Tag Archives: Gadget Reviews

Google wants to define a healthy human with its new baseline genetic study

Google’s got a big new project and it’s you. Well, not just you, but a genetic and molecular study of humanity that aims to grasp at what a healthy human should be. It’s in its early days, collecting anonymous data from 175 people, but it plans to expand to thousands later. The project is headed up by molecular biologist Andrew Conrad, who pioneered cheap HIV tests for blood-plasma donations. According to the WSJ, the team at Google X current numbers between 70 and 100, encompassing experts in physiology, biochemistry, optics, imaging and molecular biology.

The Baseline project will apparently take in hundreds of different samples, with Google using its information processing talents to expose biomarkers and other patterns – the optimistic result hopefully being faster ways of diagnosing diseases. Biomarkers has typically been used with late-stage diseases, as these studies have typically used already-sick patients. “He gets that this is not a software project that will be done in one or two years,” said Dr. Sam Gambhir, who is working with Dr. Conrad on the project. “We used to talk about curing cancer and doing this in a few years. We’ve learned to not say those things anymore.”
Information from the project will remain anonymous: Google said that data won’t be shared with insurance companies, but the shadow of privacy issues hang over pretty much anything the company touches. Baseline started this summer, initially collecting fluids such as urine, blood, saliva and tears from the anonymous guinea pigs. Tissue samples will be taken later. “With any complex system, the notion has always been there to proactively address problems,” Dr. Conrad said. “That’s not revolutionary. We are just asking the question: If we really wanted to be proactive, what would we need to know? You need to know what the fixed, well-running thing should look like.”

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Article source: http://www.engadget.com/2014/07/24/google-genetics-project/?ncid=rss_truncated

IBM Watson’s new job: reintroducing soldiers to civilian life

Handsome American soldier behind his computer -talking on the phone

Watson supercomputer has a new and very important job, one that’s a lot different from beating Jeopardy champions or whipping up BBQ sauce recipes: helping vets return to normal life. IBM has recently formed a partnership with the USAA (the financial services firm for soldiers and their families) to create an app that can answer ex-soldiers’ questions about finances and the like. For instance, a vet could ask Watson how he can get a job, what his benefits are, what his insurance covers or what the GI Bill entails. Even though Watson’s been wearing many hats for years, this is the first time anyone developed a consumer app based on the supercomputer. This app pulls data from more than 3,000 documents that deal with military transitions, in hopes of making things easier for the 155,000 soldiers who retire from service every year.

[Image credit: Getty/Mie Ahmt]

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Article source: http://www.engadget.com/2014/07/24/ibm-watson-soldiers-usaa/?ncid=rss_truncated

PS4 will add Blu-ray 3D support soon

That was fast. After Microsoft announced the Xbox One is going to get Blu-ray 3D support in an update soon, Sony’s PlayStation Europe arm has responded by finally revealing the same feature is coming to the PS4. There’s no word yet on any other other home theater related features we’d love to see make the jump from PS3 to PS4 (Bluetooth remote, DLNA, MP3 playback), or a specific release date, but software update 1.75 is the one we’re looking forward to. Hey, at least it’s not another stability update, and the news is coincidentally timed just as we’ve learned about Sony’s settlement in a class action lawsuit related to the 2011 PSN hack.

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Article source: http://www.engadget.com/2014/07/23/ps4-blu-ray-3d/?ncid=rss_truncated

OS X Yosemite preview: the Mac gets a major makeover

The last time Apple released a new version of OS X, we came away feeling a little… underwhelmed. Don’t get us wrong: We’ll never say no to a free software upgrade. But despite a handful of new apps and features, last year’s Mavericks release still felt like the same old OS X. You can’t say that about Yosemite, though. The company’s next-gen operating system ushers in the Mac’s biggest makeover in years, with a flat, streamlined look inspired by iOS 7. Yosemite works more like iOS too, particularly the part where you can route phone calls to your desktop. You’ll also enjoy improved Spotlight search, with results that include news, local restaurant listings, Wikipedia pages, movie times and quick unit conversions. Safari works much the same way, and includes some enhanced privacy settings, too. Right now, Yosemite isn’t quite finished — it won’t arrive until sometime this fall — but you can sign up for the public beta, which will open tomorrow for the first million people who enlist. In the meantime, I’ve been using an early build for a week now. Here’s a quick preview for those of you who can’t wait till tomorrow.

OS X Yosemite preview

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Look and feel

You’ll notice it as soon as you restart your machine: OS X Yosemite takes many, many cues from iOS. There’s the dock, for starters, which features redesigned, flatter-looking icons for all of Apple’s built-in apps. The menu bar now sits flat with the rest of the desktop — not that it ever really got in the way. Throughout, too, Apple has moved to a new, less condensed font, and it’s also adopted some of the same icons used in iOS (check out the “share” button in Finder, for example). Even the “stoplights” for closing, minimizing and maximizing windows are flat — no 3D shading here. Oh, speaking of the stoplights, the green button now allows you to bring windows to full-screen. You should get used to it pretty quickly.

Open up Finder — or any app, really — and you’ll see the left-hand pane is translucent, and will turn to the color of your wallpaper or whatever files you happen to have open in the background (see above for an example). The menu bar inside apps is translucent too, and it’s also significantly narrower, allowing content to stand front and center. If I’m honest, all those translucent panels are just a visual flourish. A cool flourish, but a flourish nonetheless. Yes, the slightly see-through bits up top remind you there’s more to see if you keep scrolling, but you could have figured that out anyway.

Not that I’m complaining about a fresh coat of paint. This new release feels modern — so much so that it makes my old Mavericks system feel shamefully dated. What’s nice is that even as you start installing third-party apps, the OS continues to look clean. Programs like Firefox have those flattened stoplights, for instance, though they don’t currently show the translucent panes. At the same time, as current as the OS feels, it’s still easy to find your way around; no one, and I mean no one, will feel lost inside OS X. Mail looks like Mail, and Safari looks like Safari. They just look better.

