tech to create software-defined surfaces that supercharge touch and gesture

By Ingrid Lunden

As handset makers continue to work on ways of making smartphones more streamlined and sleek, while at the same time introducing new features that will get people buying more devices, a startup that is pioneering something called “software-defined” surfaces — essentially, using ultrasound and AI to turn any kind of material, and any kind of surface, into one that will respond to gestures, touch and other forces — is setting out its stall to help them and other hardware makers change up the game.

Sentons, the startup out of Silicon Valley that is building software-defined surface technology, is today announcing the launch of SurfaceWave, a processor and accompanying gesture engine that can be used in smartphones and other hardware to create virtual wheels and buttons to control and navigate apps and features on the devices themselves. The SurfaceWave processor and engine are available to “any mobile manufacturer.”

Before this, Sentons had already inked direct deals to test market interest in its technology. There were already three smartphones released — two of which were only sold in Asia (models and customer names undisclosed by Sentons) and one of which is made by Asus in partnership with Tencent, the Republic of Gamers phone (the Air Triggers are powered by Sentons). Jess Lee, the company’s CEO, told me in an interview that there are another 10-12 devices “in process” right now due to be released in coming cycles. He would not comment on whether his former employer is one of them.

Sentons has been around since 2011, but very much under the radar until this year, when it announced that Lee — who had been at Apple, after his previous company, the cutting-edge imaging startup InVisage, was acquired by the iPhone maker — was coming on as CEO.

The company has quietly raised about $35 million from two investors; NEA and Lee confirmed to me that it’s currently raising another, probably larger, round. (Given the company’s partnership with Tencent and Asus, those are two companies I would think are candidates as strategic investors.)

The sound of silence

Sentons’ core idea is focused around sound — specifically ultra sound.

posterImage 4813Its system is based around a processor that emits ultrasonic “pings” (similar to sonar array, the company says, which is used for example on submarines to navigate and communicate) to detect physical movement and force on the surface of an object. The company says that this technique is much more sophisticated than capacitive touch that has been used on smartphones up to now, because combined with Sentons’ algorithms it can measure force and intent as well as touch.

Combined with the processor that emits the pings and houses the gesture engine, Sentons also uses “sensor modules” around the perimeter of a device to detect when those pings are interrupted. The system trains itself and can adjust both to temporal “buttons” and also other unintended things like when a screen cracks and your gestures move over to a different area of the phone.

Asus ROG 350x176Gaming — the main use case for Asus’s ROG phone — is an obvious category ripe for software-defined surfaces. The medium always strives for more immersive experiences, and as more games are either natively made for phones, or ported there because of the popularity of mobile gaming, handset makers and publishers are always trying to come up with ways to enhance what is, ultimately, very limited real estate (even with larger screens). Using any and all parts of a device to experience motion and other physical responses, and to control the game, is a natural fit for what Sentons has built.

But the bigger picture and longer-term goal is to apply Sentons’ technology for other uses on devices — photography and building enhanced camera tools is one obvious example — and on other “hardware,” like connected cars, clothes and even the human body, as Sentons’ technology can also work on and through human tissue.

“Every surface is an opportunity,” Lee said, noting that conversations around health and medical technology are still very early, while other areas like wearables and automotive are seeing “engagement” already. “In the cabin of a vehicle, you have a wealth of tactile materials, whether it’s leather dashboards or metal buttons, and all of those are extremely interesting to us,” he added.

At the same time, the more immediate opportunity for Sentons is the mobile industry.

Smartphone sales have slowed down, and for some vendors declined, in recent years; and while some of that might have to do with premium device prices continuing to climb, and much higher smartphone penetration globally, some have laid the blame in part on a lack of innovation. Specifically, newer phones are just not providing enough “must have” new features to merit making a purchase of a new device if you already have one.

You could argue that making a technology like this widely available and open to all comers might make those who are trying to make their devices stand out with special features less inclined to jump on the bandwagon.

“Yes, you could say there is more value in scarcity, an approach we took in the last company,” Lee said, referring to InVisage and how very under the radar it was before being snapped up by Apple.

However, he thinks a different approach is needed here. “Whether we launched this platform to everyone or not, the gates have opened, the piñata has broken, and we see a lot more opportunities and want to go for them,” he said.

