Samsung’s 2016 went up in smoke

Samsung’s year started well, all things considered. The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge were bona fide hits. The company’s financials looked great. Its position as the global leader in the smartphone market was assured. And then the Galaxy Note 7 happened. After months of success, Samsung’s year started to unravel — quickly.

In hindsight, it’s a little shocking how quickly the situation unfolded. The phone was officially announced on August 2nd, and it launched on August 19th to critical acclaim and commercial success. Toward the end of that month, the first report of a Note 7 explosion emerged from South Korea, triggering a cascade of similar reports from around the world. Samsung’s new phablet was not only flawed but also actively dangerous. After a week, Samsung halted Note 7 shipments to Korean consumers, and just days after that the company issued its first widespread Note 7 recall. As you probably remember, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission helped facilitate a recall in the US shortly after that, which should’ve been the end of it.

It wasn’t. Some of the supposedly safe replacement devices Samsung delivered to customers kept overheating, and there was even one incident that grounded a Southwest Airlines flight. Enough was finally enough. On October 10th, Samsung officially halted global sales and exchanges of the Note 7. The next day, the production lines were stopped entirely. In less than two months, Samsung’s “finest phone yet,” to quote our own review, had become a black mark on the company’s track record.

Perhaps the worst part: We still don’t know what caused all this. At first, it looked like batteries made by Samsung SDI could be to blame. Then devices with batteries sourced from other suppliers, such as Japan’s TDK, began to overheat too. Now a new report from engineering firm Instrumental suggests the Note 7’s failures were due to the fact that the batteries themselves were too big to be squeezed into a smartphone so “aggressively” designed — that is, Samsung should have made allowances for the natural swelling batteries undergo over time. Beyond the potential for explosions, though, Anna Shedletsky, the author of the report, suggests the phone would have been doomed regardless.

“If the Galaxy Note 7 wasn’t recalled for exploding batteries,” the report reads, “I believe that a few years down the road these phones would be slowly pushed apart by mechanical battery swell. A smaller battery using standard manufacturing parameters would have solved the explosion issue and the swell issue. But, a smaller battery would have reduced the system’s battery life below the level of its predecessor, the Note 5, as well as its biggest competitor, the iPhone 7 Plus. Either way, it’s now clear to us that there was no competitive salvageable design.”

Samsung’s woes didn’t end with smartphones. Between March 2011 and April 2016, Samsung produced 34 top-loading washing machine models that, due to failures in design, could quite literally blow their tops. US regulators took notice of the trend and took action in September — great timing for Samsung. The company once again collaborated with the CPSC to get a recall going, but not before some 730 reports of washing machine explosions had rolled in.

Unlike with the Note 7, Samsung has at least explained what was going on with these washing machines. According to company statements, excessively strong vibrations can occur when bedding or other bulky items are washed at high speeds. Those vibrations can dislodge the lid, leading it to shoot off the washing machine and strike people nearby. All told, some 2.8 million top-loading washing machines had to be recalled, and reports of trouble from around the world are still surfacing. Earlier this month, a family in Sydney fled their home when their Samsung washing machine caught fire. Prior to that, nine injuries related to washing machine malfunctions were reported, including a broken jaw in one case. It’s difficult to say what kind of exploding consumer good is more unnerving: the one that we carry in our pocket everywhere we go or the one that sits quietly in a corner of our home until it violently remind us of its existence.

So, yes, Samsung had a bad year. That doesn’t mean the company is doomed. Despite its recent failures, it would take a lot more than this to kill a corporate octopus flush with so much money and influence. Consider the following: The most recent estimates we could find suggested the Note 7 recall would cost at least $ 5.3 billion. That might sound like a lot (and it is!), but as far as Samsung is concerned, that’s chump change. As laid out in a long-term plan published in late November, the conglomerate wants to keep no more than 70 trillion Korean won in its cash reserves: That works out to just shy of $ 60 billion. That’s $ 60 billion Samsung is keeping handy for rough spells (though some of that treasure trove was probably tapped for that Harman acquisition last month).

That’s not to say Samsung was completely unaffected by the events of the past few months. Samsung’s most recent earnings release, from October, showed its mobile division tanking, with operating profit down 96 percent from the year before. No matter, though: Continued growth in the conglomerate’s chip and display business helped absorb the financial blow from the mobile side. We’re not sure how the numbers will shake out the next time earnings are released (especially in light of a potential structural shakeup), but for now Samsung’s money-making machinery still works fine. The bigger question centers on Samsung’s reputation and the trust it built with its customers. The path forward would benefit from clarity and contrition, but the truth is that rich companies can afford to muddle along until consumers forget about their past failures.

Samsung won’t forget about its troubled turn this year, but with luck the company will use it as a sobering reminder to do better in the future. After all, another pivotal moment in Samsung’s history was also forged in fire. It, too, involved phones, coincidentally enough, but none nearly as complex as the Note 7.

In early 1995, Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee gave out cell phones as gifts to celebrate the new year, and for one reason or another they didn’t work. Lee was incensed. The phones’ failure to function properly not only reflected poorly on him personally but also highlighted the slow progress of Lee’s plan to make Samsung synonymous with quality around the world. Two years prior, Lee — fed up with Samsung’s cheap, often slipshod work — bellowed at his senior managers to “change everything except your wife and children.” If Samsung was to achieve its potential, it had to change, and it wasn’t happening fast enough.

In March 1995, Lee had those phones gathered in the courtyard of Samsung’s Gumi factory, in the heart of one of Korea’s many industrial centers. Thousands of devices lay there, surrounded by some 2,000 Samsung workers with headbands that said “quality first” lashed to their foreheads. As Lee and his board of directors looked on, the phones, along with monitors and fax machines, were battered with hammers and heaved into a fire. The message was clear: Poor quality would no longer be tolerated.