Spotlight

OK, I spoke too soon: There is one thing that works differently, and that’s Spotlight search. Whereas before, your search results appeared in drop-down form in the upper-right corner of the screen, clicking the search button now brings up a big ol’ search bar in the middle of the desktop. But it’s not just the placement of the search results that have changed; they’ve gotten quite a bit smarter, too. From here, you can convert units and measurements, preview Wikipedia entries and news stories, and pull up friends’ contact information, complete with phone numbers, email addresses and websites you can click on from the search bar.

Apps are included in search results too, as are things you may have purchased from iTunes. You can also pull up more personalized information, such as local restaurant listings and movie times, but you’ll need to have “Spotlight Suggestions” checked off under location settings in order for that to work. In cases where the keyword is a little ambiguous — “numbers,” for example — you’ll see any Numbers spreadsheets you have saved, as well as a prompt to open the Numbers app itself. Ditto for “apes” — I’ll get movie times for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, as well as any emails where someone was talking about apes (and yes, I do have some).

All told, it feels a little like Smart Search in Windows 8.1, though there are things Apple can do that Microsoft can’t, and vice versa (Windows, for instance, lets you go to specific settings from the search results). To be clear, iOS 8 will show the same kind of Spotlight search results as the Mac, but what I particularly like about the desktop version is how self-contained it is — you can pull up search results without having to open a new window. Of course, if you click on a news story, Safari will open a new tab, but that makes sense — you can’t do everything in the search interface, after all.

Safari

It’s more of the same in Safari: The newest version of Apple’s built-in web browser shows previews of search results, with snippets of things like Wikipedia pages. The favorites bar, too, reminds me of the new Spotlight search — just click on the URL and you’ll see a pop-up window beneath showing your bookmarked sites. It’s nice because on the one hand, your favorites no longer take up unnecessary space in the browser, but they’re there when you need them, and you don’t have to navigate away from your current page to see the list.

In addition, Apple redesigned its “tabs view,” where you’ll see a mixture of tabs from both your Mac and any iDevices you own (obviously, you need to be signed into iCloud on every device for this to work). From there, you can close tabs remotely, so long as the remote device is running either Yosemite or iOS 8 (if all you want to do is open remote tabs, you just need iOS 6 or higher, or Mavericks on the desktops side). The tabs window also stacks pages from the same site, which helps keep things tidy. Meanwhile, Safari’s “share” button now shows recent shares. It’s also “extensible,” which is to say you can add extensions to share via more apps, even if they aren’t part of the default sharing menu.

The latest build of Safari also includes a couple important nods to privacy. DuckDuckGo, the do-not-track search engine, is now one of four default search options, with Google, Yahoo and Bing being the other three. Additionally, you can now open private browsing in a new window, even if you already started a regular browsing session in a different window. (In Mavericks, once you turn on private browsing, you’re turning it on for every subsequent window and tab you open.) As you open new tabs in that private window, they’ll be private by default. The private browsing window is also easy to tell apart, with a “private browsing enabled” banner and a lock symbol in the address bar (check out the screenshot above to see what I mean).

Messages

More than any other app mentioned here, Messages is the one that now feels most like iOS. With this new release, you can mute or leave conversations, or add someone to an existing group chat — all features you’ll find on iOS 8 when it comes out. Additionally, if your texting partner is using iOS 8 and has elected to share their location, you can view a map inside the Messages app that shows where your friend is — a handy feature if you’re trying to meet up in real life. Also, you’ll now see a Camera Roll-type stream on the right side, showing all the photos and videos you and your friends may have exchanged over the course of the thread. Naturally, that includes shots from both Macs and iOS devices.

If you ask me, the ability to mute or leave a conversation both seem like no-brainer features, and I’m glad Apple’s adding them to both OS X and iOS. The “add participant” feature is particularly convenient — until now, if you wanted to bring somebody to the conversation, you had to start a whole new thread from scratch. The only catch here is that you need at least three people in the conversation to add another. That means if you and Joe are planning a Sunday brunch and decide Jane is invited too, you won’t have the option to just loop her in. Needless to say, I hope Apple rethinks the “three-person” requirement between now and the fall.

Finally, Apple added a “Soundbites” feature that lets you send short, pre-recorded audio messages in a normal texting thread. (This feature is also coming to iOS 8, though you don’t need an iOS 8 or Yosemite device to receive these audio clips.) It’s all very self-explanatory, really: Just click the microphone button and start talking. And take your time. The limit for Yosemite devices is 100MB, which amounts to a lot of talking — several hours, according to Apple. Thankfully, you’ll have a chance to review your message before sending — in that sense, it’s more akin to a voice mailbox greeting than an actual voicemail. Even after you send it, you can either hit “keep” or let it expire after two minutes, à la Snapchat. Meanwhile, the sender can also choose to keep the message, or allow it to self-destruct two minutes after viewing it.

Mail

The built-in Mail app has seen a couple changes too, even though the inbox itself looks the same as ever. The first of these features is Mail Drop, which uploads large attachments to iCloud instead of Gmail, or whatever your mail service is. If your recipient is using OS X Yosemite too, they’ll just download the attachment in Mail, as they normally would. If they’re not on Yosemite, they’ll instead get a download link that will work for up to 30 days. Aside from the ability to skirt attachment-size limits, the nice thing about Mail Drop is that attachments don’t count against your iCloud storage cap.

The second new feature is called Markup, which gives you an easy way to — wait for it — mark up attachments from inside the Mail app. Just hover over a PDF or image after you insert it into your draft email, and click on the “Markup” option that’ll appear over on the right side. From there, you can add shapes and text, complete with formatting options like text colors and different fonts. You can also sign documents if you like by either signing with your finger, or using your Mac’s iSight camera to photograph your signature on a piece of paper.

