I’ve Learned To Love (Wearables) Again

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As a dedicated watch nerd, I felt that smartwatches were, on the whole, awful. A watch was a watch – if made correctly and correctly handled it’s a miracle of technology in its own right. The movement, the face, the metals, the design – all of these came together in a beautiful whole. There was nothing extraneous in a good watch, and most watch nerds know this.

So when watches like the Pebble, the Galaxy Gear, and the Omate came out, I was skeptical at best. Who needed these little wrist computers. Am I Dick Tracy in need of constant contact with base? I have enough screens in my face, I don’t need my watch to ping me with new emails.

I was wrong.

What changed? The Pebble got so much better. Before the Pebble could bring you text messages and had intermittent connectivity to your email account. I have a huge email box and I get about 400 emails a day. I needed more email notifications like I needed a hole in the head. In fact I turned off my notifications on my iPhone and even removed the unread badge from the mail icons. I just couldn’t handle the crush.

So a watch that reminded me that I had 1,000 unread emails was not something I wanted.

Then the new PebbleOS appeared in November. People raved. I almost didn’t upgrade. I had put the Pebble on my desk, uncharged, and figured it would join my SPOT watches and Palm Pilot watch in the box o’ dead smartwatches. Then, on a whim, I plugged it in and updated. I went to the Pebble app to find out how to add my email inboxes again and found nothing there – just a tutorial on how to update my notifications to make them appear on the Pebble. While I was busy grump using about how stupid wearables were, these guys had made some major changes.

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Suddenly all the notifications I cared about appeared on the watch screen. Things I wanted to see I could see, things I didn’t want to see were hidden. This very basic change – from firehose to à la carte – was immensely valuable. I wear the Pebble regularly now. Sometimes I wear the Pebble on one wrist or one of my mechanical watches on the other. I’ve learned to depend on the Pebble in a way that I never have with other wearables. It is at once exhilarating and freeing.

That’s when wearables get good: when they become part of our lives. Google Glass, as charming as it is, is still too wonky for daily use by non-die-hards. Wrist computers and phones – devices that have been with us for years – are still too big and battery-hungry. The Pebble, like the Fitbit before it, is just right.

I always counted wearables out. I never thought they’d become useful. But now, when facing a brave new era in notification technology, I’m cowed. Smartwatches make perfect sense, and they will only get better.

I want something that can do it all. I want the Pebble to measure my heart rate, my sleep patterns, and my steps. I also want a more vibrant notifications system, with different methods for different people. I want more standalone features – maybe world time – and I want the battery to last a little longer. But, in the end, I’m really pleased. Pebble has finally turned the corner and I think competitors aren’t far behind. In the immortal words of Farmer Hoggart, “That’ll do, Pebble. That’ll do.”

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Apple Slapped With $667K Fine For Trying To Influence Taiwanese iPhone Prices

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Chances are that if you’re reading this, you didn’t recently buy an iPhone in Taiwan. As it happens, that may be for the best — according to a Wall Street Journal report published earlier today, Apple has been fined NT$ 20,000,000 by Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission for attempting to influence iPhone sale prices. That may sound like a lot, but the reality is considerably less dramatic — that figure only works out to about $ 667,000. The price tag for further noncompliance raises the stakes a bit more though, as Apple would have to shell out an additional NT$ 50 million (~$ 1.6 million).

Pretty soon we’ll be talking about real money.

As the story goes, Apple insisted on signing off on iPhone pricing plans for three of Taiwan’s largest telecom companies — Chunghwa Telecom (far and away the biggest of the lot), FarEasTone Telecommunications, and Taiwan Mobile. Under Taiwanese law, those companies should be free from any sort of corporate interference once they have purchased the rights to distribute said iDevices from Apple, which sadly doesn’t appear to be the case.

The WSJ’s report goes on to note that Apple has the option to appeal the commission’s decision, but at this point there’s no word if the company plans to avail itself of that option. I’ve reached out to Apple for comment, but seeing as how it’s Christmas, I’m not holding my breath for a speedy response.

Now if we’re being honest, this isn’t the first time a major smartphone player has been caught playing hard and fast with Taiwanese law. Samsung has also been party to its share of legal imbroglios in Taiwan in 2013, as it kicked off the year by getting slapped with a NT$ 300,000 (roughly US$ 10,389) fine for running ads claiming that its Galaxy Y Duos smartphone had an autofocusing camera with a flash. It didn’t. Samsung also came under fire later that year for crafting a astroturfing campaign that saw paid flacks attack Taiwanese competitor HTC’s products online.

And the kicker? The campaign probably wasn’t even necessary. I’ll gladly admit to being a fan of HTC’s wares, but there’s no denying that company is still facing its share of financial woes.

