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NVIDIA’s new Shield TV wins the Android TV market with amazing 4K upscaling

15:00 | 28 October

NVIDIA has a new family of Android TV-based streaming devices, as tipped early via a couple of leaks from online stores. The new NVIDIA Shield TV ($149) and Shield TV Pro ($199) replace the existing Shield TV generation of hardware, which debuted in 2017. Both new Shields offer new Tegra X1+ processors, which outperform the predecessor chip by about 25 percent, and make possible one of this Shield’s new highlight features: AI-powered 3K up-conversion for HD content.

Both Shield TV and Shield TV Pro also support Dolby Vision HDR content, as well as Dolby Atmos surround sound. The differences between the two devices center mainly around physical design, with the Shield TV adopting a cylindrical tube design, and the Shield TV Pro looking more like its predecessor (basically a small set-top box form factor). The Shield TV Pro also gets more RAM (3GB vs. 2GB), more storage (16GB vs 8GB) the ability to transcode 1080p streams when acting as a Plex Media Server, support for the SmartThings Link to turn it into a SmartThings smart home hub and advanced Android gaming support, along with two USB 3.0 ports.

Shield TV Review

Nvidia Shield TV 4I’ve been using the Shield TV for around a week now, and this is definitely a worthwhile upgrade for anyone looking to get the best possible experience available in an Android TV home theater device. NVIDIA has clearly done a lot to survey the market, look at everything that’s come out in the two years since it last updated this hardware, and delivery generational improvements that help it stand out from the crowd in meaningful ways.

Android TV now ships on a lot of smart TVs, and there have been many generations of Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices introduced since we last saw a new Shield from NVIDIA – all of which adds up to needing to really do something special to ask for $149.99 from consumers to invest in a new dedicated streaming media box. NVIDIA has always delivered a lot of value for the upfront cost of their streaming hardware, with consistent updates over the life of the devices that add plenty of new features and improvements. But this new hardware packs in some excellent features not possible with software alone, and that are also unique when you look across the options available in this category.

AI Upscaling

Chief among the additions NVIDIA has made here is the AI upscaling made possible with the new Tegra X1+ chip. You might have heard of ‘upscaling’ before, and you might even think that your TV already handles that well. But what you probably don’t know is that often content from streaming media sources doesn’t actually get upscaled by your TV, which means if you have a 4K display but are often watching YouTube or other services with large quantities of non-4K content, you might not be getting the most out of your hardware.

NVIDIA has addressed this with on-device 4K upscaling, which is powered by on-device machine intelligence that has been trained on a deep neural network to turn both 720p and 1080p signals into much sharper, 4K-equivalent images. Having used this on a variety of content, including media streamed from YouTube, non-4K Netflix content and stuff from Plex, I can attest to its ability to produce visibly sharper images that look great, especially on my LG C8-series OLED 4K TV.

The Shield TV’s tech is trained on popular movies and TV shows, and so does a remarkably good job of guessing what the 4K version of the HD image it’s looking at should properly look like. Considering that there’s a ton of content out there that hasn’t been made available in 4K, despite now a lot of TVs supporting that resolution, this is a big advantage for NVIDIA, and again one that they uniquely offer among their peers.

Dolby Everything

These new Shields also support Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, across more services than anything else out there on the market right now. These HDR and surround sound modes really do offer the best audio-visual experience you can get, provided you have TVs and audio output equipment that supports them, but what you might not know is that even on other streaming hardware that technically support these standards, they might not be supported across all services.

Shield TV supports Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos across Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Vudu and Movies Anywhere, so you should be getting the most out of these technologies, too. I asked about the forthcoming Apple TV+ service, which is rolling out to Roku devices, for instance, but NVIDIA didn’t have any news to share just yet – it does seem like it’s a good idea to stay tuned on that front, however.

Like AI Upscaling, Dolby support across everything might not seem like a big competitive advantage, but it’s absolutely a decision tipping factor for people who are looking for the best possible A/V experience in a home streaming device.

