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North ending production of current Focals smart glasses to focus on Focals 2.0

16:00 | 10 December

Smart glasses maker North announced today that it will be ending production of its first-generation Focals glasses, which it brought to market for consumers last year. The company says it will instead shift its focus to Focals 2.0, a next-generation version of the product, which it says will ship starting in 2020.

Focals are North’s first product since rebranding the company from Thalmic Labs and pivoting from building smart gesture control hardware to glasses with a built-in heads-up display and smartphone connectivity. CEO and founder Stephen Lake told me in a prior interview that the company realized in developing its Myo gesture control armband that it was actually more pressing to develop the next major shift in computing platform before tackling interface devices for said platforms, hence the switch.

Focals 2.0 will be “at a completely different level” and “the most advanced smart glasses ever made,” Lake said in a press release announcing the new generation device. In terms of how exactly it’ll improve on the original, North isn’t sharing much but it has said that its made the 2.0 version both lighter and “sleeker,” and that it’ll offer a much sharper, “10x improved” built-in display.

North began selling its Focals smart glasses via physical showrooms that it opened first in Brooklyn and Toronto. These, in addition to a number of pop-up showroom locations that toured across North America, provided in-person try-ons and fittings for the smart glasses, which must be tailor-fit for individual users in order to properly display content from their supported applications. More recently, North also added a Showroom app for iOS devices, that included custom sizing powered by more recent iPhone front-facing depth sensing camera hardware.

North’s first-generation Focals smart glasses.

To date, North hasn’t revealed any sales figures for its initial Focals device, but the company did reduce the price of the glasses form $999 to just under $600 (without prescription) relatively soon after launch. Their cost, combined with the requirement for an in-person fitting prior to purchase (until the introduction of the Showroom app) and certain gaps in the product feature set like an inability to support iMessage on iOS natively, all point to initial sales being relatively low volume, however.

To North’s credit, Focals are the first smart glasses hardware that manage to have a relatively inconspicuous look. Despite somewhat thicker than average arms on either side where the battery, projection and computing components are housed, Focals resemble thick acrylic plastic frames of the kind popularized by Warby Parker and other standard glasses makers.

With version 2.0, it sounds like Focals will be making even more progress in developing a design that hews closely to standard glasses. One of the issues also cited by some users with the first-generation product was a relatively fuzzy image produced by the built-in projector, which required specific calibration to remain in focus, and it sounds like they’re addressing that, too.

The Focals successor will still have an uphill battle when it comes to achieving mass appeal, however. It’s unlikely that cost will be significantly reduced, though any progress it can make on that front will definitely help. And it still either requires non-glasses wearers to opt for regularly donning specs, or for standard glasses wearers to be within the acceptable prescription range supported by the hardware, and to be willing to spend a bit more for connected glasses features.

The company says the reason it’s ending Focals 1.0 production is to focus on the 2.0 rollout, but it’s not a great sign that there will be a pause in between the two generations in terms of availability. Through its two iterations as a company, Thalmic Labs and now North have not had the best track record in terms of developing hardware that has been a success with potential customers – Focals 2.0, whenever they do arrive, will have a lot to prove in terms of iterating enough to drive significant demand.

 


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European smartphone shipments grew in Q3, driven by Samsung

19:13 | 25 November

Europe bucked global smartphone stagnation in the third quarter, marking an 8% year over year growth in device shipments. That number, provided by Canalys, puts the region at the top of smartphone growth figures, beating out Asia/Pacific’s six percent.

Once again, Samsung was the biggest winner here. The Korean manufacturer saw a healthy 26%, year over year growth. As noted back in Q2, Samsung’s growth comes as the company floods the market with a variety of different devices. Its mid-tier A Series accounted for all four of its top spots during that time period.

Huawei held steady in second place, as the company refocuses on Europe amid US/China trade tensions. Huawei accounted for 22.2 % of units shipped, versus Samsung’s 35.7%. Fellow Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi saw an extremely healthy boost for the quarter, jumping 73 percent for the year, to nab fourth place behind Apple.

While the numbers are positive in the face of larger negative trends, politics are still having a marked impact on figures.

“On the negative side, Brexit has already had an impact,” analyst Ben Stanton said in a release. “In the UK, shipments of premium devices from Samsung and Apple accelerated before each Brexit deadline this year, in March and recently October, followed by a large dip, as distributors were forced to stockpile product and hedge against impending tariff risk. This shot-term artificial boost distorts the market and the accompanying risk, costs and uncertainty, is a drain on the industry.”

