All posts in “Gadgets”

Essential Phone now available to order, ships soon to pre-sale customers


The Essential Phone has arrived, a bit later than originally announced. The first smartphone from the new company founded by Android creator Andy Rubin is now available to order, via Essential’s own site, Best Buy, and Sprint. The phone is still listed as a pre-order in all three spots, with shipping information to be conveyed later, but this is the closest people have been able to get to actually holding the device in their hands up until now.

Essential also began sending out notifications to early customers who had pre-registered to purchase the device. 9to5Google reported Wednesday that pre-registered users were receiving emails telling them to supply their payment information, and that once completed, their devices would begin shipping within seven days.

The Essential Phone features a nearly edge-to-edge display, and a standard 128GB of storage on board. It supports external accessories, including a 360-degree camera that Essential revealed at the same time as its phone. The Phone supports all major U.S. carriers, but it’s being sold exclusively via Sprint with a $260 discount at retail. Unlocked, it’s $699 from Essential.com, with a limited time offer to also get the 360 camera in a $749 bundle.

Essential’s smartphone is designed to be minimal in its approach to branding, and to other stuff that phone makers typically do to mess up the smartphone experience, like preloading apps and content, or recreating their own, substandard versions of stock Android apps. It’s also a premium device in terms of materials and design, and Essential is promising two years of Android OS updates and three years of security updates, too.

It sounds like the first Essential Phone customers will still have to wait a week or so to actually receive their devices, but this is a big milestone for Rubin’s company. Another premium smartphone maker entering the fray is also bound to make things a bit more interesting in the market, which has seemed to settle with Apple and Samsung ensconced firmly at the top.

Android newbie HMD’s Nokia 8 flagship lets you livestream ‘frontbacks’


Rebooting the venerable Nokia smartphone brand has not been a rush job for HMD Global, the Foxconn-backed company set up for the purpose of licensing the Nokia name to try to revive the brand’s fortunes on smartphones.

But after starting with basic and mid-tier smartphones, it’s finally outted a flagship Android handset, called the Nokia 8, which it will be hoping can put some dents in Samsung’s high end. And/or pull consumers away from Huawei’s flagships handsets — or indeed the swathe of Chinese OEMs surging up the smartphone market share ranks.

With the Nokia 8, HMD is putting its flagship focus on content creators wanting to livestream video for their social feeds.

Competition in the Android OEM space has been fierce for years and there’s no signs of any slack appearing so HDM faces a steep challenge to make any kind of dent here. But at least it now has an iron in the fire. As analyst CCS Insight notes, the handset will be “hugely important in getting Nokia-branded smartphones back on the mobile phone map”.

Specs wise, the Nokia 8 runs the latest version of Android (Nougat 7.1.1) — which HMD is touting as a “pure Android experience”, akin to Google’s Pixel handsets. (There’s a not-so-gentle irony there, given Nokia’s history in smartphones. But clearly HMD is going full in on Android.)

On the hardware front, there’s a top end Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, plus 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal memory (expandable thanks to a MicroSD card slot). While the 5.3 inch ultra HD resolution display puts it on the verge of phablet territory — and squarely within the current smartphone screen size sweet spot.

Also on board: dual rear cameras, both 13MP (one color, one B&W), and a 13MP front facing lens — all with f/2.0; using Zeiss optics; and with support for 4K video.

The flagship camera feature — and really phone feature too — is the ability to livestream video from both front and back cameras simultaneously.

HMD is trying to coin a hashtaggable word to describe this: “bothie” (as opposed to a selfie)…

This split screen camera feature can also be used for photos — so they’ve basically reinvented Frontback. Well done.

“Content creators can natively broadcast their unique #Bothie stories to social media through the Dual-Sight functionality located within the camera app. Fans can also enjoy unlimited photo [<16MB in size] and video uploads to Google Photos,” HMD writes.

This could prove a sticky feature for social media lovers — perhaps especially the dual video option, which lets people share twin perspective video direct to Facebook and YouTube via the camera app.

Or it could prove a passing fad, like Frontback. Time will tell. CCS Insight describes it as an “interesting approach” but also cautions on whether consumers will take to it.

Commenting on the feature in a statement, HMD’s Juho Sarvikas, chief product officer, said: “We know that fans are creating and sharing live content more than ever before, with millions of photos and videos shared every minute on social media. People are inspired by the content they consume and are looking for new ways to create their own. It’s these people who have inspired us.”

Elsewhere on the device, there’s a spatial surround sound recording tech that uses three microphones and is apparently drawing on Nokia’s Ozo 360 camera division, plus USB type C charging port; a 3.5mm headphone jack; and a non-removable 3090 mAh battery.

The handset, which is clad in an aluminium unibody casing and has a fingerprint reader on the front for device unlocking and authentication, is described as splashproof rather than waterproof.

Global RRP for the Nokia 8 is €599, with a rollout due to start in September. The handset comes in a choice of four colors: Polished Blue, Polished Copper, Tempered Blue and Steel.

Protecting 3D printers from cyberattacks could be as simple as listening carefully


As 3D printers grow smarter and continue to embed themselves in manufacturing and product creation processes, they are exposed to online malefactors just like every other device and network. Security researchers suggest a way to prevent hackers from sabotaging the outputs of 3D printers: listen very, very carefully.

Now, you’re forgiven if someone hacking a 3D printer doesn’t strike you as a particularly egregious threat. But they really are starting to be used for more than hobby and prototyping purposes: prosthetics are one common use, and improved materials have made automotive and aerospace applications possible.