Samsung has transcended its humble origins, but the message delivered that day over 20 years ago bears repeating. Company mythology points to the fire in Gumi as an act of cleansing, signaling a new era for a revitalized Samsung. Every company has bad years. What’s more important is how the company carries itself in the weeks, months and years that follow. Samsung turned things around for itself in 1995, and it can rebound now too.

Check out all of Engadget’s year-in-review coverage right here.

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In 2016, emoji kept it 💯

In addition to everything else that happened in tech this year, something small, cute and unassuming wormed its way into your smartphone, your social network and even your MacBook keyboard. While emoji have been around a while, this was the year these pictographs firmly lodged themselves into our lives. It’s become less like immature shorthand and more like another language.

Apple and Google both showed they were both taking the tiny icons seriously. The iPhone’s iOS 10 added search and predictive features for emoji to its keyboard, making it even easier to inject winks and explosions into everything you type. (Apple also added emoji functions to the OLED Touch Bar on its new MacBook Pro.)

Google took it even further, with its latest Android keyboard and gBoard on iOS both including predictive emoji. The company even baked them into its new AI assistant, Allo. The assistant can play emoji-based movie guessing games. In fact, the internet juggernaut has a real emoji crush: In early December, its main Twitter account even started offering local search results if you tweeted an emoji at it.

Granted, the results are … mixed. It won’t be replacing Yelp anytime soon, but it demonstrates how emoji are moving beyond their quick-and-dirty text-message roots.

Quicker access to emoji on your phone also comes at a time when most of our digital interactions (or at least mine) happen through smartphones. It’s become easier to use emoji, and new uses are introduced all the time. GoDaddy launched a service that allows you to create and register website addresses written purely in emoji. It could open a new wave of easily memorable sites — and there’s no shortage of emoji combinations available.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in use of emoji is how open to interpretation many of the pictograms are. More than the written or spoken word, emoji can be easily misunderstood — a fact compounded by the subtle visual differences between identical symbols in different emoji fonts. Send an iPhone emoji to someone using Google hangouts on a PC, and they might not pick up the exact same meaning.

Credit: Grouplens

They can also deliver entirely new uses, beyond the simple word was once meant to represent. There’s a reason for the popularity of the eggplant emoji and it has nothing to do with moussaka.

This vagueness and playfulness is part of their charm; some things are just funnier or easier to say in emojis. Occasionally, they can be haunting:

It’s not all frivolity and euphemisms. Updates to the emoji series attempt to better represent modern culture and society. Unicode’s latest character set for 2016 had a strong focus on gender and jobs, offering dancing bunny-boys and female police officers in an effort strike a better balance between the sexes. It even added the option of a third, gender-neutral option — although that’s apparently proved more difficult to visually express.

This year, Sony Pictures announced that it’s making a CGI feature film based entirely around emoji. It sounds like a terrible idea, but the studio believes it can make money from it. (There might even be more than one movie.)

The effect of emoji has even been noted by one of the world’s most prestigious design museums, with the Museum of Modern Art inducting emoji earlier this year. The debut set of symbols, designed for Japanese phone carrier Docomo back in 1999, is now filed under the same roof as the works of van Gogh and Dali. Used at the time to convey the weather and other messages (in a character-frugal way), the symbols were soon copied by other Japanese carriers, but it took another 12 years before they were translated into unicode in 2010, which Apple then expanded when it launched the original iPhone the following year.

So have we reached peak emoji? The initial set of low-pixel characters totaled 176. Now, at the end of 2016, there’s over 1,300 of them — and no shortage of new suggestions.

Check out all of Engadget’s year-in-review coverage right here

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Soon cops will search your phone just like your car

Imagine a routine traffic stop during which the officer has the legal right to search not just your car, but your phone too.

That’s where we’re likely headed: A Florida court recently denied Fifth Amendment protections for iPhone passcodes, saying suspects must now reveal them to police. The decision came after a previous court had ruled that a suspect couldn’t be compelled to give up the key to unlock his phone based on laws against self-incrimination.

A trial judge had denied the state’s motion to compel the suspect to give up his passcode, finding that it would be tantamount to forcing him to testify against himself, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

But the Florida Court of Appeal’s Second District just reversed that decision. Judge Anthony Black said, “Unquestionably, the State established, with reasonable particularity, its knowledge of the existence of the passcode, Stahl’s control or possession of the passcode, and the self-authenticating nature of the passcode. This is a case of surrender and not testimony.

“More importantly,” he added, indicating future cases about passcodes and Fifth Amendment protections, “we question the continuing viability of any distinction as technology advances.”

The case tipping the scales in favor of the police comes by way of a total creep getting caught shoving his phone under a woman’s skirt and taking photos. It’s pretty hard to feel bad for the guy. Many people know that “upskirts” are illegal, and most know it’s also a really shitty thing to do to someone. But Aaron Stahl didn’t care. He followed a woman around a store, and when he thought she wasn’t looking, he crouched down, shoved his phone under her skirt to take photos and got caught doing it.

When she asked him what the hell he was doing, he claimed he’d dropped his phone. She yelled for help and tried to stop him from leaving. He ran. But the store had him doing everything on surveillance cameras and got a clear shot of his car’s license plates. When police caught up to Stahl and arrested him for third-degree voyeurism, he’d conveniently left his phone at home.