Like much of the rest of the world, the European market is looking forward to a 5G rollout to help further juice shipments moving forward.

 


0

The new AirFly Pro is the perfect travel buddy for your AirPods Pro

22:02 | 14 November

Accessory maker TwelveSouth has a solid lineup of gadgets, many of which fill a niche that their products uniquely address – and address remarkably well. The AirFly Pro ($54.99) is a new iteration on one of those, providing a way to connect Bluetooth headphones to any audio source with a 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s being sold at Apple Stores, too, as part of its launch today – and there’s good reason for that: This is the ideal way to make sure you can use your AirPods Pro just about everywhere, including with airplane seatback entertainment systems.

The AirFly Pro will work with any Bluetooth headphones, not just AirPods Pro – but the latest noise cancelling earbuds from Apple are among the best available when it comes to both active noise cancellation and sound quality, both great assets for frequent travellers and people more likely to encounter an in-flight entertainment system. But the AirFly Pro has additional tricks up its sleeve that earn it the ‘Pro’ designation.

This is the first version of the product from TwelveSouth that offers the ability to stream audio in, as well as out. That means you can use it with a car stereo system that only access auxiliary audio-in, for instance, to stream directly from your iPhone to the vehicle’s sound system. The AirFly Pro can also serve that function for home stereo sound equipment, speakers or other audio equipment that accepts audio in, but not Bluetooth streaming connections.

One other neat trick the AirFly Pro packs: Audio sharing, so that you can connect two pairs of headphones at once. This is similar to the native audio sharing feature that Apple introduced for its own AirPod line in the most recent iOS update, but it works through the AirFly with any audio source, and any Bluetooth headphones. That’s yet another great feature for when you’re traveling with a partner.

I’ve had a bit of time to spend with the AirFly Pro, and so far it’s been rock solid, with easy pairing and set up, and a convenient keychain ring/3.5mm connector cap for making it easier to keep with you. It charges via USB-C, and there’s a USB-A to USB-C cable included, too. The on-board battery lasts for 16 or more hours, which is more than enough time for even the longest of flights, and again you’re getting that audio sharing feature which is super handy even around the house for just checking something out on the iPad on your couch.

Alongside the AirFly Pro, TwelveSouth also introduced new AirFly Duo and AirFly USB-C models. The difference is that neither of these offer that wireless audio input mode – but you get up to 4 more hours of battery life for the trade-off. The USB-C model also offers USB-C audio compatibility, for connecting to devices that use that connection for sound instead of 3.5mm, and both of these still also offer dual headphone connectivity, for $5 less at $49.99 each.

 


0

New NASA app puts you in the pilot’s seat of Boeing’s Starliner or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon

23:58 | 13 November

NASA has a new app (or web-based game, if you’re on desktop) that provides a simplified simulation of what it’s like to plan and run a commercial crew mission – meaning one of the planned varieties of mission that will actually take place aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner once they begin flying crews next year.

The app takes you through each part of the process, from spacecraft choice, to mission type, to crew selection and then to the actual launch and docking process. It’s mostly about providing some education aoudad each part of the process, rather than offering up an exhaustively realistic flight simulator – but the docking process with the International Space Station can be handled either on full automatic, or on manual mode – and manual mode is fairly challenging and fun.

[gallery ids="1911680,1911681,1911682,1911683,1911684"]

NASA has included plenty of great info on both the Crew Dragon and the Starliner, and the respective rockets they will launch atop. It also included great bios for 10 actual astronauts you can select from to staff your mission. The launch assembly stage was a bit buggy when I gave it a try on my iPhone, but still workable, and it also provides key info about each element of the launch spacecraft, from boosters to crew capsules and everything in between.

The ‘Rocket Science: Ride 2 Station’ app is a free download, out now on iOS, and also available on the web.

 


0

Facebook says government demands for user data are at a record high

20:15 | 13 November

Facebook’s latest transparency report is out.

The social media giant said the number of government demands for user data increased by 16% to 128,617 demands during the first-half of this year compared to the second-half of last year.

That’s the highest number of government demands its received in any reporting period since it published its first transparency report in 2013.

The U.S. government led the way with the most number of requests — 50,741 demands for user data resulting in some account or user data given to authorities in 88% of cases. Facebook said two-thirds of all of the U.S. government’s requests came with a gag order, preventing the company from telling the user about the request for their data.