“You can call it a multi-pronged approach,” he continued, “but ensuring the adoption of software-defined interactions [by trying to work with as many companies as possible] gets the technology or use out there quickly.” He noted that when a new gesture is introduced on devices, it can take time for the world to absorb it, “and we are positive there will be followers, perhaps with different technology, that will compete with us, so a broad launch is what we are going for.”

Samsung confirms glaring S10 fingerprint reader flaw, promises fix

By Brian Heater

Galaxy S10 users should turn on some alternative security features as Samsung works to address a major flaw with the device’s in-screen fingerprint sensor. The consumer electronics giant noted the issue today after a British user reported the ability to unlock her device with unregistered fingerprints.

The flaw was discovered after placing a $3.50 screen protector on the device, confirming earlier reports that adding one could introduce an air gap that interfered with the ultrasonic scanner. The company noted the issue in a statement, telling the press that it was, “aware of the case of S10’s malfunctioning fingerprint recognition and will soon issue a software patch.”

Third-party companies, including Korean bank KaKaoBank, have suggested users turn off the reader until the issue is addressed. That certainly appears to be the most logical course of action until the next software update.

When it hit the market back in March, the company touted the technology as one of the industry’s most secure biometric features, noting that it was, “engineered to be more secure than a traditional 2D optical scanner, the industry-first Ultrasonic Fingerprint ID, with sensors embedded in the display, reads the 3D contours of your physical fingerprint to keep your phone and data safe. This advanced biometric security technology earned the Galaxy S10 the world’s first FIDO Alliance Biometric Component certification.”

Samsung has warned against the use of screen protectors previously, but the ability to fool the product with a cheap off the shelf mobile accessory clearly presents a major and unexpected security concern for Galaxy users. We’ve reached out to Samsung for further comment.

Update: Samsung provided TechCrunch the following comment. We are investigating this issue and will be deploying a software patch soon. We encourage any customers with questions or who need support downloading the latest software to contact us directly at 1-800-SAMSUNG.

Amazon’s Echo gets a decent-sounding refresh

By Brian Heater

Amazon seemingly didn’t realize what it had on its hands with the original Echo. Released five and a half years back for a select number of Amazon Prime users, the first Alexa device ushered in a consumer electronics revolution.

According to numbers from Canalys, 26.1 million smart speakers were shipped in Q2 2019. That’s a hefty 55.4% growth from the year prior, with Amazon capturing just over a quarter of the total global market. Much of Amazon’s growth (up 61% y-o-y) is courtesy of its rapidly growing line, which now ranges from the $50 Echo Dot to the $200 Echo Studio.

At $100, the Echo sits right in the middle. And unlike Google, which has left the Home largely unchanged during its two-year existence, Amazon’s now on the third generation for its own base-level device.

The latest version of the device, announced at an Alexa event at Amazon HQ in Seattle earlier this month, ditches the swappable face gimmick of the previous generation. Instead, the company has focused on the speaker part of the smart speaker. It was something that was too often neglected by earlier devices, which were primarily viewed as a conduit for voice assistants.

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Of course, if someone is simply looking for a cheap and easy way to introduce a smart assistant into their home, they can pick up an Echo Dot or Nest Mini for a fraction of the price — or, for that matter, the $25 Echo Flex wall plug.

The new Echo slots pretty nicely between the Dot and Studio, Amazon’s new HomePod competitor. It’s probably not where you want to do all of your music listening, but it’s a nice addition to a desk at home or work, or a room like the kitchen where music listening is secondary. More importantly, software updates like stereo pairing with two Echo devices and multi-room music, paired with hardware add-ons like Echo Sub, Link and Input, have made the $99 product a potential addition to a larger, better sound system.

The third-generation Echo certainly marks an improvement sound-wise over earlier models. It offers decent 360 sound and surprisingly heavy bass, courtesy of a 3.0-inch woofer and 0.8-inch tweeter. There’s also a 3.5-inch audio jack for inputting or outputting sound. The setup is essentially the same as last year’s Echo Plus, only without the increasingly less important smart home hub functionality.