Lastly, you can draw on the document, at which point Markup will attempt to smooth out your scribblings if you happen to make a shape it recognizes. If you dash out a crooked arrow sign, for instance, Apple will give you the option of swapping in a straight, more professional-looking one instead (you can also keep the crooked one, if you wish).

Calendar and Notification Center

It’s been about two years since Apple added the Notification Center to OS X. Fundamentally, it works the same way it always did, with pop-ups appearing in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen when you receive a new email, have an upcoming calendar appointment, et cetera. The difference here is that in addition to the usual “Notifications” column, there’s now a “Today” view that combines any and all information that might be relevant to you throughout your day: reminders, the local weather, stock prices, a world clock and a summary of your calendar appointments. Stocks and weather, in particular, can sync with iOS 8, so your stock list, say, will be consistent across your Mac and iPhone. Unfortunately, none of my devices are currently running iOS 8 (it’s not out yet), so I wasn’t able to test that feature. Soon, hopefully.

In short, the new “Today” view feels like an updated version of the ol’ Mac dashboard, with some of the classic widgets in one place. Of course, the dashboard is still there if you want it — old habits do die hard, after all. Personally, though, I don’t see why you’d use the dashboard if you didn’t have to; it’s much easier to just open the Notification Center and take in lots of information at once.

Meanwhile, the Calendar app also has a redesigned day view, with an inline, full-height inspection pane sitting alongside a list of all your appointments for the day. From there, you can see lots of details pertaining to a given event, such as location, the weather forecast, a map, a list of attendees and a miniature month calendar. What can I say? It looks nice. The only thing I would add is the ability to zoom in on the map without having to open the standalone Maps application.

Integration with iOS

I saved this section for last because iOS 8 isn’t out yet, which means I can’t actually test any of the features that tie into OS X Yosemite. That’s a shame, because iOS integration really is the big story here, even more than those flat new icons. I’ll of course revisit this when I eventually write my full Yosemite review, but for now, all I can really do is explain what these iOS features are and how they work.

And explain I shall. Perhaps the flashiest of these features, as I said earlier, is the ability to field calls from your desktop. As on an iPhone, you can accept or reject the call, or set a reminder for five minutes, 15 minutes or an hour. To make this happen, just sign into iCloud on both devices, and make sure both your Mac and iPhone are connected to the same WiFi network. Meanwhile, your Mac can automatically tether with your iPhone, so long as they’re within a close enough distance. Also, when you do tether, you’ll see your phone’s battery life and signal strength in the menu bar. Finally, the Messages app will now show both iMessages as well as SMS texts from non-iOS users. What’s more, you can send SMS messages through your Mac, with the texts ultimately routing through your phone (again you need to be signed into iCloud on both devices, and be on the same WiFi network).

So far, I’ve mostly enumerated features that let you control your phone from your Mac — texting, receiving calls, et cetera. But Apple has also added some features to OS X that make it easier to transfer files between devices. Perhaps the biggest development of all is iCloud Drive, which allows you to store your files on iCloud and then access them on any device. Meanwhile, a new “handoff” feature means that whatever you’re doing on one device, it will show up on the other — open tabs, documents in progress, et cetera. Finally, you can AirDrop with iOS friends, with your contacts able to share even when you don’t have Finder open.

Wrap-up

For anyone who thought OS X was getting stale, that it was evolving a little too gradually, you’ll definitely want to check out Yosemite: It ushers in a new, iOS-inspired design, along with some new, iOS-like features. In my week of testing, I’ve found the updated look to be more visually pleasing than the previous version, yet still easy to navigate. The new features are generally welcome too, though some admittedly feel more granular than others. Of course, the most important updates to the OS generally have to do with iOS integration — never have Macs and iPhones worked in lockstep the way they will here.

The thing is, those are precisely the features I didn’t get to test out: With iOS 8 reserved just for developers right now, it’s impossible to say how well these features work in real-world use. We’ll be back in the fall with a full review, but for now, this latest OS update looks promising, especially for people who also own iPhones or iPads (and that’s a lot of you, I’m guessing). Don’t take my word for it, though: Join the public beta program so you can get hands-on yourself.

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Article source: http://www.engadget.com/2014/07/23/os-x-yosemite-preview/?ncid=rss_truncated

Amazon Fire phone review: a unique device, but you’re better off waiting for the sequel

Amazon Fire phone review: a unique device, but you're better off waiting for the sequel

After producing a long line of e-book readers and tablets (not to mention a set-top box), Amazon has its sights set on the smartphone market. But finding success here won’t be easy, even for an established tech giant like Amazon. With the Fire phone, the online retailer is coming in as an unproven underdog, hoping to bring iPhone and Android users into its fold. CEO Jeff Bezos says the only way to do that is to differentiate; to wow potential buyers with new features they didn’t even realize they needed. These unique offerings include 3D head-tracking, product scanning and fast help from customer service agents.

Summary

Amazon’s debut phone isn’t bad, per se, but there’s little incentive for anyone to switch carriers or platforms to buy it. Its unique features don’t provide enough utility, and come at the expense of both battery life and performance.

Regardless of the bells and whistles on offer here, Amazon is walking down a difficult path: The Fire is only available on ATT, and at $200 on-contract ($650 full retail), it’s going up against high-end devices from companies that have been making phones for years. In order to win over customers, Amazon has to convince them that the Fire is worth dropping loyalties, switching carriers, resigning contracts and handing over a lot of money. Unfortunately, the company has a few lessons to learn before that’s going to happen.

