A flip phone with Google Maps? KaiOS is making dumb phones smarter

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Android Go may be Google’s answer for more affordable smartphones, but with 1.3 billion feature-phone owners in the world, according to Counterpoint Research, that still leaves a lot of people using yesterday’s technology. Maybe not for long. A relatively-new software company called KaiOS Technologies is bringing an enriched “dumb” phone experience to a market most manufacturers have neglected for the past decade.

The company is bringing modern smartphone apps and experiences to affordable devices.

You may have never heard of KaiOS, but there’s a chance you’ve seen its software in action if you have read anything about HMD Global’s newly-announced Nokia 8110 4G — it runs KaiOS. The software is lightweight, based on HTML5, and manufacturers that use it on their non-touch phones are able to customize the look to their liking. In HMD’s case, it’s designed to be reminiscent of Nokia’s old Symbian operating system.

KaiOS Technologies now has its software on phones from Doro, Reliance Jio, HMD, Alcatel, and soon, Bullitt (with a Cat phone) and Micromax. What’s even more impressive is how the company is bringing modern smartphone apps and experiences to these affordable devices, thanks to entry-level processors in feature phones from chipmakers like Qualcomm.

A partnership with Google, Facebook, and Twitter also means people who use feature phones running KaiOS will soon have access to an app store, as well as web apps including Google Maps, Google Assistant, Facebook, Twitter, and more. JioPhone 4G phone owners, for example, already have access to JioTV’s video-streaming service — meaning they can watch shows and movies on their feature phones.

Just the essentials

We tested Google Maps on the Nokia 8110 4G, and while we had to take a few minutes to get used to a non-touch screen phone, we were able to look around on the map and find nearby places — just like on a smartphone. Google Assistant lets you tap a button to ask it a question, such as a query about the weather, but we weren’t able to do further testing due to congested cell phone coverage at Mobile World Congress.

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All of this is possible because new feature phones are launching with support for 4G networks, largely because carriers are dropping 2G and 3G to make way for 4G LTE expansion as well as 5G. As mobile operators look for ways to replace revenue earned from voice and text, they are increasingly looking at a data and services business model. 4G feature phones are becoming essential in countries where data is expensive, and where there’s a wide gap in digital literacy. Since KaiOS doesn’t need to use much data, it’s likely a cheaper option than going for an Android Go smartphone; it also doesn’t require as much of a learning curve for someone who has never used a smartphone before.

But the software doesn’t just work well for emerging markets — it also works for people with smartphones. The Nokia 8110 4G, for example, can act as a 4G hotspot for your smartphone, or as a backup phone thanks to its 17-day battery life. Access to email, calendar, contacts, as well as apps like Facebook and Google Maps, give you all the essentials you might want on a phone to use, say, on your next hiking trip. KaiOS is present in the U.S., and its software is available on feature phones sold on Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

Bridging the digital divide

KaiOS Technologies originally started as a project at TCL Corporation, but founder and Chief Executive Officer Sebastien Codeville told Digital Trends he pitched the idea of separating it as a new company so KaiOS could work with different manufacturers. TCL agreed, and it spun off in 2016. Codeville said his company now has almost 200 employees, with offices set up around the world. With 20 million active users as of February 2018, Codeville said he’s targeting between 120 to 150 million active KaiOS users by the end of the year.

Codeville said he’s targeting between 120 to 150 million active KaiOS users by the end of the year.

What’s unique about the company is how hyperlocal it is — especially since it has employees across the world. The idea is to encourage local developers to develop apps for the operating system, offering localized content on these localized smartphones. To give a sense of how localized these feature phones are, the JioPhone running KaiOS already supports 22 Indian languages and dialects, making the phone accessible for a wide number of people.

Codeville said a Kai Store will be available soon with free apps at first, but developers can add paid apps at a later date. It’s also working on an advertising platform, as another revenue model for the company and developers. Other features on the roadmap this year include adding support for near-field communication, so feature phones with NFC can make contactless payments. Video calling is also in the works, as well as support for dual-SIM and enterprise.

KaiOS Technologies isn’t just focusing on the phone market. Codeville said the company has plans to expand its software into the wearables space, creating entry-level wearables for children and elders; as well as the smart home and automotive industries.

With 600 million feature phones to be sold every year for the next 5 years, according to estimates from the International Data Corporation and KaiOS Technologies, Codeville said his company is not a competitor to Android or iOS. The goal is to connect unconnected feature phones, improve digital literacy, and decrease the digital divide.

