Say hello to Android 9 Pie

Say hello to Android 9 Pie

The nickname for Android 9 is “Pie.” It’s not the most inspired of Android names, but it’ll do. What really matters at the end of the day are the new features in Pie — and there are plenty of those.

If you are a Pixel owner, you’ll be happy to hear that Pie will start rolling out as an over-the-air update today. The same goes for every other device that was enrolled in the Android Beta (that includes any Sony Mobile, Xiaomi, HMD Global, Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus and Essential devices that got the betas) and qualifying Android One devices. Everybody else, well, you know the drill. Wait until your manufacturer launches it for you… which should be the end of the year for some — and never for quite a few others.

Overall, Pie is a solid upgrade. The only real disappointment here is that Pie won’t launch with Android’s new digital wellness features by default. Instead, you’ll have to sign up for a beta and own a Pixel device. That’s because these new features won’t officially launch until the fall (Google’s hardware event, which traditionally happens in early October, seems like a good bet for the date).

Let’s talk about the features you’ll get when you update to Android 9 Pie, though. The most obvious sign that you have updated to the new version is the new system navigation bar, which replaces the standard three-icon navigation bar that has served Android users well for the last couple of iterations. The new navigation bar replaces the three icons (back, home, overview) that are virtually always on screen with a more adaptive system and a home button that now lets you swipe to switch between apps (instead of tapping on the overview button). You can also now swipe up on the home button and see full-screen previews of the apps you used recently, as well as the names of a few apps that Google thinks you’ll want to use. A second up-swipe and you get to the usual list of all of your installed apps.

In day-to-day use, I’m not yet 100 percent convinced that this new system is any better than the old one. Maybe I just don’t like change, but the whole swiping thing does not strike me as very efficient, and if you leave your finger on the home button for a split-second longer than Google expects, it’ll launch the Assistant instead of letting you swipe between apps. You get used to it, though, and you can get back to the old system if you want to.

Google’s suggestions for apps you’ll like and want to use when you swipe up feel like a nice tech demo but aren’t all that useful in day-to-day use. I’m sure Google uses some kind of machine learning to power these suggestions, but I’d rather use that area as an extended favorites bar where I can pin a few additional apps. It’s not that Android’s suggestions were necessarily wrong and that these weren’t apps I wanted to use, it’s mostly that the apps it suggested were already on my home screen anyway. I don’t think I ever started an app from there while using the last two betas.

But that’s enough grumbling, because it’s actually all of the little things that make Android 9 Pie better. There’s stuff like the adaptive battery management, which makes your battery last longer by learning which apps you use the most. And that’s great (though I’m not sure how much influence it has had on my daily battery life), but the new feature that actually made me smile was a new popup that tells you that you have maybe 20 percent of battery left and that this charge should last until 9:20pm. That’s actually useful.

Google also loves to talk about its Adaptive Brightness feature that also learns about how you like your screen brightness based on your surroundings, but what actually made a difference for me was that Google now blends out the whole settings drawer when you change the setting so that you can actually see what difference those changes make. It’s also nice to have the volume slider pop up right next to the volume buttons now.

Talking about sound: Your phone now plays a pleasant little sound when you plug in the charger. It’s the little things that matter, after all.

The other new machine learning-powered feature is the smart text selection tool that recognizes the meaning of the text you selected and then allows you to suggest relevant actions like opening Google Maps or bringing up the share dialog for an address. It’s nifty when it works, but here, too, what actually makes the real difference in daily usage is that the text selection magnifier shows you a larger, clearer picture of what you’re selecting (and it sits right on top of what you are selecting), which makes it far easier to pick the right text (and yes, iOS pretty much does the same thing).

