FBI tried and failed to unlock 7,000 encrypted devices

In an 11-month period, the FBI failed to gain access to around 7,000 encrypted mobile devices, BBC News reports, which is about half of those targeted by the agency according to FBI Director Christopher Wray. In a speech given at the Association of Chiefs of Police conference yesterday, he said that device encryption was “a huge, huge problem,” for the agency.

The FBI publicly went after Apple following the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack as it sought access to the shooter’s locked iPhone 5c — a request that Apple staunchly refused. It eventually got around the issue by paying an undisclosed vendor reportedly $ 900,000 for software that gave the agency access to the phone. While that incident garnered a lot of attention, it certainly wasn’t the first time the FBI made it clear that encrypted smartphones were a headache for the agency. In 2014, then Director James Comey said that secure communications could lead to “a very dark place” and called on Congress to change the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act accordingly. Further, while the FBI presented the San Bernardino attacker’s phone as a special case of national security, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Justice was pursuing nine similar requests around the same time.

Wray said at the conference, “I get it, there’s a balance that needs to be struck between encryption and the importance of giving us the tools we need to keep the public safe.” But as cybersecurity expert Alan Woodward told BBC News, encryption is here to stay. “Encryption that frustrates forensic investigations will be a fact of life from now on for law enforcement agencies,” he said. “Even if the equipment manufacturers didn’t build in such encryption it would be possible to obtain software that encrypted data in the same way.”

Source: BBC News

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Fitbit Ionic review: Good fitness tracker, passable smartwatch

Fitbit’s first real smartwatch was the worst kept secret in tech. After months of rumors, leaks and the acquisition of smartwatch pioneer Pebble that all but revealed the company’s intentions, Fitbit presented the Ionic to the world. It was a promising debut, featuring a shiny new operating system built with Pebble’s expertise. The company also unveiled its own contactless payment system meant to make running or working out without a phone feel more feasible.

This is Fitbit’s most ambitious launch in years, which is timely given that 2017 marks the company’s tenth anniversary. But it’s also overdue. The Fitbit Ionic arrives at a time when the definition of a smartwatch is coalescing. The Ionic feels more like a fitness tracker with just enough smartwatch features to justify calling itself one, but doesn’t have the full functionality we’ve come to expect from the category. Still, the Ionic does make some sense, as long as you aren’t expecting a complete suite of smartwatch features.

Hardware

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The Fitbit Ionic looks a lot better in person than it does in pictures. That doesn’t mean it’s pretty, though. The Ionic’s geometric design and squarish face make it hard to dress up, even when I swapped out the default gray strap for Fitbit’s brown leather band. In fact, I find the leather band with “Cognac” finish uglier than the original — its coppery brown tone and perforated texture lack the class of a plain leather band and doesn’t match the gray face. At least it’s easy to switch the straps out for something more attractive.

That said, Fitbit designed the Ionic to fit aesthetically with the rest of its products, and there’s no mistaking this smartwatch for one from any other brand. Like the company’s previous Blaze and Surge watches, the Ionic is a fitness tracker masquerading as a smartwatch, and I’m not just talking about looks. But more on that later.

First, I have to give Fitbit props for improving the Ionic’s overall fit. While the Charge 2, Alta and Flex 2 have cylindrical modules with straight surfaces, the Ionic’s body and screen are subtly curved. Because of this, the watch hugs my wrist better than the company’s other trackers, which helps keep the heart rate sensor in place during workouts and during sleep.

My favorite thing about the Ionic’s hardware, though, is its brilliant display. Like I said before, the 1.42-inch, 348 x 250 screen is sharp, colorful and bright enough to read in direct sunlight, which makes up for my disappointment in the fact that it’s not round. The display is also responsive and doesn’t lag when I swipe through menus and lists of notifications. Overall, the latest Fitbit feels at once familiar and refreshing, thanks to its beautiful screen and premium build quality.

In use

There’s really not much more to go over that I haven’t already covered in my hands-on and 24-hour “first look” pieces. The biggest news is that since my last article was published, Fitbit Pay has gone live. It’s one of a few features Fitbit recently added to the Ionic to ease anxiety about leaving your phone at home while you’re working out.

Now that Pay is live, you can add your debit or credit card via the Fitbit app on your phone. (Visa, Mastercard, Amex and a growing number of major banks are supported.) Fitbit Pay is accepted anywhere that takes NFC transactions. For security, you’ll be asked to set a four-digit PIN that you’ll later use to verify each payment and unlock your watch if you’ve removed it from your wrist.

I loaded a debit card on the watch (you can save up to six and set one as the primary option) and used it to buy sheet protectors at the Staples across the street. It was as easy as using Apple Pay on my phone, except I had to enter the PIN before authorizing the transaction rather than authenticate with Touch ID. Still, that’s a minor inconvenience for the benefit of knowing I can leave my phone behind and not be stranded if I need to buy something.

Another useful addition is the ability to play music from the watch’s 4GB of onboard storage. There are two ways to do this: via the Pandora app (if you have a paid Premium account) or transferring files from your PC. Both methods have their drawbacks and aren’t easy to set up. The Pandora app on the watch takes forever to sync playlists that I select from the phone, causing me to wonder if it was successful. After it syncs, though, Pandora generally works well.