Amazon Fire phone review

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Hardware

Amazon appears to have put so much effort on the Fire phone’s unique features that it didn’t focus on making the device attractive. It looks more like a prototype than a phone that’s supposed to compete against well-designed beauts like the iPhone 5s, LG G3 and HTC One M8. The use of glass on the front and back is a throwback to the Nexus 4 and iPhone 4/4s, which means it’s a fingerprint magnet and more susceptible to breaks than polycarbonate. The sides are protected with a rubberized polyurethane material, however, which should improve the phone’s chances of survival if dropped.

The Fire is thicker than the iPhone 5s and Galaxy S5, just as thick as the LG G3 and thinner than the One M8 and Moto X. Yet Amazon’s inaugural phone feels thicker than all of them due to its blocky design: The sides are mostly blunt, but they taper toward the back, which lies completely flat. And at 5.64 ounces (160g), it’s heavier than the competition. The only exception is the One M8, which weighs exactly the same as the Fire and has a more premium-feeling aluminum body.

Amazon’s goal was to make the Fire ideal for one-handed use, and indeed, it succeeded: The screen measures a manageable 4.7 inches and the sides are easy to grip. It’s comfortable to hold and my thumb could reach nearly every part of the display, so I rarely felt like I had to use two hands unless I was typing a message.

The back isn’t as busy as I expected. Despite being an ATT exclusive, the carrier’s logo is nowhere to be seen on the device (front or back). All you’ll see here is Amazon’s logo near the top and the obligatory federal certification details near the bottom; aside from that, the camera, LED flash and mic are neatly tucked away in the top-right corner.

Sadly, the front is a massive contrast to the minimal back, with the five lenses being the primary culprits. There’s a Kinect-like sensor on each corner and a selfie cam just to the right of the earpiece on the top. (If you’re already wary of Big Brother, the idea that five eyes are looking back at you won’t help your anxiety.) The only button is a Samsung-esque home key that protrudes out of the glass underneath the display.

Finally, the bottom of the phone houses a stereo speaker, mic and micro-USB 2.0 charging port, while the left side features a volume rocker, camera/Firefly quick-access button and nano-SIM slot. The other stereo speaker is on the top, between the 3.5mm headphone jack and power key; the latter is placed on the left side, which is perfect if you hold the phone in your right hand. Since I prefer using my left hand, however, this was a big pain point.

Though it’s not horrible by any means, the Fire’s display quality is not on par with other flagships. It has a 4.7-inch 720p LCD panel, which offers a relatively unimpressive pixel density of 315 ppi. This is far lower than the GS5, One M8 and G3, and only a few ticks below the iPhone 5s. On a positive note, the viewing angles are good and text is still crisper than I would’ve expected. Its colors are accurate and the 590-nit display is incredibly bright, which makes a difference when you’re trying to read the screen in direct sunlight. The video quality isn’t quite as good as other flagships, but otherwise there’s very little to complain about aside from the difference in resolution.

The $200 model comes with 32GB of internal storage, which beats out the 16GB that the iPhone 5s and GS5 offer at the same price. It doesn’t feature a microSD card slot, however, so you’ll need to shell out another $100 if you want the 64GB model.

One of the biggest disappointments about the Fire phone is its agreement with ATT. It’s also not launching with any international availability. Even worse, the phone is locked to only function with ATT SIM cards, so if you plan to travel internationally, you’ll need to be lucky enough to get an unlock code, either through the carrier or unofficial means. All of these factors will severely limit the number of phones Amazon can sell; very few people will want the Fire desperately enough to switch carriers or go through the hassle of unlocking it. If Amazon wants to make the Fire phone successful, it’s not going to do so by making it available to just one network in the world. (On a related note, the phone is locked even when you buy it at full retail price directly on Amazon.)

It seems pretty clear, then, that Amazon is trolling us. The Fire’s loaded with cellular connectivity: The phone is compatible with nine LTE frequencies for use in most parts of the world, in addition to penta-band HSPA+ and quad-band GSM/EDGE. But the only way you can use it is by paying an arm and a leg for international roaming plans or finding a place willing to provide you with the proper unlock code.

Amazon also made a misstep with the Fire’s primitive Bluetooth connectivity. Most, if not all, competing devices support version 4.0+LE, which makes it possible for phones and wearables to communicate with each other. I’ve confirmed that the Fire’s hardware technically supports this version, but its firmware doesn’t — at least, not yet. This means that if you use a smartwatch or a fitness band, you’ll want to hold off on buying the Fire until it’s updated with official support. Out of curiosity, I sideloaded the Pebble app (it’s not available in the Amazon Appstore) and tried to pair my Steel with the Fire; it connected successfully, but the Pebble consistently dropped its connection within a couple minutes.

Unique features

Dynamic Perspective

The 3D fad didn’t die — it just went on vacation for a while. After taking a hiatus from smartphones for a couple years, it first made its big comeback on Google’s Project Tango phone and then on the Fire phone. But there’s a twist. It uses Kinect-like cameras “invisible infrared illumination sensors” that can detect where your head is positioned and how far away it is from your phone. (Only two work at a time, but Amazon added four total lenses just in case a couple are obscured.) The device takes the details of your position and adjusts the field of view on your display to mimic the way you’d actually see things in real life.

Think of it like a window or doorway: When you move your head to the right side, you can peer through and view more stuff to the left that you couldn’t see when looking at it straight on. You can also look at objects from different angles — in a Rubik’s Cube game, you can see “around” the sides of the cube just by moving your head — and if that object is in the foreground, you can actually take a look at what’s behind it, simply by shifting to the left or right of the screen.

