All posts in “Mobile”

Is Apple working on a rival to Samsung’s Note 8?

Why it matters to you

Apple has never made a stylus-compatible iPhone before. Could this be a game changer?

Apple is considering creating a new version of the Pencil for an upcoming version of the iPhone — possibly the iPhone 9. The Korea Herald has reported that sources close to to the company said that “Apple is preparing to launch the phone as early as 2019.”

Apple debuted the Apple Pencil in 2015 and it has been a staple of the iPad Pro ever since. The company has never released one that is compatible with the iPhone, however. Apple’s reluctance to create an iPhone-compatible stylus likely has to do with Steve Jobs’ distaste for styluses. The Apple founder was known for his hatred of styluses; Jobs once reportedly said “God gave us 10 styluses. Let’s not invent another.”

While Jobs may have had an aversion to them, it’s clear that other tech companies and, more importantly, tech consumers, do not. The disaster that was the exploding Note 7 aside, Samsung’s Galaxy Note series has consistently sold well and styluses, in general, have proven popular with many people, especially artists.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8’s stylus was made in a partnership with Wacom, a company well-known for its stylus and tablets geared towards artists. While that phablet is more business-oriented, our Note 8 review revealed that the device still worked well for drawing.

We don’t know who will make Apple’s new stylus, but the Korea Herald’s reports indicate that the stylus-compatible version of the iPhone will have some major differences from Samsung’s line of Note phones. The Note 8’s stylus was made using electromagnetic resonance, which requires additional panels under the phone’s screen. Apple’s stylus will reportedly be a supercapacitor stylus, which is less expensive to make.

“A supercapacitor type is cheaper to make compared to the EMR stylus. It also offers a more pen-like feel,” one of the Herald’s sources said.

Another obstacle facing Apple is that their A-series line of mobile hardware will likely need an upgrade to support handwriting and drawing features on the smartphone. This was reportedly a problem for the iPhone X, where Apple was forced to reduce the touch-screen’s performance in order to make up for the fact that it had to use an older chipset.

Google lowers the price of the Pixel 2’s headphone adapter

Why it matters to you

Your first dongle is free, but replacements are now more than half off.

When Apple first announced that the iPhone 7 would not have a headphone jack, there was a clear sense of frustration in many responses. The internet wasted no time in mocking Apple’s decision, with some joking that Apple had innovated in reverse by actually removing features that consumers wanted. This decision prompted Apple’s rivals, such as Google, to boast that its phones maintained headphone jokes. Despite these issues, the iPhone 7 sold rather well. However, those who did want to use their old headphone still had an option in Apple’s headphone adapter. While it’s easy to mock Apple products as overpriced, the adapter was reasonably priced at $9.

All of this brings us to the Google Pixel 2. By all accounts, it’s a great looking phone, but, like the iPhone 7, the Pixel 2 lacks a headphone jack. In order to use standard headphones, users will have to rely on Google’s dongle adapter. One of these dongles is included with the Pixel 2, but should you need a second one, it could get expensive. Google originally priced the dongle at $20. This apparently frustrated a lot of people and, in response, Trusted Reviews has reported that Google lowered the price of the adapter to $9.

Regardless of the price of the adapter, Google’s decision to kill the standard headphone jack is becoming something of a pattern among smartphone makers. Some manufacturers, such as OnePlus and Samsung, are resisting this trend, but don’t be too surprised if the the Samsung Galaxy 9 doesn’t sport a headphone jack.

The points in favor of keeping the headphone jack are obviously a matter of affordability and convenience. Nearly everyone has a pair of 3.5mm headphones, and if you lose a pair, it’s is easy and affordable to find a replacement. You can pick up a decent pair of headphones for $10. Wireless headphones, on the other hand, tend to be a lot more expensive.

The benefits of losing the headphone jack are less clear, but they are there. A major factor has to do with the trend towards smaller and thinner phones. In order to make phones thinner and thinner, manufacturers have to remove components where they can, and headphone jacks are one of the first casualties of this design philosophy. Another major reason, especially for Apple, was to push its vision of the future of audio technology.

How to Use Portrait Mode on an iPhone 7 Plus, 8 Plus, or X

Portrait Mode is arguably the best reason for picking up the last-gen iPhone 7 Plus. The intuitive feature makes good use of the iPhone 7’s rear dual cameras, allowing you to imbue your photos with a shallow depth of field effect, one typically reserved for fancy DLSRs.

