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26
Mar

Instincts: A blast from the past [review]


We’re always looking for things to tickle our nostalgia bone. Some of us use pictures, some of us pull out our old PS2 or NES system, and still others want

26
Mar

Native Union JUMP Cable – Utterly convenient. [Review]


Spoiler Alert and Full Disclosure: I love this little gadget. I backed the JUMP Cable Kickstarter way back in January of 2014, received the product in August of that year,

26
Mar

Samsung, it’s high time you flexed your muscles with American carriers


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The company that sells the most smartphones in the world needs to start acting like they sell the most smartphones in the world.

According to IDC (a company who does nothing but assemble data and provide information about technology and telecommunications), “Samsung remained the leader in the worldwide smartphone market for the quarter and the year with 85.6 million units shipped in 4Q15, up 14% from last year.”

85 million phones left Samsung’s factories in the final three months of 2015. The total number of phones they shipped out in 2015 was 324.8 million. While that’s sinking in, compare it to the next company on that list — Apple, who also had a stellar 2015 — at 231.5 million. Those numbers are astonishing to say the least, and unless you’re a mathematician or some sort of robot, something you can’t really visualize. Simply put, Samsung sells a shit-ton of phones. And they sell more — by a significant margin — than anyone else.

There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to buy an unlocked Galaxy S7 designed to work best in America.

But this isn’t the whole story. In the United States and Canada, Apple owns about 40 percent of the market compared to Samsung’s 30-ish percent. Numbers in China will likely soon look similar with Apple and Samsung fighting over the premium market. And the low-end market is also turning into a battleground, with companies like Huawei and Xiaomi selling more and more phones every day. Competition between the companies that make the phones we love to use is fierce, and a saturated market means things will get even more interesting — most people that want a smartphone already have one. The key is going to be retaining customers.

All this is great news for us as consumers. We want companies like Samsung fighting tooth and nail to get our money, because that means they will build compelling products at a price we want to pay. But it also means that Samsung — and everyone else building smartphones — will need to change tactics to continue to rake in the money.

Like any good business, Samsung already has plans in the works to continue to be successful. We recently heard Samsung say they are reforming their business culture and want to think more like a startup than a mega-global conglomerate. That’s all well and good, and I’m sure Samsung has enough business savvy to stay in the black in a more competitive environment, but I think a change in the way they do business with carriers in the U.S. and Canada can also have a significant impact.

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For starters, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to go to Amazon or Samsung’s own web portal and buy an unlocked Galaxy S7. That’s absolutely ridiculous. I imagine it has to do with business deals and clauses with people like AT&T or Verizon, who really like to keep control over the phones you and I buy. If that’s the case, it works. Few of us want to import an unlocked and unbranded Galaxy S7 that won’t work with Samsung Pay, might not have a warranty and is optimized to work better on a carrier in Europe or the Far East instead of the one we send money to every month. So we end up buying one that has another company’s name on the back, and they get to control what software we see and when we get access to something newer and better. I get why the carriers like this arrangement, and I understand why it was a good business strategy five years ago. But times have changed.

A change in the way Samsung does business with carriers in the U.S. and Canada could have a significant impact on customer retention.

We’re a more informed and more savvy buying public now. Everyone you know probably has a smartphone, and everyone has complaints about the company they pay to get monthly service. But for most of us, we can’t just pack up and move somewhere different and have new complaints, because we’re paying a monthly installment or on a carrier contract with Sprint or Rogers or whoever. And if that phone in our hands is an Android, chances are it’s made by Samsung and that’s how we had to buy it. Even if we paid full price upfront for our new phone, the carrier who has their name on the back has control. It’s clear just who is the winner in this relationship.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Samsung has enough brand power to do something different. In fact, they should follow Apple’s lead and leverage their position in the industry. While Samsung is selling me a Galaxy phone that works where I live outright at their Best Buy “experience” stores, let Verizon or T-Mobile continue to resell Samsung phones. Let carriers keep their lengthy contracts or crazy leasing schemes in place. Some folks are comfortable buying their phone this way. But take control of the Samsung brand away and stop letting them dictate when a critical patch can be sent to the users, or who gets access to cool new features. One model. One software path. No interference from companies that don’t build phones, and are only really proficient at being a data-pipe. Apple — your biggest competitor — can do it. So can you.