New and Improved Remote

Nvidia Shield TV 5NVIDIA is shipping the new Shield TVs with a brand new redesigned remote in the box. There’s a dedicated ‘Netflix’ button, which is a nice touch, but the remote overall is just an improvement over both Shield remotes past, and other competing remotes, in every way. It’s powered by AAA batteries (included) and it has a new pyramid-shaped body design that makes it easier and more pleasant to hold.

There are also lots of new buttons! Yes, NVIDIA actually put buttons on their remote control – what a novel concept! Whereas the remote from the last generation seemed to be adopting a lot of the questionable choices Apple has long been making on their remotes, this one feels like it’s made with humans in mind, with dedicated play/pause, back, forward, volume and other buttons. A wealth of buttons.

This remote also has automatic backlighting, which will serve you well when using it in a darkened room. Because of the bulkier body design, it also stands on its end, and there’s a lost remote finding function, too. Chalk up a win for human-centric design with this remote, it’s a joy to use.

Simple physical design

The design of the device is not flashy, but it is smart. There’s an Ethernet port, a power connector, an HDMI port and a micro SD card slot, dividing across both ends of the tube. This makes it perfect for placing behind a console or media bench, on the ground or next to your other power cables.

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It still provides hardwired connectivity options in case you do things like in-home game streaming or GeForce NOW cloud gaming, and it offers expandable storage via the microSD slot.

Bottom Line

NVIDIA’s new Shield is a great option for anyone looking for a versatile streaming device, with access to all of Google’s Play Store apps for Android TV, and support for the latest AV standards. It’s real bonus advantage is that AI upscaling, however, which is something that NVIDIA is uniquely poised to do well, and which goes a long way in making that $149.99 price point seem like a tremendous value.

SHIELD TV Family

 


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Toyota’s LQ concept car will make friends with you via its onboard AI

16:40 | 11 October

Toyota is doubling down on its prediction that the key to building a compelling car of the future will be creating a true connection between car and driver (or passenger, depending on whether or now you’re using autonomous mode). The car maker’s new LQ concept is an evolution fo the Concept-i vehicle it unveiled at CES in 2017, complete with its onboard ‘Yui’ virtual assistant.

The LQ inherits some of the same design lines and themes as the Concept-i, but working with its R&D arm the Toyota Research Institute, the LQ gains even more advanced autonomous driving capabilities, and an updated Yui that’s more responsive to the driver in terms of learning and adapting to their behavior and preferences.

Yui interacts with the driver using a voice interface, as well as illumination, air condition control and even by emitting fragrances, in order to optimize their mood, strengthen that bond between car and human, and even ensure their continued alertness in cases where the driver might need to take over from the onboard autonomous driving features of the LQ.

Speaking of autonomy, the LQ is designed with SAE Level 4 self-driving features on board, which means that it should be able to handle driving tasks completely without the interference of the person behind the wheel. It also boasts “Automated Valet” tech built in partnership with Panasonic for traveling on its own between parking spaces and pick-up/drop-off points, which Toyota says helps when working with drivers that need extra assistance and accessibility.

[gallery ids="1895800,1895801,1895802,1895803,1895804,1895805,1895806"]

Toyota still recognizes the need for the driver to be present when it makes sense, however, and so the LQ incorporates a newly designed seating system that can inflate air bladders embedded in the seat to put the driver in a more upright pose, and to blast them with cold air when attentiveness is key. When it’s not, however, the air bladders mimic a slow breathing rhythm, inflating and elating gradually to promote a relaxed breathing patter for the driver, too.

Color-coded interior lights also help Yui communicate with the driver and any passengers – floor-mounted lights can change color to indicate which party the car’s AI-powered assistant is addressing, for instance, and exterior lights, including a programmable pattern projector installed in the headlights, can visually ‘talk’ to people outside the car. All the dash-mounted displays on the LQ are OLED, for better visibility and power consumption, and there’s an emission scrubbing system that works as the vehicle propels itself for a new level of interior air quality cleanliness.

Of course, this is a concept car, so many of these technologies are a blend of theory and practice at this stage. But Toyota seems intent on a vision of the automotive future where your car is both functional and friendly, and I’m here for it.