As I described in my preview, Fitbit’s system took an excruciatingly long time for my laptop and Ionic to find each other. You also had to manage your music by using Windows Media or iTunes playlists, which isn’t very intuitive. Since then, the company has updated its Windows app so users can manage individual tracks directly in the app. You can drag and drop music files into the Fitbit window or browse your computer’s storage to add songs. This was a welcome improvement that made it easier to transfer files. Kudos for making this change, Fitbit.

Like any smartwatch worth its salt, the Ionic delivers notifications to your wrist. But unlike many of its rivals, the Ionic doesn’t allow you to reply to them. That’s strange, considering Pebble watches managed to let you reply to messages (even with your voice in some cases) if you’re paired to an Android or an iPhone.

The preview of each alert that comes to your wrist is usually sufficiently long — I always saw all the contents of the tweets or texts I received. For emails, though, the alert is often truncated right after the subject line, which is useless at times.

Then there are the apps (or lack thereof). Fitbit pre-installs about a dozen to start you off, including alarms, weather, music, timers and Today (which shows you a snapshot of your progress toward daily step and calorie goals). Third-party apps available at launch include Pandora, Strava and Starbucks. These are useful, but the relatively sparse offerings makes me feel like I’m in a library where the shelves are mostly empty and all the books I want are missing. I’m still waiting on offerings from Yelp, Uber and Foursquare, which had apps for the Pebble watches back in the day, and were some of the earliest to get on board. Such apps would go a long way in making the Ionic feel more like a real smartwatch.

Smartwatch ambitions aside, the Fitbit Ionic is a capable fitness tracker. I used it to track 20-minute sessions on a stationary bike, during which I compared its readout with the heart rate data on the watch. The Ionic was usually within 2 bpm of the bike, unless I sped up and my pulse jumped drastically. Then, the Ionic would lag the bike in noting the increase. This delay is problematic for people who pay attention to the cardio zone they’re in while working out, since it affects the amount of time you record in each zone, but the Ionic does eventually catch up and the difference often evens out.

I still like the new Coach feature, which guides you through workouts on your wrist. During this round of testing, however, I was frequently interrupted by incoming message alerts. After each set, the Ionic buzzes to let you know that you can stop and move on to the next exercise. But notifications from my chatty friends caused similar buzzes, which led me to think that my set was over when I still had more reps to complete. Although you can turn notifications off manually, it’d be better if Fitbit disabled incoming alerts by default when a workout session was in progress.

The Ionic’s sleep tracking is more reliable than previous Fitbits, thanks to its snugger fit. The data gleaned and presented in the app remains as useful as it was before, which is — not very. What I’ve learned from my days of wearing the Ionic to bed is that I tend to spend more time in the REM stage than other women my age. It took me about an hour of Googling to realize that researchers still don’t necessarily know how much sleep in each stage is ideal. I found out through my own digging that REM sleep is thought to be when the brain heals and forms memories, so I decided (very unscientifically) that my higher-than-normal time in that stage meant I must remember more than others.

The point being, I really shouldn’t need to spend all that time on Google to find out what I did. Fitbit could have easily told me, inside the app, what REM sleep is thought to improve while cautioning that sleep-stage studies have been inconclusive. Instead, it shows me how I performed relative to my previous nights and others my age. That’s still more than the information you can get from competing trackers, though, which at the moment still don’t use the heart rate monitor to understand what stage of sleep you’re in.

Here’s my biggest problem with the Ionic. Trying to get any of the new features to work often involved a frustrating update process. It took hours to complete the firmware update with Fitbit Pay. When I tried to set it up, I was told my WiFi connection (to the watch) was broken so I had to use Bluetooth instead. After agreeing to that, I was warned the update could take up to 10 minutes.

Ten minutes later, I was running late for a meeting and according to the progress bar on the watch, the Ionic was only a third done. I decided to run out mid-update, hoping that the Bluetooth connection wouldn’t be interrupted as I made my commute. No such luck; the update stalled. Two hours later, I had to reset the connection between my phone and the watch to re-initiate the update. Fifteen minutes after that, the Ionic update as finally complete.

Delays like this are less of an issue if the updates are infrequent, but since some of the Ionic’s key features have yet to be released, users are likely to endure this time-consuming process again sometime soon. For example, the watch’s SpO2 blood oxygen monitor isn’t being used at the moment as Fitbit figures out how to implement it, but once that feature is activated, Ionic owners will presumably have to update their firmware.

Then in 2018, the company is launching the Guided Health programs, which will create customized workout and health programs for each user, as well as push audio exercise instructions through the watch to paired earbuds. These sound like compelling features that I’d like to make use of, but I’m already bracing myself for the potentially long wait time to get them working. Fitbit needs to figure out a way to make its device updates less painful if it’s going to keep launching products before all the features are ready.

Ultimately, what’s available now works well, and while Fitbit struggles to get the Ionic’s smartwatch functions right, the company continues to excel at fitness-tracking features. The Ionic’s long-lasting battery, which generally got through five or six days before needing a charge, is perhaps its best feature,and beats basically every other product in the category.

The competition

This is the year every major player in the fitness wearables industry decided to make a $ 300 smartwatch. Apple, Samsung and Garmin each launched fitness-minded smartwatches this year, and almost all of which support third-party apps, contactless payments and offline music playback.