Editors’ Recommendations

‘Post-reality’ video of CG imagery projected on a dancing man at high framerates


Not sure what there is to add to the headline, really. Well, I guess I should probably explain a bit.

Back in 2016 (on my birthday in fact) researchers from the University of Tokyo posted an interesting video showing a projector and motion tracking system working together to project an image onto moving, deforming surfaces like a flapping piece of paper or dancing person’s shirt.

Panasonic one-upped this with a more impressive display the next year, but the original lab has clapped back with a new video (spotted by New Atlas) that combines the awkwardness of academia with the awkwardness of dancing alone in the dark. And a quote from “The Matrix.”

Really though, it’s quite cool. Check out the hardware:

This dynamic projection mapping system, which they call DynaFlash v2, operates at 947 frames per second, using a depth-detection system running at the same rate to determine exactly where the image needs to be.

Not only does this let an image follow a person’s movement and orientation, but deformations in the material, such as stretching or the natural contortions of the body when moving.

The extreme accuracy of this process makes for strange possibilities. As Ishikawa Watanabe, the leader of the lab, puts it:

The capacity of the dynamic projection mapping linking these components is not limited to fusing colorful unrealistic texture to reality. It can freely reproduce gloss and unevenness of non-existing materials by adaptively controlling the projected image based on the three-dimensional structure and motion of the applicable surface.

Perhaps it’s easier to show you:

Creepy, right? It’s using rendering techniques most often seen in games to produce the illusion that there’s light shining on non-existent tubes on the dancer’s body. The illusion is remarkably convincing.

It’s quite a different approach to augmented reality, and while I can’t see it in many living rooms, it’s clearly too cool to go unused — expect this to show up in a few cool demos from tech companies and performance artists or musicians. I can’t wait to see what Watanabe comes up with next.

The Babolat Pop tennis tracker wants to improve your game

babolat pop tennis tracker

If you’re serious about your tennis, you may want to get hold of Babolat Pop, a sensor-packed smart wearable designed to track your game on the court, right down to its finer strokes. Looking like a regular wristband, the Babolat Pop sits on your dominant hand. Once there, it will track your activity during a tennis game, from basic metrics like the speed of your swing to more in-depth analysis of things like spin and style.

This information is then sent wirelessly to your connected smartphone or another mobile device, which allows you to break down the information stroke by stroke. While it won’t offer you detailed coaching tips, it will tell you about the consistency of your game — and provide enough numbers that the more competitive “quantified self” enthusiasts will have something to battle over.

The gadget was created by Babolat, a French tennis, badminton, and squash equipment company that dates back to 1875. Working with Babolat was the French tech company Piq, which has created smart sensor tech for a number of sports; Piq and Everlast built a boxing robot last year. Piq also built the world’s first connected ski.

The Babolat Pop actually launched a couple years back, but Babolat has continued to update the mobile app in the time since then. Its latest app update came out in February, adding a few bug fixes to improve the overall tennis experience.

babolat pop tennis tracker babolet

The app boasts two main features: “Activity” and “Challenge.” The former tracks your court time, complete with the number of shots that you take. The latter meanwhile adds an extra gamified element (as if playing tennis wasn’t enough of a game!) by letting you compete with friends and other players around the world. You can even get your Piq score, a combined number made up of your various metrics, ranked in the global community.

Here in 2018, there are plenty of wearable sports trackers to choose from — with the market-leading Apple Watch Series 3 seemingly adding new sports by the day. If you’re looking for a good tennis-focused tracker, however, this smart device is definitely worth checking out. You might also want to check out sports sensor company Zepp’s Head Tennis Sensor for an alternative digital coach.

Editors’ Recommendations

Nokia 6 (2018) vs. Lenovo Moto G5S Plus: Can Nokia take out the budget champion?

nokia 6 2018 hands on mwc 5

Steven Winkelman/Digital Trends

Well folks, Nokia’s latest and greatest selection of phones is finally here. The company had a great 2017, and it looks like it’s planning on continuing that momentum into 2017. It has launched some excellent flagship devices, like the Nokia 8 Sirocco, but it is midrange phones like the Nokia 6 that could really make a mark on the overall smartphone landscape.

Of course, the Nokia 6 does have some serious competition, namely from devices like the Lenovo Moto G5S Plus. But which device is better? We put the two head-to-head to find out.