 


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Gnarbox 2.0 backup SSD is a photographer’s best friend in the field and at home

18:06 | 9 October

Working photographers, and enthusiasts who just love taking plenty of pictures, know that even the biggest SD cards can sometimes fill up, especially when you’re working with large file sizes, shooting both JPG and RAW, and shooting 4K video. The solution? A good mobile backup drive. There are a number of options out there that fit the bill, but the newly released Gnarbox 2.0 might be the best of them all, because it works like a miniature independent photo computer in addition to packing speedy SSD storage onboard.

This is the second generation of Gnarbox’s backup solution, and while I used the original, HDD-based version to great effect for a long time, the 2.0 version adds a ton of useful features, including super-fast SSD storage ranging from 256GB to 1TB in capacity, a new OLED display that makes it even easier to use in the field, and a removable battery that means you can pack spares to stay powered up and ready.

Simple, no fuss backup

It’s not the fanciest feature that the Gnarbox 2.0 offers, but it might be the one you use most: Quick and painless backup of SD cards. There’s an SD port on the device itself that can transfer at speeds up of to 75MB/s, and it has USB-C ports that can transfer direct from cameras or from card readers at up to 350MB/s depending on their transfer capabilities. When you plug in an SD card or camera, you get an option on the screen to totally back up the contents of the attached drive with one click, which makes it incredibly easy to dump and delete and clear up space to keep shooting.

Gnarbox 2.0 6

During a 9-day trip that included two events and a vacation to shoot, I made frequent use of this feature. Shooting with the new Sony A7R IV in both RAW and JPG, even my 128GB SD + 64GB SD backup cards filled up pretty quickly, but I would just slide one of the cards into the Gnarbox’s slot and hit the backup button before changing venues and it’d be fully backed up within a few minutes.

In my experience, this process has been rock-solid reliable, and gives me effectively 10x the space for a shoot vs. just relying on my cards alone (I don’t typically have a similar sized backup SD card on the road, let alone 10). By default, the Gnarbox 2.0 stores all your media in backup folders organized by capture date, too, which makes them super easy to sort through once you get back to base.

A mobile review and rating machine

Once all that great capture content is on your Gnarbox 2.0, you can also very easily connect to the drive using Gnarbox’s mobile apps to either review what you’ve got, or go through and rate your photos quickly to make the process of working through them once you’re installed at your workstation easier.

There are two apps from Gnarbox available right now, including Gnarbox Safekeep and Gnarbox Selects. Safekeep gives you access to all your device’s settings and can also act as a file browser for shuttling photos between apps. But Selects is probably what you’re going to be using most – it not only offers fast RAW previews (compatible with every major camera’s RAW formats) but also lets you quickly add ratings, keyboard tags and more to make sure your collection is primed for edit when you get back to your desktop.

With Selects, you can review either files on the Gnarbox SSD itself, or on attached memory cards or storage media (so yes, you can use this with something like a Samsung T5 if you’re already using that as a backup solution). All this info will then show up in applications like Adobe Lightroom to expedite your workflow.

This can shave hours off the process of organizing your photos, since it means you can do the rating and reviewing up front without having to wait for everything to import and then trying to recall what you were going for with the shoot in the field after the fact.

Easy sharing from the field

Speaking of saving time, the Gnarbox 2.0 also helps you move more quickly from capture to sharing, which is incredibly useful if you’re working on a live event or doing photojournalism of something happening in the moment. The device supports Lightroom mobile out of the box, meaning you can navigate to it as a source for a new collection and move files over directly when connected to your phone or tablet. This makes it awesome for adding quick edits to RAW files, exporting finished JPGs and sharing directly to social apps and websites.

With Apple’s new iOS 13 filesystem changes, the Gnarbox 2.0 can also be addressed as a mass storage device, so you should be pretty wide open in terms of options for working with various editing software. This is also great for mobile video workflows, since Gnarbox 2.0 works just as well for storing video capture as well as photos.

Home workstation companion

Gnarbox 2.0 3The Gnarbox 2.0 is great on the go, but it’s also perfect for plugging in as a home work drive once you’re back from the shoot. I’m reviewing the 1TB version, so the amount of available on board storage is a big advantage here, since it can essentially provide all the space you need to give you all of your working files in one place.