Unlike the Ionic, the Samsung Gear Sport and Garmin Vivoactive 3 have round faces, while the Apple Watch 3 has a rounded-square shape. If you want something that looks more like a traditional timepiece, Samsung and Garmin’s offerings are better options. iPhone owners will understandably be tempted by the Apple Watch 3, even though it’s slightly more expensive at $ 329 (and that’s without LTE). The Apple wearable lets iOS users reply to messages, interact with Siri and offers an abundance of useful apps — all things that the Ionic lacks. But if you’re already heavily invested in the Fitbit ecosystem, perhaps from having used an older device, you might prefer the Ionic.

The Gear Sport, on the other hand, is a good option for those who own Samsung’s TVs, phones or a Smartthings hub, as the watch offers additional features when paired with those devices. The Sport is not only waterproof up to 50 meters, but will also withstand immersion in saltwater. It runs the company’s Tizen OS, which now boasts thousands of apps including Spotify, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram.

Like the Ionic, the Gear Sport can also track your swims, but it goes one step further and measures your heart rate even when it’s underwater. Better yet, the Gear Sport works with Samsung’s assistant, Bixby, to answer your questions or help you compose messages, and you can reply to notifications from your wrist. From a brief hands-on in August, the Gear Sport’s screen appears just as bright and crisp as the Ionic’s, but we can’t totally vouch for the Gear Sport since we haven’t fully tested it.

SONY DSC

Runners might prefer the Garmin Vivoactive 3, which uses the company’s own basic smartwatch OS, and it supports more apps than the Ionic does at the moment. Garmin’s device can track more types of exercises and has an established reputation as a leader in GPS technology, so it’s likely to be best at mapping your runs. Plus, its estimated runtime of seven days makes the Garmin watch the only device on this list to outlast the Fitbit. But the Vivoactive 3’s transflective “memory-in-pixel” screen looks more like a color e-Ink display and is less impressive than the Ionic’s LCD panel. To be fair, we haven’t tested the the Vivoactive 3 and can’t vouch for its performance and battery life.

Each of the above options has its own strengths, but if you’re looking for something long-lasting with well-rounded fitness-tracking features, the Ionic is a good option.

Wrap-up

Ultimately, the Ionic is a respectable debut for Fitbit’s first serious attempt at a true smartwatch, and the company continues to excel at fitness-tracking features. But while its new operating system is intuitive and well-designed, overall the device still feels like a placeholder. Fitbit wanted to secure the Ionic’s spot on your wrist this holiday season before it was completely ready.

As it stands, the Ionic is a capable fitness tracker with some passable smartwatch features. It’s clear that Fitbit will continue to improve its software, but the magic it needs for the Ionic to seriously contend real smartwatches is faith. Faith from the app makers who were so enthusiastic about Pebble OS and developed hundreds of offerings that made the pioneer smartwatch not only useful, but a lot of fun. Until that happens, the Ionic is simply functional.

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The best plug-in smart outlet

By Rachel Cericola

This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter, reviews for the real world. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, it may earn affiliate commissions that support its work. Read the full article here.

After spending over 22 hours plugging in and unplugging lights and other small appliances and turning them on and off using various apps (and by barking orders at Siri and Alexa when we could), we found that the Belkin WeMo Mini is the best smart-switch outlet adapter for people who want to add smart control to their existing outlets. It packs most of the same features as our previous pick, the WeMo Insight, into a smaller size, and it’s less expensive. It also plays nicely with both iOS and Android smartphones and tablets and integrates easily with popular smart-home protocols and devices. All you need to do is plug the Belkin WeMo Mini into an existing outlet and install the app to get started with home automation.

Who should get this

If you’re the type of person who is constantly paranoid about if you left the iron on, smart plugs can ease your anxiety. These are small devices that plug into any outlet and allow you to control the connected appliance wirelessly via a smartphone app. Putting even just one smart switch into your home can ensure that you’ll never enter a dark house; add a few and you can control items such as household fans, speakers, slow cookers, air conditioners, and more.

How we picked and tested

Smart switches are an easy way to add remote control to any electronic device.
Photo: Rachel Cericola

We started compiling a list of smart switches by searching for reviews on sites like CNET, Pocket-lint, and MakeUseOf. We then cross-checked our list with customer reviewers from Amazon, and decided not to consider any models with bad reviews.

After that, we started considering criteria and features. First and foremost, a smart switch should be easy to operate and reliable. You should be able to plug it in, download the app, and start controlling the switch in minutes. We also favored apps that provide extras beyond the ability to turn the switch’s power on and off, such as dimming, scheduling, and the ability to group multiple switches.

To test each switch, I downloaded apps to an iPhone 5, an iPad, and a Samsung Galaxy S6. Most of the switches connected to Wi-Fi easily and were simple to operate. I kept all of the plugs confined to the lower level of my house, but operated controls from across the house, out in the driveway, and across the street (up to 150 feet away). To keep things interesting, I plugged a variety of items into our test switches.

Our pick

Belkin’s WeMo Mini Switch turns any outlet into a smart outlet you can control with your iOS or Android device. Photo: Rachel Cericola

Belkin recently slimmed down its smart-plug offering with the WeMo Mini. The company’s newest smart plug is just as reliable as our previous top pick, the WeMo Insight, but is more compact and $ 15 cheaper. It connects to the same WeMo app, which can control several devices remotely, includes options for scheduling and rules, connects with both iOS and Android devices, and can be integrated with other smart-home devices. The WeMo Mini is small enough to fit into either socket in a duplex outlet without blocking the second one.