The problem, as some security researchers have already demonstrated, is that a hacker could take over the machine and not merely shut it down but introduce flaws into the printed objects themselves. All it takes is a few small air gaps, a misalignment of internal struts or some such tweak, and all of a sudden the part rated to hold 75 pounds only holds 20. That could be catastrophic in many circumstances.

And of course the sabotaged parts may look identical to ordinary ones to the naked eye. What to do?

A team from Rutgers and Georgia Tech suggests three methods, one of which is easy and clever enough to integrate widely — a bit like Shazam for 3D printing. (The other two are still cool.)

I don’t know if you’ve ever been next to a printer while it works, but it makes a racket. That’s because many 3D printers use a moving print head and various other mechanical parts, all of which produce the usual whines, clicks and other noises.

The researchers recorded those noises while a reference print was being made, then fed that noise in bits to an algorithm that classifies sound so it can be recognized again.

When a new print is done, the sound is recorded again and submitted for inspection by the algorithm. If it’s the same all the way through, chances are the print hasn’t been tampered with. Any significant variation from the original sound, such as certain operations ending too fast or anomalous peaks in the middle of normally flat sections, will be picked up by the system and the print flagged.

It’s just a proof of concept, so there’s still room for improvement, lowering false positives and raising resistance to ambient noise.

Or the acoustic verification could be combined with other measures the team suggested. One requires the print head to be equipped with a sensor that records all its movements. If these differ from a reference motion path, boom, flagged.

The third method impregnates the extrusion material with nanoparticles that give it a very specific spectroscopic signature. If other materials are used instead, or air gaps left in the print, the signature will change and, you guessed it, the object flagged.

Like with the DNA-based malware vector, the hacks and countermeasures proposed here are speculative right now, but it’s never too early to start thinking about them.

“You’ll see more types of attacks as well as proposed defenses in the 3D printing industry within about five years,” said Saman Aliari Zonouz, co-author of the study (PDF), in a Rutgers news release.

And like the DNA research, this paper was presented at the USENIX Security Symposium.

Ofo comes to the US, joining the bike-share fray in Seattle


Seattle seems like an unlikely venue for a duel between bike-sharing companies: it’s rainy, hilly, its residents can’t drive and another bike-share program recently went belly up publicly and ignominiously. But Ofo, one of several Chinese giants in the space, is the third company to launch in the city in a month. It’s the company’s first foray in the States.

Pronto, the service that crashed and burned here over the last two years, used dedicated docks in various ostensibly high-traffic areas. This inconvenient model is one of several reasons it ended up shuttering in May — after being bailed out by the city last year, no less.

The new services follow the much better model of letting users pick up and drop off bikes anywhere. It’s already hugely popular in China, where Ofo recently raised $700 million to expand operations. Its rival, Mobike, had just raised $600 million — the latest, in both cases, of several rounds in the hundreds of millions.

Bike sharing, and indeed cycling in general, has never been quite as commonplace in the U.S., especially in Seattle, which, despite having a healthy outdoors culture, is simply not suited for casual biking. That said, it’s still a dense, growing and tech-savvy city that won’t dismiss this type of service out of hand. Car-sharing platforms like ReachNow and Car2Go have been embraced wholeheartedly.

The city just issued two permits for bike-share programs last month, one for San Francisco’s Spin and one for San Mateo’s LimeBike, and both now have wheels on the streets. I’ve noticed the orange (Spin) and green (LimeBike) bikes everywhere, and people are indeed using them.

Ofo will be the third to join in, and aims to have a thousand bikes in the city by the end of the month. Like the others, you’ll rent one by scanning the QR code on its back. A buck gets you an hour, although all the companies are exploring other models for frequent users.

Curbed, which is keeping close tabs on the industry, got details on the actual bikes ahead of the official Thursday launch. They’ll have three gears, baskets up front and be more lightweight than those from rivals. That should help with Seattle’s many hills, and airless tires will prevent flats on our treacherous, pothole-filled streets. No helmets, though, which for casual riders are probably a good idea given how crowded our main thoroughfares are and how inattentive most drivers here are. Have I mentioned how unfriendly Seattle is to bikers?

All the bike-share companies are currently flouting Seattle’s helmet law, but it’s unlikely cops are going to give you a ticket unless you’re doing something really dumb. Yield to pedestrians, please!

Of course, like Spin and LimeBike, there will be significant “rebalancing,” i.e. trucks carrying bikes up from the bottoms of hills and snatching them from the boonies. One feature I’d like to see is the idea of putting bounties on bikes near you that need to be moved to better locations. Why send a truck when you can pay someone nearby a quarter to roll it along a few blocks?

We’ll see how the current platforms pan out over the remainder of summer, but the true test will be fall. And winter. And spring. It rains a lot here and ridership will drop like a rock.

Crowdfunded reMarkable e-paper tablet ships on August 29


The idea of using technology to replicate the simplicity and versatility of paper is an enduring one, but no device has nailed it just yet. That may change with the reMarkable, a unique and ambitious tablet that aims to do what paper does, but better. And four years after the concept was first proposed (although less than a year after crowdfunding), the team is finally shipping its first devices on August 29.

You could be forgiven for mistaking the reMarkable for one of these cryptogadgets that solicit some hype, make some promises, maybe load up on money and then disappear forever. But the team is dedicated and seems extremely interested in their own device, a surprisingly uncommon occurrence.

They’re still working on it, so the first recipients may have to exercise a little more patience. I’ll keep that in mind when I test it out, too. But the main thing, and the part the team has spent the most time on, is the feel and basic function. I’ll be able to report on that within a few minutes of unboxing.