Android Wear 2.0 was worth the long wait

When Google introduced Android Wear back in 2014, the smartwatch industry was young. The only players worth noting were Pebble, Samsung (with its Tizen-based offerings) and a few other niche options (like Sony’s proprietary Smartwatch OS). Google, however, aimed to kick the door wide open with the same approach it had taken with phones: Instead of making both the watch and the software, it would court different hardware manufacturers, cultivating a diverse set of designs along with a robust third-party app ecosystem.

Three years later, the bet seems to have paid off. Although it’s had to fight off tough competition from the Apple Watch, Android Wear has survived and, according to Google, thrived. “If you compare the holiday season of 2016 with the holiday season the year before, we saw more than 70 percent growth,” says Android Wear VP David Singleton (not that that’s necessarily saying much). And so with all of that success comes time for the second iteration of Google’s wearable OS, Android Wear 2.0. It’ll be available first on the newly announced LG Watch Style and Watch Sport on Feb. 10th and will roll out to compatible existing hardware in the coming weeks.

This update, according to Singleton, is the platform’s biggest one since the birth of Android Wear three years ago. “With 2.0, we really looked hard at what people are using their watches for,” he said. “We saw that usage was really focused around watch faces, messaging and fitness. So we really optimized 2.0 for those things.” But Google improved a lot of other aspects of Wear as well, including the user interface, navigation and notifications.

First, let’s talk about watch faces. As with the previous iteration of Android Wear, you can swap in whatever face you like, either by selecting it on the companion Android Wear phone app or by adding it directly on the watch. But with Wear 1.0, there was often a tradeoff: You could either choose the stylish but barren design, or the complex but informative one.

With Wear 2.0, however, you can have the best of both worlds. That’s because any watch face, as long as it supports complications, can now be customized with data from any app. Swapping out the complications is as easy as long-pressing them and then picking its replacement, which can be anything from calories burned to an app shortcut.

As with Wear 1.0, tapping on each complication brings up the related information card. So for example, tapping the calendar launches the agenda for the day, while the step counter shows how much progress you’ve made towards your 10,000-step goal.

And say you want different complications for different times of day — you want the Nest function when you’re at home, but not in the office, for example — you can customize different watch faces for different use cases. Switching watch faces is as easy as swiping left or right on the active watch screen, so you can simply change from one to another depending on where you are.

Indeed, the Android Wear team took care to make navigation a priority with the 2.0 update. “We really condensed and simplified things,” said Jeff Chang, an Android Wear product manager. “We measured the number of taps and swipes between things, to get that down as few as possible.” So for example, oft-accessed settings are now combined into one display. Swipe down from the active screen and you’ll see toggles for airplane mode, Do Not Disturb and as a settings shortcut.

One press of the side button launches the app menu, and navigating through the list can be done either via a rotating crown (if your watch has one) or the touch screen. If you’d rather not scroll through your lengthy list of apps, you can also long-press a favorite to pin it to the top. The menu will list recently accessed apps first, followed by favorites and then the rest by alphabetical order.

Notifications have changed drastically as well. Instead of glaring white cards that take up the bottom half of the screen, there are now subtler notification icons. Also, the notifications themselves are now color-coded and contextual. So Gmail notifications have a red background, for example, while Hangouts are green. They only appear when you bring the watch up to your eyeline; a few seconds later, the watch face resurfaces again. If you like, you can access all of your recent notifications by swiping up on the main screen. The watch’s overall UI is also much darker. “It’s not only easier on the eyes, and it’s a lot easier on battery life as well,” Singleton says.

As for those incoming message notifications, replying is as easy as tapping; do it once and you’ll immediately be brought to the reply menu. (Though bear in mind this is the experience on Android; the feature is extremely limited on the iPhone.) In addition to using your voice or drawing an emoji, Wear 2.0 introduces a full-on touch keyboard as well. At first this sounds pretty ridiculous on such a small screen, but it’s surprisingly intuitive. You can either swipe through words like you can on Swype or Swiftkey, or you can use handwriting recognition. Either way, I found that the word detection to be surprisingly accurate, with only a few occasional errors.

Another way to reply to messages is through Smart Reply, which is powered by Google’s machine learning. You’ll see a list of what it thinks your reply will be depending on the context of the message. Much like the feature of the same name in Inbox, Smart Reply should be able to offer smarter and better responses over time as it learns more about you.

Speaking of machine learning, Android Wear 2.0 also finally brings Google’s Assistant to the watch. Say “OK Google” or long-press the power button, and you can ask all sorts of queries, like “How did the Warriors do against the Cavaliers?” or “How many tablespoons are there in a cup?” or “Is it going to rain today?” It can also be easily integrated with third-party connected devices like the Nest thermostat or Philips Hue lights, or services like Uber and OpenTable.

Now onto fitness. Android Wear 2.0 has Google’s preinstalled Fit app just as before, but the experience is much more improved. You can see your calories, pace, distance as you sweat it out, and if your watch has a heart rate sensor, you’ll see your beats per minute too. It’ also keeps track of how much you’ve been walking and cycling throughout the week, and offers gentle reminders to get going towards your goal if you haven’t met your mark. Plus, it will congratulate you when you succeed.