With iOS 11 and the new iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, Apple is adding cool lighting effects and other new features that will give your photos a more personalized look.

Thankfully, learning how to use Portrait Mode on an iPhone only takes a moment — simply open up the camera and tap Portrait, which is located directly above the shutter button. Once your camera is in Portrait Mode, a wheel of lighting effects will appear.

The first effect is Natural Light, which is essentially the same as the regular Portrait Mode introduced in iOS 11. As the name implies, the effect will simply blur the background and not adjust any of the lighting.

The next effect is Studio Light, which tries to even the lighting across your subject, so it looks as though you shot the photo in a well-lit studio. Contour Light tries to even out the lighting, too, but it also adds shadows to your subject’s contours, giving their cheeks and other features a more pronounced look.

For dramatic shots, try opting for Dramatic Light. The effect offers up the same features as Contour Light, but it also blacks out everything surrounding your background. This gives you the feeling of being the only thing lit on a black box stage.

But if Dramatic Light isn’t moody enough for you, then the final Portrait Mode effect, Stage Light Mono, will probably do the trick. It’s the same as Dramatic Light, except it results in a black-and-white photo.

Once you’ve chosen your desired effect, you’ll want to position the subject in the center of the camera and far enough away for you to snap the shot. The photo will then pop up in your Photos app with the applied effect.

If you want to change the effect after you’ve taken the photo, then find your picture in the Photos app and tap Edit. You’ll then see the same choices as before, but at the bottom of the photo. Just remember that you can only change or add an effect to photos that you’ve previously shot while in Portrait Mode.

David Cogen — a regular contributor here at Digital Trends — runs TheUnlockr, a popular tech blog that focuses on tech news, tips and tricks, and the latest tech. You can also find him on Twitter discussing the latest tech trends.

Russian voice assistant Alice sounds as natural as developer Yandex claims

App Attack is a weekly series where we search the App Store and Google Play Store for the best apps of the week. Check out App Attack every Sunday for the latest.

It’s sometimes tough to remember the days when we didn’t have the convenience of a voice assistant. Whether it’s through your smartphone or a home device, it’s as though a new one is popping up everyday. In the U.S., this type of technology is always available for us in the English language, while that’s not always the case for other countries. This week, we have an international app that takes the concept of voice assistants and create its own.

Yandex — available for iOS and Android — is particularly known as a Russian search engine. Since it’s been around for quite some time, Yandex has also branched out into language translation, a real-time bidding platform, and antivirus software. Most recently, it also introduced its own voice assistant, Alice, and integrated the new feature into the Yandex app. While the app can be downloaded in Ukrainian and Turkish as well, Alice can only speak Russian at the moment.

Perhaps the most unique thing about the new voice assistant is the fact that its developers based Alice’s voice off Spike Jonez’ movie Her. For anyone who’s unfamiliar, the premise of the film involves Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), faling in love with an operating system named Samantha. Yeah, you read that correctly — but it also helps to know that Samantha is played by Scarlett Johansson, whose voice has a soothing, friendly tone to it. To create the same tone, Yandex specifically used the recording actress who dubbed the voice of Samantha in the Russian version of the movie.

While Alice is here to help inform Russian users of the weather, plan routes to destinations, or learn the latest news, she’s also here to talk to you about nothing. The company recently added a neural network based “chit-chat” feature to allow you to have free-flowing conversations about anything you’d like. Yandex claims it’s a feature that sets it apart from the crowd of other voice assistants, but I think it’s going a bit overboard with this Her theme.

As a Russian speaker myself, I decided to test out Alice along with my dad, who immigrated here from the Ukraine when he was young. I was particularly excited to speak to Alice because I wanted to see how bad my Russian has truly gotten over the years. I wondered if she would still be able to understand what I was saying. If you really want to know how terribly I speak it, let’s just say I sound like someone who’s in the beginning stages of learning the language, rather than someone who spoke it as their first language.

As for my parents, their Russian accents are barely even there anymore, but growing up, I remember those old school voice assistants — known as navigation systems — had some trouble understanding them. I was interested to see how much easier it would be for my father to interact in his native language, especially given that Alice was created with SpeechKit — which is Yandex’s toolkit that enables her to understand your Russian with close to human-level accuracy. But in my opinion — and based on experience — she might have actually understood me better than humans do.