In fact, the device looks almost identical to the second-gen Echo Plus, leaving many wondering if the product is long for this world. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the company phase out the product entirely after selling through this batch during the holiday season.

amazon echo 2019

With four different colors, the Echo should fit in well with most surroundings. The rounded, fabric-covered model is a far cry from the early days of hard plastic. There is a prominent light ring up top to let you know when the Echo is listening, along with a quartet of buttons: volume up/down, microphone and the action button, which performs a variety of tasks, including firing up Alexa and turning off timers.

Maybe it’s the fact that I just reviewed the Nest Mini, but touch functionality would be a nice addition here. When you move your hand toward the speaker while it’s playing music, a pair of lights illuminate for volume. Tapping the middle of the device would play or pause music. It’s a simple but handy addition.

All in all, solid additions on the hardware front, coupled with the continued addition of things like selectable music services make for a solid upgrade to the company’s base smart speaker.

The FrankOne is a simple and portable coffee brewing gadget

By Devin Coldewey

The FrankOne coffee maker, fresh off a successful crowdfunding campaign, is now available for purchase, and I got a chance to test out one of the first run of these funky little gadgets. While it won’t replace my normal pourover or a larger coffee machine, it’s a clever, quick and portable way to make a cup.

Designer Eduardo Umaña pitched me the device a little more than a year ago, and I was taken by the possibility of vacuum brewing — and the fact that, amazingly, until now no one from Colombia had made a coffee maker (it’s named after Frank de Paula Santander, who kicked off the coffee trade there). But would the thing actually work?

In a word, yes. I’ve tested the FrankOne a few times in my home, and, while I have a couple reservations, it’s a coffee making device that I can see myself actually using in a number of circumstances.

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The device works quite simply. Ground coffee goes in the top, and then you pour in the hot (not boiling!) water and stir it a bit — 30-50 seconds later, depending on how you like it, you hit the button and a pump draws the liquid down through a mesh filter and into the carafe below. It’s quick and almost impossible to mess up.

The resulting coffee is good — a little bit light, I’d say, but you can adjust the body with the size of the grounds and the steeping time. I tend to find a small amount of sediment at the bottom, but less than you’d get in a cup of French press.

Because it’s battery powered (it should last for ~200 cups and is easily recharged) and totally waterproof, cleaning it is a snap, especially if you have a garbage disposal. Just dump it and rinse it, give it a quick wipe and it’s good to go. It gets a bit more fussy if you don’t have a disposal, but what doesn’t?

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I can see this being a nice way to quickly and simply make coffee while camping — I usually do a French press, but sometimes drip, and both have their qualities and limitations. The FrankOne would be for making a single cup when I don’t want to have to stand by the pourover cone or deal with disassembling the French press for cleaning.

It’s also, I am told by Umaña, great for cold brew. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t really like cold brew, but I know many do, and Umaña promises the FrankOne works wonders in a very short time — four minutes rather than an hour. I haven’t tested that, because cold brew tastes like bitter chocolate milk to me, but I sincerely doubt he would mention it as many times as he did if it didn’t do what he said.

There are, I feel, three downsides. First, you’re pretty much stuck with using the included glass carafe, because the device has to create a seal around the edge with its silicone ring. It didn’t fit in my biggest mug, but you might find an alternative should the carafe (which I have no complaints about — it’s attractive and sturdy) crack or get lost.

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Second, it doesn’t produce a lot of coffee. The top line as indicated in the reservoir is probably about 10-12 ounces — about the size of a “tall” at a coffee shop. Usually that’s a perfect amount for me, but it definitely means this is a single-serving device, not for making a pot to share.

And third, for the amount of coffee it produces, I feel like it uses a lot of grounds. Not a crazy amount, but maybe 1.5-2x what goes into my little Kalita dripper — which is admittedly pretty economical. But it’s just something to be aware of. Maybe I’m using too much, though.

I reviewed the Geesaa a little while back, and while it’s a cool device, it was really complex and takes up a lot of space. If I wanted to give it to a friend I’d have to make them download the app, teach them about what I’d learned worked best, share my “recipes” and so on. There was basically a whole social network attached to that thing.

This is much, much easier to use — and compact, to boot. It’s a good alternative to classic methods that doesn’t try to be more than a coffee maker. At $120 it’s a bit expensive, but hey, maybe you spend that on coffee in a month.

And by the way, you can use the discount code “TC” at checkout to get 10% off — this isn’t a paid post or anything, Umaña’s just a nice guy!