In a police interview, Stahl consented to a search of his phone, an Apple iPhone 5. But when police actually went to his house with a warrant and got the phone, he withdrew his consent before giving them his passcode. Basically, Stahl attempted to show he’s innocent by not being accountable for his phone.

And as we all know, without the passcode even Apple can’t pop open someone’s iPhone and hand the contents over to police.

That’s meant authorities have had to get a little creative about looking through people’s phones.

After much wrangling and embarrassment earlier this year, the FBI forked over $ 1.3 million to have the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone hacked into. Just a few weeks ago, Scotland Yard actually “mugged” a suspect. In that instance, British cops waited until their target was on a call before physically snatching the phone and continually swiping it to keep the screen unlocked while they apprehended their guy.

The Florida case shows a flip in the opposite direction from 2015’s ruling by a Pennsylvania federal court, which decided the authorities can’t force someone to surrender his or her phone’s passcode. Just as he opposed the Pennsylvania court decision, I’m sure law professor and SCOTUS blogger Orin Kerr would agree with Florida’s judges that a code isn’t in itself incriminating.

“For example, imagine the government orders you to turn over any and all crystal meth in your possession,” Kerr opined about Pennsylvania’s passcode ruling. “In response to the order, you hand over a plastic bag filled with some substance. Your response effectively testified that you think the item in the bag is crystal meth and that it is in your possession. That’s admitting to a crime — possession of crystal meth — so you have a Fifth Amendment right not to have to produce the item in response to the order.”

Here, the judge hasn’t asked Florida’s creeper of the year, Aaron Stahl, to turn over any and all upskirt photos. Just the passcode.

The decision will likely lead to further challenges, but different courts around the United States are tackling the iPhone-evidence conundrum. Judge Black’s opinion will no doubt influence how others rule.

“Providing the passcode does not ‘betray any knowledge [Stahl] may have about the circumstances of the offenses’ for which he is charged,” Black said, writing for the Florida court’s three-judge panel. “Thus,” he said, “compelling a suspect to make a nonfactual statement that facilitates the production of evidence for which the state has otherwise obtained a warrant … does not offend the privilege.”

This is a compelling argument for handing over Stahl’s passcode. But then again, it’s also compelling because he’s such a blatant scumbag about all of this. Maybe it’s a false equivalency, though I’m inclined to believe it’s the rest of us who’ll pay for this guy’s troll-like behavior. He brazenly violated a woman’s privacy and expects his privacy protections to be upheld so he can get away with it. He’s not all that different from the guy on Twitter claiming death and rape threats are protected free speech.

This ruling is supposed to be about the greater good, but there’s nothing that feels great or good about it.

We’ll probably wade through a hodge-podge of law-enforcement rules across the nation until this gets ironed out, while precedents are set that aren’t thought through. In the meantime, we can be sure bad cops will collect passcodes and see what else they can get into with them. Because, thanks to security fatigue, people reuse the same passwords and PINs wherever possible.

It doesn’t take the mind of a hacker to figure that someone’s four-digit cellphone PIN is probably the same as her ATM and voicemail PIN codes.

So look: It’s not that cops and border guards and probably stormtroopers can’t demand access to people’s phones and computers nearly everywhere else in the world, because they can. It’s just that here, we’ve been living in an arrogant fantasy that we were somehow immune to that type of control. Rest assured that countries on every other continent circling our shaky blue orb don’t live in this fantasy.

We might be inclined to think that the world has gotten more fascist. No. It’s just that we’re losing our virginity, and effectual consent is bad for authoritarianism. Welcome to the rest of the world. It’s time to quit whining about Android vs. Apple security, or how broken the password model is, and realize your cutesy privacy island never existed in the first place.

Laws like these might be what we deserve, after years of remaining relatively ignorant to the realities of how tech tools like cellphones and Facebook are used by authoritarian leaders and surveillance-happy police. We’re about to enter a future where our president embraces letting government off the leash when it comes to surveilling citizens.

I remember when Google’s Eric Schmidt said, “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” And when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said that if you’re not doing anything “wrong” then you don’t have anything to worry about when it comes to losing your privacy. It’s starting to look like these weren’t just harmless words from eccentric tech billionaires.

All I’m saying is that this is all connected, and the road that led to cops being able to search your entire life during a traffic stop is one paved with greed, perverse ideals and nightmarish lapses of empathy. Of course, some of us tried to raise the alarm back then, but we were written off as bad people with something to hide because we wanted boundaries.

But this story, the one about the Fifth Amendment and passcodes, is supposed to be about fairness and justice. Except with bad guys like Aaron Stahl, it’s a fairness that feels so cynical we barely understand how we got here.

Images: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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The best lenses for iPhone photography

By Erin Lodi

This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a buyer’s guide to the best technology. When readers choose to buy The Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, it may earn affiliate commissions that support its work. Read the full article here.

After more than 16 hours of research during which we considered 70 lens attachments and tested 15 models (with hands-on shooting that included a hiking trip through the Cascade Mountains and sightseeing on a Grand Canyon road trip), we found that Moment’s Tele and Wide mobile-photography lenses are the best for avid smartphone photographers. They offer image quality as good as that of anything we tested, along with a straightforward attachment system that doesn’t lock you into using a case you don’t like (unlike most of the competition).

Who should get this

By adding extra optics directly on top of your phone’s existing camera, lens attachments allow you to appear either closer to your subject or farther away from it without reducing resolution. This mimics the effect you’d get from switching lenses on a DSLR or mirrorless camera. But because you’re putting additional lenses in front of an existing lens, many lens attachments produce photos with noticeable blurriness and color distortion around the edges of the frame. So you still have plenty of good reasons to go with an actual DSLR or mirrorless camera, especially if you plan on printing your photos. But smartphone lens kits are fun to play around with for photographers of all skill levels, and the best among them can produce surprisingly sharp images.