And now we get to the part where I wish I could tell you all about the flagship Digital Wellness features in Pie (because pie and wellness go together like Gwyneth Paltrow and jade eggs), but we’ll have to wait a few days for that. Here’s what we know will be available: a dashboard for seeing where you spend time on your device; an app timer that lets you set limits on how long you can use Instagram, for example, and then grays out the icon of that app; and a Wind Down feature that switches on the night-light mode, turns on Do Not Disturb and fades the screen to grayscale before it’s bedtime.

The one wellness feature you can try now if you are on Pie already is the new Do Not Disturb tool that lets you turn off all visual interruptions. To try out everything else, you’ll have to sign up for the beta here.

Another feature that’s only launching in the fall is “slices” (like slices of pie…). I was looking forward to this one as it’ll allow developers to highlight parts of their apps (maybe to start playing a song or hail a car) in the Android Pie search bar when warranted. Maybe Google wasn’t ready yet — or maybe its partners just hadn’t built enough slices yet, but either way, we won’t see these pop up in Android Pie until later this year.

And that’s Android 9 Pie. It’s a nice update for sure, and while Google loves to talk about all of the machine learning and intelligence it’s baking into Android, at the end of the day, it’s the small quality of life changes that actually make the biggest difference.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths
In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.
The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.
“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.
The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.
Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.
Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.
Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.
On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.
Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.
Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

The Sonos Beam is the soundbar evolved

The Sonos Beam is the soundbar evolved
Sonos has always gone its own way. The speaker manufacturer dedicated itself to network-connected speakers before there were home networks and they sold a tablet-like remote control before there were tablets. Their surround sound systems install quickly and run seamlessly. You can buy a few speakers, tap a few buttons and have 5.1 sound in less time than it takes to pull a traditional home audio system out of its shipping box.

This latest model is an addition to the Sonos line and is sold alongside the Playbase — a lumpen soundbar designed to sit directly underneath TVs not attached to the wall — and the Playbar, a traditionally styled soundbar that preceded the Beam. Both products had all of the Sonos highlights — great sound, amazing interfaces and easy setup — but the Base had too much surface area for more elegant installations and the Bar was too long while still sporting an aesthetic that harkened back to 2008 Crutchfield catalogs.
The $399 Beam is Sonos’ answer to that, and it is more than just a pretty box. The speaker includes Alexa — and promises Google Assistant support — and it improves your TV sound immensely. Designed as an add-on to your current TV, it can stand alone or connect with the Sonos subwoofer and a few satellite surround speakers for a true surround sound experience. It truly shines alone, however, thanks to its small size and more than acceptable audio range.
To use the Beam you bring up an iOS or Android app to display your Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and Pandora accounts (this is a small sampling; Sonos supports more). You select a song or playlist and start listening. Then, when you want to watch TV, the speaker automatically flips to TV mode — including speech enhancement features that actually work — when the TV is turned on. An included tuning system turns your phone into a scanner that improves the room audio automatically.
The range is limited by the Beam’s size and shape and there is very little natural bass coming out of this thing. However, in terms of range, the Beam is just fine. It can play an action movie with a bit of thump and then go on to play some light jazz or pop. I’ve had some surprisingly revelatory sessions with the Beam when listening to classic rock and more modern fare and it’s very usable as a home audio center.
The Beam is two feet long and three inches tall. It comes in black or white and is very unobtrusive in any home theater setup. Interestingly, the product supports HDMI-ARC aka HDMI Audio Return Channel. This standard, introduced in TVs made in the past five years, allows the TV to automatically output audio and manage volume controls via a single HDMI cable. What this means, however, is you’re going to have a bad time if you don’t have HDMI-ARC.
Sonos includes an adapter that can also accept optical audio output, but setup requires you to turn off your TV speakers and route all the sound to the optical out. This is a bit of a mess, and if you don’t have either of those outputs — HDMI-ARC or optical — then you’re probably in need of a new TV. That said, HDMI-ARC is a bit jarring for first timers, but Sonos is sure that enough TVs support it that they can use it instead of optical-only.
The Beam doesn’t compete directly with other “smart” speakers like the HomePod. It is very specifically a consumer electronics device, even though it supports AirPlay 2 and Alexa. Sonos makes speakers, and good ones at that, and that goal has always been front and center. While other speakers may offer a more fully featured sound in a much smaller package, the Beam offers both great TV audio and great music playback for less than any other higher end soundbar. Whole room audio does get expensive — about $1,200 for a Sub and two satellites — but you can simply add on pieces as you go. One thing, however, is clear: Sonos has always been the best wireless speaker for the money and the Beam is another win for the scrappy and innovative speaker company.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