Sony’s next console is…the PlayStation 5, arriving holidays 2020

By Brian Heater

Part of me wishes Sony had gone for something a little flashier. The PlayStation Unicorn or PlayStation Trebuchet or something. But there’s something to be said for consistency. Simplicity. The next version of Sony’s perennial favorite gaming console will be, drumroll…the PlayStation 5.

The company notes that nothing is particularly revelatory in this morning’s reveal. That information, it seems, is still coming. And there’s still plenty of time and lots of gaming-centric shows in which the company can spill more about the system. “These updates may not be a huge surprise,” SIE President and CEO Jim Ryan writes, “but we wanted to confirm them for our PlayStation fans, as we start to reveal additional details about our vision for the next generation.”

There’s a smattering of additional details. Ryan highlights the upcoming system’s controllers, for one thing. There’s new haptic feedback on board, in place of the more traditional rumble technology that’s been around for some time. That should give a better approximation of the simulated experiences during game play.

Also new is “adaptive triggers,” which are being added to the L2 and R2 buttons. Ryan again,

Developers can program the resistance of the triggers so that you feel the tactile sensation of drawing a bow and arrow or accelerating an off-road vehicle through rocky terrain. In combination with the haptics, this can produce a powerful experience that better simulates various actions. Game creators have started to receive early versions of the new controller, and we can’t wait to see where their imagination goes with these new features at their disposal.

The PlayStation 5 will be available in time for the 2020 holiday season. More information soon, one assumes. 

Amazon introduces a Kindle for kids

By Brian Heater

While it’s true that many parents are doing their best to reduce screen time as much as possible, there’s something to be said for the Kindle Kids Edition. The best and worst thing about the device are its limitations. It’s purpose built for reading, and that’s about it.

For that reason, the Kindle line makes a lot of sense to get the kid treatment. Kids can’t really play games or get into too much trouble on the E Ink display — not any more than they’d be able to get into that the local library, at least. The Dewey Decimal system is a gateway to all sorts of shenanigans.

From the looks of it, the Kindle Kids Edition is basically a repurposing of the standard Kindle — much as Amazon did with the Echo Dot. It’s got a six-inch, 167 PPI E Ink screen with a front light, coupled with the standard weeks-long battery. The color, drop-friendly case is included in the $200 price. As is one year of FreeTime Unlimited and a two-year warrantee. There also are a slew of different kid-friendly features, including activity badges, kid wallpaper and vocabulary building tools.

A few weeks after introducing a ridiculous number of new Echo devices, the company is revealing a bunch of new kid-focused products in addition to the new Kindle. There’s a new version of the Fire 10 Kids Edition, featuring 12 hours of battery and a USB-C port — the latter of which appears to a first for these Fire devices.

FreeTime, meanwhile, will also be arriving on Fire TV, first through the Fire TV Stick, followed by Fire TV Edition smart TVs. Echo Show devices are getting access to the app, as well.

iPhone 11 Pro is the most accessible iPhone yet

By Henry Pickavet
Steven Aquino Contributor
Steven Aquino is a freelance tech writer and iOS accessibility expert.

Last year’s iPhone was an outlier for me. Although I reviewed the then-new iPhone XS line, the model I ultimately chose for myself was the “lesser” iPhone XR. I chose it mostly for aesthetic reasons. As much as I appreciated its well-rounded technical merits, I was downright giddy at the notion I could have an iPhone in my favorite color: blue. I’ve not once regretted my choice nearly a year later. Color aside, the XR was—and remains—a terrific device.

At a fundamental level, choosing the iPhone XR was more significant than a favorite color or a willingness to accept some technical differences. As a visually impaired person, foregoing the XS meant I was purposely giving up a pivotal accessibility feature—the OLED screen—that would have made my experience with the device more accessible. In hindsight, the fact I decided on the objectively worse phone in the XR speaks volumes about how great it was as a product, and how color can spark such raw, immense delight.

This year, there is no blue iPhone. Without the emotional appeal of color in the equation, I’m reminded once again why the best iPhone money can buy—the iPhone 11 Pro Max—is the best, most accessible iPhone for me.