How we picked and tested

We considered a wide swath of iPhone lens accessories. In a clockwise spiral from top left: CamKix, iPro, Manfrotto, Moment, Ztylus, ExoLens, AGPtek, Olloclip, and Photojojo lenses. Photo: Erin Lodi

We looked for a mobile-photography lens that would fit the iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 7, and iPhone 7 Plus—though not every lens will work with the latter, and we’re keeping our eyes open as more become available that will.

Above all, we wanted a portable, affordable, easy-to-use lens attachment to help produce amazing photos. We focused on finding a good wide-angle option and a good telephoto option, as those are the most commonly available choices and often the most practical applications of iPhone lenses. For more details on how we picked and tested, and a note on lenses for the iPhone 7, see our full guide.

We took each lens out for some real-world testing around Seattle. Photo: Erin Lodi

For this guide, we read up on every recommended smartphone lens attachment we could find on the Internet, including considering what highly respected review sites such as The Phoblographer, CNET, Fstoppers, Cult of Mac, and Macworld had to say. We also asked friends of various levels of smartphone-photography prowess what they would want out of such an attachment.

Since 2015, we’ve conducted hands-on testing with 15 iPhone lens models. We toted these lenses around Seattle, testing them in some everyday shooting situations. We filled our backpack with them and put them to work while hiking in the Cascade Mountains. And we brought them along on an epic summer road trip to see the Grand Canyon.

Our pick

Moment’s .63x-magnification wide lens (18mm equivalent) and a 2x telephoto lens (60mm equivalent). Photo: Erin Lodi

Moment’s Tele and Wide lenses stood above the competition thanks to their impressive image quality, their simple attachment method (which works with many third-party iPhone cases), and their ease of use and portability. We tested both the .63x-magnification wide-angle lens (about 1.5 times as wide as the standard iPhone lens, an 18mm equivalent) and the 2x telephoto lens (60mm equivalent). If you have an iPhone 7 Plus, you won’t need the tele option, because your phone already has a similar built-in lens, but the Wide is still a great option.

A bayonet-style mount on a metal plate that adheres to your phone allows you to attach your Moment lenses with just a quick turn. Photo: Erin Lodi

In our tests, images came out crisp and clear, with very little distortion and no vignetting. We noted only minimal chromatic aberration (a common problem with cheaply made lenses in which colors fringe and blur, especially at high-contrast edges).

The Moment 0.63x lens is about half again as wide as an iPhone’s standard lens. Photo: Erin Lodi

Moment lenses attach to your phone via a stainless steel mounting plate that sticks to the back of your iPhone using a strong but not permanent 3M adhesive. A bayonet mounting system on the plate lets you twist the lens on. The mounting ring is small enough that you can use it through the camera opening on many slim phone cases, including our pick for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, the Incipio NGP, which means your favorite method of iPhone protection should work with Moment lenses. If you’re careful, the lens attachment will remain mounted until you unscrew it. But we recommend removing the lens from the mount before stowing your handset in a bag or backpack to avoid having it dislodge, and to prevent any uncovered lens surfaces from attracting dust or smudges.

Budget pick

The Aukey lens-and-case set offers great quality for its current price of $ 15, but it doesn’t hold up next to our main pick. Photo: Erin Lodi

If you’re not willing to spend almost $ 100 on a smartphone accessory, or if you just don’t think you’d use a high-quality lens attachment often enough to justify such a cost, the Aukey PL-WD03 110° Wide Angle Lens & Case Set is a bargain entry-level lens-and-case combo for the iPhone 6/6s and iPhone 6/6s Plus. (The company has no plans for an iPhone 7 case, but this model does come with a clip mount that isn’t as secure but works on any phone.) The set’s slim black case snaps over your phone and allows you to screw on a lens attachment. The image quality was noticeably worse when we compared it closely with that of the Moment lenses, but compared with other low-cost lenses we tested, the Aukey delivered better-quality images with less distortion or vignetting.

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

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

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Algoriddim squeezes its djay Pro app into the iPhone

For the past 10 years, DJ software maker Algoriddim has been steadily updating its djay app, adding fresh features as software and technology have improved. It started out in Apple’s eco-system on the Mac, adding the iPhone and iPad as it went, even letting Android join the party eventually. Last year its fully-outfitted Pro version added video mixing alongside sampling, effects and four decks. This comprehensive party software hit iPads last year, but starting today the backbreaking work of hauling laptops and tablets around is over, with the newly laid out djay Pro for iPhone. Yep, you new get a fully capable DJ package, with access to Spotify’s pool of tracks, four decks, effects and video mixing in a pocketable format. If you’re intrigued, now’s the time to try it, with a limited time launch price of $ 4.99.

This revamped version of djay Pro isn’t much different from before. Most of the changes are subtle, aimed at improving accessibility on a small screen. There are some new features that take advantage of 3D-Touch and haptic feedback capabilities, though. You can now feel left, right and center spots on the crossfader as little nudges, plus cue marks can be created on the fly by hard presses on the screen. Also impressive, is the ability to feel each kick as you’re scrubbing through waveforms, which helps bring a semblance of actual record queuing back into the process.

In my opinion, DJing with just an iPhone isn’t necessarily the most pleasant experience. I suppose tiny fingers could help — perhaps it’s purpose-built for the emerging generation — but, with the combination of 3D-Touch and haptic feedback, it’s definitely workable. Djay Pro for iPhone makes the best of available space with its subtly adjusted layout, offering easy access to effects, filters and tracks with centrally placed buttons.