The switch easily connects to your Wi-Fi without needing a hub. It performed as advertised throughout our testing period, providing on-off control from inside and outside of the house whenever called upon. The WeMo Android and iOS apps are almost identical, offering on-off controls, rules, and timers. Unfortunately, the WeMo Mini does not offer energy-usage information; the only WeMo device with that feature is the Insight Switch.

Like its predecessor, the WeMo Mini stands out because of its compatibility. In addition to integrating with other WeMo devices, the switch also works with the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and IFTTT. However, the WeMo Mini does not support integration with Apple’s HomeKit.

Runner-up

Photo: Rachel Cericola

The iHome iSP8 is a solid runner-up. It performs all of the standard smart-switch features very well, but adds additional smart-home integration and energy monitoring so you can see how much energy your lava lamp is wasting via the companion app. It also comes with a separate remote control for controlling it without a smartphone (from up to 35 feet away). The drawback of these extra features is that they cost more than our top pick. If you don’t need it to work with HomeKit or a smart-home hub, you don’t need to spend the extra money.

The iSP8 has a few additional smart-home perks over our main pick. Besides Alexa and Nest integration, it offers support for SmartThings and Wink smart-home systems, so you can connect it to a hub and make it a part of a larger, whole-house system. It also features Apple HomeKit integration, so you can control the iSP8 or groups of HomeKit-enabled devices using iOS devices and the sound of your voice. It does not work with Google Home.

Budget pick

Photo: Rachel Cericola

The Geeni Energi is a reliable performer and the least expensive Wi-Fi smart plug currently available. It provides all of the standard smart-switch features, allowing users to control devices both in and outside their home. It also includes scheduling and timers and can be controlled via Amazon Alexa devices. Geeni’s Android and iOS apps are identical, offering on-off controls, scheduling, timers, rules, the ability to group devices, and energy-usage information. However, It’s a bit bulkier than our other two picks, which will banish it to the bottom receptacle of your outlet.

This guide may have been updated by Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

Note from Wirecutter: When readers choose to buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn affiliate commissions that support our work.

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Apple’s Upgrade Program offers a ‘head start’ on iPhone X

While initial pre-orders for the iPhone X are still a week away from opening, some Apple die-hards will be able to get started early. Apple’s installment-based Upgrade Program that lets customers get a new phone every year will, just like it did with the launch of the iPhone 8 / 8 Plus, allow members to get their loan paperwork in order starting on Monday. Combined with the recently added mail-in return option for their old iPhones, it should make staying up to date easier than ever, even if it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be able to purchase the new OLED-screened device right away. For that, they’ll have to stay up until 3 AM ET Friday morning just like everyone else.

Via: MacRumors, 9to5Mac

Source: Apple

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Fake iPhone X has a fake notch, obviously

We’re only one week away from iPhone X pre-orders, but the counterfeit market is already offering a variety of similar-looking devices to a particular crowd. As I anticipated, I came across one such clone while wandering around Hong Kong’s Global Sources electronics fair earlier today, courtesy of a Shenzhen company by the marvelous name of Hotwonder. Its Hotwav Symbol S3 (also not the best name) is essentially an entry-level 4G Android phone shamelessly packaged into an iPhone X-like body, except for one notable difference: the screen “bezel” is white instead of black.

You see, unlike the real deal, the Symbol S3 only uses a rectangular display (a 6-inch 1,440 x 720 IPS panel), so if you strip away the white paint around it, you’ll end up with an ordinary-looking smartphone with a regular forehead and chin. In other words, the white contour and notch are for mimicking the specially-cut shape of the iPhone X’s OLED display, but such illusion only works when the background is black. Not to mention that the Android interface here is a dead giveaway, anyway.

Of course, you can’t expect this random Chinese factory to clone Apple’s TrueDepth sensor, but it did fill the notch with a pair of cameras plus an LED flash, making it a total of four bokeh-enabled cameras on this device: 5 megapixels plus 2 megapixels on the front, and 13 megapixels plus 2 megapixels on the back. Hotwonder also took the liberty to add a fingerprint magnet mirror finish to the back side, which could be considered as a bonus feature for those who carry a pocket mirror around.

The Symbol S3’s spec sheet lists Android 8.0 as its operating system, and it can be equipped with either MediaTek’s new MT6739 chipset (1.3GHz, 4x Cortex-A53, dual-LTE or LTE + WCDMA) or its much older MT6592 (1.7GHz, 8x Cortex-A7, 3G only). The device also packs a 2,900 mAh fixed battery (no wireless charging here), 16GB of internal storage and a mere 2GB of RAM. Yikes.

It’s unclear how much this cheeky device will retail for, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you can buy seven or eight of these for the price of one genuine iPhone X. But seriously, don’t.



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Verizon will fix your smartphone’s screen for $29

It happens to the best of us. You buy a new mobile phone, you get a case, you try to be extra careful, but you drop it. Cracked screens happen often enough that most major carriers and device manufacturers have a separate section in their mobile protection plans just for replacing a broken display. According to a report on Phandroid, Verizon has just added the repair type to it’s own mobile insurance plans with an affordable $ 30 deductible, down $ 20 from the previous $ 50 amount.

Verizon’s Total Mobile Protection Plan will run you $ 11 per month for a smartphone, $ 9 per month for a basic phone or tablet, and you can pay $ 33 per month to insure multiple devices. If you crack your screen, says Verizon, you may be able to get it repaired that same day, provided you live in “select markets” and have “certain devices.” The company also says a technician can meet you at your home, office, school or wherever you are while traveling.

