Samsung’s Galaxy S8 hits sales records despite the Note 7’s flameout

As Samsung was readying the Galaxy S8, everyone wondered if the company would be able to recover from the disastrous, exploding Note 7. From a pure quality of hardware perspective, the S8 appears to be a home run — as long as nothing unexpected happens. The other question is whether customers would reject Samsung after the hit it took last year, but it sounds like that hasn’t happened: Samsung says that pre-orders for the S8 and S8+ were the best it has ever seen.

Specifically, the company says that pre-sales for the two devices were up 30 percent compared to the Galaxy S7 pre-orders from 2016. Samsung said the S7 was the previous best launch it had, but now that title is held by the company’s latest smartphone. Of course, Samsung isn’t giving us any hard numbers so it’s hard to say just how well this launch went compared to how the iPhone 7 went last fall, for example. But in July, Samsung will report its quarterly financials — and we’ll get a better idea of how the S8’s launch affected the company’s bottom line then.

In the meantime, Galaxy S8 owners will have a software update to keep an eye out for. It’s a fix for the first little bug to plague the phone: a screen that looks to be more red-tinted than most would like. Samsung confirmed there’s nothing wrong with the phone’s screen and said that a software update adjusting the screen’s color calibration will be coming this week.

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Apple threatened to drop Uber’s app over iPhone tracking (updated)

Uber is no stranger to trouble, but it may have landed in some especially hot water two years ago. New York Times sources claim that Apple CEO Tim Cook held a face-to-face meeting in early 2015 to call out Uber’s Travis Kalanick (and threaten to remove his app from the App Store) after learning that Uber was not only violating iOS app privacy guidelines, but was trying to cover it up. Reportedly, the ridesharing outfit had been “fingerprinting” iPhones with permanent identities so that it could prevent drivers from cheating by creating fake accounts and accepting rides from these bogus customers. The IDs would last even after the app was deleted or the entire phone was wiped. While this helped keep drivers honest, it was clearly a privacy violation — and it was made worse by Uber’s bid to hide the tracking from App Store reviewers.

Reportedly, Kalanick told staff to “obfuscate” the Uber app’s fingerprinting code for anyone operating from Apple’s current headquarters in Cupertino. As far as the people at Infinite Loop could see, it was business as usual. However, the trick didn’t work for long. Apple workers outside of the headquarters eventually spotted the shady behavior, leading to the meeting with Kalanick. The approach isn’t that uncommon for Uber (it recently admitted that it used location-based techniques to fool regulators), but it’s particularly brazen given the risk of being dropped from the App Store and losing millions of customers.

Apple isn’t commenting on the meeting with Cook, and we’ve reached out to Uber for its take on the allegations. However, it’s safe to say that Uber would like to leave an issue like this in the past. The company is trying to turn a corner, and Kalanick himself is looking for a second-in-command to keep his boundary-pushing tendencies in check. This revelation certainly won’t help matters, though. It reinforces the notion that Uber is all too willing to break rules in the name of money, even if it’s motivated by honest concerns like fraud.

Update: Uber has responded to Engadget, and maintains that its staff “absolutely do not” track individual users after they’ve deleted the app. The company adds that fingerprinting is a “typical way” of preventing people from using stolen phones for joyrides, and otherwise thwarting “known bad actors.” You can read the full statement below. It’s good to hear that the company isn’t tracking people, but the heart of the story revolves around hardware fingerprints — those still violated Apple’s privacy guidelines, even if Uber couldn’t definitively associate phones with specific customers.

“We absolutely do not track individual users or their location if they’ve deleted the app. As the New York Times story notes towards the very end, this is a typical way to prevent fraudsters from loading Uber onto a stolen phone, putting in a stolen credit card, taking an expensive ride and then wiping the phone—over and over again. Similar techniques are also used for detecting and blocking suspicious logins to protect our users’ accounts. Being able to recognize known bad actors when they try to get back onto our network is an important security measure for both Uber and our users.”

Source: New York Times

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With the Galaxy S8, Samsung grabs the smartphone design crown

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit my bias right up front: I have never liked Samsung’s smartphones. The Galaxy and Note series have both been wildly successful — so much so that they basically cemented Samsung’s status as Apple’s equal in the smartphone war, at least here in the US. But the cheap plastic design and overwrought software found in early Galaxy devices turned me off, to the point that I thought I’d never take their phones seriously.

When a few colleagues started talking up the Galaxy S8 after an early preview, I remained skeptical. Yes, the company had been taking big steps forward in industrial design over the past two years, but I just couldn’t imagine how something with screens this large could be comfortable. (We all remember the tragedy that was the massive Nexus 6.)

How wrong I was.

Ever since Samsung first unveiled the Galaxy S8 late in March, I’ve had to eat my words. At first, a phone with a tall, 18.5:9 aspect ratio seemed to be a strange design decision, but it was the right one. Despite its massive screen size, the S8 is basically the same width as phones with much smaller displays. Keeping the S8 relatively narrow was probably the most important design decision Samsung made. The S8 measures 68.1mm wide, a scant 1mm wider than the iPhone 7. This size makes using the S8 with one hand absolutely a reasonable prospect, something I didn’t imagine when hearing about a device with a 5.8-inch screen. It’s something you really need to hold to appreciate.

I can’t overstate how that completely changed my view on the S8. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a Large Phone and not everyone will be able to use it comfortably in one hand. The tall aspect ratio also makes reaching UI elements at the top of the display challenging, for sure — getting to the notification pane is trickier than I’d like. But all told, it’s far more useable than I ever expected. (The S8 Plus manages a similar trick, packing a larger screen into a frame that’s basically the same size as the iPhone 7 Plus. It’s not a one-hand device, but it’s still much smaller than it has any right to be.)

Indeed, it’s not just useable — it’s downright enjoyable, more so than any other phone I’ve tried with such a massive screen. There will be some growing pains as app developers adjust to this odd new screen size, but the S8 is both immersive and beautiful. Holding and using the first iPhone was a magical and futuristic experience compared to every other phone that was on the market in 2007. Using the S8 feels the same — it’s the closest we’ve gotten to that sci-fi dream of having a glowing glass slate device to guide us through the universe.

Designing and then manufacturing such a device at scale was likely quite difficult, but it paid off. I’m far from the only one out there who now looks at Samsung as the undisputed hardware design master in the field. Quite a trick, considering most of the media coverage around the company in the last six months has focused on exploding phones. Assuming nothing goes wrong with the S8, I think we can safely say that the company has put its huge misstep behind it.

Even better for Samsung, it now has a good five or six months to bask in the glory. Apple will almost certainly unveil a new iPhone with an overhauled design, and it’s hard to imagine that Google’s next Pixel will keep its surprisingly large bezels, but neither of those phones are expected until the fall. That’s a long time for Samsung to crow about its revolutionary new phone design, and it wouldn’t be surprising if sales ended up reflecting that. Yes, LG’s G6 has a similar bezel-less design, but the fit and finish isn’t quite as excellent, and Samsung has been handily beating LG in terms of smartphone marketshare for a long time now. The S8 will only grow that lead.

Still, the Galaxy S8 isn’t a perfect phone. I’d still vastly prefer the stock Android experience that Google offers on the Pixel, even though the skin formerly known as TouchWiz is now polished and totally usable. Bloatware remains a problem, and Bixby is not at all ready for prime time. Also, what’s up with that fingerprint sensor?

But then again, no smartphone is perfect. And the good news with software issues is that they’re often fixable — particularly when you consider how relatively open and flexible Android has proven to be over the years. Software evolves and changes — but when you buy a phone, you’re usually committing to that hardware for a good two years. For the first time, I’d be willing to make that commitment with a Samsung phone.

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Now Apple’s Live Photos can work on any website

Apple first introduced Live Photos in the iPhone 6S series back in 2015, but the odd photo/video-clip hybrid has taken its time coming to the internet. While Tumblr was the first to integrate Live Photos into its site last September, Apple is finally introducing an official JavaScript API to get its odd photo/video hybrid format out onto the web at large.

Developers will add their Live Photo as a DOM element like any other photo or video. They’ll be able to control how long their media should play, or if they should only play if end users hover over a “LIVE” button in the Live Photo’s top right corner.

Tumblr was the first to fully integrate the format last fall, but Google was the first to store Live Photos online over a year ago with an update to its Google Photos app for iOS. Then it released Motion Stills for Apple devices in June, an app that converted the hybrid media to looping GIFs or movie files so they could be exported and uploaded to the internet at large. After another update last month, Google’s app will likely continue be the most popular method to transfer Live Photos to the web for awhile since Apple’s API will still need developers to build it into apps and sites.

Via: 9to5Mac

Source: Apple

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Apple is on a mission to only use recycled materials

With the release of its new environmental report, Apple is looking to push the envelope of what it can do for the good of the planet. Last year, it boasted about how much cash its recycling efforts had saved it, including $ 40 million worth of gold re-used from old devices. This year, it’s talking about “closing the loop” on its use of raw materials, potentially redefining how gadgets are made altogether.

Apple believes that it’s now on the road to being able to use only recycled materials to build its next generation of products. It’s not there yet, of course, and there’s still much to be done in order to ensure secondhand iPhones come back to Apple, rather than the scrap heap. Still, if the company can make good on its admittedly lofty goals in the next few years, it’s good for everyone.

The company also believes that its experiments with material reclamation — embodied by its Liam robots that disassemble 2.4 million iPhone 6 models a year. Apple says that the two lines that have a Liam on it have salvaged 1,900 kg in aluminum for every 100,000 phones taken apart. In fact, the company has built a secret run of Mac Mini units with materials recovered by Liam, which are used to run iPhone production lines.

The rest of the report is the usual self-congratulation, although it does make a big point about saying that its data centers are wholly renewable. Apple is probably mindful of Greenpeace’s recent public shaming of companies like Netflix, Amazon, HBO, ASUS and Acer for using coal and gas power to run their servers. By comparison, iMessage, FaceTime and Siri “run on 100 percent renewable energy.”

Apple, famously, wants to own and control every part of its computers, and that attitude carries over to its energy. The company is aiming to own as much of its power generation as it can, rather than buying juice on the wholesale market. So, where it can, it’s building, running and /owning/ its solar and wind facilities rather than partnering with a third party.

By 2020, the company is hoping to have 4 GW of power generation capacity by 2020, enough to power 725,000 homes. That will be spread between Apple owned and operated sites and those that it has helped bankroll with partners. It’s entirely plausible that Apple could start selling its excess power as a side hustle without anyone realizing.

As always, most of the credit goes to Lisa Jackson (pictured), a former head of the EPA that joined Apple way back in 2013. She’s been spearheading the company’s efforts in switching to renewables, cutting carbon emissions and generally being a good citizen of the world. Her work has ensured that Apple went from the bottom of Greenpeace’s rankings in 2011 to the top for the last three years running.

Source: Apple (.PDF)

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Amazon opens up the voice control technology behind Alexa

Software and app developers can now use the technology that powers Amazon’s Alexa assistant to add voice control to their creations. Amazon has opened up the service called “Lex” in what Reuters describes as a move to become the top player in voice-controlled computing. According to Werner Vogels, the e-commerce titan’s CTO, Lex could lead to assistants and chatbots that sound friendlier and more human than their predecessors.

Lex, after all, lives in the cloud instead of within the actual apps and software. That means Amazon can make it better and better by continuously feeding it data from people’s interactions with Alexa. While the company’s Echo sales will likely never match Apple’s iPhone sales, Vogels said people use Alexa for various tasks around the house, but they tend to interact with their phones’ voice assistants only when they’re inside their vehicles.

Still, the company needs more sources of data, so it will also feed Lex people’s interactions with third-party developers’ apps that use the service. We’re guessing that data includes whatever it collects from its call center clients. If you’ll recall, Amazon started prepping a software package that includes Lex and another one of its developer services called Polly earlier this year. The package can field questions from customers’ phone calls and texts, giving the retail giant’s software more samples to learn from.

Source: Reuters

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Xiaomi Mi 6 mimics the iPhone’s camera tricks without the bump

After the swanky limited edition Mi MIX, you’d think it’d be pretty hard for Xiaomi to top that with its next flagship phone, but the new Mi 6 unveiled today still had some tricks up its sleeve. First off, the company has revived the Mi 5’s awesome curved glass back design along with a special ceramic edition, and this time it’s complemented by a piece of 2.5D front glass panel plus two new color options: metallic blue and glossy silver. To my surprise, Xiaomi has also gone back to the more expensive stainless steel (as used on the Mi 4) instead of aluminum for the mid-frame: not only is it tougher, but it’s also more luxurious with that high-gloss finish — a much welcomed feature on the blue version’s gold-colored frame.

As per usual, Xiaomi has thrown in pretty much the best essential components for its latest flagship, though this time it’s a bit more generous than before. On top of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chipset there’s a whopping 6GB of LPDDR4x RAM instead of starting at 4GB, a base storage option of 64GB instead of just 32GB, a denser 3,350 mAh battery and an improved under-glass fingerprint reader on the front (though unlike the one on the Mi 5s, this one is capacitive rather than ultrasonic). Based on the display units at the launch event, the Mi 6 is powered by MIUI 8 based on Android 7.1.1 which is remarkably up to date.

What’s more surprising is that the Mi 6 is Xiaomi’s first splash-proof device thanks to the added internal seals, though the company avoided the word “waterproof” throughout the keynote. Indeed, the Mi 6’s product page states that it has yet been put through such certification tests, so you’ve been warned.

After the Redmi Pro and the Mi 5s Plus, Xiaomi is once again dabbling with a dual camera setup on the Mi 6. Rather than going with the increasingly common RGB + BW sensor pairing, this time Xiaomi has taken a page out of Apple’s book to pair a wide-angle lens with a telephoto lens for this 12-megapixel camera: the former has an f/1.8 aperture plus a 1.25um sensor, whereas the latter — effectively a 2x optical zoom — has an f/2.6 aperture with a 1um sensor. However, unlike the iPhone 7 Plus, the Mi 6’s dual camera is flush with the body; plus its wide-angle lens features 4-axis optical stabilization, meaning it’ll take better photos in low-light conditions.

Xiaomi also boasted its latest beautification algorithm which claims to produce more natural looks, and there’s also a portrait mode which automatically adds a bokeh effect. As for selfies, there’s an 8-megapixel front camera which takes advantage of the new beautification software as well.

Much like its two predecessors, the Mi 6 is sticking with the relatively humble 5.15-inch 1080p display spec, which is good news for those who prefer something more ergonomic. It’s a nice LCD, too: like before, you get a 94.4-percent NTSC gamut, a brightness ranging from 600 nit all the way down to 1 nit (with 4,096 levels in between), and an optimized blue light filter mode with reduced color cast.

On the audio side, it’s worth noting that Xiaomi decided to ditch the headphone jack for the Mi 6, with the reason being it wanted to offer a cleaner look (ugh), which is why you’ll find a USB-C to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter in the box. Similarly, there’s no fancy DAC chip here to satisfy audiophiles, though the phone does have a stereo loudspeaker implementation — using the earpiece as one of the two audio channels — similar to those used on recent HTC and Huawei devices for casual video-watching.

As with pretty much all Xiaomi products, the Mi 6 will only be available in China to begin with as of April 28th, with the 64GB model priced at 2,499 yuan (about $ 360) and the 128GB flavor at 2,899 yuan ($ 420). And for an extra 100 yuan ($ 15) you can get the 128GB ceramic edition with 18K gold rim around the main camera lenses. Alas, CEO Lei Jun said the silver edition isn’t quite ready for mass production; it’ll apparently be months before it’s finally ready.

Source: Xiaomi

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Murders, suicides and rapes: Facebook’s major video problem

A nationwide manhunt for Steve Stephens, the 37-year-old from Cleveland who uploaded a video to Facebook of himself shooting an elderly stranger in the head, came to an end today. Stephens committed suicide after a brief car chase with state police in Erie, Pennsylvania. His crime, which took place this past Sunday, sparked outrage not only because of the violence itself, but also the way Facebook handled the situation. It took the social network over two hours to take the video down, although it claims this was because it wasn’t flagged immediately by other users. Facebook says Stephens’ actions weren’t reported until he used the Live feature to stream his murder confession, about an hour and 45 minutes after the shooting video was uploaded. His account has since been suspended.

“This is a horrific crime and we do not allow this kind of content on Facebook,” the company said in a statement. “We work hard to keep a safe environment on Facebook, and are in touch with law enforcement in emergencies when there are direct threats to physical safety.” As it stands, Facebook relies heavily on people flagging graphic content (the same way it does sketchy ads), which means individuals have to actually see something dreadful before they can flag it. As Wired reported earlier this year, Facebook has opted not to use algorithms to censor videos like this before they’re posted, claiming that it doesn’t want to be accused of violating freedom-of-speech rights. But, as these types of cases mushroom, the company may be forced to change its stance sooner than later.

A photo of Steve Stephens.

It could be hard for the company to build an algorithm that can successfully tell the difference between a video of someone being murdered and a clip from, say, a Jason Bourne movie. But, according to Facebook VP of Operations Justin Osofsky, his team is constantly exploring new technologies that can help create a safer environment on the site. Osofsky pointed to artificial intelligence in particular, which he says is already helping prevent certain graphic videos from being reshared in their entirety. Facebook’s explanation of this is confusing, though: It says people “are still able to share portions of the videos in order to condemn them or for public awareness, as many news outlets are doing in reporting the story online and on television.”

The company didn’t clarify how the feature works when we reached out, but it’s clear a video like Stephens’ should be removed completely and immediately. And, as a result of this weekend’s events, Osofsky said Facebook is reviewing its reporting system to ensure that people can flag explicit videos and other content “as easily and as quickly as possible.”

Facebook has really jumped very quickly into the video space, which is exciting, but it’s taking a fail-fast approach to it.

Unfortunately for Facebook, Stephens’ case isn’t the first time it has faced scrutiny over people using its tools to promote violence. Back in March, Chicago police charged a 14-year-old boy after he used Facebook Live to broadcast the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl, which was just one of many gruesome clips that hit Facebook recently. Per The Wall Street Journal, more than 60 sensitive videos, including physical beatings, suicides and murders, have been streamed on Facebook Live since it launched to the public last year. This begs the question: Should the Federal Communications Commission regulate social networks the way it does TV? In 2015, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said there were no plans to do so, claiming he wasn’t sure the agency’s authority extended to “picking and choosing among websites.”

The FCC, now headed by Ajit Pai under President Donald Trump, did not respond to our request for comment on the matter. That said, a source inside a major video-streaming company thinks services such as Facebook Live, Periscope and YouTube Live would benefit from having a “delay” safeguard in place. This could be similar in practice to how TV networks handle live events, which always feature a seven-second delay in case something unexpected happens. Remember when Justin Timberlake uncovered Janet Jackson’s nipple during the Super Bowl 38 halftime show in 2004? This delay system is designed to prevent scenes like those from showing up on your TV.

“Facebook has really jumped very quickly into the video space, which is exciting, but it’s taking a fail-fast approach to it,” the source, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “In the desire to push Live out to as many people as possible, there were a lot of corners that were cut. And when you take a fail-fast approach to something like live-streaming video, it’s not surprising that you come across these scenarios in which you have these huge ethical dilemmas of streaming a murder, sexual violence or something else.”

Social Media Illustrations

As for why individuals are using these platforms to broadcasts their heinous acts, Janis L. Whitlock, a research scientist at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, says it’s hard to pinpoint the reason because there’s no way you can do an experimental control. She says there’s a good chance Stephens was struggling with a mental illness and saw his victim, 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr., as an object in an ongoing fantasy. Whitlock says that while there’s a good side to these social networks, they also tend to bring out the worst in people, especially those who are craving attention: “They make the most ugly of us, the most ugly in us, visible.”

“The fact that you can have witnesses, like billions of people witness something in a tiny period of time, it has to have an enormous impact on the human psyche,” she says. “How does that interact with the things that people do, or choose not to do? We don’t know yet, but it does, absolutely. I have no doubt about that as a psychologist.” Whitlock says companies like Facebook must start taking some civic responsibility, adding that there needs to be a conversation between it and other internet giants about how their products “interact with who humans are” and how they can expose someone’s limitations and potentials.

“How is it that we can use and structure these things to really amplify all the ways in which we’re amazing,” Whitlock says, “and not the ways in which we’re disgusting?”

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Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus review: Redemption is here

Last year’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge were excellent phones, and so was the Galaxy Note 7… until it started bursting into flames. While some within Samsung were tasked with figuring out what happened and how to prevent it from happening again, others were trying to build a phone that would make people move on. Meet the new Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus.

The Note 7 won’t disappear so easily from our collective memory, but I have to hand it to Samsung: The S8 siblings are impeccably built, thoughtfully designed devices. It’s not hard to look at these smartphones as the first steps on a road to redemption, and after a week of testing, I can confidently say these are two of the best smartphones money can buy. I just wish its virtual assistant wasn’t so half-baked.

Hardware and design

Text and photos don’t do the S8 ($ 750) and S8 Plus ($ 850) justice. They’re beautiful, if not exactly surprising. From their rounded edges to their precisely formed metal-and-glass bodies, they feel like smaller, sleeker versions of the Galaxy Note 7. That’s a hell of a compliment, battery insanity notwithstanding — the Note 7 was a beautiful device and I’m glad that DNA lives on. The S8 and S8 Plus’s rounded Infinity displays — which are 5.8 and 6.2 inches big, respectively — only add to the phones’ appeal. We’ll dig into these curved screens more later, but people seemed to like them enough that it didn’t make sense to have non-curved flagships anymore.

The screens don’t extend any farther down the phones’ sides than the S7 Edge’s display did, but the bezel surrounding them has almost completely disappeared. LG’s G6 packs a similarly long 18:9 screen, but the S8 line’s eye-catching curves and impressive precision give Samsung a distinct advantage. Like the G6, the screens on the S8 and S8 Plus are longer and narrower than usual, helping them fit more snugly in your hand.

This is especially true of the S8. I thought I’d prefer the Plus’s large display, but there’s something reassuring and alluring about this smaller body. For one, my hands never strained while reaching for the screen’s far corners, and I never felt like I’d drop the S8 because my hand wrapped around it so well. (The phones’ backs are made of glass, though, so they still slide around on tabletops.) That’s not to say the S8 Plus feels too big. It’s plenty comfortable to hold, although your thumbs will still get a workout reaching around the display.

Above the screens are improved, 8-megapixel cameras, and a Note 7-style iris scanner for hands-free unlocking. Most of the time the scanner is fast and frictionless. Often it didn’t even show the guide to align your eyes with. Other times I had to open my eyes really wide and move the phone around until I either nailed the alignment or got frustrated and just punched in my PIN.

If PIN codes aren’t your thing, there’s also the fingerprint sensor on S8 line’s back, next to the camera. In prior models, it lived below the screen. I didn’t mind the change conceptually, but the placement needs work. The sensor is off center, and a little too easy to miss — I usually smeared fingerprints all over the camera before finding it. And what of that classic home button? It’s gone — your new home button is a pressure-sensitive spot on the screen that vibrates when you push it.

If you’re not paying attention, you’d easily miss one of the S8 line’s biggest additions: a small button below the volume keys on the phones’ left sides. This is what you’ll use to invoke Bixby, Samsung’s homebrew virtual assistant. The button doesn’t do much yet — you’ll eventually be able to long-press it to speak directly to Bixby, but for now, it just brings up a screen with upcoming appointments, news and such. Even worse, Samsung has blocked attempts to remap the Bixby key for other functions, which has only pissed off potential power users.

There’s a USB-C port on the phones’ bottoms, and next to that? The headphone jack. We’ve seen companies ditching this classic port, claiming that it took up too much space. The S8 and S8 Plus are perfect repudiations of that line of thinking. Oh, and they don’t get in the way of waterproofing, either. Both devices are IP68 dust and water-resistant, which meant they could lounge for up to 30 minutes in the ridiculous wine bath we poured.

The stuff inside the S8 and S8 Plus isn’t exactly a surprise. Both US models pack Qualcomm’s new octa-core Snapdragon 835 chipsets, along with 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM and Adreno 540 GPUs. That horsepower is paired with 64GB of internal storage, and you can add up to 256GB of additional space with a microSD card. In addition to the usual array of LTE and Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac radios, the S8 and S8 Plus also pack support for Bluetooth 5.0, an updated version of the standard that promises faster data speeds and longer range.

As always, the S8 and S8 Plus are more alike than they are different. The biggest difference aside from the screens are the devices’ batteries — the S8 packs a 3,000mAh cell while the Plus contains a 3,500mAh battery. Those of you with keen memories will remember last year’s smaller Galaxy S7 also packed a 3,000mAh battery, and the S7 Edge actually had a slightly larger 3,600mAh — the biggest Samsung had used to date. Given the Note 7’s nightmarish battery failures, it’s no surprise the company didn’t push the envelope on this front.

Samsung did an impeccable job designing and assembling these phones. You’ll find a few touches that don’t feel quite right, like the off-center USB-C ports, but it’s clear countless hours went into making the S8 and S8 Plus feel seamlessly elegant. Sorry Apple, HTC, and the rest: For now, Samsung is the reigning king of smartphone design.

Display and sound

Chris Velazco/Engadget

For the people in search of buying advice, here’s all you need to know about the S8 and S8 Plus’s screens: They’re awesome. Thanks for reading.

But seriously, the Super AMOLED panels here are indeed awesome. Color reproduction on both is excellent and, as always, there are different screen modes in case your tastes are more specific. The screens get bright enough to combat the warm spring sun and viewing angles are excellent, too.

Before anything else though, you’ll notice that the S8 and S8 Plus screens are longer than most. While many other smartphone screens stick to the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, Samsung built the S8 screens with an 18.5:9 aspect ratio. Why? To squeeze more screen into your hand, for one. Beyond that, the length of the screen makes multi-window multitasking — like the kind Nougat natively supports — a breeze. Don’t worry, though: Your apps will automatically scale to fit the entire screen, and they’ll look damned good in the process. Some videos, meanwhile, will be flanked by black bars since they can’t fill the screen. Samsung isn’t the first to go this route, though. Rival LG had the same thought when building its G6, which uses an ever-so-slightly shorter 18:9 aspect ratio.

Samsung calls these screens “Infinity Displays,” and they run at resolutions as high as 2960×1440 — a little longer than the usual Quad HD. Note that I said, “as high as.” The phones are set to run at “Full HD+” — meaning 2220×1080 — by default. You’ll need to jump into the devices’ settings to coax them into running at full resolution, which is a must when you fire up some Gear VR games. There’s also an option to dial down the screen’s resolution to “HD+,” or 1480×720, in case you need to squeeze as much life out of the battery as possible. The display will set itself to this resolution when you turn on the most aggressive power saving mode, and it’s not too bad, either. Icon edges and text look slightly fuzzier, but it’s not ugly.

The always-on display is back too, but with a twist. You can customize it further with images in addition to the usual clocks and calendars. Always-on widgets are available now too, if you want to see your calendar appointments or media controls without unlocking the S8. The impact on battery life is negligible, and the sheer amount of customization options can help make your device feel, well, like yours.

Meanwhile, each device has one speaker wedged into its bottom edge, and they pump out loud — if thin — audio. They’re good enough for podcasts and YouTube videos, but getting the most out of your tunes requires headphones. Good thing, then, that Samsung included a set of AKG earbuds with each S8, and they’re leagues ahead of most chintzy pack-ins.

Software

The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus both ship with Android 7.0 Nougat, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell at a glance. Samsung has once again painted over Google’s work. Though, TouchWiz has finally grown up. A lot. Look at the S7’s interface: It’s full of garish icons and brightly colored circles. The S8’s, in contrast, is subtle and thoughtful in its design choices.

For one, the app launcher button is gone — now you just swipe up or down on a homescreen to see everything you’ve installed. Even better, there’s a search bar at the top of the launcher. Managing apps is also easier. Long-pressing an app icon launches a pop-up window with options to add a shortcut to the homescreen, select multiple apps and uninstall or disable the ones you’ve selected. That last bit is crucial when you’re dealing with carrier-mandated bloatware, like the multiple T-Mobile apps on our review unit. In days past, you had to disable uninstallable apps from the device’s settings; now you can do it wherever your app icons live.

The virtual navigation keys also allow me to fix one of my biggest pet peeves. Samsung devices typically have their recent apps key on the left side and the back key on the right — basically every other Android phone has it the other way around. Fortunately, you can swap the order they appear. You can also now swipe down on the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor to open the notifications shade, a neat trick we first saw on Google’s Pixels.

Other flourishes make the S8 line feel like “greatest hits” devices. Since both phones have curved displays, they inherited the Edge line’s special shortcut panels. Tapping the little tab on the right side of the screen reveals panels you can load up with favorite apps and contacts and more. I use these as often as I did on the S7 Edge — which is to say rarely.. One panel, called Smart Select, is an awfully neat Note 7 throwback. Long story short, you can select and record parts of the screen and doodle all over them to create GIFs on the fly. For better or worse, /I can’t stop doing this./

Also returning from the Note 7 is a Game Launcher app and the device optimizer in settings, which lets you quickly close down background apps and delete unneeded files. My personal favorite feature is the Secure Folder, which allows you to hide files and install separate instances of apps away from the rest of your stuff. For example: Photos taken from the camera app within the Secure Folder can only be viewed when you’ve successfully unlocked the folder.

Just remember that not all security features are created equal. Take Samsung’s facial recognition — it’s fast, but it often couldn’t identify me in poorly lit situations. It’s also technically possible to fool this facial lock with a convincing photo, so exercise caution. Samsung concedes that this is one of the less secure ways to lock down your phone, but some people definitely dig convenience over security.

Meet Bixby

Chris Velazco/Engadget

After countless leaks and rumors, Samsung’s virtual assistant is finally here. Say hello to Bixby. Oh, wait, sorry, you can’t. Bixby’s voice interface — the thing people associate most with virtual assistants — doesn’t work yet. Want to know how many ounces in a gallon or to see if there are any decent ramen joints nearby? You’ll have to chat up Google’s preloaded Assistant instead.

Samsung promises you’ll be able to control your S8 with your voice as well as you can by tapping on its screen. That would be huge — neither Siri nor Google Assistant offer that kind of granular control. Sure, you can tell Google’s Assistant to set your screen brightness to 50 percent, but Samsung promises even more. With that kind of complexity involved, maybe it’s no surprise this stuff isn’t done yet.

So, if Voice doesn’t work, what did we get? Well, a homescreen, for one. Once Bixby is enabled, swiping right on the homescreen or mashing the dedicated button brings up the Bixby Home panel. There, you’ll find your calendar appointments, the local weather, your daily activity, reminders and lots of news from Flipboard. Right now there are only a handful of third-party apps that connect to Bixby Home, including CNN, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Spotify and Giphy. It’s a perfectly serviceable alternative to Google Now. My only real gripe is that it sometimes takes longer than expected to launch Bixby Home by tapping the Bixby button — I often had to hit it multiple times (on both devices, even).

Bixby’s other, more interesting half is called Bixby Vision. It’s basically an augmented reality camera that tries to identify what’s in front of you. I’ll admit, my expectations might have been out of whack here. I wanted to use Bixby as the ultimate shopping tool, snapping photos of things I wanted around New York City and buying them from the handy Amazon links served up by Bixby. Alas, it just isn’t smart enough to identify specific brands or makes. At best, Bixby sees “black shoes” or “red backpack,” and the resulting Amazon links aren’t particularly helpful. Still, it’s pretty good at identifying clearly labeled items. I pointed Bixby at a bunch of things in a grocery store. and it properly identified the juices and cheese snacks I bought.

Bixby Vision is for more than just shopping, though. Thanks to a partnership with Vivino, Bixby can identify bottles of wine then display ratings and reviews for what you’re about to crack open. That’s the part of Bixby Vision that worked the most consistently. Although it does seem to think most bottle-shaped things are bottles of wine, so you’ll probably see the Wine option appear at inappropriate times. You can also use Bixby to search for images on Pinterest similar to ones you’ve already taken. It’s a neat touch and good for finding art you might like, but it’s not the most useful feature.

It’s too bad the really useful stuff — visual text extraction and translation — is hit or miss. The problem with both is that Bixby is really bad at understanding what text should be selectable in an image. Let’s say you’re trying to translate a book cover.

In an ideal world, you point Bixby at the book, hit the “Text” button, your phone figures what is actually text, you select it, and out comes a translation. Sometimes, though, Bixby doesn’t know when there’s text you want to translate or extract, so the “Text” button doesn’t appear. And other times, when the button does appear, it doesn’t parse all of the text properly so you can’t translate it. When it works, it works surprisingly well — I translated a handful of Japanese signs just fine when Bixby could tell I was looking at words. Ultimately, Bixby just lacks the sort of speed and consistency that could make this feature a real must-have.

I have high hopes for Bixby. After all, it took years for Siri to become really useful. So expecting Samsung’s assistant to be equally functional in less time isn’t really fair. Still, there’s no question that Bixby is the most half-baked thing you’ll find in these two otherwise excellent smartphones.

Camera

The 12-megapixel sensors on the back haven’t changed much since last year. That’s not a bad thing since they were great cameras to start with; just don’t expect any huge jumps in quality. Photos were uniformly well-exposed with excellent color reproduction. And as always, these dual-pixel cameras focus incredibly fast, and the optical image stabilization does an excellent job keeping subjects crisp and clear. Low-light performance was in line with the S7 cameras, which is no surprise since they both have 1.4µm sensor pixels and f/1.7 apertures. Still, expect to see the occasional fuzzy edge and less-accurate focusing when it gets a little too dark. Samsung says it improved the processing pipeline so there’s no lag between capturing a shot and being ready to snap the next.

The S8 and S8 Plus also double as solid video cameras. They capture quality footage at up to 4K with great colors and minimal jittering. I just wish Samsung offered more flexibility — there’s a record button, and that’s about it.

There is an improved 8-megapixel front camera with a wider field of view for group selfies. It has a f/1.7 aperture too, so it’s decent enough in low light and in general it’s a great performer. Selfies were clean, detailed and nicely colored, especially when viewed on the punchy AMOLED screen. Even better, you can hold up a palm to snap a selfie, no fumbling with buttons required.

Samsung also spent time cleaning up the camera interface, which was already pretty elegant. You switch between the front and rear cameras with a swipe up or down, and the list of usual photo modes — food, selective focus, slow motion and “pro” — is smaller and more streamlined. This time, though, swiping right opens up a list of Instagram-friendly color options to give your photos a little more character. And speaking of character, Samsung took a page from Snapchat’s playbook and added face-tracking filters that are bizarre and fascinating. They range from the cutesy (kawaii cats and rabbits eating carrots) to stranger fare, like a cowboy filter that fires a pistol when you blink. The S8 and S8 Plus come with 31 of these filters, and if nothing else, they’re perfect for amusing toddlers who are otherwise busy getting loaded on Easter candy.