Everyone’s experience will be better this way, and a better experience turns into customer loyalty. We will want to continue to buy the Samsung brand when it’s time to get a new phone even more than we do now, because we can feel like your customer instead of some phone company’s. We will influence people who have questions to buy your products because you can take better care of us. We will remember your name when we buy things that aren’t smartphones because we like the way you treat us as a customer.

You’re the big dog, Samsung. Act like it.

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26
Mar

Google’s Amazon Echo competitor has always been a question of *when*


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Google’s been knocking on the door of your home for years. But it’s way past time for it to come in and join the party.

When it comes to interpreting your voice and feeding back relevant information, nobody does it better than this company. Especially when it comes to putting it into a product that can be conveniently tucked away in a corner, or on display for all to see.

If you’re thinking Google, you’re wrong.

I’m talking, of course, about Amazon Echo, and its “Alexa” personification. A report last week from The Information (behind a paywall, but this link should work for a bit) says that Google is working on an Echo competitor.

That news is, at best, unsurprising.

Google is working on a device to compete directly with Amazon’s popular Echo, a voice-controlled personal assistant and portable speaker.

Nest wanted to be part of the project within Google but was rebuffed by the person in charge of Google’s project.

Google already employs technology similar to Echo in its Android mobile operating system and it makes sense to bring that expertise into the home, where Google and Nest are competing head on with Amazon, Apple and countless other companies. It’s unclear when Google will release the device and there’s still a chance it won’t be released at all.

Echo doesn’t do anything in particular that Google hasn’t done in some way for years. Voice recognition? Yep. Knowledge Graph search results for random questions about lots of things? Absolutely. Streaming music? Sure. Google does all that.

The question isn’t whether Google’s working on an Echo competitor — it’s why the hell hasn’t there been one all this time.

— Phil Nickinson ✘ (@philnickinson) March 24, 2016

What it’s failed to do is bring it all together into one compelling package. Chromecast is great (especially at its price), but it’s a dongle attached to a TV and needs a phone or tablet to control it. Android TV boxes haven’t really taken off yet. The Nexus Q was beautifully over-designed, under-featured, overpriced — and was rightfully aborted.

Certainly the parts are all there. Google’s been knocking on the door of your home for years. But it’s way past time for it to ask for an invite in.

Google has long had the pieces to make an Echo-like device. Problem is those pieces have never come together.

But even busting out some sort of connected speaker with Google Now-type capabilities — and it’s already pretty close to that with the “Cast” technology built into speakers like the existing stuff from Sony or LG Music Flow — is only part of the equation. A big part of what makes Echo a successful product is “Alexa.” It’s that personification of hardware and intelligent software — in the same way that Apple has done with Siri — that has been missing from Google Now since its inception. Google can get away with that on phones and tablets, I think. We’re talking to things in our pockets. We know these are phones and tablets, meant to do our bidding, and as likely as not to die an untimely death on some sidewalk somewhere.

But when you’re talking about something that’s going to be in your living room or on your kitchen counter every time you walk past, it starts to become less of a thing and more of an interactive (if inanimate) part of your family. That lack of personality isn’t all that surprising. Google always has been, at its heart and soul, about engineering. And engineering isn’t about fluffy personalities. But if it wants to make devices that we want to purchase and that we want to interactive with long before we need to, then it’s going to have to put a pretty face on things. (Or at least a voice.) On the hardware front, the OnHub routers are waiting in the wings, presumably as early prototypes of what might (or might well not) be to come.