Dynamic Perspective is primarily used in games, lock screens and maps (iconic landmarks seem to poke out of the screen if you look at them from the right angle), but Amazon subtly applied it to app icons as well; as you tilt the phone or lean your head to one side, you can see the icons move too. The company opened up the software to developers last month, and the Appstore already boasts over 60 titles with the 3D effects added in. It works well in some games, such as the Rubik’s Cube one, and an adventure game called Lili, which lets you steer by moving your head. But many apps only use the tech as an afterthought. In Sonic Dash, for instance, you can only use it to look around the main menu, so there’s no in-game functionality; Mint.com’s app uses Dynamic Perspective in its home screen so that each box looks like it’s moving. Unless Amazon can drum up stronger developer interest, you’re likely to see lots of apps like this with half-baked implementation.

I wish only third-party apps were half-baked, but unfortunately the performance issues are more far-reaching than that. Dynamic Perspective works well most of the time, but I still noticed plenty of flaws. Choppiness was the most frequent issue, and it usually occurred because I was moving my head around too much and the sensors simply couldn’t keep up. In these cases, the effects would pause for a couple seconds before catching up with my movements. On a few occasions, the feature stopped working entirely after I sideloaded and ran apps that aren’t available in the Amazon Appstore (more on that later); it immediately began working again after I stopped running those apps. As long as you stick to official Amazon titles and services, you likely won’t run into the same issue.

Is there a reason to be concerned about having five cameras staring back at you? Not according to Amazon. Executives emphasized that the Dynamic Perspective cameras act as sensors, and any images or data they collect are never stored anywhere on the phone; everything is deleted almost immediately, and none of it can be accessed through another part of the device.

Concerned about how Dynamic Perspective may affect those with motion sickness, I asked Amazon reps if they’ve received any negative feedback so far. They told me that they hadn’t; it’s less likely to make you sick, they said, because the user is in control of how far and how fast the effect goes (the same way many people experience less motion sickness when driving than they do in the passenger seat). So they challenged my wife — who’s susceptible to getting sick from viewing moving backgrounds — to try it out. We accepted the challenge… and it didn’t work; she had to put the phone down after just two minutes. Its effects were just as strong as the parallax feature introduced on iOS 7. If that bothered you as well, you’ll want to turn off Dynamic Perspective in the settings right away.

Even if Dynamic Perspective performed better, and even if it doesn’t make you sick, it’s still a tough sell. It’s a neat feature and developers may come up with some cool uses for it, but it isn’t enough to persuade millions of iPhone and Android users to leave their preferred platforms, and possibly carriers, to try it out — even if they are loyal Amazon shoppers. It simply doesn’t benefit the user enough.

Firefly

Another new feature on the Fire is called Firefly. Long-press the camera button on the side of the phone, and you’re presented with a viewfinder with white bubbles moving all over the screen. Point the camera at a phone number, email address, website, product, book or bar code, and the bubbles will congregate over the relevant information. From there, the camera snaps a picture. The phone then scans each detail and places it into a clipboard that you access by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. Now you can perform an action related to the item: Call a phone number; visit a website; or purchase something through Amazon. It’ll also catch TV shows, movies and songs so you can buy or rent flicks at your leisure, find them on streaming services and locate a band on StubHub.

If you’ve heard of this before, that’s because it’s been done before, to an extent, by Microsoft, Google, Apple and app makers like Shazam. The difference is that Amazon’s implementation is more extensive than the rest (it comes with more features and boasts a catalog of 70 million products to draw from) and it’s open to developers, so other services can take advantage of the feature. It could be the ultimate guilty pleasure for the impulse buyer: Scan a friend’s Blu-ray disc; immediately compare several online prices; and order the cheapest option right away.

Much like Dynamic Perspective, my experience with Firefly was hit-or-miss. It scanned music and shows with near-perfect accuracy. It could easily pick up a large number of products within a couple seconds — even something as basic as an office telephone popped up immediately as I waved the phone in front of it — but this happened roughly 75 percent of the time. The other 25 percent was an exercise in frustration: Either it’d take too long to find anything, or it wouldn’t pick anything up at all. It had a hard time looking through sun glare and shrink wrap, and Firefly couldn’t grab information from an angle or at a distance (read: more than 10 feet away). Even when phone numbers and websites were nearby, it’d sometimes take two or three tries before giving me an accurate read. On one occasion, I scanned an “888” number and Firefly thought it started with “408.”

At times, it’d scan an object and present me with a similar item, but not the actual product itself. When I scanned a Super Mario game’s instruction book, for instance, it showed me a Mario backpack. Doing the same for a bottle of Coke, I was prompted to buy a soundtrack of every Coke commercial from 1962 to 1989. (A $22 value — what a steal!) This might make sense if the products I scanned weren’t available in Amazon’s store, but they were.

Firefly’s missing out on a few golden opportunities. It isn’t able to scan street addresses, which you could then pull up on a map; it can’t read information on a whiteboard or notepad; and it can’t see signs for restaurants or other businesses. Firefly has a lot of potential, but it’s only scratching the surface when it comes to convenience and usefulness. I don’t expect it to get everything right within a couple seconds, but it needs to be able to recognize more types of stuff for it to become a part of my regular app selection.

Another miss is the fact that Amazon isn’t planning to port Firefly over to iOS or Android. The company claims that’s because Firefly is optimized for the Fire, and while that may be true, availability on other platforms would translate into more sales on Amazon’s site — the company’s bread and butter.

Mayday

One of Amazon’s most brilliant features is Mayday. The service, which debuted on the Kindle Fire HDX tablet, promises to connect users with knowledgeable tech advisors in 15 seconds or less. (If you’re a tech enthusiast and you have relatives who aren’t as savvy as you are, you understand why Mayday is such a smart idea.) The Fire phone also comes with the feature built in; head to the quick settings to find a dedicated Mayday button.

If any good can come out of Amazon’s partnership with ATT, it’s this: If you ring up Mayday with a bill concern or carrier-related technical problem, the Amazon rep will “warm transfer” you to ATT’s tech support department. This means the rep will stay on the line with you and answer other questions while you wait.