Spotify integration is onboard as expected, but the browse function is a new addition, helping you search out new selections by mood, genre or popularity. It’s a great way to have access to a pool of tracks without building up your own collection, plus it’s a lifesaver if you find yourself in need of songs that fit a vibe you absolutely didn’t prepare for in advance.

For those adventurous enough, the video mixing capability is great, and it’s surprising to have access to such rich features from a device that fits in your pocket. You can use AirPlay to stream both music and video to to compatible systems, making it a pleasantly wireless experience. On top of this, if you have an Apple Watch, the watchOS 3 updates offer mix control from your wrist with improved ultra-low latency. While small fingers may help, the watch interface is intuitive and easy to use.

What could be the perfect on-the-go combo, is to pair the mobile app with Algoriddim’s latest hardware collaboration called Mixtour. This ultra-portable DJ controller manufactured by Reloop is definitely bag friendly and lets you run most of the app’s standard features from its larger interface. It takes a bit more forethought to carry one of these around on the off chance you’ll be playing some tunes, but it could help you avoid hunching over your phone when you’re in the mix.

If you’re not using one of Apple’s latest handsets, don’t worry, you can still use djay Pro for iPhone if you have an iPhone 5 or later running iOS 10, but you’ll have to do without the haptic and 3D-Touch perks. You can pick up a copy of the app on iTunes starting today and save 50 percent off the regular price for a limited time.

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Apple’s tiny, totally wireless AirPods get meticulously torn down

After having been delayed for months — for reasons never publicly confirmed, no less — Apple’s AirPods are finally here. And really, what better to way to celebrate one of the most curious delays in Apple history than by tearing those things apart? The folks at iFixit have done just that (as always), and the end result is a fascinating look at $ 160 worth of meticulously crafted silicon and audio parts. Spoiler alert: there’s more glue in them than you’d think.

As you might imagine, the tiny scale of Apple’s work and all the glue sealing everything in place make the AirPods a nightmare where repairs are concerned. In fact, all the components are so tightly packed in there that the idea of replacing parts or fixing them in general is downright laughable. Still, this kind of surgery does a great job illustrating the insane, compact origami that goes into modern consumer gadgets. And if nothing else, iFixit’s strangely gorgeous imagery more thoroughly explains the importance of the AirPods’ most questionable design choice: those stems that dangle out of your ear.

People stare, but they probably don’t realize that those stems are mostly all battery — their charge capacity works out to 1 percent of the iPhone 7’s — with long antennas glued to them to maintain a strong connection between the Pods themselves and the phone. (For what it’s worth, we’ve had a pair of AirPods for months and the multiple wireless connections were more-or-less rock-solid the entire time.)

Knowing that doesn’t make the stems look any better, though, as evidenced by all the shade thrown at me by coworkers whenever I wear these things. Also nestled deep within there is what makes the AirPods really tick: the minuscule W1 chip. It’s responsible for the Pods’ dead-simple pairing and power-sipping tendencies, which so far have been the big reasons our review units have seen such consistent use. The level of tension subsides when attention is turned to the AirPods’ charging case, but make no mistake: if you’re a fan of lilliputian tech, this is one teardown you have to see.

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The Morning After: Weekend Edition


Letter from the Editor

Christmas is right around the corner, but Santa’s not the only one dropping from the sky with presents this holiday season. Amazon’s Prime Air officially began service this week, when a drone made the service’s first delivery in Cambridge, England. So the future of shipping has arrived … for a handful of people in the English countryside.

Many, many more Amazonians will be getting served, however, by Prime Video, now that the company has spun it out into a standalone service. At an introductory rate that’s a third the cost of Netflix, the move creates serious competition for viewing dollars around the world — though it only brings Amazon’s original programming. Still, if critical acclaim is any indicator, you’re getting good value: Both of the two streaming services have shows up for multiple Golden Globes.

One competitor Amazon isn’t (and shouldn’t be) preoccupied with is a new virtual assistant from Japan. It’s a female anime character in a jar. It costs $ 2,500. It will not lift the crushing weight of loneliness that pervades your every waking hour. Oh, and if you’re thinking it’d make a swell Christmas gift, think 2017 — the company’s taking preorders now, but it won’t arrive for a year.


Elon Musk: Supercharger spots are meant for charging, not parkingTesla will tax owners who idle at the Supercharger

More Teslas on the road also means there might be long lines at the local Supercharger. After complaints about owners who leave their car hooked up beyond the time needed for a full charge, Elon Musk & Co. have a fix: idle fees. If you don’t collect your EV within five minutes of it reaching full charge (you’ll get a notification on your phone), then expect a 40 cent per minute charge to sit in that spot.


Here’s what it will cost when you lose oneApple’s AirPods are now on sale

Online pre-orders are now stretching into 2017, but you can order a pair of Apple’s new EarBuds. The wireless buds go perfectly with a headphone jack-deficient iPhone 7, whose owners are most likely to lay down $ 160 for the pair + charger. A side effect of the AirPods’ tangle free lifestyle is that you might end up losing one, however, and if you do, the replacement will cost $ 69.


Not to be confused with “The O.C.”Netflix’s weird surprise show ‘The OA’ is now streaming

Last weekend Netflix surprised us by teasing a new miniseries about a mysterious young woman. The trailer left much to the imagination, but the main plot centers on a young woman who was blind before being abducted, and returns to her family seven years later able to see. Its eight-episode length had some hoping for another “Stranger Things” experience. We don’t know if it’s that good, but it’s a perfect choice if you can’t make it out to “Rogue One” this weekend.