Specs

Nokia 6 (2018)

Nokia 6

Lenovo Moto G5S Plus

lg q6 vs lenovo moto g5 plus

Size 148.8 x 75.8 x 8.2mm (5.86 x 2.98 x 0.32 inches) 153.5 x 76.2 x 8mm (6.04 x 3.00 x 0.31-inches)
Weight 6.07oz (172g) 5.93oz (168g)
Screen 5.5-inch LCD 5.5-inch LCD
Resolution 1080 x 1920 (401ppi) 1080 x 1920 (401ppi)
OS Android 8.0 Android 7.1
Storage 32GB, 64GB 32GB, 64GB
MicroSD card slot Yes, up to 256GB Yes, up to 256GB
NFC support Yes Yes
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 Qualcomm Snapdragon 625
RAM 3GB, 4GB 3GB, 4GB
Connectivity GSM/HSPA/EVDO/LTE GSM/CDMA/HSPA/EVDO/LTE
Camera 16MP rear, 8MP front Dual 13MP rear, 8MP front
Video 1080p 2,160p
Bluetooth Yes, version 5.0 Yes, version 4.2
Fingerprint sensor Yes Yes
Other sensors Accelerometer, gyroscope, proximity, compass Accelerometer, gyro, proximity
Water resistant No No
Battery 3,000mAh 3,000mAh
Ports USB-C Micro USB
Marketplace Google Play Google Play
Colors Black/Copper, White/Iron, Blue/Gold Lunar Grey, Fine Gold
Availability April 2018 Amazon
Price 289 Euros $250
DT review Hands-on  4 out of 5 stars

Glancing at the specs, these two phones seem very similar, though not exactly the same. The Lenovo Moto G5S Plus is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor, which is a very decent midrange chip. The 2018 Nokia 6, however, steps things up a little, by offering the slightly newer Snapdragon 630. The two chips will offer similar performance, but the Snapdragon 630 is an updated version of the Snapdragon 625, so will be slightly more powerful and energy efficient.

Apart from the processor, the phones are very similar. They both offer either 3GB or 4GB of RAM, along with either 32GB or 64GB of storage, depending on the model you get. Both phones also offer a MicroSD card slot, so you can expand upon the included storage if you so choose.

Because of the newer and better processor, the Nokia 6 is the winner here.

Winner: Nokia 6

Design, display, and durability

best moto g5s plus cases

Neither the Nokia 6 nor the Lenovo Moto G5S Plus are flagship phones, and as such neither of them offer groundbreaking or overly interesting designs. That’s not to say they don’t look good — just that they don’t look all that interesting.

The Nokia 6 features a 5.5-inch display, with small bezels on either side, and a minimalistic design on the back, which is where you’ll find the camera and fingerprint sensor. The Moto G5S Plus, on the other hand, features a very Moto-esque design. It’s got the camera module on the back, with two sensors, along with a home button/fingerprint sensor combo on the front. Unlike the Nokia 6, on the bottom of the Moto you’ll find a MicroUSB port, and not a USB-C port, which is a little disappointing.

When it comes to the display, the two phones are identical. Both offer a 5.5-inch LCD display with a 1080p resolution and a pixel density of 401 pixels-per-inch.

The same is largely true when it comes to durability. Both phones have a metal frame and don’t offer water-resistance.

Because of how similar the phones are, it largely comes down to the slightly more modern design on the Nokia 6, along with the fact that it has a USB-C port.

Winner: Nokia 6

Battery life and charging

nokia 6 2018 hands on mwc

Steven Winkelman/Digital Trends

The similarities between the phones continue into the battery department. Both devices offer a 3,000mAh battery, and they’ll probably last a very similar amount of time given the fact that they have the same display. They also both offer a kind of quick charging technology. The Moto G5S Plus offers Motorola’s TurboPower, while the Nokia 6 features an unspecified fast-charging tech that will get you 50 percent charged in 30 minutes. Neither of the phones offer wireless charging.

Winner: Tie

Camera

Lenovo Moto G5S Plus review

Christian de Looper/Digital Trends

The camera is perhaps the biggest point of difference between these two phones. The Nokia 6 offers a 16-megapixel sensor on the back with an aperture of f/2.0 and phase detection autofocus. The Moto G5S Plus, on the other hand, offers a dual-sensor camera, with two 13-megapixel sensors. It also offers an f/2.0 aperture and autofocus.