But Facebook said it was able to release details of 11 so-called national security letters (NSLs) for the first time after their gag provisions were lifted during the period. National security letters can compel companies to turn over non-content data at the request of the FBI. These letters are not approved by a judge, and often come with a gag order preventing their disclosure. But since the Freedom Act passed in 2015, companies have been allowed to request the lifting of those gag orders.

The report also said the social media giant had detected 67 disruptions of its services in 15 countries, compared to 53 disruptions in nine countries during the second-half of last year.

And, the report said Facebook also pulled 11.6 million pieces of content, up from 5.8 million in the same period a year earlier, which Facebook said violated its policies on child nudity and sexual exploitation of children.

Read more:

 


0

MacBook Pro 16” first impressions: Return of the Mack

16:30 | 13 November

In poker, complacency is a quiet killer. It can steal your forward momentum bit by bit, using the warm glow of a winning hand or two to cover the bets you’re not making until it’s too late and you’re out of leverage. 

Over the past few years, Apple’s MacBook game had begun to suffer from a similar malaise. Most of the company’s product lines were booming, including newer entries like the Apple Watch, AirPods and iPad Pro. But as problems with the models started to mount — unreliable keyboards, low RAM ceilings and anemic graphics offerings — the once insurmountable advantage that the MacBook had compared to the rest of the notebook industry started to show signs of dwindling. 

The new 16” MacBook Pro Apple is announcing today is an attempt to rectify most, if not all, of the major complaints of its most loyal, and vocal, users. It’s a machine that offers a massive amount of upsides for what appears to be a handful of easily justifiable tradeoffs. It’s got better graphics, a bigger display for nearly no extra overall size, a bigger battery with longer life claims and yeah, a completely new keyboard.

I’ve only had a day to use the machine so far, but I did all of my research and writing for this first look piece on the machine, carting it around New York City, through the airport and onto a plane where I’m publishing this now. This isn’t a review, but I can take you through some of the new stuff and give you thoughts based on that chunk of time. 

This is a re-think of the larger MacBook Pro in many large ways. This is a brand new model that will completely replace the 15” MacBook Pro in Apple’s lineup, not an additional model. 

Importantly, the team working on this new MacBook started with no design constraints on weight, noise, size or battery. This is not a thinner machine, it is not a smaller machine, it is not a quieter machine. It is, however, better than the current MacBook Pro in all of the ways that actually count.

Let’s run down some of the most important new things. 

Performance and thermals

The 16” MacBook Pro comes configured with either a 2.6GHz 6-core i7 or a 2.3GHz 8-core i9 from Intel . These are the same processors as the 15” MacBook Pro came with. No advancements here is largely a function of Intel’s chip readiness. 

The i7 model of the 16” MacBook Po will run $2,399 for the base model — the same as the old 15” — and it comes with a 512GB SSD drive and 16GB of RAM. 

Both models can be ordered today and will be in stores at the end of the week.

The standard graphics configuration in the i7 is an AMD Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB of memory and an integrated Intel UHD graphics 630 chip. The system continues to use the dynamic handoff system that trades power for battery life on the fly.  


The i9 model will run $2,699 and comes with a 1TB drive. That’s a nice bump in storage for both models, into the range of very comfortable for most people. It rolls with an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 4GB of memory.

You can configure both models with an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 8GB of GDDR6 memory. Both models can also now get up to 8TB of SSD storage – which Apple says is the most on a notebook ever – and 64GB of 2666 DDR4 RAM but I’d expect those upgrades to be pricey.

The new power supply delivers an additional 12w of power and there is a new thermal system to compensate for that. The heat pipe that carries air in and out has been redesigned, there are more fan blades on 35% larger fans that move 28% more air compared to the 15” model. 

The fans in the MacBook Pro, when active, put out the same decibel level of sound, but push way more air than before. So, not a reduction in sound, but not an increase either — and the trade is better cooling. Another area where the design process for this MacBook focused on performance gains rather than the obvious sticker copy. 

There’s also a new power brick which is the same physical size as the 15” MacBook Pro’s adapter, but which now supplies 96w up from 87w. The brick is still as chunky as ever and feels a tad heavier, but it’s nice to get some additional power out of it. 

Though I haven’t been able to put the MacBook Pro through any video editing or rendering tests I was able to see live demos of it handling several 8K streams concurrently. With the beefiest internal config Apple says it can usually handle as many as 4, perhaps 5 un-rendered Pro Res streams.