League of $ $ $ $ “League of Legends” developer signs a $ 300 million streaming deal

eSports looks poised to make a big leap, and BAMTech, a streaming company part-owned by the MLB, the NHL and Disney (read: ESPN) is ready to buy in. It struck a deal with “League of Legends” maker Riot Games that’s worth over $ 300 million, and it will build an app next year to stream competitions on phones, PCs and other devices.


Looks like someone read “Ender’s Game”DARPA’s OFFSET program will use gamers to playtest drone swarm control

Stop us if this sounds familiar: A government agency is trying to help the military control groups of flying robots, and one of the ways it will learn is by offering a “physics-based, swarm tactics game.” The idea is to let playtesters swap strategies on how to best control a swarm of drone robots, then apply that knowledge to the real thing.


The final stops are at PAX and SXSWNintendo’s Switch console is going on tour

Can’t wait until March to see the Switch? No problem, because Nintendo just announced it’s taking the console on a “Preview Tour” of major cities starting in January.

But wait, there’s more…

  • Meet Waymo: Google’s new (old) self-driving car business
  • Nokia returns with a dumb phone from its new owner
  • The Engadget Podcast Episode 18: In which Terrence drops F-bombs while talking about Yahoo
  • Review: HP Spectre x360 (2016)
  • Dwarf planet Ceres is ‘oozing’ with water

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How I learned to love Electric Objects’ digital art display

“The last thing I need is another screen in my apartment.” That was my first thought when I heard about Electric Objects, a company that makes digital art displays. Between my 55-inch OLED TV, 34-inch ultra-widescreen PC monitor, MacBook Air, multiple tablets and iPhone 6S, what use would I have for more screens? But after spending some time with the $ 299 EO2, the company’s latest product, and its accompanying $ 10-a-month “Art Club” subscription, it wasn’t long before I saw the appeal of a cloud-connected display on my wall.

You could call me an aspirational art owner. I’d love to fill my apartment’s walls with unique pieces, but the process of finding and framing things is just too tedious. (Heck, I have a closet full of posters that still need to be properly mounted and framed.) The EO2 promised to bring a bit of culture to my home without much fuss. How could I say no to that?

The EO2 is basically just a 23-inch 1080p display with an internet connection. Its screen has a matte finish, which helps it avoid reflecting light sources and keeps it from looking like a glossy TV screen hanging on your wall. While its aluminum black case looks pretty basic, you can also snap on a $ 99 hardwood frame (available in maple, walnut, white wood and black wood) to make it match your decor.

You have a variety of options for setting it up: Simply lean it against something (there are two rubber feet in the box to prevent it from slipping) or hang it up on your wall with the included wall mount. Since my wife and I live in a Brooklyn apartment and want to preserve our walls, we chose to hang it with a single nail, like a typical picture frame, instead of using the two nails required for Electric Objects’ mount. The power cord that juts out of the bottom of the EO2 wasn’t much of a problem for us, but there are plenty of cable-hiding products on the market if that’s the sort of thing that bugs you.

Once the display is mounted, you just need to download the company’s app and step through the setup process to get it online. I initially ran into some trouble getting it connected, but that turned out to be a separate issue with my T-Mobile-issued ASUS router — I’ve moved over to a Netgear Nitehawk and it’s been smooth sailing ever since.

Next, it was time to get my art on. From the EO app, you can sift through the free content available from the Electric Objects community. There’s some good stuff there, but if you really want to get fancy, you can shell out for the $ 10 monthly “Art Club” subscription, which gives you full access to a plethora of classic and modern pieces from museums and well-known artists. Pushing a static image to the EO2 takes anywhere from two to five seconds on my 802.11AC 5GHz wireless network, while video pieces could take several minutes, depending on the size of the piece.

It wasn’t long before my wife and I really got into the EO2. We built a cat-themed playlist as a quick mood booster, and the new “Space is the Place” gallery, featuring work by the digital artist Adam Ferriss, ended up being a meditative way to evoke the immensity of the cosmos. The possibilities feel endless. Want to show off fine pieces of art? Go ahead! Want a playlist full of memes and pop culture references? You’re covered there too. You can even throw in your own photos and movie clips, which is perfect for when family comes over.

Just about everything I threw on the EO2 looked good, no matter if they relied on big, bold colors or fine lines and detail. Of course, it’s not something you’ll be staring at for hours on end like a TV or computer monitor; it just needs to make a good impression whenever you glance at it. Given the EO2’s price, I wasn’t expecting a world-class display, so I was surprised there wasn’t even much to complain about. Settings-wise, there’s not much to tweak. You can choose various levels of “auto brightness” support, which changes the screen’s brightness throughout the day, as well as set up a sleep timer. There aren’t any intricate image settings to deal with. (Colors looked decently calibrated to my untrained eyes.)

The EO2 isn’t exactly a revolutionary product. It didn’t completely change my life like my first smartphone, but it’s a nice way to quickly change up the mood in your home. After setting up several Philips Hue lightbulbs in my living room, I was surprised by how much slight lighting changes could influence the way I felt. Sending art to the EO2 had a similar effect; it’s hard not to feel contemplative when you run into a classic painting in your living room.

It’s also hard to compare the display to an actual framed print. There’s something about a physical piece of art, even if it’s a cheap reprint, that feels different than something projected on a screen. Choosing to frame a work of art and mount it on your wall has a feeling of permanence and commitment that a mere connected display, which can be changed in seconds, can’t replicate.

The key to appreciating the EO2? Don’t expect it to replace your framed art. Instead, think of it as a quick way to aesthetically remix a space. It’s also expensive at $ 299, and to truly enjoy it you have to subscribe to a service that costs as much as a Netflix subscription. If both of those prices end up dropping (hardware typically does, after all), Electric Objects might actually succeed at bringing fine art to the masses.