In any event, there’s a balance to be had. We’re not quite ready for Samantha. But we also need more than just shouting “OK, Google,” toward our television set, or a speaker tucked away in a the corner — which, of course, still doesn’t exist. Amazon has a huge head start on everyone, even though we’re still very much talking about a niche product for early adopters. But the clock is ticking on how long until reasonably priced, connected home hubs become a truly viable product.

And it’s time for Google to get in the game.

Amazon Echo

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Amazon

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26
Mar

Kickstarter celebrates STEM with a slate of kid-focused projects


This week, Kickstarter hosted a special STEM event at its headquarters in Brooklyn, showing off a variety of products intended to teach kids programming skills. If the prevailing wisdom is “hook ’em while they’re young,” that ethos was certainly on display here: The projects were fun and colorful, and one was even meant for children as young as three.

The STEM fields are near and dear to the hearts of many employees at Kickstarter. Director of Media Relations David Gallagher says the site exists to “support and celebrate creativity,” and STEM projects can “put kids on the path toward being creative in new ways.” That creative mission has become even more important since Kickstarter became a public benefit corporation back in September. Gallagher says that promoting STEM helps fight inequality by getting children from underrepresented groups interested in those fields.

He also says that STEM projects tend to do well on the crowdfunding site because it’s an underserved market, with tech-savvy parents not always finding what they want at a traditional toy store. If you search Kickstarter for “STEM” right now, you’ll find projects as diverse as 3D printing classes for girls, an open-source weather kit and robotic building blocks.

Represented at the event was an equally eclectic group in various states of production — Cubetto is still active on Kickstarter, while the others were gearing up for their impending release dates — but all of the projects shared a commitment to computer science and children’s education. Check out our gallery to get a taste of some of the STEM goodness that was on display.

26
Mar

ASUS’ ZenFone Zoom is ultimately held back by a mediocre sensor


ASUS has been trying to make a mark in the US phone market for years, first with its hit-or-miss Padfone line and more recently with the budget-friendly ZenFone 2. Then, for reasons nearly beyond comprehension, the company decided to shoehorn a zoom lens system from Hoya into one of its phones. And lo, the ZenFone Zoom was born.

As a smartphone, the Zoom doesn’t stray far from the formula ASUS introduced with the ZenFone 2: It squeezes enough power out of its quad-core Intel Atom Z3580 chipset, and the 4GB of memory helps keep this bloatware-ridden build of Android Marshmallow running smoothly. The battery will get you through a long workday but not much more than that. Of course, the camera is the real star of the show — that’s why the Zoom costs an extra $100 over the $299 ZenFone 2. Spoiler alert: For the vast majority of you, the premium just ain’t worth it.

The name says it all, really. The Zoom’s claim to fame isn’t its 13-megapixel rear camera; it’s the built-in 3x optical zoom lens. You can’t miss it, either; the camera assembly looks like an enormous plastic disk on the phone’s faux-leather back. Lumia 1020 fans might feel a pang of nostalgia, but the hump of the ZenFone’s camera has nothing on that Windows Phone’s notable 42-megapixel hunchback. While it’s not subtle, exactly, the bump does a good enough job physically fitting into the body that you won’t mind it much in day-to-day use.

It’s pretty rare to see a hardware maker squeeze a proper moving zoom lens into a handset, but I can’t argue with the results. Typically when you zoom in with your smartphone’s shooter, the device is just expanding what’s already in the frame and cropping off whatever doesn’t fit. This, friends, is digital zoom, and it generally sucks. Here, though, you can zoom in up to 3x without losing any crispness, because the lens array is physically moving to magnify your field of view. You know, like on a camera.

To ASUS’ credit, zooming works just as well as you’d expect. In addition to pinching-to-zoom, the volume buttons double as zoom controls (complete with the proper iconography). I wish we could have gotten more than 3x zoom out of this lens setup, but that probably would’ve required a far more insane configuration. Need I remind you of Samsung’s bonkers Galaxy K Zoom? Still, if you’re going to build — and name! — a smartphone with one specific feature in mind, why not go all out?