A bigger display, a thicker body

The new MacBook Pro has a larger 16” diagonal Retina display that has a 3072×1920 resolution at 226 ppi. The monitor features the same 500 nit maximum brightness, P3 color gamut and True Tone tech as the current 15”. The bezels of the screen are narrower, which makes it feel even larger when you’re sitting in front of it. This also contributes to the fact that the overall size of the new MacBook Pro is just 2% larger in width and height, with a .7mm increase in thickness. 

The overall increase in screen size far outstrips the increase in overall body size because of those thinner bezels. And this model is still around the same thickness as the 2015 15” MacBook Pro, an extremely popular model among the kinds of people who are the target market for this machine. It also weighs 4.3 lbs, heavier than the 4.02 lb current 15” model.

The display looks great, extremely crisp due to the increase in pixels and even more in your face because of the very thin bezels. This thing feels like it’s all screen in a way that matches the iPad Pro.

This thick boi also features a bigger battery, a full 100Whr, the most allowable under current FAA limits. Apple says this contributes an extra hour of normal operations in its testing regimen in comparison to the current 15” MacBook Pro. I have not been able to effectively test these claims in the time I’ve had with it so far. 

But it is encouraging that Apple has proven willing to make the iPhone 11 Pro and the new MacBook a bit thicker in order to deliver better performance and battery life. Most of these devices are pretty much thin enough. Performance, please.

Speakers and microphone

One other area where the 16” MacBook Pro has made a huge improvement is the speaker and microphone arrays. I’m not sure I ever honestly expected to give a crap about sound coming out of a laptop. Good enough until I put in a pair of headphones accurately describes my expectations for laptop sound over the years. Imagine my surprise when I first heard the sound coming out of this new MacBook and it was, no crap, incredibly good. 

The new array consists of six speakers arranged so that the subwoofers are positioned in pairs, antipodal to one another (back to back). This has the effect of cancelling out a lot of the vibration that normally contributes to that rattle-prone vibrato that has characterized small laptop speakers pretty much forever.

The speaker setup they have here has crisper highs and deeper bass than you’ve likely ever heard from a portable machine. Movies are really lovely to watch with the built-ins, a sentence I have never once felt comfortable writing about a laptop. 

Apple also vents the speakers through their own chambers, rather than letting sound float out through the keyboard holes. This keeps the sound nice and crisp, with a soundstage that’s wide enough to give the impression of a center channel for voice. One byproduct of this though is that blocking one or another speaker with your hand is definitely more noticeable than before.

The quality of sound here is really very, very good. The HomePod team’s work on sound fields apparently keeps paying dividends. 

That’s not the only audio bit that’s better now though, Apple has also put in a 3-mic array for sound recording that it claims has a high enough signal-to-noise ratio that it can rival standalone microphones. I did some testing here comparing it to the iPhone’s mic and it’s absolutely night and day. There is remarkably little hiss present here and artists that use the MacBook as a sketch pad for vocals and other recording are going to get a really nice little surprise here.

I haven’t been able to test it against external mics myself but I was able to listen to rigs that involved a Blue Yeti and other laptop microphones and the MacBook’s new mic array was clearly better than any of the machines and held its own against the Yeti. 

The directional nature of many podcast mics is going to keep them well in advance of the internal mic on the MacBook for the most part, but for truly mobile recording setups the MacBook mic just went from completely not an option to a very viable fallback in one swoop. It really has to be listened to in order to get it. 

I doubt anyone is going to buy a MacBook Pro for the internal mic, but having a ‘pro level’ device finally come with a pro level mic on board is super choice. 

I think that’s most of it, though I feel like I’m forgetting something…

Oh right, the Keyboard

Ah yes. I don’t really need to belabor the point on the MacBook Pro keyboards just not being up to snuff for some time. Whether you weren’t a fan of the short throw on the new butterfly keyboards or you found yourself one of the many people (

) who ran up against jammed or unresponsive keys on that design — you know that there has been a problem.

The keyboard situation has been written about extensively by Casey Johnston and Joanna Stern and complained about by every writer on Twitter over the past several years. Apple has offered a succession of updates to that keyboard to attempt to make it more reliable and has extended warranty replacements to appease customers. 

But the only real solution was to ditch the design completely and start over. And that’s what this is: a completely new keyboard.