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Sony’s Xperia Ear is not the hands-free assistant I wanted

In theory, Sony’s newest wearable sounds promising. The Xperia Ear is a single Bluetooth earbud that lets you dictate messages, get weather updates and smartphone notifications, and carry out other little tasks just by talking to it. It’s like having an Amazon Echo in your ear, except with far fewer skills and third-party integrations. Sony also promises a long-lasting battery that can endure a full workday of talk time with the included charging case, so you can have the assistant ready for your commands all day. Unfortunately, the Xperia Ear simply doesn’t do enough to justify its $ 200 asking price.

Hardware

The Xperia Ear is a single black wireless earbud. The thumb-size, round-rectangular device has a slightly protruding speaker to help it latch onto your ear. There’s also a semicircular hook-like extrusion above the speaker that doesn’t appear to serve a purpose (other than perhaps helping it maintain a firmer grip on your ear). On its gray outer surface is a physical button that you can press to trigger the assistant, as well as a blue indicator light.

Inside, the earpiece houses a host of sensors, including a gyroscope, accelerometer, Bluetooth radio, NFC transmitter and proximity sensor. It also meets the IPX2 standard for water-resistance, meaning it can survive light splashes or rain. I did not encounter wet weather during my testing period, but the Ear did survive the drops of water I splashed on it.

Importantly, the device comes in a sturdy, pager-size holder that charges the core unit when you stow the latter in there. This case was small enough to carry in even my tiniest of purses, which I appreciated.

In use

Getting started with the Ear is simple. But first, know that it’s compatible only with Android, so if you’re an iPhone user, you should probably stop reading this review. Sony says it is “currently focused on creating the Xperia Ear host app for Android as it’s powered by Sony Agent Technology, which is specifically designed and currently only available for Android.” The company declined to comment on whether iOS compatibility is on the way, so don’t hold your breath.

On your Android device, your first step is to download the Xperia Ear app and then pair the Ear with your phone over Bluetooth. You can also smush your phone together with the earbud if you have an NFC-enabled handset, which makes connecting them a cinch. I paired the Ear with the Huawei Mate 9, and the NFC handshake between both devices was indeed quick.

Once I was all set up, I put the earpiece on and went about my business. The Ear felt surprisingly secure and didn’t fall out even when I shook my head vigorously to test just how well it would stay put. Wearing the Ear was comfortable until an hour later, when I started feeling a dull ache on the side of my head. It wasn’t superpainful, but I didn’t always feel like putting up with it, either. Taking off the earbud made the discomfort go away, and I ended up having to periodically remove the device during my review.

Most of your interactions with the Ear are going to involve you pressing the device’s button, waiting for it to say it’s listening and waiting for its three-tone chime (like the beep after a voicemail greeting). Only then can you ask your question. If that sounds tedious, it’s because it is. Sony could remove two steps from this process by getting rid of the redundant chime and the button push; the resulting speed gained would make the Ear feel much more responsive.

I really want the Xperia Ear to always be listening for a trigger phrase, because pushing a button against my ear repeatedly makes the side of my head feel slightly sore over time. Plus, it’s not really a hands-free experience if you have to use your hands to get some help. But that function would come at the expense of battery life, so this is a tradeoff I’m willing to accept.

You can set up the Ear so that a long press of the button activates OK Google, allowing you to use an assistant you’re probably already familiar with. But by default, you’ll be working with Sony’s unnamed helper, which is very new compared with existing offerings. And with that youth come some quirks that, together with its one-sided, Bluetooth-headset-inspired design, make the Xperia Ear feel dated.

Talking to Sony’s assistant feels like I’m interacting with a “futuristic” machine from Demolition Man. Its voice sounds artificial, robotic and disjointed, especially compared to Siri, the Google Assistant and Alexa, which have human voices with more natural inflections. Ear pronounced my name the same way Engadget’s Southern-bred Editor-in-Chief Michael Gorman does — as in, “Churl-lynn,” with a hard “ch.” Thanks a lot, Sony.

That’s an understandable mistake, considering my name is quite uncommon, but the Ear made the same error when reading a news piece about actress Charlize Theron. It took me a few seconds to realize who the assistant was describing. It also mispronounced the word “cleanses,” saying “clean-suhs” instead of “clen-suhs.” For the most part, though, the Ear is easy enough to understand if you’re paying attention.

The reason I was talking about Charlize Theron, by the way, is because whenever you stick the device in your ear, it greets you and starts rattling off the time, your agenda for the day and news headlines since you last put it on. The actress was the subject in one of several headlines that Sony pulled together. You don’t get to pick the news sources you prefer; instead, you can decide in the app settings only whether or not you want to hear headlines at all.

You can also choose to get voice alerts from apps such as Calendar, Email, Gmail, Hangouts, SMS, Twitter and Facebook. This causes the Ear to recite your incoming notifications as they arrive on your phone, which can be distracting. I happen to be excellent at tuning out noise, though, so this didn’t bother me. You can also dismiss each alert at any time by pressing the button on the earbud. I actually appreciated having someone read out my new emails to me because it means I can multitask even more effectively.

Instead of having to go to my inbox whenever I saw a new message, I could simply listen to the Ear narrate the entire email and decide if it was worth an immediate response. It was also adorable when the Ear read Managing Editor Dana Wollman’s email that opened, “Good news, bad news (mostly good news, I think),” but slightly less funny when it read out every last detail of each sender’s email signature, down to their ZIP codes. Still, with some software tuning, this feature could become truly useful for hardcore multitaskers like myself.