The Yandex app looks extremely similar to the Google Assistant app interface. You have a newsfeed of information from weather to your email, along with news headlines. When it comes to using Alice, all you need to do is click on the microphone and tell her your question or command. There’s also the option to type it out instead, and Alice will still understand you even if you type in English. But for maximum effect, you’re probably better off typing to her in Russian by adding the keyboard to your device.

While I can’t read Russian, I typed to her in English and had my dad read it out loud in Russian. Her responses were witty and entertaining, even with questions like “How are you?” she responds with “Very good, but lonely.”

Even if Alice doesn’t get your question correct the first time, there are options presented to you to choose from instead. You can also send a thumbs up or thumbs down symbol to let her know whether or not she was accurate in understanding your response.

For both my dad and I, speaking with Alice was actually a breeze. Even though my Russian isn’t perfect, she was still able to pick up on what I was saying. As for my dad, he said that if Yandex were available in the U.S., he would prefer to use it.

Though I thought it strange to base a voice assistant off of a movie like Her, I have to admit that speaking to Alice was entertaining. She was not only full of jokes, but would also give in-depth answers to all of your questions whether it was the weather or directions.

Yandex also did a great job of making her voice sound more natural than I’ve heard with other voice assistants. The most impressive factor was definitely how easy it was for her to understand me, when my Russian isn’t even that great. Perhaps those other companies could take a few hints from Alice herself.

Mobile phone companies appear to be providing your number and location to anyone who pays

You may remember that last year, Verizon (which owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch) was punished by the FCC for injecting information into its subscribers’ traffic that allowed them to be tracked without their consent. That practice appears to be alive and well despite being disallowed in a ruling last March: companies appear to be able to request your number, location, and other details from your mobile provider quite easily.

The possibility was discovered by Philip Neustrom, co-founder of Shotwell Labs, who documented it in a blog post earlier this week. He found a pair of websites which, if visited from a mobile data connection, report back in no time with numerous details: full name, billing zip code, current location (as inferred from cell tower data), and more.

It appears to be similar to the Unique Identifier Header used by Verizon. The UIDH was appended to HTTP requests made by Verizon customers, allowing websites they visited to see their location, billing data and so on (if they paid Verizon for the privilege, naturally). The practice, in common use by carriers for a decade or more, was highlighted in the last few years and eventually the FCC required Verizon (and by extension other mobile providers) to get positive consent before implementing.

Now, this is not to say that the whole thing is some huge scam: that data could be very useful for, for instance, an administrator who wants to be sure that an employee’s phone is actually in the location their IP seems to indicate. Why bother with a text-based one time password if a service can verify you’re you by querying your mobile provider? It’s at least a reasonable possibility.

And that’s what companies like Payfone and Danal are using it for; furthermore, users of their services would by definition be opting into this kind of tracking, so there’s no problem there.

I asked Payfone CEO Rodger Desai for a little clarification. He wrote back in an email:

There is a very rigorous framework of security and data privacy consent. The main issue is that with all the legitimate mobile change events fraudsters get in… For example, if you download a mobile banking app today, the bank is not sure if it is you on your new phone or someone acting as you – the fraudster only needs your bank password. PC techniques like certificates and device printing don’t work well – since it is a new phone.

But as Neustrom found out, mobile providers don’t appear to be working very hard to verify that consent. Both sites provide demos of their functionality, pinging mobile providers for data and presenting it to you.

Of course, if you want the demo to work, you kind of opt into the tracking as well. But where’s the text or email from the mobile provider asking you for verification? It seems that this kind of request could be made fraudulently by many means, since the providers don’t verify them in any way other than a few programmatic ones (matching IPs, etc).

Without rigorous consent standards, mobile companies may as well be selling the data indiscriminately the same way they were before advocacy groups took them to task for it. For now there doesn’t appear to be a way to officially opt out — but there also doesn’t appear to be a clear and present danger, such as an obvious scammer or wholesaler using this technique.

I’ve asked T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon whether they participate in this kind of program, providing subscriber details to anyone who pays — and who, in turn, may provide to to others. I’ve also asked the FCC if this practice is of concern to them. I’ll update this post if I hear back.

Featured Image: Zap Art/Getty Images