So yes, all that zooming works as advertised. It’s too bad, then, that the sensor setup behind the lens isn’t worth writing home about. What we have here is a 13-megapixel, Panasonic-made sensor that mostly yields decent color saturation and an adequate level of detail. Considering how good smartphone cameras have gotten, though, those are table stakes. Pictures shot with the ZenFone Zoom routinely seemed lifeless and indistinct compared with shots obtained with an iPhone 6s or Galaxy S6 (yes, last year’s model).

Don’t get me wrong. None of the photos were bad; just unremarkable. What’s more, low-light performance isn’t great. That pesky grain is kept under control fairly well, but the amount of detail drops off pretty dramatically. There’s at least a low-light-specific mode that helps somewhat. And it’s hard to forget, as the phone frequently nags you to use it.

Zoom lens aside, the phone’s biggest photographic asset is its autofocusing system, which uses a laser to lock onto subjects in a fraction of a second. The feature has popped up in a handful of great phones so far — LG’s most recent flagships and both new Nexuses spring to mind — and it’s a fantastic tool for quick, off-the-cuff shots. It’s certainly fast at locking onto subjects, which makes the occasional sluggishness when snapping shots all the more frustrating.

Of course, you can take even more control over photos with the Zoom’s surprisingly extensive manual settings. Beyond the usual ISO, exposure, autofocus and white-balance controls, you can also fiddle with sharpness and contrast values, as well as bring up a histogram to make sure your photos are well exposed. ASUS’ camera interface is also nuanced enough to make you feel like you’re using a proper camera, though the lackluster sensor means those controls will only ever take you so far.

Ditto for shooting video. Maybe it’s just me, but a modern smartphone with a clear focus on photography — even one that costs only $399 — should be able to record in 4K. Instead, the Zoom tops out at 1080p, and you’ll be able to use the handy stabilization feature only if you drop that resolution down further to 720p. The Zoom’s video prowess is about on par with its photo chops, meaning you’ll get perfectly passable (but forgettable) clips.

Before I started using the ZenFone Zoom, I was hesitant: Isn’t its single standout feature just a big gimmick? The answer is a pretty resounding no. ASUS has put together a pretty impressive bit of zooming machinery here; it was the sensor itself I should have been more concerned about. Couple that poorly balanced photographic equation with a thick chassis and lackluster performance, and we’re left with one serious question mark of a phone. I can see buying it as a curio — an example of how smartphones are evolving — but its practical value is limited at best. If you’re serious about getting a first-rate smartphone camera, save up a little more and splurge on a Galaxy S7 instead.

26
Mar

KitchenAid KDRS407 review – CNET


The Good The KitchenAid KDRS407 dual-fuel slide-in range is an impressive piece of cooking equipment, from its industrial design to its ability to produce delicious dishes.

The Bad This oven is more than $4,000, so I expected some speedy cook times. But I’ve reviewed ranges that are less expensive and can perform common cooking tasks much quicker than this KitchenAid.

The Bottom Line With the KDRS407, KitchenAid maintains its reputation for making beautiful ranges that cook food well. Consider this range when looking at dual-fuel models.

When I started writing this review of the KitchenAid KDRS407, one question loomed over my head as I tried to assign a score this dual-fuel, commercial-style range: What’s more important in oven test results — speed or substance?

More Dual-Fuel Ranges
  • Dacor ER30DSCH
  • KitchenAid KFDD500ESS

No one wants to stand over a cooktop all day waiting for a pot of water to boil. We want an appliance that can quickly complete mundane tasks so we can get to the eating part sooner. And when it came to basic functions like boiling or broiling the KitchenAid KDRS407 lives up to the expectations I had for this $4,649 range, but doesn’t surpass them. This is especially underwhelming when scanned through less expensive ranges I’ve reviewed that have performed much faster in the test kitchen.