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The Awesomeness of OLED

Apple provided me with two review units: one white iPhone 11 and one midnight green iPhone 11 Pro Max. As of this writing, I’ve had both phones for close to two weeks and I’ve spent roughly a week with each phone. I also have my year-old XR handy as a reference tool.

While I have spent lengthy time with OLED displays before—my iPhone X had one and, on a much smaller scale, every Apple Watch has had one—coming back after a year with my XR’s Liquid Retina LCD screen was quite literally eye-opening. Even with my poor eyesight, I immediately could notice a substantial difference in quality after putting my XR (and iPhone 11) side by side with the 11 Pro Max. For two years now, Apple has rightfully boasted about the XR’s (now 11) LCD screen being the best in the industry. It is ridiculously good, but the Pro’s OLED display is itself so good that I’ve wondered during testing how I was able to live happily with my XR last year.

In practice, the Super Retina XDR display on the 11 Pro Max is appreciably better in all phases. In addition to being physically larger (albeit not by much), the 11 Pro Max display’s brightness and sharpness make everything I see on my device much easier. It reduces eye strain and fatigue, which are constant battles for me. iOS 13’s new dark mode looks fantastic on OLED screens; I have it set to automatically switch from light to dark at sundown, and use apps like Twitter and Things in their pitch black modes at nighttime. Although there are dark mode skeptics, I personally find it to be a welcome reprieve during evening hours, and the credit is due to the Pro’s OLED display.

I started my testing with the iPhone 11 Pro Max for a few days, then switched to the regular 11 for another few days. After using both, knowing their respective screen technologies, I instantly knew which model I preferred. I could use the iPhone 11 with no problem, but having access to both phones reaffirmed to me just how superior OLED is for my vision. For my needs, it’s OLED or bust.

Apple iPhone 11

Three years with Face ID

I’ve written about my trials with Face ID before. As we collectively enter our third year with Apple’s facial recognition system, I think it’s worth briefly examining where it stands in context of the new iPhones and accessibility.

Apple says Face ID in the new iPhones is “up to 30 percent faster” while working from further away and at more angles than before. I cannot tell how much better it is in these regards; it’s Face ID and it seems to work just as well as it ever has. My strabismus still seems to wreak havoc on the phones’ TrueDepth camera system.

I set up Face ID on my 11 Pro Max and turned off Require Attention so that I needn’t look directly at the camera to unlock my phone. (When you do this, Apple blasts a modal alert on screen saying Face ID won’t be as secure as it could be. Fair enough, but it’s a trade-off I have to make in order to use it.) It’s worked like a charm, as usual.

What’s interesting, though, is what happened when I switched to the regular iPhone 11. I set up Face ID, but forgot to go into Settings and disable Require Attention. I suddenly realized this the other day, as I had clearly forgotten Face ID settings don’t sync from device to device. In hindsight it’s impressive how much Face ID has seemingly improved at recognizing my gaze. Whether it’s purposeful on Apple’s part, I don’t know, but I think it’s telling that I was unlocking my phone and paying for Lyft rides pretty much hassle-free for days with Require Attention on by default.

My strabismus still makes me an edge case, so I prefer Require Attention be disabled, as it’s the path of least resistance. Yet the happy accident I had regarding Require Attention led to a pleasant surprise. I can’t say it’s directly attributable to this generation of Face ID, but it’s an improvement regardless.

Adieu, 3D Touch

Like the much-maligned Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro, I have long been an ardent supporter of 3D Touch. I wrote about how it could positively impact accessibility when in debuted with the iPhone 6s four years ago, and missed it with my XR.

Apple’s removal of 3D Touch lends credence to the cons I outlined in my 2015 piece—namely, that it was too complex (for users and Apple) and it was too undiscoverable. The Apple community at large has felt this way about the feature since the beginning, especially bemoaning how it never percolated across iOS devices, most notably the iPad.

iOS 13 has brought Haptic Touch, first introduced with the iPhone XR last year, as a replacement for 3D Touch. It’s more or less equivalent; iOS 13 has expanded Haptic Touch’s scope so as to pick up many of 3D Touch’s tricks. These include Quick Actions on home screen icons and message previews in Mail and Messages. And importantly of course, these features work on iPads running iPadOS.