As mentioned, it supports high-speed USB-C transfer, which makes working with the files directly from the drive on your main workstation much more pleasant. That also means you don’t necessarily have to move things over local to get to work, which saves you a step and spares your computer’s disk space.

Gnarbox 2.0 switches to USB Mass Storage mode pretty easily, using the onboard OLED menu system. You do need to make this switch manually however, because by default the USB-C port that it uses to make the computer connection is used for charging the Gnarbox’s battery. Once you’re in that mode, however, it’s as easy as connecting Gnarbox 2.0 to your computer and then navigating to it as you would any other connected mass storage device.

Photos on the drive are organized by capture date, as mentioned (you can customize how it creates its folder structure if you want) and you can also select it as an import target in any photo editing software, like Lightroom or Capture One.

Bottom line

Gnarbox 2.0 5Gnarbox has taken their time to create a thoughtful and thorough successor to their original product with the Gnarbox 2.0. It’s a unique blend of field photo server and mini computer, made more versatile with clever touches like the removable battery packs and dust/splash resistance. Ultimately, there really isn’t anything in the market that can compete with the Gnarbox 2.0 on everything it provides, though devices like WD’s My Passport Wireless Pro and the LaCie Rugged Boss SSD can offer some key parts at lower prices depending on your needs.

At $899 for the 1TB version I reviewed, ($499 and $599 for the 256 and 512GB versions, respectively), the Gnarbox 2.0 clearly isn’t for everyone. It’s a professional tool for a professional workflow, and it’s priced as such. That said, the value it provides for busy photographers who need a companion storage solution with utmost flexibility for working both at home and on the road is definitely going to make it worth the cost of admission for some.

 


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Fujifilm’s upcoming X-Pro3 camera has a unique design sure to appeal to film photographers

19:56 | 20 September

Fujifilm is teasing its forthcoming X-Pro3, the successor to its popular digital rangefinder mirrorless camera, ahead of its official full introduction on October 23. During its X Summit event going on today, the company showed off the X-Pro3 in detailed images (via Fujirumors), revealing for the first time its innovative new rear display design.

The X-Pro3 has an LCD on the back, as do most modern digital interchangeable lens cameras, but it’s definitely unique: The screen is hidden in normal use, facing inward towards the camera back while the outward side of the rear door instead offers the photographer a small OLED “mini screen” that contains only basic info about shooting settings.

The rear display will show details like shutter speed, f-stop, ISO and film simulation and file size settings, and if you want to actually see a preview of the virtual viewfinder image, you’ll need to flip down the screen to reveal the color LCD. The downward flipping display is therefore ideal for doing things like shooting from a low angle, with the photographer looking down to check framing – just like you could do on classic film cameras with waist-level viewfinders.

[gallery ids="1884507,1884508,1884509,1884510"]

The X-Pro3 still offers an electronic viewfinder, but that’s also more akin to film photography vs. digital, since photographers using the camera will be much more likely to either use the viewfinder or shoot waist-level with the flip down screen – while also being able to check their various settings at a glance by quickly pulling the camera way from their eye and looking at the back.

Fujifilm’s lineup of APS-C digital interchangeable lens cameras have already won many fans thanks to their film simulations, which mimic types of film the company offered previously. The X-Pro3 will focus even more on replicating a film-inspired experience backed by modern digital photographic technology, and will also include a new film simulation called “Classic Negative” as well.

Classic Negative

Other details about the camera include titanium construction, which is going to make it a super durable but lightweight camera, and three different color options to choose from.

New X Pro3 colorsNo pricing or availability info is out yet, but we’ll find that out along with full details on October 23.

 


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

23:05 | 19 September

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

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

Design and build

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

Ricoh Theta Z1 7

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

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

[gallery ids="1884065,1884067,1884066"]

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

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

Ricoh Theta Z1 9

Still images

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

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

A769B0EF 55C0 483E 82AE 19EFF4212B2D 3

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

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

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

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

Video

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

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

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

Features and sharing

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

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

Bottom line

Simply put, the Ricoh Theta Z1 is the best 360 camera for still photos that you can buy for under $1000 – even if just squeaks under that line. It’s the best still photo 360 camera you can pick up for considerably more than that, too, given its sensor arrangement and other technical aspects of the device including its selectable aperture settings and RAW output.