There are a few other things Ear can do, including setting timers, reporting the weather, answering calls, streaming music from your phone and sending text messages. The earpiece’s dual microphone, noise suppression and echo cancellation worked well, and people I spoke with using the Ear heard me clearly despite my loud Netflix video in the background. Because it’s a one-sided earbud, the Ear isn’t a good option for listening to music, but it works in a pinch. Just don’t expect great audio quality here; songs generally lack bass, with vocals sounding the clearest against tinny background instruments.

One of the niftiest things you can do with the Ear is to use voice dictation to compose messages. In general, the device accurately relayed what I said, but it spelled my name wrong. Again, given that I have a unique name, this isn’t a big deal, especially since most other words were spelled correctly.

Now, talking out loud is a rather conspicuous way to interact with any device, especially if you’re in an open office or walking outside. For those who want to be more stealthy, Sony built in an effective way to communicate nonverbally with the Ear: You can nod or shake your head in response to yes or no questions. This is a limited application, yes, but useful nonetheless for quick, discreet reactions. The device correctly interpreted my gestures (acknowledging them with a satisfying chime) when I answered its questions about whether the message it transcribed was correct and if I wanted to send my text.

That’s impressive for a first-generation device, but the Ear has its glitches. For instance, the earpiece would start reading out its greeting and list of headlines any time it got moved or bumped, even when I wasn’t wearing it. It was also inconsistent in delivering my alerts — I randomly received alerts about two really old unread Hangouts messages on my first day wearing the Ear.

Another gripe I have with the Ear is its inability to reconnect seamlessly with the synced phone after I leave and re-enter Bluetooth range. That means, when I go to the bathroom or leave the phone in a different room, the Ear stops working, only saying, “Device not connected.” When I get back to the phone, I have to press the button on the earbud to re-sync the devices. This should happen without any action on my part.

Like any other wireless earbud, the Xperia Ear’s battery life varies wildly depending on how much you use it. On my first day testing the device, which included a lot of email alerts and nearly an hour of song streaming, the Ear conked out (from a 60 percent charge) after a full day’s work. Another time, on a full charge, the Ear dropped just 60 percent of its energy after two days of testing, which included five to 10 minutes of music playback and multiple phone calls, text-message dictation and other small tasks. You can extend that runtime by activating Sony’s Battery Care mode via the companion app.

Speaking of the sort, recharging the Ear is easy — just put it back in its carrying case. The holder has two indicator lights: The top shows you by flashing red, yellow or green how full the earbud’s battery is. Another LED on the bottom indicates the amount of power left in the case, which you can plug in via micro-USB. It took about a week for the container’s charge to go from green to red, after it recharged the earbud a handful of times.

The competition

The Xperia Ear is a unique device — nothing else on the market claims to do exactly what it does. The thing is, though, you can get a similar experience with some of today’s wireless earbuds that let you tap your phone’s digital assistant. Case in point: The $ 250 Bragi Dash lets you tap your cheek to talk to Siri. You can also activate Siri with your existing Apple earphones with a long press on your remote control. Android owners don’t have a similar wireless option, though.

Compared to other wireless earbuds, such as the $ 200 Samsung Gear IconX and the $ 250 Jabra Elite Sport, the Xperia Ear is expensive, especially since it only covers one side. Plus, the Samsung and Jabra devices are geared toward fitness users and offer more features (and two earbuds instead of one) for less than twice the price of the Xperia Ear. They also deliver better audio quality than the Xperia, although Sony’s device offers longer battery life. Still, neither of these let you control an assistant yet, and the Ear retains that advantage over the competition, at least until its rivals add that feature (which, let’s be real, is inevitable).

Wrap-up

I was excited about the Xperia Ear and what it promised until I realized that, as it stands, the device does nothing different from Siri or Google over wired earbuds. In particular, the fact that it requires you to use your hand and press a button to use it makes me question the device’s existence in the first place. What’s the point of getting a whole new gadget for an assistant in your ear if not for the convenience when your arms are full? It’s not like this is a cheap purchase, either.

Still, this is a first-generation device that has the potential to become truly useful if Sony tweaks its software. That’s an easy enough fix. The trouble is, makers of other wireless earbuds could almost as easily offer the same features, by tapping into Siri or the Google Assistant. If, or when, they do, the Xperia Ear risks becoming a completely forgettable device.

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Apple will replace a lost AirPod for $69

Following a slightly delay, Apple’s wireless AirPods are ready to order. They’re small and sleek, but the lack of cords has put a nagging thought in the back of my mind: I am guaranteed to lose one, if not both within a few weeks. If you’re equally forgetful, or happen to commute in jam-packed subway carriages, you’ll be happy to hear that Apple will replace a single AirPod for $ 69 (£65). Given a fresh pair costs $ 159 (£159), that seems like a reasonable fee. Similarly, a new AirPod charging case will set you back $ 69 (£65), for the inevitable “I threw it out thinking it was floss” stories.

To Apple’s credit, your music will stop as soon as one AirPod leaves your earhole. It serves two purposes: so you don’t have to press pause when someone starts talking to you, and to give you a heads-up whenever one AirPod drops out of your ear. If you’re somewhere busy, like a crowded train platform, that immediate notification could be vital to retrieving it. Otherwise, the allure of Apple’s AirPods is a tangle-free lifestyle, convenient pairing and charging. It’s doubly useful if you have the iPhone 7 with its non-existent 3.55mm jack. (Yeah, I’m still annoyed about it.)

Via: TechCrunch

Source: Apple (US), (UK)

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