From an accessibility perspective, I have enjoyed having access to these shortcuts again on my iPhone 11 review units. I missed them during my time with the XR until now; the contextual menus throughout the OS really do cut down on excessive swiping and tapping. I like how Apple has grown Haptic Touch for the most part. I cannot tell an appreciable functional difference between it and 3D Touch in terms, say, starting a new email or text message from the home screen.

Where I believe Haptic Touch is a regression from 3D Touch is in performance. Accessing Quick Actions or link previews, for instance, feels like it takes forever relative to before. It isn’t so bad to the point that it’s unusable, but it’s definitely noticeable. More importantly, it causes Haptic Touch to lose a bit of the luster that makes haptic feedback such a promising assistive technology. Where 3D Touch always felt instantaneous, Haptic Touch, capable as it is, feels slower, thus ruining the fun a little. I assume this latency can and will improve over time, but count me as one who misses 3D Touch in the new iPhones.

[gallery ids="1885238,1885228,1885236,1885214,1885218,1885223,1885222"]

Miscellany

A few cursory notes on the new iPhones worth mentioning.

SIM card swapping. This is an extremely first-world problem, because I am privileged in the sense I get to review new iPhones every year. But this is an accessibility matter! Every year I get a new iPhone (or multiple iPhones) for testing, I’m reminded just how inaccessible the act of swapping my SIM card can be. It is a test of my visual acuity and fine-motor skills, both of which are not strong suits of mine. Especially on the midnight green, where the finish is so dark on the sides I can hardly see where the SIM tray is, moving between three iPhones can be quite adventurous. (I remember the jet black iPhone 7 having the same issue in terms of finding the SIM tray.) I like that Apple provides users with the SIM tool; the SIM card dance isn’t their fault. Still, as a visually impaired reviewer, I felt compelled to share this bit of accessibility minutia.

Color. Speaking of color, I do like the new midnight green finish a lot. The CW’s Arrow is my favorite television show, and the shade of green strikes me as the iPhone Oliver Queen would choose.

Battery life. One of the iPhone 11’s biggest selling points is the dramatically increased battery life. I’ve long compromised my battery—on an iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch—because I need to run my devices with maximum screen brightness in order to see. That I can do so on iPhone 11 and still mostly benefit from the battery gains speaks volumes about Apple’s battery work. I can go a whole day, using my phone normally at max brightness, and not stress about conserving my battery or finding an outlet somewhere.

Portrait (pig?) Mode. Seriously, Portrait Mode on the new iPhones was made for pigs.

Portrait Mode on iPhone 11 was made for pigs. Namely, mine.

cc: @Pickavet pic.twitter.com/jUXGsRiIDv

— Steven Aquino (@steven_aquino) September 30, 2019

The bottom line

It’s a testament to the “completeness” of last year’s iPhone XR that I was so happy with it. Yes, it was beautifully blue, but it was also a damn good all-around iPhone. Apple describes the iPhone 11 as having “just the right amount of everything,” the iPhone for everyone, but that tagline could just as easily apply to the XR. Even today, the XR is a great phone if you can do without the second camera. The iPhone 11 is simply a better iPhone XR.

The iPhone 11 and 11 Pro are close enough, spec-wise, that if it the regular 11 came in blue, I might’ve been tempted to upgrade to that. There’s a reason Apple offers iPhones in a rainbow of colors; the psychological impact color has on consumerism is a very real phenomena. Perhaps someday soon there will be a blue iPhone with a Super Retina OLED display. That said, while both iPhones are highly impressive, I’m happy with the Pro for the upgraded screen quality and three cameras. You really can’t go wrong with either iPhone 11, but for this year anyway, the return to OLED was the clincher for me.

Roku to launch low-cost versions of its soundbar and subwoofer under Walmart’s onn brand

By Sarah Perez

Roku will produce lower-cost versions of its new Smart Soundbar and Wireless Subwoofer for Walmart under the retailer’s own onn brand, the company announced this morning. While Roku offers distinct versions of some of its streaming media players exclusively for retailers like Walmart and Best Buy, the company had briefly mentioned a larger deal with Walmart in its second-quarter financial report.

In addition to the Roku TVs and players sold at Walmart, Roku had said it would offer “several new Roku devices including audio products,” under the Walmart onn brand.

The new onn Roku audio devices for Walmart are an expansion of the line introduced last month.