Apple is calling it the Magic Keyboard in homage to the iMac’s Magic Keyboard (but not identically designed). The new keyboard is a scissor mechanism, not butterfly. It has 1mm of key travel (more, a lot more) and an Apple-designed rubber dome under the key that delivers resistance and springback that facilitates a satisfying key action. The new keycaps lock into the keycap at the top of travel to make them more stable when at rest, correcting the MacBook Air-era wobble. 

And yes, the keycaps can be removed individually to gain access to the mechanism underneath. And yes, there is an inverted-T arrangement for the arrow keys. And yes, there is a dedicated escape key.

Apple did extensive physiological research when building out this new keyboard. One test was measuring the effect of a keypress on a human finger. Specifically, they measured the effect of a key on the pacinian corpuscles at the tips of your fingers. These are onion-esque structures in your skin that house nerve endings and they are most sensitive to mechanical and vibratory pressure. 

Apple then created this specialized plastic dome that sends a specific vibration to this receptor making your finger send a signal to your brain that says ‘hey you pressed that key.’ This led to a design that gives off the correct vibration wavelength to return a satisfying ‘stroke completed’ message to the brain.

There is also more space between the keys, allowing for more definitive strokes. This is because the keycaps themselves are slightly smaller. The spacing does take some adjustment, but by this point in the article I am already getting pretty proficient and am having more grief from the autocorrect feature of Catalina than anything else. 

Notably, this keyboard is not in the warranty extension program that Apple is applying to its older keyboard designs. There is a standard 1 year warranty on this model, a statement by the company that they believe in the durability of this new design? Perhaps. It has to get out there and get bashed on by more violent keyboard jockeys than I for a while before we can tell whether it’s truly more resilient. 

But does this all come together to make a more usable keyboard? In short, yes. The best way to describe it in my opinion is a blend between the easy cushion of the old MacBook Air and the low profile stability of the Magic Keyboard for iMac. It’s truly one of the best feeling keyboards they’ve made in years and perhaps ever in the modern era. I reserve the right to be nostalgic about deep throw mechanical keyboards in this regard, but this is the next best thing. 

Pro, or Pro

In my brief and admittedly limited testing so far, the 16” MacBook Pro ends up looking like it really delivers on the Pro premise of this kind of machine in ways that have been lacking for a while in Apple’s laptop lineup. The increased storage caps, bigger screen, bigger battery and redesigned keyboard should make this an insta-buy for anyone upgrading from a 2015 MacBook Pro and a very tempting upgrade for even people on newer models that have just never been happy with the typing experience. 

Many of Apple’s devices with the label Pro lately have fallen into the bucket of ‘the best’ rather than ‘for professionals’. This isn’t strictly a new phenomenon for Apple, but more consumer centric devices like the AirPods Pro and the iPhone Pro get the label now than ever before. 

But the 16” MacBook Pro is going to alleviate a lot of the pressure Apple has been under to provide an unabashedly Pro product for Pro Pros. It’s a real return to form for the real Mack Daddy of the laptop category. As long as this new keyboard design proves resilient and repairable I think this is going to kick off a solid new era for Apple portables.

 


0

Veterans can now use an iPhone to pull up their health records

17:00 | 6 November

Apple has teamed up with Veteran Affairs (VA) to allow those who’ve served our country to now access their health records via iPhone. Health records access via Apple’s Health app has been available to iPhone users since the beginning of 2018. However, the ability to access that data has been limited to those hospitals and medical systems working with Apple to allow people to access their records.

The VA started working with select patients on iPhone in a test run earlier this summer and is now able to offer this feature to any veteran who is an iOS user receiving care through through the Veterans Health Administration.

For those who don’t know, the Department of Veteran Affairs is the largest federal agency and the largest integrated medical system in the United States, providing service to more than 9 million veterans. The VA also serves a total of 1,243 medical facilities and outpatient clinics to support these veterans.

Though the VA has in the past included other various health apps catering to the needs of our service men and women, they’ve had a mostly singular focus like smoking cessation or self care. Apple’s latest addition to the Health app is much more comprehensive, allowing these veterans to see all of their health records — including lab tests, diagnoses, medications, immunizations and other health information all within the Apple Health app on their phone.

Access to personal health records has been a sore spot for many patients, with some systems requiring them to have to ask permission for their own information to share with other doctors and hospital systems. It’s also been an archaic process of printing out paper records and faxing over information. Compare that to Apple’s Health Records feature, which provides veterans with both comprehensive access and convenience, allowing them to take a more proactive role in their own healthcare in an easy-to-access digital space while keeping it within a privacy compliant environment.