If we’re being totally honest, the sorts of fines that get levied on these tech titans are unlikely to cause any lasting shift in behavior. Let’s not forget that Apple has something like $ 150 billion (probably much more) tucked away neatly in its cash reserves. Naturally, Samsung too is well-equipped to absorb regulatory fines as it gets hit with them — revenues for the chaebol as a whole continue to account for nearly a fifth of South Korea’s GDP, with a considerable chunk of that coming from its lucrative (and prolific) consumer electronics division. Let’s consider that Samsung astroturfing case again. As Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt adroitly pointed out when this all went down, the NT$ 10 million fine doesn’t amount to much more than a rounding error when you consider that Samsung’s 2012 marketing budget weighed in at a whopping $ 5.3 billion.

Did the whole rigmarole actually work? Who knows. What is clear though is that some very prominent companies seem to think it’s easier — and perhaps more lucrative — to say sorry and take a (very) mild financial drubbing than it is to play by the rules in the first place. They might not be wrong.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Fly Or Die: Singtrix

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Singtrix is the personal Karaoke machine of the future.

Instead of being limited by Karaoke-friendly, vocal-free tunes, Singtrix lets you erase the vocal track from any song in your phone or tablet, effectively expanding your library from a few songs to anything you can download.

And that’s not the best part.

Singtrix uses special audio technology to filter your voice with a number of different special effects. You can sound like your singing in a choir, or drop your voice down to match Barry White’s.

When you hit the “hit” button, Singtrix automatically harmonizes your voice with four copies of your voice, making you sound a lot like a rock god.

We had a total blast playing around with this thing, which is a really great option for the kid who doesn’t want an Xbox or is too young for an iPhone.

Two flies.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Apple’s New Mac Pro In Pictures: Beauty And The Beast

Like looking into a jet engine turbine.

Apple has a brand new Mac Pro with an all-new, bold design that’s assembled at home in the U.S. in a facility in Texas. It’s easily among the most bold and unique designs of a Mac in recent memory, bringing to mind equally mould-busting creations like the G4 Cube and the original ‘flowerpot’ iMac. It’s also got a distinctly Darth Vader vibe, and with its unique removable outer casing, that impression comes across even stronger.

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    The high-gloss surface makes it impossible to photograph without an unintended selfie.
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    Mac Pro, top exhaust port visible, case intact.
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    Like looking into a jet engine turbine.
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    Mac Pro ports, case intact.
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    Mac Pro with lid removed.
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    Mac Pro with lid removed.
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    Mac Pro ports, lid removed.
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    Mac Pro with case.
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    Circuit board detail, Mac Pro with lid removed.
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    Circuit board detail, Mac Pro with lid removed. One of the two standard workstation GPUs.
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    Circuit board detail, Mac Pro with lid removed. Flash memory unit on the right, both GPUs underneath.
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    Mac Pro ports light up when you turn the computer.
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    Mac Pro ports, rear.
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    The vents on the top of the Mac Pro, only visible without the lid.
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    Wide angle shot of the Mac Pro with keyboard and monitor.

We still have to take the new Mac Pro through more testing before we can deliver our full review, but first impressions are that this thing absolutely leaves any other current Macs in the dust in terms of loading, rendering and processing speed. It’s also extremely quiet, and actually produces a small amount of updraft from that exhaust port in the top, which is funneling air from its ‘unified thermal core.’

It’s a futuristic machine with futuristic good looks, and while I wouldn’t advise using it in the conditions pictured above, the currently frozen wastes of Toronto make an excellent backdrop for this demon machine. Stay tuned for our full review and more thoughts about Apple’s first new Pro desktop computer in many years.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Gift Guide: Our Favorite Android Phone

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Chris and I spent a good chunk of our last Droidcast discussing some Android-centric holiday picks, but we felt that one of those choices could use a bit more fleshing out. That said, we took a moment to stop bickering and share some thoughts on Google and LG’s Nexus 5, a device that wound up being our favorite Android phone of the holiday season.


The TL;DR

Price:
16GB $ 349
32GB $ 399

Important Specs:
+ 4.95-inch, 1080p IPS display
+ Quad-core Qualcomm 800 chipset @ 2.26GHz
+ 2GB RAM
+ 2,300 mAh battery
+ Ships with Android 4.4 KitKat
+ 8MP rear camera, 1.3MP front-facing camera

Darrell: Google’s new Nexus 5 phone, made by LG, is a little more understated in design than the Nexus 4 that preceded it. But it has design harmony with the Nexus 7 tablet, and its outer shell is more function than flash, with a matte rubberized case back that won’t slip and slide all over the place like the Nexus 4 was prone to do.