In September, Roku debuted two new devices, including the Smart Soundbar and Wireless Subwoofer, both at $180 each. The idea was to complement the existing Roku wireless speakers, in the case of the subwoofer, or offer an alternative for those who didn’t own a Roku TV or didn’t have enough space to set up the wireless speakers, in the case of the soundbar.

The Walmart onn-branded Smart Soundbar and Wireless Subwoofer, meanwhile, will only cost $129 each.

onn Roku Smart Soundbar lifestyle

Similar to Roku’s flagship models, onn Roku Smart Soundbar offers support for Dolby Audio, streaming from Bluetooth devices and connects to the TV via HDMI-ARC or HDMI and Optical. However, it will ship with Roku’s simpler IR remote, offering TV power and channel button shortcuts instead of the more powerful voice remote that comes with the $180 version.

It also features 40W of peak power versus the Roku Smart Soundbar’s 60W and different drivers.

The onn Roku Wireless Subwoofer is designed to work with the onn Roku Smart Soundbar to offer customers a deeper, richer bass. The lower-cost version features a 10″ driver like the Roku Wireless Subwoofer, but it’s slightly smaller and features 150 peak watts of power versus the Roku Wireless Subwoofer’s 250 peak watts of power.

Both devices also feature branding and cosmetic differences, Roku says.

“Roku and Walmart have worked together for years to enhance the entertainment experience for millions of people who have purchased Roku TV models and Roku streaming players. Now, we’re looking forward to getting these new audio products on shelves to provide consumers with better sound for their TV experience at a great price,” said Mark Ely, vice president of Players and Whole Home Product Management at Roku, in a statement.

onn Roku Wireless Subwoofer

The Walmart exclusivity deal will help bring more customers to Roku’s products at a time when the majority of Roku’s revenue isn’t hardware sales, but rather platform revenue.

Led by advertising, Roku platform revenue has out-earned hardware sales for the past five quarters. And in Q2, Roku saw $250.1 million in revenue versus $224.4 million expected, up 59% from the same quarter in 2018 — the rise largely attributed to advertising.

onn Roku Smart Soundbar

The new onn Roku-branded products may serve as an entry point for some customers into Roku’s wider range of products, including its streaming players and Roku OS-powered TVs, for example. This, in turn, could help Roku grow its customer base for its platform business. In addition, Walmart shoppers are historically price-conscious, meaning they’re the ideal demographic to target with Roku’s growing ad-supported streaming business, where it provides free movies and TV through its home page hub, The Roku Channel.

The devices will become available sometime in the next few weeks both in Walmart stores and on Walmart.com, says Roku.

HTC stopped innovating on smartphones, new CEO admits

By Brian Heater

Several months back, we invited HTC co-founder and CEO Cher Wang to appear on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt. Sometimes, however, life happens. Two weeks ago, the company announced that Wang would be stepping down from the role, which would immediately be filled by longtime telecom vet, Yves Maitre. Thankfully, the former Orange exec also agreed to appear onstage at this week’s event.

Maitre took the stage immediately following a one on one with OnePlus co-founder, Carl Pei. The contrast of the two companies couldn’t be more stark. In six short years of existence, OnePlus has managed to buck a number of industry trends with a controlled growth that flies in the face of wider industry smartphone trends.

HTC, meanwhile, has been struggling for years. In Q2, the Taiwanese hardware maker posted its fifth consecutive quarterly loss. Last July, it laid off around a quarter of its staff. It’s been a precipitous fall. In 2011, the company comprised around 11 percent of global smartphone sales, per analyst figures. Now its figures are routinely classified among the “Others” in those reports.

Speaking to Maitre at an event such as this offers a rare opportunity for insight from a newly minted exec who has spent years watching his new company from the outside. As such, he addressed HTC’s struggles with a refreshing candidness.

“HTC has stopped innovating in the hardware of the smartphone,” he told the audience. “And people like Apple, like Samsung and, most recently, Huawei, have done an incredible job investing in their hardware. We didn’t, because we have been investing in innovation on virtual reality. When I was young, somebody told me, ‘to be be right at the wrong time is to be wrong and to be wrong at the right time is right.’ I think we’ve been right at the wrong time and now we have to catch up. We made a timing mistake. It is very difficult to anticipate the time. HTC made a mistake in terms of timing. It is a difficult mistake and we are paying for that, but we still have so many assets in terms of innovation, team and balance sheets that I feel we are recovering from the timing mistake.”