But here’s the thing about the KitchenAid KDRS407 — though it lagged behind a bit in basic tasks, the KitchenAid KDRS407 turned out fantastic food, especially a succulent chicken that’s still on my mind days after I roasted it. When you pair those results with the oven’s even baking performance, it’s hard to stay mad at the KitchenAid KDRS407 middle-of-the-road cook times. This range would make a hearty, formidable addition to your kitchen, especially if you’re on the market for a commercial-style product without the high-end price tag.

If this range’s middle-of-the-road cook times are a turn off, consider the faster-cooking KitchenAid KSEG950ESS or Samsung NE59J7850WS slide-in ranges. Need something less expensive? Take a look at KitchenAid’s lower-cost freestanding ranges, such as KitchenAid KGRS306BSS.

Like the look of commercial ovens? Check…
See full gallery

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Solid as a rock

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

KitchenAid took several cues from commercial appliances in the design of the KDRS407. The company enhanced its usual minimalist design by equipping the stainless steel KDRS407 with hefty burner knobs and a blocky profile. The 30-inch wide unit is topped with cast iron grates over the four-burner cooktop, which completes the imposing presence of this range. The touchscreen control panel from the oven lies flat and parallel to the burners, so it recedes into the background when you’re taking in the range’s overall appearance.

But be warned: The tank-like exterior can be deceiving. The KDRS407 looks like it would have a lot of space in which to bake, but the capacity of this electric oven is only 4.1 cubic feet (we usually see five or more cubic feet of space in the average oven). And KitchenAid forgoes a fifth middle burner on the cooktop, which results in a dead zone in the middle of the oven. I’ve complained about oblong middle burners hogging cooktop space, but I’ve come to expect them on mid-priced ranges from brands like KitchenAid.

Even baking and roasting, courtesy of the convection fan

Convection fans have become commonplace for most ovens that surpass $1,000. The fan, located in the back wall of an oven, distributes heat while you’re using the oven so that your food cooks more evenly. The KitchenAid KDRS407’s convection fan performed well when it came to baking and roasting. And if you’re unfamiliar with adapting a traditional recipe to a convection oven, the KDRS407 (like many other ranges at this price) has an EasyConvect Conversion feature that will automatically reduce the oven temperature and/or cooking time depending on what you’re cooking.

26
Mar

iPhone SE and iPad Pro 9.7 — two big reviews on two smaller devices


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A couple reviews this week worth checking out from our cousins at iMore.

First up is the iPhone SE. It looks exactly like the 4-inch iPhone 5, only with upgraded internals. Do the price and smaller size make it worth it?

And there’s also the smaller iPad Pro 9.7. It’s like the 12-inch iPad Pro, only not 12 inches. Smaller. Diminutive, even. But is it still “pro”?

Two good reads that are worth reading twice. Enjoy!

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26
Mar

6 high-tech, energy-generating roads


By Cat DiStasio

As we march into toward the future, our infrastructure needs to evolve. Fortunately, innovators are integrating energy-generating properties into the very roads that lead us forward. Solar panels can now be applied directly to a road’s surface and driven over countless times before showing any signs of wear. Other next-gen roads automatically melt snow, reduce noise pollution, and even delight the public with artistic inspiration. Follow along for a trip around the world on pathways that generate clean energy for the communities they connect.

26
Mar

ICYMI: Brain injury gadget, DARPA future plane and more


Today on In Case You Missed It: Samsung has jumped on the preventing-brain-injury bandwagon, developing a brainBAND to light up to indicate the severity of a hit in contact sports. Meanwhile, DARPA is designing a new airplane that is a blend between a fixed aircraft and a helicopter. And NASA is about to begin using inflatable modules at the International Space Station, in case that’s something humans can set up on the surface of Mars.

We hit on a number of big stories this week, but you will definitely impress your friends if you know what happened to Microsoft’s AI chat bot within 24 hours. As always, please share any great tech or science videos you find by using the #ICYMI hashtag on Twitter for @mskerryd.

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