My calls into Mayday connected between 10 and 20 seconds, with my average wait time coming out to the promised 15 seconds. With my permission, each rep was able to view and remotely control my device to answer my questions; one rep even drew on my screen to show me how to get to a desired feature.

Gestures

Thanks to its relatively petite size, the Fire functions well as a one-handed device. But if you’re making the move from a smaller smartphone — an iPhone, perhaps — it’s going to take some time to get used to a larger handset. Amazon has added one-handed gestures to help you navigate through different parts of the operating system without needing to use a second hand. Flick the phone right or left to open up side panels with menus, settings and other features; a swivel motion opens the quick settings and notifications panel; and moving your head up or down tells the phone to begin scrolling through text (yep, just like Smart Scroll on Samsung phones). Finally, you can tilt the device slightly to “peek” at your status bar if it’s normally hidden. Although the gestures effectively allow you to get to different places in the phone with only one hand, it becomes less effective when you have to actually use a finger to select something.

Software

Existing Fire tablet owners may be the most willing group of people to buy Amazon’s first phone because they’re already tied into the company’s ecosystem. The device comes with Fire OS 3.5, a proprietary operating system based on the Android 4.2 open-source platform (AOSP). It’s similar to the approach used on the Nokia X and other devices sold in China because this gives manufacturers the flexibility to build whatever they want without being forced to use Google Play Services like the Play Store, Gmail, Games and Google+, to name a few.

This means Fire OS is all about Amazon. Instant Video, Kindle books, Newsstand, Music, Audible audiobooks and Games are all included here. If you want to download apps, you’ll need to do so through the Amazon Appstore, which features 240,000 titles. That may sound like a lot, but this is only a fraction of the Play Store and iOS App Store size; it’s even smaller than Windows Phone’s selection! Quality certainly trumps quantity, of course, and I’ll give Amazon some credit for having a lot of popular apps, but I recommend you check out the store before you buy the phone to see if your favorite apps are in there. Also keep in mind that if you paid for an app in the Play Store, you’re going to have to pay for it again.

Of course, since Fire OS is based on Android, it’s easy to sideload apps (known as APKs) as long as you know how to get them. Programs based on Google Play Services, such as Gmail, immediately crash. Other apps may not work properly either, and as I mentioned earlier, some of them may even adversely affect the defining features on the Fire.

User interface

The Fire OS experience is much different than what you’ll find on any other phone in that it has both vertical and horizontal components. Vertically, it has a carousel on top and a standard app grid below; horizontally, there’s a slide-out menu for Amazon apps and services on the left and a tray for weather and upcoming appointments on the right. These menus change based on which app you’re in.

Arguably the most intriguing part of the OS is the Carousel. As you spin it, you’ll find many of your recent apps with timely notifications. Each app has a list of relevant details underneath it, and the content often depends on what you look at the most. You’ll see your most recent emails — complete with the first two lines of each one — as well as missed texts, settings you’ve opened lately, your most frequented websites, suggested apps in the Appstore and even third-party stuff like a Zillow app that displays a list of the last few houses you’ve looked at. You can pin specific apps to the front of the carousel and remove unwanted ones altogether, but you can’t reorder them.

I discussed gestures earlier, but there are a few other tricks worth noting. First, the Fire has no official back button, as you’re supposed to swipe up from the bottom bezel instead. You can do the same from every side: The top pulls down quick settings and notifications; the left brings up the Amazon tray; and the right accesses your miscellaneous drawer. Be careful, though: On several occasions, I found myself looking at an unwanted drawer when I was actually swiping through my photo albums. Just don’t get too close to the edge and you’ll be fine.

Amazon Fire OS 3.5 screenshots

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You can also double-click the home button to bring up a list of recent apps, whereas a long-press will prompt the Fire virtual assistant. It’s not as feature-rich as Siri, Cortana or Google Now, but it’s better than nothing: You can tell it to make calls, do web searches and send texts or emails.

Whether you use security or not (and you should), a swipe to the left on the lock screen pulls up Amazon’s “photo locker,” a quick-access picture album that you can customize as you see fit. You can have as many as you’d like. This is most useful for bragging rights; all you have to do is whip out your phone and in two seconds you can show your friends how much those kids of yours have grown.

One of the nicer, but more low-key touches on the Fire is a setting that allows you to change your sound profile to silent for three hours, after which time it’ll revert back to normal mode. This is perfect anytime you need a nap or have a work project you want to focus on. Most phones have some sort of quiet hours feature, but this option comes in handy if you need to do it quickly or simply don’t feel like messing with your Do Not Disturb settings. If I may be picky, I’d like to customize this setting to fit whatever length of time I want; otherwise, it’s a feature I’d like to see on more phones.

Camera

Amazon didn’t skimp on imaging performance: The camera here has a 13-megapixel sensor with a five-element lens, f/2.0 aperture and optical image stabilization (OIS). These specs sound great on paper, and we were hopeful when Bezos showed photos where the Fire’s shooter clearly beat out the iPhone 5s and Galaxy S5. And though the camera takes perfectly acceptable shots with the appropriate amount of detail, my own image comparisons with the same three phones didn’t always come out in the Fire’s favor.

Amazon Fire phone sample shots

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I’ll break down the Fire’s low-light performance first, since this was one of the camera’s top selling points. The Fire outperformed the Galaxy S5, and it wasn’t even a close call; the images on the Fire picked up more light and were far less noisy. Of course, this is one of the Galaxy’s major weaknesses, so that wasn’t much of a surprise. The real test came against the iPhone, which holds its own in dimly lit conditions. The comparison was much closer this time, but the iPhone ultimately came out on top because it was able to grab more errant light and with less noise. Also, I found the Fire was less consistent about keeping shots in focus in these conditions. In most cases, I had to remain completely still in order to get a clear picture, and had to discard several shots that came out blurry. Also, the LED flash on the Fire is noticeably less bright than on the iPhone and GS5.