Verizon isn’t the only carrier with this sort of plan. AT&T has three plans for $ 9, $ 12 or $ 35 a month each of which includes potential same-day cracked screen repair, though the deductible here is $ 90. Sprint’s Total Equipment Protection plan has five tiers (starting at $ 9 per month), which also includes cracked screen repairs for a variable rate, $ 50 for Tier one customers and $ 100 for Tier two folks. Apple Care Plus gets you an iPhone screen repair for $ 30, which is now a $ 170 service if you didn’t purchase Apple’s extended warranty plan. Complicated? Yes. Useful? Probably.

Source: Phandroid

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The best phones under $250

The iPhone X: $ 999. The Galaxy Note 8: $ 930. Even the more affordable Google Pixel 2 commands a significant investment of $ 650. Today’s flagship phones are expensive enough that spending a significant chunk of your rent on a handset is seemingly the norm. You can opt for an installment plan to pay it off more easily, and for some people it’s worth paying a service provider for two years to own one of the best devices available. But many other people can’t afford, or would prefer not, to spend that much money on something they’ll replace in two years (or less). Fortunately for the budget-conscious, you can find a better selection of phones for $ 250 than you could even a few years ago.

What to expect

Before we get into the best phones at this price, let’s talk expectations. First off, many of the devices we’re discussing come unlocked, so it’s imperative that you check to see if they’ll work on your carrier before you buy one. Many unlocked handsets are only GSM-compatible, so they’ll support only AT&T, T-Mobile and their subsidiaries. Sprint and Verizon customers should be especially careful when making their selections.

At this price, you’re not going to get high-end features like face-recognition cameras, curved screens or high-res, edge-to-edge displays. Most of these phones use older chipsets and often run Android 6 Marshmallow instead of the newer Android 7 Nougat (which itself is no longer the latest OS).

For daily use, you won’t really notice a difference in speed with these phones, but don’t expect much if you’re using these for heavy-duty gaming or intensive multitasking. If that’s going to be a problem, you’re better off getting a flagship phone on an equipment installment plan (EIP) instead.

Flagships on a budget

You can still get a premium phone for cheap if you have the time and patience to monitor deal listings. Some carriers and websites slash prices for older (but still perfectly respectable) phones in anticipation of new launches or when approaching the holiday season. If you can wait till Black Friday, you’ll probably find plenty of deals bringing down the cost of usually expensive phones. In 2016, T-Mobile offered the iPhone 7, the Galaxy S7 and the LG V20 for free to people who traded in eligible smartphones, while Huawei’s Honor 8 dropped that year from $ 400 to $ 300. Right now, you can even find an iPhone SE ($ 399 at launch) for less than $ 250, or the older (but still good) HTC One M8 for $ 160. A Google search for “iPhone SE” returns options as low as $ 150 at Target for an AT&T version in space gray with 16GB of storage.

Affordable by design

If you weren’t fast enough to snag one of those deals, you still have decent options. Bright, crisp screens with full HD (1080p) displays are common at this price, so don’t fall for cheap phones with piddly 720p panels. Sub-$ 250 phones run the gamut when it comes to size, too, so you can pick from a big 5.5-inch screen down to a more compact 4.7-inch option. Many budget handsets also pack fingerprint sensors, long-lasting batteries, and dual cameras for special effects in portrait photography (although these tend to pale in comparison with iPhones and Samsung phones when it comes to quality).

The best budget phones

Motorola Moto G5S Plus

smartphone affordable budget

One of the best offerings is the $ 230 Moto G5S Plus. It’s the successor to the Moto G5 Plus, which was already our favorite budget phone. The new handset features a 5.5-inch 1080p display, dual rear 13-megapixel cameras and a generous 3,000mAh battery, all wrapped in a body that feels more expensive than it actually is. The phone uses an octa-core Snapdragon 625 chip that can go up to 2.0GHz, which is powerful enough for the average person and quite good for the price. It also runs the relatively new Android 7.1 Nougat and works on all four major US carriers. The main downside is the absence of NFC support, so if you like using your phone for contactless payments, this isn’t going to work for you.

Nokia 6

In that case, you can consider the $ 230 Nokia 6, which has NFC and runs the same version of Android as the G5S Plus. It features dual front-facing speakers with a “smart amplifier” and Dolby audio enhancements for louder sound. The Nokia 6 sports a single 16-megapixel camera on its rear, though, and uses a slower Snapdragon 430 processor. Also, it’s unfortunately stuck in the past with its micro-USB charging port. That’s a minor complaint, but when the rest of the world has already moved on to USB-C, it feels like an antiquated feature. Still, the Nokia 6 offers newish components for a reasonable price, and if you don’t mind getting Amazon ads on your lock screen, the Prime exclusive version of the phone is even cheaper, at $ 180.

Alcatel Idol 5s

Also available as a Prime exclusive is the Alcatel Idol 5s ($ 200 with ads; $ 280 without), which has a vibrant 5.2-inch, a 1080p screen and a USB-C port and runs Android 7. Like the Nokia 6, the Idol 5s has only a single 12-megapixel rear camera, but it uses the faster Snapdragon 625 processor (the same chip used in the Moto G5S Plus). Alcatel’s handset has a smaller battery than the Nokia 6 and the G5S Plus, though, so you might need to charge it more often. The Idol 5s looks and feels like a lot of Alcatel’s previous handsets, with a rounded silhouette, chrome edges and a glass rear. Despite a slightly dated design, the Idol line is known for its good quality and affordable prices. Plus, this is one of the few budget phones to support all four major US carriers while packing a well-rounded feature set.