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

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

 


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Google will unveil the Pixel 4 and other new hardware on October 15

19:24 | 16 September

Google will reveal the next Pixel in greater detail at an event happening October 15 in New York, the company confirmed via invites sent to media today. We already know the Pixel 4 will be revealed at this event, because Google has already dropped some official images and feature details for the new Android smartphone, but we’ll probably see more besides given that the invite promises “a few new things Made by Google.”

Here’s what we know so far about the Pixel 4: Everything. Well okay, not everything, but most things. Like it’ll use Google’s cool Soli radar-based gesture recognition technology, for both its updated face unlock and some motion controls. Infinite leaks have show that it’ll have a body design that includes a single color/texuture back, what looks like a three-camera rear cluster (wide angle, standard and zoom lens lily), a 6.23-inch OLED display can the XL with image resolution of 3040×1440, with a 90Hz mode that will make animations and scrolling smoother.

unnamed

The animation Google sent out with the invites for its 2019 hardware event.

It also has rather large top and bottom bezels, a rarity for smartphones these days, but something that Google apparently felt was better than going with a notch again. Plus, it has that Soli tech and dot projectors for doing the new face unlock which might require more space up top.

In terms of other hardware, there’s less in terms of solid info to go on, but there are rumours of a new ChromeOS-based Pixelbook plus new Google Home smart speakers, and we could also see more of Stadia, Google’s cloud gaming service which launches in November. Google could also show off additional surprises, including maybe Chromecast updates, or an update to Google Wifi to take advantage of the newly certified Wifi 6 standard.

Basically, there could be a lot of surprises on hand even if the Pixel 4 is more or less a known quantity, and we’ll be there to bring you all the news October 15 as it happens.

 


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Google releases Android 10

20:00 | 3 September

Android 10 is now available, assuming you have a phone that already supports Google’s latest version of its mobile operating system. For now, that’s mostly Google’s own Pixel phones, though chances are that most of the phones that were supported during the beta phase will get updated to the release version pretty soon, too.

Since the development of Android pretty much happens in the open these days, the release itself doesn’t feature any surprises. Just like with the last few releases, chances are you’ll have to look twice after the update to see whether your phone actually runs the latest versions. There are plenty of tweaks in Android 10, but some of the most interesting new features are a bit hidden and (at least in the betas) off by default.

The one feature everybody has been waiting for is a dark mode and here, Android 10 doesn’t disappoint. The new dark theme is now ready for your night-time viewing, with the promise of improved battery life for your OLED phone and support from a number of apps like Photos and Calendar. Over time, more apps will automatically switch to a dark theme as well, but right now, the number seems rather limited and a bit random, with Fit offering a dark mode while Gmail doesn’t.

The other major tweak is the updated gesture navigation. This remains optional — you can still use the same old three-button navigation Android has long offered. It’s essentially a tweak of the navigation system the launched with Android Pie. For the most part, the new navigation gestures work just fine and feel more efficient than those in Pie, especially when you try to switch between apps. Swiping left and right from the screen replaces the back button, which isn’t immediately obvious, and a slightly longer press on the side of the screen occasionally opens a navigation drawer. I say ‘occasionally,’ because I think this is the most frustrating part of the experience. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The trick to opening the drawer, it seems, is to swipe at an angle that’s well above 45 degrees.

Also new is an updated Smart Reply feature that now suggests actions from your notifications. If a notification includes a link, for example, Smart Reply will suggest opening it in Chrome. Same for addresses, where the notification can take you right to Google Maps, or YouTube videos that you can play in — you guessed it — Youtube. This should work across all popular messaging apps.

There are also a couple of privacy and security features here, including the ability to only share location data with apps while you use them and a new Privacy section in Settings that gives you access to controls for managing your web and app history, as well as your ad settings in a slightly more prominent place.

The new Google Play system updates, the company can now also push important security and privacy fixes right to the phone from the Google Play store, which allows it to patch issues without having to go through the system update process. Given the slow Android OS upgrade cycles, that’s an important new feature, though it, too, is an evolution of Google’s overall strategy to decouple these updates and core features from the OS updates.