The Fire’s camera did a good job capturing detail in daylight, but it had a warmer white balance compared to competing phones. HDR was subtler and less cartoonish on the Fire than on the Galaxy and about the same as on the iPhone. I prefer it this way. White balance aside, the camera is decent enough for both night and day, even though it’s not the best in either situation. Click here to see my sample shots in their full-res glory. I’ve also uploaded test shots I took with the iPhone and Galaxy S5, which you can find here and here.

Many lackluster cameras can at least earn a few brownie points by adding manual controls to let you take matters into your own hands, but the Fire has a minimal interface that features a toggle for HDR and flash, as well as the option to take pictures in lenticular mode (aka, GIF-making mode) and panoramic mode.

It’s also capable of taking 1080p video at 30fps, recording at a bit rate of 20 Mbps. Again, it sounds great on paper, but I wasn’t impressed. On a positive note, it didn’t have a problem keeping motion smooth; however, it did so at the expense of detail — and it re-focused more than it should have in broad daylight.

Performance and battery life

Deep inside the Fire phone, a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 chipset is running the show. Despite the fact that it’s now two generations behind the current flagship processor, it’s still a solid enough chipset that it should take care of business handily. As I mentioned earlier, Dynamic Perspective struggled from time to time, but unfortunately it also seemed to have an effect on other areas of the OS. I monitored CPU usage with the 3D effects turned on and off, and indeed, there was a considerable difference; all four cores worked harder and more consistently when the feature was turned on. And since Dynamic Perspective is used in tasks both small and large, it seemed to have an impact on the performance of the entire phone.

Turn the extra features off, and you’ll have a grand time using the phone. You’ll encounter fewer frame skips and stutters. Meanwhile, apps load reasonably fast and I didn’t experience any crashes. Gaming was exactly as fast and smooth as I’ve come to expect from a Snapdragon 800. In general, the phone’s performance is solid.

I prefer real-world experience over numbers, but for our readers who prefer the opposite, check out the benchmark-comparison table above. In most areas, the Fire can contend in the big leagues despite the fact that it’s on a previous-generation chipset running at a lower clock speed. It topped the other two devices in a couple benchmarks and held its own on most of the others. That said, the Fire’s lower-res screen likely had an impact on at least one or two scores.

Gestures were inconsistent, however, and I noticed quite a few hiccups. Many times, a flick of the wrist or hand swivel wouldn’t do anything, so I’d have to exaggerate the gesture once or twice before it did what I wanted. But there were other times in which barely tilting the phone at all triggered a gesture. On several other occasions, wrist flicks would bring up the exact opposite menu of what I intended.

The Fire only packs a 2,400mAh battery, which is small compared with the competition. Battery life is average and will last a full day… as long as you don’t activate Dynamic Perspective and Firefly. (You know, the phone’s two most unique features.) These two things are such a huge drain on the device’s battery that I had to charge it up twice in the same day — once in the early afternoon and again later that night. It wasn’t uncommon to lose 10 percent of my charge in a half-hour. So if you plan on using Firefly for comparison shopping, make sure you shop for an external charger first.

In my endless-video loop test, meanwhile, the phone lasted nearly nine hours before dying. This is about average for a battery of this size, but then again, Amazon’s fancy features weren’t running at the time.

The audio quality is better than most. Calls were clear; in-call volume was more than adequate; and the stereo speakers were loud, if a little tinny. The phone’s GPS also performed admirably, helping me navigate multiple routes without any lost connections.

The competition

As I mentioned earlier, the Fire’s exclusive deal with ATT severely limits its potential. It simply can’t reach as many customers when it’s only available on one carrier in the entire world. This strategy worked out fine for the original iPhone in 2007, but times are different now, and Amazon doesn’t hold enough sway to get its members to switch platforms or carriers (or both) on top of paying $200 on-contract.

At least the Fire comes with a free year of Prime membership (a $99 value) to sweeten the deal, but the same price can also get the Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One M8, iPhone 5s and LG G3, all of which have better displays, faster performance, stronger ecosystems and, in most cases, longer battery life. Although the Fire doesn’t lag too far behind its flagship competitors, Amazon put so much effort into what makes it unique that it didn’t focus enough on everything else.

Wrap-up

The Fire’s defining features are fun, but I can’t help but feel as though they’re merely gimmicks designed by Amazon to demonstrate the company’s brilliance — and at the expense of battery life, to boot. Dynamic Perspective might be useful in a few cases (games, mainly), but it won’t provide the user with functionality they’d sorely miss if they went with an iPhone or flagship Android device.

Not only is the Fire lacking in useful new features, but its high price and exclusivity to ATT guarantee its irrelevance. The company owes its success to millions of loyal online shoppers and bookworms who use Amazon for its convenience and aggressive pricing, so why come out with a smartphone that isn’t particularly convenient, and isn’t particularly cheap? By no means is the Fire a horrible phone, but it’s a forgettable one. You might want the eventual Fire Phone 2, perhaps, but for now, you’re better off sticking with what you know.

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Article source: http://www.engadget.com/2014/07/22/amazon-fire-phone-review/?ncid=rss_truncated

NVIDIA’s new Shield is a tablet built for gaming

In January 2013, NVIDIA unveiled its first end-to-end consumer product: NVIDIA Shield. In our review, I wrote, “NVIDIA Shield is a truly strange device” One year later, that statement stands — only now it applies to NVIDIA’s second consumer product as well: the Shield tablet. Okay, okay, Shield Tablet isn’t quite as bizarre as the original Shield, but it’s a close second.