Performance and battery life

I’ll be brief: The S8 and S8 Plus are effortlessly fast machines, and hardly anything I threw at them over a week of testing got them to stutter. This is mostly due to the shiny new Snapdragon 835 and 4GB of RAM onboard. Bixby is often a little slow to launch, but swiping through Samsung’s improved interface and jumping between running apps was painless. If this is what the 835 is capable of, I can’t wait until these things are everywhere. Workday multitasking, games like Hearthstone and Dead Trigger 2, even playing emulated GameCube games — it all ran fabulously. I unconsciously stopped thinking about performance altogether. As you’d expect, the S8s killed it in our usual suite of benchmarks, too — hardly anything came close.

Galaxy S8 Galaxy S8 Plus LG G6 Google Pixel XL Galaxy S7 Edge
AndEBench Pro 15,888 16,064 10,322 16,164 13,030
Vellamo 3.0 5,519 6,930 5,046 5,800 4,152
3DMark IS Unlimited 36,806 35,626 30,346 29,360 26,666
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 54 55 42 48 47
CF-Bench 67,307 64,441 29,748 39,918 46,290

Anyway, none of this would matter if the phones had lousy batteries. News flash: They don’t. The smaller S8 routinely lasts between a day and a half and two days of consistent use. The S8 Plus’s bigger battery gets me closer to two full days of use on a single charge. That’s with the screen set to its maximum resolution, too — expect even better battery life if you dial the displays down to Full HD+ or lower.

They also fare well in our standard video rundown test, where we loop an HD video at 50 percent screen brightness while the phones are connected to Wi-Fi. The S8 and its 3,000mAh battery stuck around for 13 hours and 27 minutes — just a hair better than the S7 and the Google Pixel and well ahead of the bigger 3,300mAh battery in the G6. The clear winner, though, is the S8 Plus and its 3,500mAh battery. It clocked in at 15 hours and 8 minutes, longer than the Pixel XL, Note 7 and Moto Z Force.

The competition

We’re not even halfway through 2017, so some of the best smartphones of the year may still be waiting in the wings. For now, though, there aren’t many devices with the chops to stand up to the S8 and S8 Plus. The biggest competitor is probably LG’s G6, a device with a long screen of its own. It’s far more sensible than last year’s G5 and, while it can’t win when it comes to pure power, it’s surprisingly flexible dual camera and great screen make it a solid alternative.

If we’re considering the G6, we might as well throw in the Google Pixel and Pixel XL since they pack the same chipset. Beyond having a choice of device sizes, the Pixels also double as incredible cameras (I think they’re still a little better than the S8’s), and the phones are guaranteed to get updates from Google as quickly as possible. Sure, the S8’s interface has improved dramatically, but some people will always prefer the cleanliness of stock Android.

And in case you haven’t pledged allegiance to a mobile platform yet, there’s also Apple’s iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. I still personally prefer the breadth and quality of Apple’s app ecosystem… though the S8’s impeccable design might get me to switch teams soon.

Wrap-up

The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus aren’t perfect, but they’re as close as Samsung has ever gotten. That’s a hell of a rebound for a company whose phablets… well, you know. Beyond the gorgeous design and the boost in horsepower, they feel like devices built in response to our preferences and nitpicks. That’s not something you see everyday. Bixby’s limited functionality and lack of consistency is a real bummer, but it’s not a deal-breaker. (We’ll return to this review when Bixby Voice is finally up and running.) In most other areas, Samsung has outdone itself. The year is still young and we’ll certainly see strong responses from Google and Apple. But for now, if you’re looking for a new smartphone, the S8s should be at — or very close to — the top of your list.

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Square chief teases a smart debit card

Square Cash’s virtual payment card might not be quite so virtual in the future. Company chief Jack Dorsey has teased a strange, all-black Visa debit card that Recode suspects is really a physical Square Cash card. A Square spokesperson declined to comment, so take this with a grain of salt, but there’s evidence to suggest there’s something to this teaser. You see, Square seriously considered a payment card back in 2014 — the company is no stranger to exploring the concept of a real-world card that draws from online funds.

There’s no guarantee that Square will launch a debit card, no matter what Dorsey is carrying in his pocket. The company reportedly ditched its payment card out of a reluctance to either antagonize its partners or wade through a tangled financial industry. However, there are a few incentives to at least consider the idea.

For one, Square has previously said it would like to “own both sides of the counter.” If it handles both the cards and the payment readers, it doesn’t have to give a cut to anyone else. There’s also the simple matter of catering to a wider customer base. While you can use Apple Pay to go shopping with Square Cash, not everyone can or wants to use an iPhone to make purchases at retail. This would let you use your virtual wallet anywhere that accepts debit cards, regardless of your phone preferences. And simply speaking, a physical card is more inviting to those people hesitant to shop with their handsets. Even if most Square Cash users aren’t about to use a tangible debit card, they might appreciate the option.

Via: Recode

Source: Jack Dorsey (Twitter)

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