The NEEO universal remote is a modern Logitech Harmony alternative

The NEEO universal remote is a modern Logitech Harmony alternative
The advanced universal remote market is not a very crowded market. In fact, for a while now, Logitech’s Harmony line has been pretty much the only game in town. Newcomer NEEO wants to upset that monopoly with its new NEEO Remote and NEEO Brain combo ($369), which is a system that can connect to just about any AV system, along with a smorgasbord of connected smart devices including Nest, Philips Hue, Sonos and more.
NEEO’s two-part system includes the Brain, which, true to its name, handles all of the heavy lifting. This is a puck-shaped device with 360-degree IR blasters dotting its outside perimeter, and which has one IR extender out (there’s one in the box) for connecting devices held within a closed AV cabinet, for instance. This central hub also connects to your Wi-Fi network, and setup requires plugging it into your router via Ethernet to get everything squared away, similar to how you initially set up Sonos speakers, if you’re familiar with that process.
Most of the setup work you need to do to get NEEO working happens on your phone, and that’s where it becomes apparent that this smart remote was designed for a modern context. Logitech’s Harmony software has come a long way, and now you can do everything you need to do from the iOS and Android app, but it’s still somewhat apparent that its legacy is as something you initially setup using a desktop and somewhat awkward web-based software. The NEEO feels at home on mobile, and it makes the setup and configuration process much better overall.
The other core component of the NEEO system is the NEEO Remote. This is a fantastic piece of industrial design, first of all. It’s a sleek rectangle crafted from aerospace-grade aluminum that oozes charm, in a way that nothing in the current Logitech Harmony lineup can come close to matching. The minimalist design still doesn’t suffer from the ‘which way is up?’ problem that the Apple Remote faces, because of subtle design cues including bottom weighting and the presence of ample physical buttons.

A NEEO Remote isn’t necessary for the system to work – you can just use the Brain along with the companion app for iPhone or Android, but the remote is a joy to hold and use, thanks to its unique design, and it features a super high density display that’s extremely responsive to touch input and pleasingly responsive to touch. NEEO took a lot of time to get this touchscreen experience right, and it pays off, delivering a clear and simple control interface that shifts to suit the needs of whatever activity you’re running at the time.
The NEEO Remote also has an “SOS” feature so that you can locate it if you happen to misplace it, and it can even be configured to recognize different hands if you want to set profiles for distinct members of the household, or set parental control profiles limiting access to certain content or devices. This kind of thing is where NEEO’s feature set exceeds the competition, and shows a particular attention to modern device use cases.
One NEEO Remote can also control multiple NEEO Brains, which is another limitation of the completion. That means you can set up NEEO Brains in each room where you have devices to control, and carry your remote from place to place instead of having to have multiple. The NEEO Brain is still $200 on its own, however, so it’s definitely still a barrier to entry.
NEEO otherwise does pretty much everything you’d expect a smart remote to do in 2018: You can set recipes on the deice itself, including with triggers like time-based alarms or motion detection (without using IFTTT). You can connect it to Alexa, though that functionality is limited at the moment, with more updates promised in future to make this better.
The bottom line is that NEEO offers a competent, intelligent alternative the big dog on the block, Logitech’s Harmony system. Logitech’s offering is still more robust and mature in terms of delivering Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility, as well as rock solid performance, but NEEO has some clever ideas and unique takes that will serve more patient and tech-forward users better over time.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch