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Google’s Helpouts service now offers expertise on your iPhone

Need to brush up on your cooking skills, but only have your iPhone close at hand? Don’t panic: Google has quietly brought its Helpouts service to iOS. Much like the existing Android software, the iPhone-sized app (sorry, no iPad version) lets you schedule video chats with experts on topics ranging from baking to bike repair. Just be prepared to limit yourself to free advice — Google isn’t offering paid Helpouts in the iOS app. You’ll also need to go to the web if you want to create listings for your own instructional sessions. If neither of those limitations is a deal-breaker, though, you can start taking lessons today.

read the original article here: http://www.engadget.com/2014/04/15/google-helpouts-ios/
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Google’s Project Ara wants to revolutionize the smartphone industry within a year

The night before Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division was supposed to show off the one and only functional Project Ara prototype to a room full of eager developers, someone dropped the phone and broke the display. At any other product reveal, this worst-case scenario would be a nightmare come true. Not to Google: The company made lemonade out of a lemon by turning it into a selling point for the modular smartphone. A year from now, painful situations like this might be easily fixed by simply buying a new display and swapping out the broken one.

Not that it would’ve made much of a difference if last night’s fiasco never happened. Attendees at this week’s Project Ara developer conference wouldn’t have been able to boot up the prototype and play around with it like any typical smartphone — in this case, “functional” is not the same as “functioning” — but at least it would’ve made for a better presentation. Regardless of how it looked, however, we were able to briefly handle the Project Ara prototype and some of its first modules. To be clear, this is an extremely early model and there’s a long way to go before it sees the light of day, but it at least allows us to get a good glimpse of what’s to come over the next year as Ara continues to prepare for launch.

Project Ara brings the modular smartphone from concept to a reality; it almost seems like it should’ve made a cameo in The Lego Movie. The Ara consists of a metal endoskeleton, which is essentially the spine of the phone, and slots for replaceable components known as modules, which look a lot like tiles. (If you’re reminded of Windows Phone when looking at the back, you won’t be the first.) These tiled modules can include anything that makes your phone tick (processor, RAM, WiFi, power jack, baseband, display and battery, for instance), as well as plenty of other features like your camera, speakers and storage space. Each module will connect to the other working parts through capacitive interconnects, which are essentially wireless pads that are smaller than standard pins. Electropermanent magnets not only hold modules in place, but they also act as a toggle switch, which allows you to easily turn that element on and off. As you might already imagine, all modules can be swapped out at your convenience. ATAP plans to feature Ara in three different sizes, ranging from a smaller six-module option to a large-screened model with more modules.
At first blush, it almost sounds like this project only appeals to the same consumers that enjoy building their own computers from scratch, but ATAP insists that it’ll transform emerging markets — more specifically, the 5 billion people on Earth who own feature phones, but cannot afford to get anything more expensive. Today, the division announced that it’s planning to ship a “Grey Phone,” which is simply a prepackaged device that comes with only a screen, processor and WiFi module. From there, users can easily add and take away components as they see fit. It’ll be relatively cheap — the product would cost Google $50 to make, though retail price hasn’t been determined yet — and users on a tight budget can easily add or upgrade modules whenever they can afford to do so.

Longevity is another huge factor; whereas most smartphones today can barely make it through a two-year contract, Ara is meant to last for several years. This means it’ll likely be much less expensive over the long run, and fewer phones will wind up in dumpsters.

According to ATAP, a device like Ara will also bring power of choice to consumer hands. Buying a smartphone often feels like a gamble — a matter of sacrificing some features in favor of others. With Ara, you’ll finally be able to determine exactly what kind of stuff you want in your phone. In essence, it sounds like Google’s hoping to “disrupt” the traditional phone makers like Samsung, HTC and LG (as well as carriers), since the average consumer wouldn’t need to go through those companies to buy a phone anymore.

When it comes to what kind of modules would be available, the sky’s the limit. ATAP has already begun offering a development kit to anyone who wants to put together modules of their own, so there are plenty of possible use cases. One example shown was a pulse oximeter, featured in a long module that extended beyond the rest of the phone’s chassis; there was a thick camera module that could easily be swapped out with different kinds of lenses; and we even listened to developers as they floated the idea of a credit card reader similar to a Square dongle. As of this week, it’s now up to these partners and devs to explore the space and figure out how to make Ara successful.

This all sounds fine and dandy, but it doesn’t come without a setback or two. Despite ATAP’s efforts, it’s still larger, heavier and thicker than your run-of-the-mill smartphone, and there are some concerns with battery efficiency (although the ability to hot-swap batteries certainly helps). Naturally, the team understands that such matters could be a turnoff for potential buyers, so they hope to resolve these issues by the time the next prototype comes around later this year.

Project Ara is halfway through a two-year mission. The deadline is a driving motivation for the handful of full-time employees and contractors involved in the project, as the expected timeframe was brought up several times during today’s conference. There isn’t any time for delays, which makes this project even more exciting — if it’s going to happen, it has to be ready to go this time next year. Not only is ATAP facing a ticking clock, but it’s also doing so with a pretty hefty to-do list: It has to entice developers, conduct demonstrations at convincing scales and get consumers interested in taking a chance on a brand-new type of smartphone. It’s not going to be easy, but the journey will be fascinating to watch.

read the original article here: http://www.engadget.com/2014/04/15/smartphone-anti-theft-commitment/
copy belongs to http://www.engadget.com/

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Apple, Samsung and others to adopt anti-theft smartphone kill switch

Apple and Samsung are duking it out in court yet again, but there’s at least one thing they (and a host of their smartphone making rivals) agree on: users shouldn’t be helpless when their phones are stolen. That’s why, starting in July 2015, all of the smartphones those companies sell in the United States will come with an anti-theft tool meant to help keep your data out of the wrong hands. The full list of backers includes the usual heavyweights: besides Apple and Samsung, there’s Google, HTC, Huawei, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, along with the country’s biggest wireless carriers. Those parties in total represent a tremendous chunk of the American wireless industry, so your next (or next next) smartphone will almost certainly let you stick it to the sticky-fingered.

And what, pray tell, would such tools do? According to the CTIA, users will be able to remotely wipe and restore their devices (say, from a cloud backup), and prevent them from being reactivated or used by unsavory types. That seemingly simple move wouldn’t just save us all anguish, it could save us a collective total of $2.5 billion a year in replacement costs and insurance fees. It sure sounds like a win for consumers, but some — like Senator Mark Leno, who sponsored a bill to create a kill-switch for connected gadgets in the Golden State — think such tools should be on by default rather than requiring users to opt-in. He’s probably on to something, but at least all these companies have a few months to iron out the details.

read the original article here: http://www.engadget.com/2014/04/15/smartphone-anti-theft-commitment/
copy belongs to http://www.engadget.com/

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Samsung Gear 2 review: much improved, but that doesn’t mean you should buy it

2013 was the year of the smartwatch. In promise, anyway — maybe not delivery. Of the many, many different, colorful and unusual timepieces that would populate our blogroll, it was perhaps Samsung’s Galaxy Gear that made the most headlines. Why? Partly because it was a new product from one of technology’s biggest players, and partly because it was just so bad. Poor battery life, an unpopular design and limited apps meant that the $300 accessory never had a chance of catching on. But, resilient as ever, Samsung is having another crack at it. In fact, it’s having another three cracks at it with the release of the Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo and Gear Fit smartwatches. The big question this time around: Is the second-gen Gear any better than its predecessor? Spoiler alert: Yes, it is. But enough that you might actually want one? That question is a little more complex.

If you were hoping for a complete redesign, it’s time to put on your disappointment pants. As far as aesthetics go, the Gear 2 is merely an evolution of the original. The main body is once again fashioned out of brushed metal, while the strap is made of a similar plastic material as before, with a near-identical clasp mechanism. I say “near,” as the microphone is no longer housed in this section, so the part of the clasp where this used to be is now thinner. The affectionately titled “wart” camera no longer resides in the strap either; it’s back up in the main watch housing, where it should have been all along. The result is that the strap is now just “dumb” plastic; there’s no technology inside like before. This is good news, as it means you can replace it with a host of fancy color options — there’s even a tiny release lever on the underside to make swapping a cinch. The model I tested had a chocolate-brown strap that actually complements the rest of the watch quite well. So I’ve no urge to change it, but it’s still nice to have the option.

Other minor, yet welcome cosmetic changes include the removal of the visible screws from the top of the watch’s face. Meanwhile, the sole button now sits beneath the 1.63-inch, Super AMOLED display, just like on Samsung’s phones. I don’t suspect anyone buys a smartwatch based on its silicon, but if you must know, there’s a dual-core 1GHz chip in here, along with a 300mAh battery. While the Gear 2′s hardware is clearly similar to the original, it feels more refined, more cohesive. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the first iteration was a bit of a rush job; the result of a scramble to put something out. The Gear 2, however, feels a lot like what the original should have been.

Beyond the superficial changes, there are a couple of internal additions that significantly expand the functionality here. These include an optical heart rate monitor (much like the one found on the Galaxy S5), an IR blaster and IP67 dust-resistance and waterproofing (that means total dust protection, and being waterproof to one meter for 30 minutes). Instantly, then — at least on paper — the Gear 2 is a more robust, and potentially more useful device. Of course, that’s if the software (or apps) are there to realize that potential — a question we’ll return to later.

Meanwhile, most of the other key hardware has remained unchanged. That means Bluetooth 4.0, 4GB of storage, a microphone and an accelerometer. Oh, and remember that weird charging cradle? Well, that’s mostly gone. I say “mostly,” as there’s still a proprietary adapter you’ll need to plug a micro-USB cable into, but it’s smaller and sturdier than the delicate cradle (with its moving parts) you had to deal with last time. It’s still not ideal — if you lose it, you’re screwed — but it’s a definite improvement nonetheless.

The first thing you’ll need to do once you pry the Gear 2 out of its faux-pine box (what is it with Samsung and faux… stuff?) is connect it to one of the 17 compatible handsets. (Those are listed here, but basically, it includes most recent and flagship-caliber Samsung devices.) Yes, you still need to have a compatible device, but at least there’s a decently sized list to choose from this time.

Once you’re connected over Bluetooth, you’ll need to download the Gear Manager app from Samsung’s own store, and then you’re good to go. As a warning, you’ll be hanging out in the Gear Manager app a lot for the first few days. It’s where you can change the watch face, adjust pretty much all the settings and download apps. Often, it’s quicker to change a setting via the app than to do it on the watch. Mind you, it’s not difficult to change settings directly on the Gear; it’s just that you might feel more at home on your handset.

The Gear Manager part is relatively unchanged the second time around. The big deal when it comes to software is Samsung’s decision to have the second generation of Gear devices run on Tizen, rather than Android. What does that mean beyond the lack of “Galaxy” branding? Firstly, it means any apps you were using on the original Gear are no good here. That’s a big deal. Not just because it causes a fracture in the user experience, but also in the ecosystem as a whole. One of the biggest problems facing the Galaxy Gear was the dearth of third-party apps — a situation that improved only slightly in the months after it launched. With the introduction of Tizen, however, what tiny progress that was made has basically evaporated. As of this writing, there were just 10 third-party apps for the Gear 2 (that’s 22, technically, but 12 are just watch faces.)

For those wondering what the OS switch means for the user experience, the answer’s actually very little. If you’ve used the Galaxy Gear, and someone gave you a Gear 2, there’s nothing in the UI to suggest something new is running under the hood. The font, icons and menus are almost identical to the Android edition. This means it’s still a pretty basic, homemade-looking interface (much like Samsung’s TouchWiz phone UI, to be fair). That said, it’s functional, tidy and easy to use.