‘Timing,’ here, is primarily a reference to the company’s decision to move much of its R&D money into XR (primarily VR through its Vive wing). Maitre said he anticipates that HTC’s XR offerings will overtake the mobile side in about five years.

“We’ll do our best to make it shorter, but customer adoption is key,” he explained. “How people are adopting your technology. And we all know know it is absolutely critical. And the end of the day, we have human beings in front of us, and they’re dealing with something total new and totally unusual, which is virtual.”

On the mobile side, Maitre sees 5G as the primary bottleneck to growth. Contrary to suggestions that the company’s best play is in developing nations, he says HTC’s play going forward will be more premium handset focused on “countries with higher GDP.”

“The competition is changing,” he says. “We’re all having a situation where worldwide market share is going down and the customer is disappointed in not being to have the latest Huawei phone anymore. How to give our customers the ability to come back to what they wish, in terms of best in class hardware and photography that HTC to will to solve in the next few months.”

While figures will largely be dependent on decisions Brough to HTC’s board, Maitre maintains optimistic projections when it comes to returning the company profitability.

“I truly believe that it is going to depend on the way carriers deploy 5G,” he says. “And you know that 2020 will bee the starting point for 5G. Usually it takes two years to deploy a network. So 2023 will have significant coverage. That’s why I believe that 2025, probably even earlier will be the turning point. We are dependent on carrier deployment speed.”

HTC’s new CEO discusses the phonemaker’s future

By Brian Heater

On September 17, HTC announced that cofounder Cher Wang would be stepping down as CEO. In her place, Yves Maitre stepped into the role of Chief Executive, after more than a decade at French telecom giant, Orange.

It’s a tough job at an even tougher time. The move comes on the tail of five consecutive quarterly losses and major layoffs, including a quarter of the company’s staff, which were let go in July of last year.

It’s a far fall for a company that comprised roughly 11 percent of global smartphone sales, some eight years ago. These days, HTC is routinely relegated to the “other” column when these figures are published.

All of this is not to say that the company doesn’t have some interesting irons in the fire. With Vive, HTC has demonstrated its ability to offer a cutting edge VR platform, while Exodus has tapped into an interest in exploring the use of blockchain technologies for mobile devices.

Of course, neither of these examples show any sign of displacing HTC’s once-booming mobile device sales. And this January’s $1.1 billion sale of a significant portion of its hardware division to Google has left many wondering whether it has much gas left in the mobile tank.

With Wang initially scheduled to appear on stage at Disrupt this week, the company ultimately opted to have Maitre sit in on the panel instead. In preparation for the conversation, we sat down with the executive to discuss his new role and future of the struggling Taiwanese hardware company.

5G, XR and the future of the HTC brand

Lora DiCarlo founder says CES award snub did company ‘a pretty big favor’

By Brian Heater

CES parent the Consumer Technology Association created a public relations disaster in January when it unceremoniously revoked an award from sex tech startup, Lora DiCarlo and its product Osé.

“Vela [now Osé] does not fit into any of our existing product categories and should not have been accepted for the Innovation Awards Program,” the organization wrote at the time. “CTA has communicated this position to Lora DiCarlo. We have apologized to the company for our mistake.”

The CTA would go on to apologize and reinstate the award. During a panel today at TechCrunch Disrupt, founder and CEO Lora Haddock told the audience, that in hindsight, “I think they actually did us a pretty big favor.”

Back in May, we noted that the CTA’s apology serendipitously coincided with a $2 million funding raise for the company’s advanced sex toy. Haddock noted that, while the CTA’s initial move was understandably both “disheartening” and “devastating,” the startup’s decision to push back on historical biases, including booth babes and the underrepresentation of female speakers, ultimately became a win.

“We started to really look at some of their policies and recent procedures in the last few years,” Haddock said. “A lot of booth babes products that were on the floor are geared towards male sexuality, but apparently something geared towards a female gaze was frowned upon. So, we fought it, and eventually we ended up winning, we ended up on an international press circuit, we got a ton of ton of coverage.”

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