“The Health app continually updates these records giving VA patients access to a single, integrated snapshot of their health profile whenever they want, quickly and privately,” an Apple company statement said.

 


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Google aims to change the definition of good photography with Pixel 4’s software-defined camera

18:26 | 15 October

Google’s new Pixel 4 camera offers a ton of new tricks to improve its photographic chops, and to emphasize the point, it had Professor Mark Levoy, who leads camera technology development at Google Research, up on stage to talk about the Pixel 4’s many improvements, including its new telephoto lens, updated Super Res Zoom technology and Live HDR+ preview.

Subject, Lighting, Lens, Software

Levoy started by addressing the oft-cited saying among photographers that what’s most important to a good photo is first subject, then lighting and followed after that by your hardware: ie., your lens and camera body. He said that he and his team believe that there’s a different equation at play now, which replaces that camera body component with something else: Software.

Screen Shot 2019 10 15 at 10.59.55 AM

Lens is still important in the equation, he said, and the Pixel 4 represents that with the addition of a telephoto lens to the existing wide angle hardware lens it offers. Levoy also offered the opinion that a telephoto is more useful generally than a wide angle, clearly a dig at Apple’s addition of an ultra-wide angle hardware lens to its latest iPhone 11 Pro models.

Google Pixel 4 Camera

In this context, that means Google’s celebrated “computational photography” approach to its Pixel camera tech, which handles a lot of the heavy lifting involved when it takes a photo from a small sensor, which tend to be bad, and turns that into something pretty amazing.

Levoy said that he calls their approach a “software-defined camera,” which most of the time just means capturing multiple photos, and combining data from each in order to produce a better, single final picture.

Screen Shot 2019 10 15 at 11.07.56 AM

What’s new for Pixel 4

There are four new features for the Pixel 4 phone powered by computational photography, which include Live HDR with dual exposure controls, which shows you a real-time image of what the final photo will look like with the HDR treatment applied, instead of just giving you a very different looking final shot. It also bakes in exposure controls that allow you to adjust the highlights and shadows in the image on the fly, which is useful if you want bolder highlights or silhouettes from shadows, for instance.

Also new is “Learning-based white balance,” which addresses the tricky issue of getting your white balance correct. Levoy said that Google has been using this approach in white-balancing night sight photos since the introduction of that feature with Pixel 3, but now it’s bringing it to all photo modes. The result is cooler colors, and particularly in tricky lighting situations when whites tend to be incorrectly exposed as orange or yellow.

Screen Shot 2019 10 15 at 11.02.01 AM

The new wide-range portrait mode makes use of info from both the dual-pixel imaging sensors that Pixel 4 uses, as well as the new second lens to derive more depth data and provide an expanded, more accurate portrait mode to separate the subject from the background. It now works  on large objects and portraits where the person in focus is standing further back, and it provides better bokeh shape (the shape of the defocused elements int eh background) and better definition of strands of hair and fur, which has always been tricky for software background blur.

Lastly, Night Sight mode gets overall improvements, as well as a new astral photography mode specifically for capturing the night sky and star fields. The astral mode provides great looking night sky images with exposure times that run multiple minutes, but all with automatic settings and computational algorithms that sort out issues like stars moving during that time.

google pixel 4 sample images

Still more to come

Google wanted to emphasize the point that this is a camera that can overcome a lot of the problems faced typically by small sensors, and it brought out heavyweight photography legend Annie Lebowitz to do just that. She showed some of the photos she’s been capturing both with Pixel 3 and Pixel 4, and they did indeed look great, although the view from the feed doesn’t say quite as much as would print versions of the final photos.

[gallery ids="1897442,1897441,1897440"]

Levoy also said that they plan to improve the camera over time via software updates, so this is just the start for Pixel 4. Based on what we saw on stage, it definitely looks like a step-up from the already excellent Pixel 3, but we’ll need more time hand-on to see what it does compared to Apple’s much-improved iPhone 11 camera.

 


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China attacks Apple for allowing Hong Kong crowdsourced police activity app

13:41 | 9 October

Apple’s decision to greenlight an app called HKmaps, which is being used by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong to crowdsource information about street closures and police presence, is attracting the ire of the Chinese government.