Two other interesting new features are still in beta or won’t be available until later this year, but Google prominently highlights Focus mode, which allows you to silence specific apps for a while and which is now in beta, and Live Caption, which will launch in the fall on Pixel phones and which can automatically caption videos and audio across all apps. I’ve been beta testing Focus Mode for a bit and I’m not sure it has really made a difference in my digital wellbeing, but the ability to mute notifications from YouTube during the workday, for example, has probably made me a tiny bit more productive.

Oh, and there’s also native support for foldable phones, but for the time being, there are no foldable phones on the market.

Like with most recent releases, those are just some of the highlights. There are plenty of small tweaks, too, and chances are you’ll notice a few new fonts and visual tweaks here and there. For the most part, though, you can continue to use Android like you always have. Even major changes like the updated gesture controls are optional. It’s very much an evolutionary update, but that’s pretty much the case for any mobile OS these days.

 


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Analogue’s Mega Sg is the Sega Genesis Mini alternative for the discerning retro gaming fan

00:22 | 30 July

The official Sega Genesis Mini is coign in September and hopes to capitalize on some of the retro gaming hype that turned the Super Nintendo and NES Mini Classic editions into best-sellers. But there’s already a modern piece of hardware out there capable of playing Sega Genesis games on your HDTV – plus Mega Drive, Master System and Sega CD, too.

The Analogue Mega Sg is the third in a series of reference quality, FPGA-based retro consoles from Analogue, a company that prides itself on accuracy in old-school gaming. It provides unparalleled, non-emulated game play with zero lag and full 1080p output to work with your HD or even 4K TV in a way no other old-school gaming hardware can.

For $189.99 (which is not just about double the asking price of the Sega Genesis Mini), you get the console itself, an included Master System cartridge adapter, an HDMI cable and a USB cable for power supply (plus a USB plug, though depending on your TV you might be able to power it directly). The package also includes a silicon pad should you want to use it with original Sega CD hardware, which plugs into the bottom of the SG hardware just like it did with the original Genesis. It includes two ports that support original wired Genesis controllers, or you can also opt to pick up an 8bitdo M30 wireless Genesis controller and adapter, which retails for $24.99.

[gallery ids="1861820,1861821,1861822,1861823,1861824,1861825,1861826,1861827"]

Like the Nt mini did for NES, and the Super Nt did for SNES before it, the Mega Sg really delivers when it comes to performance. Games look amazing on my 4K LG OLED television, and I can choose from a variety of video output settings to tune it to my liking, including adding in simulated retro scaliness and more to make it look more like your memory of playing on an old CRT television.

Sound is likewise excellent – those opening notes of Ecco the Dolphin sounded fantastic rendered in 48KHz 16-bit stereo coming out of my Sonos sound system. Likewise, Sonic’s weird buzzsaw razor whine came through exactly as remembered, but definitely in higher definition than anything that actually played out of my old TV speakers as a kid.

Even if you don’t have a pile of original Sega cartridges sitting around ready to play (though I bet you do if you’re interested in this piece of kit) the Mega Sg has something to offer: On board, you get digital copy of unreleased Sega Genesis game ‘Hardcore,’ which was nearly complete in 1994 but which went unreleased. It’s been finished and renamed “Ultracore,” and you can run it from the console’s main menu as soon as you plug it in and fire it up.

Analogue plans to add more capabilities to the Mega Sg in future, with cartridge adapters that will allow it to run Mark III, Game Gear, Sega MyCard, SG-1000 and SC-3000 games, too. These will all be supported by the FPGA Analogue designed for the Mega Sg, too, so they’ll also be running natively, not emulated, for a true recreation of the original gaming experience.

Analogue Mega Sg 8

If you’re really into classic games, and care a lot about accuracy, this is definitely the best way to play Sega games on modern TVs – and it’s also just super fun.

 


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Sony’s new A7R IV camera is a 61 MP full-frame mirrorless beast

17:53 | 16 July

Sony unveiled the latest in its line of interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras on Tuesday, debuting the A7R IV, its top-of-the-line full-frame digital shooter aimed at pros. The new camera packs a walloping 61-megapixel sensor, and will retail for $3,500 when it goes on sale this September.

The camera’s image resolution is a “world first” for a 35mm equivalent full-frame digital sensor, Sony notes, and that’s not where the improvements on this successor to the wildly popular A7R III ends: The A7R IV also has 10fps rapid shooting with continuous autofocus and autoexposure tracking capabilities; 567 phase-detect autofocus points that cover 74% of the frame; real-time eye autofocus tracking for stills and movies, which can handle both human and animal subjects; 4K movie recording without any pixel binning and with S-Log 2/3 support for editing (although without a 60p mode, as it caps out at 30p); ISO range of 100-32000 (and 50-102400 expandable); battery life of around 539 shots with the EVF or 670 shots without, and much more.

sony alpha a7r iv

This Sony camera is clearly a shot across the bow at recent entrants into the full-frame mirrorless camera market including Nikon and Canon, and it looks like Sony will be upping one of its biggest advantages by offering even better subject-tracking autofocus, which is a category where it already has a strong lead. The high-resolution sensor is another area where the competition will be left behind, since the Nikon Z7 captures at 45.7 MP and the Canon R maxes out at 30.3 MP.

Real-time eye autofocus in movie recording will also help a lot for video shooters, after Sony introduced it to still shooting for the A7 and A7R III via a firmware update in April. Touch tracking allows shooters to just tap the thing they want to maintain autofocus on using the back display LCD while shooting, and a new digital audio interface added to the camera’s hot shoe connector means recording with shotgun mic that support the feature without any additional cable clutter.

The A7R IV also offers five-axis in-body image stabilization, a 5.76 million-to UXGA OLED EVF, boosted weather and dust resistance, wireless tethered shooting capabilities and dual UHS-II SD card slots for storage.

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Netflix reveals the top TVs it thinks you should use to binge watch in 2019

16:00 | 19 June

Netflix has a tradition, in practice since 2015, of annually proclaiming which TVs, of all the TVs in the land, are best suited to serving you its content. The streaming company’s criteria for determining ‘best’ is different from what you’d expect from The Wirecutter or Consumer reports – but if you’re a Netflix ride-or-die level fan, they might be the only criteria you really care about.

Without further ado, here’s the list of 2019’s Netflix Recommended TVs:

  • Samsung Q60R/Q70R/Q80R/Q90R/Q900R series, RU8000, The Serif and The Frame devices
  • Sony BRAVIA X85G/X90G series and A9G series
  • Panasonic VIERA GX700/GX800/GX900 series

That list may seem short, and it is, relative to the number of TVs on the market that offer Netflix directly on device. But Netflix points out that the list can grow throughout the year depending on device and software update availability.

If, like me, you are an informed consumer who does a lot of research before making a large purchase like, say, a big-screen TV, you might be curious at the omission of LG’s OLED series, the 2019 iteration of which came to market just a couple of months ago. For a possible answer, let’s take a look at the criteria Netflix uses to make their list. (Note: I asked Netflix directly about LG and they provided a generic answer about brands dropping from the list year-to-year on occasion based on criteria and performance requirements).

Essentially, landing an official Netflix nod means that a TV can provide its user access to Netflix “within just a few seconds,” that it allows you to “quickly and easily” navigate between different apps, that it provides access to the most up-to-date version of Netflix, and that it gives you access to all Netflix’s laters features “for a better browsing experience.” In total there are 7 criteria, and a TV must meet 5 to be eligible for a Netflix recommendation.

Demo of how much faster Netflix loads on TVs that use the company’s ‘Always Fresh’ background activation feature. Bottom screen is with ‘Always Fresh’ active.

One criteria that’s new this year might be the one that’s put the ‘Recommendation’ out of reach for LG and webOS – it’s called ‘Always Fresh,” and it requires that a TV keep Netflix awake for an occasional background refresh, meaning it’s always primed and ready to go, with more or less instant playback regardless of network connection speed.

It’d be easy to knock Netflix for making this one of the conditions of receiving its recommendations (which are based solely on testing and meeting its standards – the company told me no money changes hands in this program), but it’s not barring companies that don’t meet these criteria from offering its service. And it’s using its market weight to help motivate TV makers to provide an experience that will genuinely be better for consumers.

 


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