ZTE Blade V8 Pro

The ZTE Blade V8 Pro is a compelling option. It sports a 5.5-inch 1080p display and dual 13-megapixel rear cameras that enable Portrait mode for bokeh on your photos, although you won’t get iPhone-quality images here. The Blade V8 Pro isn’t as adept at detecting outlines when applying the blur, but in ideal conditions it pulls off the effect well. I liked the phone’s sturdy build when I tried it out in January, but it’s not as pretty as the other options on this list. The V8 Pro is equipped with the same Snapdragon 625 chip as the Moto G5S Plus and the Idol 5s, but it runs the older Android 6 Marshmallow instead. It does support NFC, though, making it one of the few on this list to do so and a good option for people who don’t want to give up Android Pay.

Runners-up

Huawei Honor 6x

There are several other options in this space, but we’ll cap off this roundup with two quick mentions. Huawei’s Honor 6x is very similar to the ZTE Blade V8 Pro: It has dual cameras, runs Android 6.0 and features a 5.5-inch full HD display. But it doesn’t support NFC and it costs $ 20 more. Also, Huawei’s EMUI Android skin makes the software look cartoonish, despite adding useful fingerprint sensor shortcuts. The main reason to spend more for this phone over the Blade V8 Pro would be the Honor’s more elegant metal body.

ZTE Blade ZMax

Finally, those who want a big screen at this price should consider ZTE’s Blade line of affordable large phones. In particular, the Blade ZMax sports a 6-inch full HD display, dual cameras and a large 4,080mAh battery for $ 129. It’s also impressively slim for such a large phone and was easy to use with one hand during a brief demo. Some caveats: It uses a relatively slower octa-core Snapdragon 435 CPU and is available only via MetroPCS for now, but we expect it to be sold unlocked soon as well.

Final thoughts

With all the improvements trickling down from high-end flagships to today’s budget phones, shopping for a sub-$ 250 device no longer feels like digging through a bargain bin of iPhone rejects. They won’t be the fastest or have the best cameras, but the options in this category are respectable handsets with relatively modern features. If you have a bit more cash to spare, you’ll find even better phones in the sub-$ 500 category that are nearly on par with flagships in terms of performance. We’ll be putting together those recommendations soon, so stay tuned.

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Apple responds to Sen. Al Franken’s Face ID concerns in letter

Apple has responded to Senator Al Franken’s concerns over the privacy implications of its Face ID feature, which is set to debut on the iPhone X next month. In his letter to Tim Cook, Franken asked about customer security, third-party access to data (including requests by law enforcement), and whether the tech could recognize a diverse set of faces.

In its response, Apple indicates that it’s already detailed the tech in a white paper and Knowledge Base article — which provides answers to “all of the questions you raise”. But, it also offers a recap of the feature regardless (a TL:DR, if you will). Apple reiterates that the chance of a random person unlocking your phone is one in a million (in comparison to one in 500,000 for Touch ID). And, it claims that after five unsuccessful scans, a passcode is required to access your iPhone.

More significantly, Apple provides a summary on how it stores Face ID biometrics, which gets to the heart of the privacy concerns. “Face ID data, including mathematical representations of your face, is encrypted and only available to the Secure Enclave. This data never leaves the device. It is not sent to Apple, nor is it included in device backups. Face images captured during normal unlock operations aren’t saved, but are instead immediately discarded once the mathematical representation is calculated for comparison to the enrolled Face ID data.”

On the topic of data-sharing, it writes: “Third-party apps can use system provided APIs to ask the user to authenticate using Face ID or a passcode, and apps that support Touch ID automatically support Face ID without any changes.” It continues: “When using Face ID, the app is notified only as to whether the authentication was successful; it cannot access Face ID or the data associated with the enrolled face.”

Interestingly, the company dodges the Senator’s question about data requests from law enforcement. But, by indicating that data lives inside a “secure enclave” that it can’t access, it’s suggesting that it won’t be able to handover info that it doesn’t possess. It could also be holding back in light of its scrap with the Department of Justice last year, which saw it refuse to unlock an iPhone 5C owned by the San Bernardino shooters.

As Sen. Franken noted in his letter, Apple trained its Face ID neural network on a billion images. But, that’s not to say the photographs were of a billion different faces. For its part, Apple claims it looked at a “representative group of people” — although it’s still silent about exact numbers. It adds: “We worked with participants from around the world to include a representative group of people accounting for gender, age, ethnicity and other factors. We augmented the studies as needed to provide a high degree of accuracy for a diverse range of users.” Of course, we’ll get to see how accurate Apple’s tech is when the new iPhone makes its way into more hands next month.

For now, it seems the Senator is satisfied with the company’s initial response, which he plans to extend into a conversation about data protection. You can read his full statement below:

“As the top Democrat on the Privacy Subcommittee, I strongly believe that all Americans have a fundamental right to privacy. All the time, we learn about and actually experience new technologies and innovations that, just a few years back, were difficult to even imagine. While these developments are often great for families, businesses, and our economy, they also raise important questions about how we protect what I believe are among the most pressing issues facing consumers: privacy and security. I appreciate Apple’s willingness to engage with my office on these issues, and I’m glad to see the steps that the company has taken to address consumer privacy and security concerns. I plan to follow up with the Apple to find out more about how it plans to protect the data of customers who decide to use the latest generation of iPhone’s facial recognition technology.”

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Snapchat has cute AR foam fingers for you to wave at NBA games

With its 2017-2018 season getting ready to tip off tomorrow, the NBA’s been quite busy making tech announcements ahead of it. Not only did it reveal an augmented reality app for the iPhone yesterday, but now it’s teaming up with Snap Inc. on a brand new Lens experience for Snapchat. Fans who are at or near an NBA arena this coming year will get access to special Lenses, which let you place a digital foam finger in a physical area around you. As you can see above, the cute character wears team jerseys and can show different emotions that you can share when you send snaps to your friends.

The Lens partnership with the NBA is similar to what Snapchat showed earlier this month, when it collaborated with artist Jeff Koons on giant augmented-reality installations. That said, this is the first time the company has opened geo-specific world Lenses to a sports league; Snap said it could not comment on whether we can expect others to take advantage of the feature later on. For now, it looks like NBA fans have dibs on the jersey-clad AR foam fingers.

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Can an iPad Pro replace your PC?

In 2016, Apple believed its professional-grade tablet, the iPad Pro, was ready for the big time. Phil Schiller even described the machine as “the ultimate PC replacement” when describing the product onstage. The company’s own advertisements claimed that the device could do everything a desktop or laptop could do. But that wasn’t really true until the launch of iOS 11, when the company really let the iPad off the leash.

One of the headline features is that iOS 11 enabled truer multitasking than was available before. In fact, most of the commentary about the new operating system is about features, like the dock, that are at the heart of macOS. When a tablet gets the famous Mac dock, you know it’s time to consider it as a genuine PC replacement. Which is why I’ve spent a couple of days working (almost) exclusively from one in order to see if I’d be tempted to switch.

I’m a particularly good candidate for the experiment, since I’m such a slavish desktop aficionado that I even resent using a laptop. Unless it’s got dual displays, keyboard and mouse, not to mention the ability to run 10 programs at a time, I’m not happy.

In the service of the experiment, I borrowed the latest 10.5-inch iPad Pro from Apple, complete with a Smart Keyboard and Pencil. I also begged a friend to let me play with his 12.9-inch iPad Pro, similarly with a Smart Keyboard, to compare and contrast. My challenge was to try and do my job at Engadget using just the smaller iPad to write, edit and upload images.

The first thing you notice about working from an iPad is just how much more productive it makes you, because the iPad is the enemy of distraction. On my desktop, I normally work with two Chrome windows, iTunes and a couple of Pages documents on my primary display. The second monitor is dedicated to Slack, ensuring that I’m always on hand to respond to messages.

On the iPad, it’s far harder to succumb to the ravages of multiple-window syndrome. In fact, for all of Apple’s trumpeting about the iPad’s improved multitasking, the device is built to do one thing at a time. Part of it is a result of the limitations of the iPad itself: with only 10.5 or 12.9 inches of real estate to play with, you always need to be conscious about how much screen you’re using.

I spent most of my working days with Pages occupying about five-fifths of the display, with either a web browser or Slack on the right. Not that I really needed to, because iOS also has enabled fast switching, either by control-tabbing around your open apps or with the dock. The dock, obviously, was cribbed from macOS, and it’s one of the best tweaks available here.

When I work from a touchscreen Windows laptop, I’m always leery about not having a mouse alongside, because there’s that disconnect when you need to go from keyboard to display. Not only is it a real break with what you’re doing, but there’s the fact that your screen can get pretty greasy, pretty quickly.

Apple has, thankfully, solved the first half of that equation, because iOS’ gestures are more natural and intuitive. Pull your fingers in to close an app, swipe left or right to switch apps, tap the screen to highlight something. It makes a lot more sense, so you experience less of that break in your mind between using a keyboard and touching a screen. You still need a cloth at hand, unfortunately. When I went back to using a desktop, I found that I missed that sense of connection with the display that allowed me to quickly brush my finger against the screen to move the cursor.

Then there’s the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard, which filled me with dread when I thought I had to deal with it for a week-plus. It does, after all, look like the sort of rubber, industrial keyboard I thought I left behind when I stopped working in factories. At first blush, it looks stiff, uncomfortable, with little to no travel — a retrograde step toward the days of the ZX Spectrum.

I needed not have worried, since the Smart Keyboard has plenty of travel and is almost as comfortable as a laptop keyboard. Sure, it’s never going to match up to the sort of professional-grade mechanical keyboards I use on the desktop, or even the Apple-bundled chiclet keyboard. But it’s comfortable enough to use for long periods, and I’d happily use it as my primary input mechanism. Although I’d prefer the 12.9-inch version to its smaller sibling, because I’m a big guy with very big hands.

Oh, one thing: The angle of the iPad on its stand and my very large fingers mean that it’s far too easy to unintentionally brush the screen. It’s not a big issue, and I was able to learn to avoid it over time, but having keyboard controls at the bottom of the screen can sometimes be problematic.

I also want to talk about the Pencil, which I didn’t have much cause to use, since I’m not a very talented illustrator. However, I found out that, on top of being used for artistic purposes, the (don’t call it a) stylus pulls double duty as a mouse pointer.