An article in Chinese state mouthpiece, China Daily, attacks the iPhone maker for reversing an earlier decision not to allow the app to be listed on the iOS App Store — claiming the app is “allowing the rioters in Hong Kong to go on violent acts” (via The Guardian).

HKmaps uses emoji to denote live police and protest activity around Hong Kong, as reported by users.

The former British colony is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China that’s been able to maintain certain economic and and political freedoms since reunification with China — under the one country, two systems principle. But earlier this year pro-democracy protests broke out after the Hong Kong government sought to pass legislation that would allow for extradition to mainland China. It’s policing around those on-going protests that’s being made visible on HKmaps.

The app’s developer denies the map enables illegal activity,

its function is “for info” purposes only — to allow residents to move freely around the city by being able to avoid protest flash-points. But the Chinese government is branding it “toxic”.

“Business is business, and politics is politics. Nobody wants to drag Apple into the lingering unrest in Hong Kong. But people have reason to assume that Apple is mixing business with politics, and even illegal acts. Apple has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision,” the China Daily writer warns in a not-so-veiled threat about continued access to the Chinese market.

“Providing a gateway for ‘toxic apps’ is hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, twisting the facts of Hong Kong affairs, and against the views and principles of the Chinese people,” it goes on. “Apple and other corporations should be able to discern right from wrong. They also need to know that only the prosperity of China and China’s Hong Kong will bring them a broader and more sustainable market.”

The article takes further aim at Apple — claiming it reinstated a song which advocates for independence for Hong Kong and had previously been removed from its music store.

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment.

A few days ago the company was getting flak from the other direction as Western commentators

to express incredulity over its decision, at the app review stage, not to allow HKmaps on its store. The app’s developer said Apple App Store reviewers had rejected it citing the reasoning as “the app allowed users to evade law enforcement”.

Yet, as many

at the time, the Google-owned Waze app literally describes its function as “avoid police” if you take the trouble to read its iOS listing. So it looked like a crystal-clear case of double standards by Cupertino. And, most awkwardly for Apple, as if the US tech giant was siding with the Chinese state against Hong Kong as concerned residents fight for their autonomy and call for democracy.

We asked Apple about its decision to reject the app at the App Store review stage last week. It did not provide any comment but a couple of days afterwards a spokesman pointed us to an “update” — where the developer tweeted that the iOS version was “Approved, comming soon!” [sic].

At the time of writing the iOS app remains available on the App Store but the episode highlights the tricky trade-offs Apple is facing by operating in the Chinese market — a choice that risks denting its reputation for highly polished corporate values.

The size of the China market is such that just “economical deceleration” can — and has — put a serious dent in Apple’s bottom line. If the company were to exit — or be ejected — from the market entirely there would be no way for it to cushion the blow for shareholders. Yet with a premium brand so bound up with ethical claims to champion and defend fundamental human rights like privacy Apple risks being pinned between a rock and a hard place as an increasingly powerful China flexes more political and economic muscle.

Wider trade tensions between the US and China are also creating further instability, causing major operating headaches for Chinese tech giant Huawei — with the Trump administration pressuring allies to freeze it out of 5G networks and leaning on US companies not to provide services to Chinese firms (leading to question marks over whether Huawei’s smartphones can continue using Google’s Android OS, and suggestions it might seek to deploy its own OS).

The going is certainly getting tougher for tech businesses working from East to West. But it also remains to be seen how sustainable Apple’s West-to-East democratic balancing act can be given heightened and escalating geopolitical tensions.

 


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The time is right for Apple to buy Sonos

19:20 | 26 September

It’s been a busy couple of months for smart speakers – Amazon released a bunch just this week, including updated versions of its existing Echo hardware and a new Echo Studio with premium sound. Sonos also introduced its first portable speaker with Bluetooth support, the Sonos Move, and in August launched its collaboration collection with Ikea. Meanwhile, Apple didn’t say anything about the HomePod at its latest big product event – an omission that makes it all the more obvious the smart move would be for Apple to acquire someone who knows what they’re doing in this category: Sonos.

Highly aligned

From an outsider perspective, it’s hard to find two companies who seem more philosophically aligned than Sonos and Apple when it comes to product design and business model. Both are clearly focused on delivering premium hardware (at a price point that’s generally at the higher end of the mass market) and both use services to augment and complement the appeal of their hardware, even if Apple’s been shifting that mix a bit with a fast-growing services business.