One area where the software has improved is in the number of native apps. While you wait for Facebook and Twitter to build apps for the Gear 2, there’s a host of tools on the watch that go some way to making the watch useful right out of the box. These include things we’ve seen before, such as a stopwatch, phone dialer, a media controller and access to contacts and call logs. There are also a few new additions such as: Exercise, Heart Rate Monitor and a self-contained media player (which plays music locally from the watch, not via the phone). Most of them are fairly self-explanatory. The Exercise app, in particular, is basically a stripped-down version of Samsung’s S Health app. Which is to say, you can tell it you’re about to go for a run, do some walking, ride a bike or go on a hike. If you’re doing anything more exotic, or just knocking out your weekly dose of Insanity/Zumba (Zumbanity?), you’ll need to pick whatever’s the best fit.

This basic feature set appears to be growing at a fast clip. About two days after I obtained the device, the Gear 2 received a couple of firmware updates, and not just bug fixes, either. One of them included a whole new app for tracking sleep. It’s a fairly simple affair (basically you tell it you’re about to sleep, and let it know when you wake up) but even so, it’s a relief to see that new features are being added. I’m not entirely sure I want to be wearing this in bed, though, but hey, I’ll take new features where I can get them.

Another area that seems to be improved in version two is notifications. For many, this is what a smartwatch is all about, allowing you to glance at tweets, calls and messages from your wrist. The original Gear was a bit hit-and-miss in this regard. For example, if you used Samsung’s own email client, it would send a fairly useful notification to the watch. But with Gmail notifications, all you got was a mostly useless alert letting you know that email had arrived. Thanks! The Gear 2′s Gmail notifications are much better, with a decent snippet of the message included in the alert. It’s usually enough for you to determine whether it’s a message you want to deal with now or later. The list of apps for which you can get notifications is also surprisingly extensive, and includes pretty much every app on your phone. Never want to miss a Candy Crush message again? Not a problem; have them sent right to your wrist (for your own sanity, please don’t).

read the original article here: http://www.engadget.com/2014/04/16/gear-2-review/
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Google’s new camera app brings Photo Sphere and Lens Blur to Android devices

While Google has continued to toss new features into the camera app shipped on its Nexus devices, many Android phones replace it something else. But just as we revealed a few weeks ago, now it’s available in the Play Store, ready to run on any phone or tablet using Android 4.4 KitKat. Beyond bits like Photo Sphere that we’ve seen before, Google is filling in the blanks on its new “Lens Blur” option. Meant to emphasize the subject while blurring the background for an impressive depth of field effect, it uses algorithms to simulate the large camera lens and aperture your phone or tablet doesn’t actually have. Taking the photo requires an upward sweep to capture multiple images, used to estimate the depth of objects for a 3D map that lets the software re-render the photo later and blur specific items based on where it thinks they are. Google’s Research Blog has more details on how it’s all done, including the Lytro-like ability to change which object is in focus after you take the shot.

Tired of tilt-shift effects after years of Instagramming, no matter how much math is at work? There’s more to the new camera app than that; it has all the other features we’d heard about, like a “100% viewfinder” that makes sure you can see everything that will be in the picture on your screen before the shot is taken with no “dropped pixels” and a larger capture button. Panorama shots are better now too, with higher resolution, and Google’s 360-degree Photo Spheres can be captured at up to 50 megapixels.

Of course, the other element is that Google can extend its camera setup onto Android phones and tablets by other manufactures like LG, HTC and Samsung. So far their skinned retail devices have often skipped Google’s enhancements for custom camera apps of their own, but like many other Android features over the years (Gmail, Calendar, Keyboard) making it an app in the marketplace should bring its features to more devices, and allow for frequent updates. If you don’t yet have Android 4.4 KitKat, there’s still hope, as the team says this app will come to more devices over the coming months.

We gave it a quick try, and while not all of the features are available on every device (no Photo Sphere option on our Moto G, for example) it worked pretty well. Taking a Lens Blur photo is similar to a panorama — except for swiping the camera vertically, and we were able to go back and edit the resulting image quickly. One cool, but unmentioned addition to the app is a reminder for video recording that tells you to put the phone in landscape instead of holding it in portrait. Surely, you already knew to do that, but hopefully it makes the next WorldStarHipHop brawl easier to watch in widescreen.

read the original article here: http://www.engadget.com/2014/04/16/google-stock-camera-app-photo-sphere-lens-blur/
copy belongs to http://www.engadget.com/

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