For me — and I’d assume a large proportion of the people who work at Engadget — replacing our computers with iPads would be out of the question. Our CMS, the platform on which this site hangs, was designed more than a decade ago to work with keyboards and mice. Using it on phones and tablets, with their finger- and gesture-based interaction metaphors, is possible, but hellish. Not to mention that plenty of the apps that we need to work aren’t really designed to be used on tablets.

And yet, once I’d settled into a groove, I found it reasonably easy to do the bulk of my work on the iPad without interruption. The Apple Pencil is smart enough to let me use it in place of my finger in our CMS, and you can even shoot and edit photos on the device. Using Lightroom, it’s possible to shoot RAW images from the iPad’s 12-megapixel camera. I was able to produce some excellent imagery that, unless you’re looking hard, you’d assume came from a dedicated camera.

Thankfully, iOS 11’s Files app also means that I can actually just push the edited files into Google Drive and back again without any fuss.

Daniel Cooper

There are some issues that are specific to me, like the fact that I can’t yet find a batch resizing and watermarking app that suits our system. That’s not an issue that’s going to affect the majority of folks who will use the device. The muscle memory for pretty much everything else still works, and, after a few days, I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t using a desktop — except for the fact that you need to pull into Control Center to change music tracks, which is a total productivity killer.

One big trade-off between a personal computer and the iPad Pro is that the latter can’t really be the center of your digital universe. An iPad can’t host the sum of your iTunes media library, and you can’t sync devices with it. If you’re a fully paid-up member of the iCloud ecosystem, then that’s less of an issue. But if you’re still attached to physical media, you’re not going to be able to make that split so easily.

Another criticism, and one that’s often lobbed toward Apple, is that the iPhone and iPad are “closed” devices, hampering you from doing some of the things you would do on a desktop. Now, some of those things may not be on the right side of legality, but it may be something that you do anyway. Let’s imagine, for instance, that you enjoy watching controversial condiment-based cartoon Rick and Morty.

Here in the UK, Rick and Morty is available to view on Netflix seven days after its initial US broadcast. That’s easy to circumvent, however, since YouTube (and every other video hosting site on the internet) has streams of it available minutes after it airs. Now, on a desktop or laptop, you could simply visit one of the thousands of illegal streams on YouTube or elsewhere, save it to your hard drive and watch it at your leisure later. Or perhaps save it to a USB stick and then transfer it to a media player downstairs for family viewing.

You’ll get no prizes for guessing that such a job is difficult and very fiddly to implement on an iPad without plenty of help. Because you can’t simply save the file that’s being played in Safari, you need to use some creative workarounds. A service such as KeepVid, for instance, will paste the purloined files to your Dropbox account, from which you can then move them on. For all of Apple’s claims that iOS 11 will free your iPad from the tyranny of sandboxing, there’s still plenty of incentive for you to keep to your lane.

iPads, for all of their compactness, aren’t always the ideal machine for road warriors. On field trips, I use my MacBook Air’s two USB ports to charge all of my digital devices, from my iPhone and headphones to my Kindle. That way, all I need to do is carry the charging cables, rather than the wall plugs, and I can charge up to three devices at a time.

An iPad, on the other hand, can share its battery only with the Pencil, and so is useless for power sharing. Whatever bag weight you’ve saved by not toting around a hefty laptop and its power adapter, you’ll make back by bringing USB plugs for all of your various devices.

On the upside, the iPad Pro occupies a lot less horizontal space than a laptop, making it better-suited for working on a train or airplane. You’ll never entirely eliminate the stresses of crunching elbows with your neighbor when typing, but it does help to mitigate the problem. And there are plenty of scenarios when the iPad’s speed enables you to get short bursts of work done much faster.

I often think that iOS will always be relatively hampered because macOS exists. The former is a sleek, stripped-down race car designed for speed and getting people to their destination in record time. The latter, however, is a pickup truck, useful and slow and versatile in all the ways its sibling is not.

It’s with that in mind that you should approach the notion of whether you could live your life with the iPad Pro as your primary — nay, only — machine. For the electronic minimalist in us all, the device can do plenty of the usual things you’d use a desktop for. But you’ll always find that you can very easily butt up against the limits of what the iPad, and iOS 11, can do.

On the plus side, I love how focused the iPad Pro made me, and how comfortable the keyboard is to use. The screen, packing 120Hz ProMotion and True Tone display technology, is beautiful, and I actually really enjoyed spending time with it to work and read. Not to mention that, because it’s so fast, light and portable, it’s far easier to work with in places other than your office. You can prop it up beside you at breakfast or on the couch late at night, and it’s much easier to use where space is at a premium than a laptop.

What you’re giving up, however, is that sense of control and the ability to do what you want to do, how you want to do it. Because Apple has a very ingrained sense of how computing is done, and its devices are built to enforce that sense at all times. If you feel that you can cope with the rigidity, then you will probably have no qualms about making the switch.

It’s weird, because on one hand, I feel like I could do 90 percent of my job with an iPad Pro and eliminate so much stuff from my office overnight. But that in doing so, I’d have to always have a laptop on standby for when I needed to do things that Apple doesn’t want you to do. The biggest drawback to recommending one, right now, is that the iPad Pro is this useful only because of its Smart Keyboard, and the price for the two together is $ 968 for the base model 12.9-incher. This is an awful lot of money to spend on a very beautiful device that can’t save a video straight from Safari or efficiently batch-resize camera images suitable for publishing.

Can an iPad Pro replace a personal computer? No, and it’s likely that it won’t be able to for some time. But do you really need a personal computer for the majority of the things you do each day?

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