Sonos, like Apple, clearly has a strong focus and deep investment in industrial design, and puts a lot of effort into truly distinctive product look and feel that stands out from the crowd and is instantly identifiable once you know what to look for. Even the company’s preference for a mostly black and white palette feels distinctly Apple – at least Apple leading up to the prior renaissance of multicolour palettes for some of its more popular devices, including the iPhone.

airplay2 headerThen from a technical perspective, Apple and Sonos seem keen to work together – and the results of their collaboration has been great for consumers who use both ecosystems. AirPlay 2 support is effectively standard on all modern Sonos hardware, and really Sonos is essentially the default choice already for anyone looking to do AirPlay 2-based multiform audio, thanks to the wide range of options available in different form factors and at different price points. Sonos and Apple also offer an Apple Music integration for Sonos’ controller app, and now you can use voice control via Alexa to play Apple Music, too.

Competitive moves

The main issue that an Apple-owned Sonos hasn’t made much sense before now, at least from Sonos’ perspective, is that the speaker maker has reaped the benefits of being a platform that plays nice with all the major streaming service providers and virtual assistants. Recent Sonos speakers offer both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant support, for instance, and Sonos’ software has connections with virtually every major music and audio streaming service available.

What’s changed, especially in light of Amazon’s slew of announcements this week, is that competitors like Amazon are looking more like they want to own more of the business that currently falls within Sonos’ domain. Amazon’s Echo Studio is a new premium speaker that directly competes with Sonos in a way that previous Echos really haven’t, and the company has consistently been releasing better-sounding versions of its other, more affordable Echos. It’s also been rolling out more feature-rich multi-room audio features, including wireless surround support for home theater use – all things squarely in the Sonos wheelhouse.

alexa echo amazon 9250064

For now, Sonos and Amazon seem to be comfortably in ‘frenemy’ territory, but increasingly, it doesn’t seem like Amazon is content to leave them their higher-end market segment when it comes to the speaker hardware category. Amazon still probably will do whatever it can to maximize use of Alexa, on both its own and third-party devices, but it also seems to be intent on strengthening and expanding its own first-party device lineup, with speakers as low-hanging fruit.

Other competitors, including Google and Apple, don’t seem to have had as much success with their products that line up as direct competitors to Sonos, but the speaker-maker also faces perennial challenges from hi-fi and audio industry stalwarts, and also seems likely to go up against newer device makers with audio ambitions and clear cost advantages like Anker, too.

Missing ingredients/work to be done

Of course, there are some big challenges and potential red flags that stand in the way of Apple ever buying Sonos, or of that resulting union working out well for consumers. Sonos works so well because it’s service-agnostic, for instance, and they key to its success with recent products seems to also be integration with the smart home assistants that people seem to actually want to use most – namely Alexa and Google Assistant.

Under Apple ownership, it’s highly possible that Apple Music would at least get preferential treatment, if not become the lone streaming service on offer. It’s probable that Siri would replace Alexa and Assistant as the only virtual voice service available, and almost unthinkable that Apple would continue to support competing services if it did make this buy.

That said, there’s probably significant overlap between Apple and Sonos customers already, and as long as there was some service flexibility (in the same way there is for streaming competitors on iOS devices, including Spotify) then being locked into Siri probably wouldn’t sting as much. And it would serve to give Siri the foothold at home that the HomePod hasn’t managed to provide. Apple would also be better incentivized to work on improving Siri’s performance as a general home-based assistant, which would ultimately be good for Apple ecosystem customers.

Another smart adjacency

Apple’s bigger acquisitions are few and for between, but the ones it does make are typically obviously adjacent to its core business. A Sonos acquisition has a pretty strong precedent in the Beats purchase Apple made in 2014, albeit without the strong motivator of providing the underlying product and relationship basis for launching a streaming service.

What Sonos is, however, is an inversion of the historical Apple model of using great services to sell hardware. The Sonos ecosystem is a great, easy to use, premium-feel means of making the most of Apple’s music and video streaming services (and brand new games subscription offering), all of which are more important than ever to the company as it diversifies from its monolithic iPhone business.

I’m hardly the first to suggest an Apple-Sonos deal makes sense: J.P. Morgan analyst Samik Chatterjee suggested it earlier this year, in fact. From my perspective, however, the timing has never been better for this acquisition to take place, and the motivations never stronger for either party involved.

Disclosure: I worked briefly for Apple in its communications department in 2015-2016, but the above analysis is based entirely on publicly available information, and I hold no stock in either company.

 


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