Chris: Unlike the Nexus 4 — which was ostentatious in its own little ways — Google and LG apparently strove to dial back the design of its smartphone hardware to the point where there’s honestly not that much to talk about. It’s solid and monolithic. It looks like a pint-sized Nexus 7 from behind. If you’ve got a black N5 there’s a chance your volume rocker will wobble in some mildly annoying ways. The speaker (yes, singular) is, sadly, pretty pitiful and the software didn’t help matters earlier on there. Google has started pushing tweaked versions of the phone through the pipeline that have enlarged grille holes for the mic and speaker though, so last-minute Christmas shoppers should benefit from some mild (if necessary) design tweaks. And the subtler design of the Nexus 5 has another added benefit – showcasing that gorgeous full HD 4.95-inch display.

Darrell: The display is one of the Nexus 5′s strongest features and the one that’s been complimented most often by strangers and friends who’ve asked me about the phone. LG continues to produce a display that’s far superior in terms of color rendering and accuracy than most of the other ones provided by Android smartphone OEMs, including the very capable HTC One. It’s impossible to discern individual pixels on the screen, too, thanks to very high PPI, and auto-brightness for the screen works somewhat better than it does on most previous Android phones, although I still find this is an area where Apple has managed to far outstrip its Google-powered rivals.

Chris: But all of these physical accoutrements only tell part of the story. Some will call the look “boring” without raising anyone’s hackles, but the better word is “unobtrusive”. Nexus 5 isn’t so much a star in its own right as it is a window that looks out over Android 4.4 KitKat and the updates that have already been issued to further polish the experience.

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Darrell: What’s really impressive about the Nexus 5 is that it begins to approach the point where you don’t think about Android software anymore, thanks in large part to KitKat, version 4.4 of Google’s mobile OS. KitKat doesn’t change how Android works very dramatically, but the changes it does bring make using it feel a lot more intuitive. Swiping left to access Google Now, for instance, is a much more natural and easily discoverable action for users new to Android than swiping up from the home screen button, which isn’t even a physical button to begin with.

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Other small tweaks like the integration of Google’s search database information to populate caller ID information about incoming calls are similarly amazing, if minor additions. In the short time I’ve been using my Nexus 5, I’ve had a surprising number of opportunities to make use of this aspect of KitKat, and it’s made it much, much easier to do the kind of required call screening that you benefit from if you’re working as a tech reporter. Once Google flips the switch on the Google+ integration to identify incoming callers based on the phone numbers they make public on their profiles, this will get a lot more useful, too.

Chris: It’s also worth noting that Google has talked up some neat features that will add to the overall KitKat experience. Perhaps the biggest? The search giant will soon start rolling out mobile search results that deep-link into the contents of your apps – that could make for both richer search results and a push for better quality Android apps because of the potential for exposure.

For better or worse though, it’s often the Nexus 5 launcher Darrell spoke of that causes the device to stand out from the crowd — even if your, say, Moto X gets the KitKat treatment, the experience will be obscured a smidge by the lack of that launcher. Is that going to be a dealbreaker for people? Hardly, but it’s a fine reminder of the importance Google puts on its Nexus-class devices.

Darrell: People have complained about the Nexus 5′s battery life, but I did not find it to be offensive. Did it impress me? No. Battery life on the Nexus 5 is simply adequate — it can usually get me through a work day — and shouldn’t really be a huge factor in your buying decision unless you’re seeking something that really packs an unusually outsized amount of usage time between charges. The one really disappointing thing on the Nexus 5 is camera quality: it’s an improvement over the terrible camera in the Nexus 4, but not a significant one. Nexus devices are so far behind on IQ that any of Apple’s iPad tablets can produce superior pics. Also, the software interface for actually using the camera is no good, and KitKat has done nothing to change that.

Chris: Whoa there, friend. I’m just about right there with you on the Nexus 5′s camera: despite the inclusion of and Google’s own crowing about camera quality, I’ve found the photo quality is nothing to right home about. It’s far from lousy, but it’s readily outclassed by some of the competition. And to be quite honest, I’m ready for these smartphone players to start pushing boundaries that really matter. I’d argue there’s an upper limit to how big a screen can get before it finally tiptoes over the line of ridiculousness (the Nexus 5 thankfully avoids that line just fine). And cameras, useful though they may be, are purely supplementary to the smartphone experience.

But batteries? That simply has to be the next big frontier. Motorola’s the most prominent company looking to push the battery boundary, but if Google is going to use the Nexus line as a sort of ideal for what Android devices can be, pumping up longevity could be a great signpost for the rest of the industry.

Darrell: This Nexus is a smartphone that impresses at first use, but that actually grows on you with time. It’s already surpassed the HTC One as my favorite Android device, and its design, while at first seeming somewhat forgettable, has become really appealing with continued use.

Chris: At first I was tempted to call this “the best Nexus phone yet” before I slapped that repugnant urge out of myself. Of course it’s the best Nexus phone. But is it worth your money? My answer is an big yes — it’s not perfect, but it’s great out of the box and Google and LG have shown that they’re committed to making the entire package better as needed.

You can check out our complete Holiday Gift Guide 2013 right here.

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TechCrunch » Android