Shield Tablet dumps the original Shield’s 5-inch screen in favor of a bigger 8-inch, 1080p display, swaps the original Tegra 4 in favor of K1, and drops the controller bit entirely. Should you wish to pair a controller with Shield Tablet — and NVIDIA thinks you should — NVIDIA’s making one (it’s even got WiFi Direct for lower latency than Bluetooth), but it’s totally optional and doesn’t come packed in with the tablet. So, what is this thing? Who is it for? And is it any good? Let’s find out.

NVIDIA Shield Tablet and Gamepad

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Here’s NVIDIA’s logic: just like automakers originally started with a few base model sedans and eventually diversified into trucks, vans, coupes and much more, so NVIDIA sees the tablet market. The Shield Tablet is the so-called “ultimate tablet for gamers,” in that it has a powerful processor (K1), runs NVIDIA’s GameStream tech (which streams full PC games to the tablet), it can stream out to Twitch (on a system level, no app required) and it has WiFi Direct for ultra low-latency wireless gamepad connectivity. It also runs Android and does all the normal stuff you’d expect from an Android tablet. But that’s not the point of the device.

Let’s be clear up front: we find some of Shield Tablet’s suggested use cases — pairing the tablet with a stand and playing with a controller in public — to be off-base at best. Who is doing that? Are there people using wireless gamepads with their laptops in coffee shops? If you’re one of those people, stop it.

But what about, say, using the tablet in your house via HDMI-out? That seems a bit more reasonable. If nothing else, Shield Tablet could act as the streaming component of your gaming PC, living in your living room as a conduit for playing PC games on the big screen. An expensive conduit, no doubt, but it makes a heck of a lot more sense to us than pairing a tablet with a controller and playing games at the local Starbucks.

IMPRESSIONS — TABLET

The Shield Tablet is a nice piece of electronics: it’s well-built and sturdy, it has a slick design, it’s got nice angles, it’s got a sharp screen, and it’s a good size at just over 8-inches. It’s a bit on the thick side, but that’s a measure of Shield Tablet running a cutting edge mobile chip and needing more battery power. We’re not talking Microsoft Surface levels of thickness — let’s not get crazy — but it’s thicker than an iPad Mini, for instance.

Speaking of the Surface, there’s a stylus included in the Shield Tablet package (dubbed “Directstylus 2”). While there are certainly applications for the stylus in terms of the tablet’s uses as a tablet, there are no gaming applications that use it. NVIDIA’s including a program called “Dabbler” for drawing images; we’re gonna go ahead and guess that the folks buying a gaming tablet will never use this functionality, but hopefully we’re wrong. It’s not that Dabbler isn’t neat — it’s totally fine, and hey, drawing is fun! — it’s that it’s incongruous with the rest of the package.

SPECS:

  • NVIDIA Tegra K1 SoC
  • 8-inch “Full HD” screen (1920 x 1200, IPS LCD display)
  • Front-facing stereo speakers (think: HTC One)
  • 5MP front-and-rear facing cameras
  • Directstylus 2
  • 16/32GB of internal storage, expandable to 128GB via microSD
  • WiFI a/b/g/n, Optional LTE
  • 19.75 Watt hour Lithium Ion battery

But what about gaming? Like the original Shield before it, gaming on Shield Tablet is a smooth, easy experience. While Android games continue to lack control standardization and therefore lack predictability in how they’ll function on a paired gamepad, PC games continue to both look and feel great. We (briefly) tried out a demo of Grid 2 and had no issue… turning the in-game car sideways and driving directly into a wall. But the controls were responsive! We’re just bad at rally racing.

We were also shown an update to NVIDIA’s “TegraZone” software, which is transforming into the “NVIDIA Shield Hub” (the update will also be pushed to the original Shield). This takes your Android games, PC games, cloud streaming games, and media options, and puts them all in one place. While it’s a necessary step for Shield given how it’s intended for use at home, it’s a halfstep on the way toward a real console UI. Anyone with a game console used for media knows the plight of the accidental controller input: you put down your PlayStation controller after selecting the latest episode of Orange is the New Black, a trigger accidentally gets pushed, and suddenly you’re halfway through an episode, fumbling to get back to the start. Such is the case with Shield Tablet: you have to use a paired gamepad to control it, even for media playback, when in “console mode.” Not a huge issue, but a step below what other devices offer.

IMPRESSIONS — GAMEPAD

You remember the gamepad that was built into the first Shield? It’s broken away from the trappings of the portable Shield and is its own device now. When we say it’s very similar to the first Shield’s gamepad, we mean “nigh identical.” With the exception of the buttons in the middle — the Android control buttons, a new NVIDIA button, volume controls and a touchpad — the controller feels very similar.

One major, hugely important difference is analog stick placement. Since there’s no screen sitting on top of them, the analog sticks were heightened, making it a much more comfortable experience. It’s not a bad controller. It’s not a great controller. But considering that it uses WiFi Direct in place of Bluetooth, we’re inclined to suggest the Shield Gamepad over other options. But know that it feels a little undercooked.

THE SHIELD FAMILY

With Shield Tablet and Gamepad, NVIDIA is expanding its line of consumer products by two. The original NVIDIA Shield becomes “Shield Portable” and, NVIDIA says, it’ll remain in feature parity with the new Shield Tablet for the foreseeable future.

Of course, if you didn’t snag the first Shield and the concept of a gaming tablet sounds enticing, you’ll be glad to hear that it’s going up for sale on July 29th in US and Canada, August 14th for Europe, and other regions at some point in the fall. The base model — 16GB of internal storage, no LTE — costs $299, while 32GB of internal storage and LTE adds another $100. The gamepad is another $59, and the cover (which you’ll need if you want to use Shield Tablet as a game screen) is another $39. All that is to say that you could spend $500 in total on Shield Tablet. You probably shouldn’t, but you could.

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Article source: http://www.engadget.com/2014/07/22/nvidia-shield-tablet/?ncid=rss_truncated