The new Google Fit is also a lot better-suited to indoor workouts as well. Simply say you’re on a treadmill or a stationary bike, and it’ll track your workout accordingly. Another great feature for strength-training fans is that it can also now count reps when you’re weight lifting and coach you through push-ups and sit-ups. “The watch actually recognizes that you’re doing it,” Singleton says. “So there’s no cheating.”

There’s also a special treat if your Android watch has LTE. With Wear 2.0, you’ll finally be able to stream music to the watch, without having to download the songs first. The default option would be with Google Play Music, but Spotify should be compatible soon as well. You’ll probably want to use Bluetooth headphones to listen to your tunes, unless you want to blast your playlist to the world around you as you’re running.

Oh, and say you’d really like a refreshing drink after you’re done with that run. Well, if you happen to be close to an establishment that accepts Android Pay, you’re in luck. That’s because Android Pay is finally coming to Wear 2.0. So if your watch happens to support NFC, you can just tap it to the reader to pay for that bottle of water.

Last but certainly not least, Wear 2.0 has a completely reimagined App store model. Before, the only way to load apps onto the watch was via a companion app. Not anymore. Now you can browse the Play Store right on the watch and even download certain apps directly, without the need for a corresponding phone app. This is especially useful if you have an iPhone — you’ll finally be able to download and use third-party apps regardless of what phone you have. Of course, not all apps can be operated as standalone — some will still require an Android phone for full functionality. But if you are an iPhone user, you won’t see them in the Play Store anyway; only compatible apps will show up on the watch.

On the whole, Android Wear 2.0 is a welcome improvement. It doesn’t just look better; it’s also much easier to use than before. What used to take several taps and swipes now just take one or two. The new messaging and fitness features are welcome as well. But it’s the introduction of Google Assistant and the standalone App Store that takes Wear 2.0 from good to great. Not only does it make Android Wear much less dependent on the phone, it’s also now that much more compatible with iOS — making it the toughest contender against the Apple Watch yet.

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The delayed BeatsX wireless earbuds arrive February 10th

If you’ve been waiting to get your hands on a pair of BeatsX wireless earbuds, you’re in luck. Today, Beats revealed on Twitter that the delayed model will arrive this Friday (February 10th). What’s more, in addition to the black and white color options that were previously announced, the company tells CNET that blue and gray versions will follow shortly.

BeatsX is one of three wireless models Apple teased when it confirmed it was killing the headphone jack on the iPhone 7. The three different Beats headphones were meant to give customers some options alongside the newfangled AirPods. Like those AirPods though, the BeatsX was also delayed. The wireless earbuds were supposed to arrive back in the fall, but the company announced in December that they wouldn’t go on sale until February.

In addition to providing a $ 150 alternative to the pricier AirPods, BeatsX also packs in Apple’s W1 chip for quick pairing via Bluetooth and Fast Fuel quick charging. That latter feature means BeatsX will give you two hours of use on just a five minute charge. It’s something that could come in handy if the earbuds go dead while you’re at the gym. They’re also attached to each other with a cord and in-line remote, if you’re worried about losing individual buds. When the time comes on Friday, expect to nab the new listening accessory via both Apple and Beats websites as well as Apple’s retail stores.


Via: 9to5Mac, CNET

Source: Beats By Dre

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Apple’s ‘polarizing’ new products are paying off

Throughout much of 2016, it seemed like lots of Apple fans were unhappy. The year brought few updates to the Mac (and the one big change was quite polarizing), a barely redesigned iPhone with no headphone jack, AirPods that shipped two months late and a new Apple Watch that was a modest improvement to a product still seen as nonessential.

But it’s time to accept that the complainers on the internet (including those of us in the media) might not have our fingers on the pulse of Apple fandom. Case in point: Apple just reported a massively successful quarter. According to CEO Tim Cook, both iPhone and Apple Watch sales hit records for both unit sales and revenue. In the case of the iPhone, that reversed three consecutive quarters of declining sales. The iPhone turnaround had to be a huge relief for Apple: The product is the company’s biggest revenue source by far.

Mac sales also generated record revenue, despite the fact that the new MacBook Pro was limited in supply and the rest of Apple’s computer lineup hasn’t been updated in a long time. Meanwhile, Apple’s services business (iCloud, Apple Music, Apple Pay and so on) increased 18 percent over last year. Tim Cook has been talking up the company’s services for a year now and says the goal is to double its size over the next four years. The one weak spot in Apple’s quarter was the iPad, which is facing three years of declining sales and had the second-worst holiday quarter in its history. (The worst holiday quarter for the iPad was in 2010, when the original iPad was less than a year old and just carving out a place in the market.)

The iPad’s ongoing struggles aside, this quarter suggests Apple might actually be giving customers what they want. Or, more cynically, customers who’ve become locked into the Apple ecosystem decided that now was the best time to upgrade, not jump ship to another platform. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. While power users might miss the MacBook Pro’s full-size USB ports and longer battery life and those with great headphones might be annoyed at having to use a dongle with the iPhone 7, it seems the majority of “normal” consumers out there are not rejecting Apple’s new products en masse because of these changes.

The iPhone’s strength was particularly surprising when you consider how many viewed the iPhone 7 as an iterative update. It has essentially the same design as the iPhone 6 and 6S, and many believe that Apple is saving a radically redesigned smartphone for later this year, the iPhone’s 10th anniversary. But dismissing the iPhone 7 because of its looks does the phone a disservice. The dual camera and portrait photo mode in the 7 Plus are huge steps forward in mobile photography, and they appear to resonate with customers. Tim Cook specifically called out unexpectedly high demand for Apple’s larger phone in this week’s earnings call.

Waterproofing and the expected battery and performance improvements make for less-dramatic but nonetheless welcome updates. And when you figure it’s been two years since Apple’s positively massive quarter that accompanied the iPhone 6 launch, it stands to reason plenty of people were in the market for a new phone.

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It’s a little harder to explain the Mac’s successful quarter. But the simple answer is that the Mac is fitting customers’ needs, despite the relative lack of updates over the past 18 months. Indeed, last year’s tech is more than enough for the average consumer at this point. Pros might bristle about not having the latest Intel processor, but for those who aren’t rendering video or dealing with massive Photoshop files, the Macs out there are more than capable. That plus a bump from the new MacBook Pro was enough to put the Mac back in the black.

A year of iterative updates that were nonetheless successful with consumers last quarter speaks to an industry-wide trend of modest improvement in both PCs and smartphones. These product categories are extremely polished at this point, and there are simply not going to be sweeping, massive changes every year anymore. That might be a bummer for those of us who breathlessly await new products from the tech industry’s biggest companies. But you can currently buy a Mac or iPhone and rest assured that it’ll last you years, even if it doesn’t have a shiny new form factor or the latest Intel processors in it. For the average consumer who just wants to buy something that works well with minimal fuss, that maturity is a good thing.

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Apple’s next custom Mac chip could do a lot more

Intel processors have powered Apple’s Mac computers for over a decade now, but Apple has also found success designing its own A-series ARM-based chips for the iPhone and iPad. While the company isn’t going to dump Intel chips in the Mac any time soon, a report from Bloomberg indicates that Apple at least intends to put its foot in the water and test out designing its own silicon for the Mac.

According to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman and Ian King, Apple is building an ARM-based chip that’ll offload the Mac’s “Power Nap” features from the standard Intel processor as a way to save batter life. Power Nap currently lets the Mac run software updates, download email and calendar updates, sync to iCloud, back up to Time Machine drives and a number of other features while the computer is asleep. Some of these features only work when plugged in, though — perhaps with a chip that consumers less energy, Power Nap’s capabilities could be expanded.

This could also be a first step towards a move away from Intel processors entirely, although Bloomberg says such a move would not happen in the immediate future. But Apple has invested a lot of money in its own series of chips since 2010 and could have more freedom to update the Mac without having to rely on Intel’s schedule.

It’s worth noting that this rumored Power Nap chip wouldn’t be the first Apple-designed chip to make it into a Mac. That honor would go to the T1, an ARM-based chip that showed up in the new MacBook Pro last fall. That chip controls the laptop’s Touch Bar and the Touch ID sensor but otherwise doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting. Apple has been pretty quiet about the chip, but it seems that the next MacBook Pro could have another ARM chip — maybe the T2? — that takes more tasks away from the main Intel processor. If that’s the case, we probably won’t know for a while, as Apple probably won’t update the MacBook Pro lineup again until this fall.

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MIT demos smartwatch app that detects emotions

A conversation is never just about the words we speak, it’s about our tone, volume, body language, gaze and everything in between. But the signals that we send out can sometimes be misinterpreted, or ignored, by people who struggle to understand non-verbal communication. That’s what prompted researchers at MIT to develop software that could take the ambiguity out of what people say, and what they do.

Researchers Tuka AlHanai andMohammad Mahdi Ghassemi built an algorithm that can analyze speech and tone. This data is crunched to work out what emotion a person is roughly feeling for every five second block of conversation. In one example, a person is recalling a memory of their first day in school, and the algorithm can identify the moment the tone shifts from positive, through neutral, down to negative.

The researchers used an iPhone 5S to record the audio part of the conversations, but made each test subject wear Samsung’s Simband. That’s the company’s developer-only wearable platform that runs Tizen and has space for various additional sensors. It’s not the most elegant of implementations, but the pair have built the system with an eye on incorporating it inside a wearable device with no outside help.

Right now, the implementation is very rough around the edges, and basic to the point where it couldn’t be used more widely. But, the pair believe that it could be the first step on the road to building a social coach for people with an anxiety disorder or conditions like autism. It’s early days, but if there was a device that meant an end to awkward conversations, it would probably be quite popular.

Source: MIT

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