When it comes to raw quality, we’ll have to do more testing to find out which is better. In our hands-on review of the Nokia 6, we noted that the camera seemed to offer decently good picture quality in bright light. In our Moto G5S Plus review, we found that while the camera was fine at taking standard pictures, using both sensors resulted in less-than-ideal results.

For now, this one’s a tie.

Winner: Tie

Software

Lenovo Moto G5S Plus review

Christian de Looper/Digital Trends

Both of these phones feature Android, but they approach Android a little differently. The Nokia 6 is actually part of Google’s Android One program — which means that Google will push updates directly to the phone. This will include both security updates and larger software updates, and they’ll likely be released like clockwork once a month.

The Moto G5S Plus, on the other hand, features a slightly tweaked version of Android, and while Lenovo hasn’t been terrible with updates, it hasn’t been the best either. Out of the box, the Moto G5S Plus features Android 7.1, though there is an Android 8.0 update on the way. The Nokia 6 features the latest and greatest Android 8.0 right away.

We can’t really get past the clean Android One look and the super timely updates. That makes the Nokia 6 the winner here.

Winner: Nokia 6

Price and availability

So far, the Nokia 6 seems to be the real winner here — but it also seems like it’ll be a little more expensive than the Moto G5S Plus. How much more? Well, we may not find out until the phone makes it to the U.S., if it ever does. Looking at pricing in Europe, the phone will come in at 289 euros. That equates to around $350, which is quite a bit more than the $250 price tag on the Moto G5S Plus.

Then there’s the availability, and Moto wins that category too. The Moto G5S Plus has been available in the U.S. for some time now, and you can get it off the Motorola website if you want it. The Nokia 6, on the other hand, won’t be available anywhere until April 2018, and even then it won’t be available in the States.

Winner: Moto G5S Plus

Overall winner: Nokia 6

The Nokia 6 is the clear winner here, but there’s a trade-off: Price. If you’re looking for a great phone at around the $250 mark, then you really can’t do much better than the Moto G5S Plus. If, however, you’re willing to shell out a little extra cash and don’t mind waiting until April, the Nokia 6 is more powerful, more modern, and should get timely updates.

Editors’ Recommendations

August Home smart locks expand integration with Google Assistant

august home voice control smart lock 1

The appeal of a smart lock becomes evident the moment a user crawls into bed and realizes they forgot to lock the front door. With the addition of modern voice control platforms, this is even easier.

August Home, known for its smart locks and smart home access services, announced last year that its Smart Lock is compatible with the Google Assistant on Google Home, making August the first smart lock on the market to support all three major voice-control platforms. Whether a user prefers Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, or Google Assistant, the August Smart Lock will work alongside the platform. And now, August is making its integration with one of these AI helpers more useful still. At MWC 2018, August Home announced expanded support for the Google Assistant to include support for DoorSense, the company’s door sensor.

So what does this mean for you? Thanks to this latest feature, the new August Smart Lock and August Smart Lock Pro will actually tell you if your door is open or closed. If you have DoorSense installed on your door (along with one of these new locks), you can just say, “Hey Google, is my door closed?” Plus, August has made it easier to interact with your entryways via voice. If you want to lock your door or check if it’s open, simply say, “Hey Google, lock my front door” or “OK Google, is my front door locked?” You won’t have to add the “Ask August” portion of the command any longer.

“Voice control continues to be a significant driver of smart home adoption and the Google Assistant on Google Home is a key partner in delivering a great user experience,” August Home CEO Jason Johnson noted previously.

On its own, the August Smart Lock allows users to lock or unlock their door with their personal smartphone. Additionally, virtual keys can be created for guests and an activity log keeps track of anyone who activates the device all day, every day. By pairing it with the Smart Keypad, owners can come up with unique entry codes for family, friends, and service providers. Completing the ultimate home access setup is the Doorbell Cam. Whether at the home or not, users can see and speak with visitors at the door using their personal smartphone.

The August Smart Lock Pro and Connect package is now available for $279.

Updated on March 2: You can now ask Google if your door is open or closed with the August Smart Lock. 

Editors’ Recommendations

Autonomous cars could peep around corners via bouncing laser


Autonomous cars gather up tons of data about the world around them, but even the best computer vision systems can’t see through brick and mortar. But by carefully monitoring the reflected light of a laser bouncing off a nearby surface, they might be able to see around corners — that’s the idea behind recently published research from Stanford engineers.

The basic idea is one we’ve seen before: It’s possible to discern the shape of an object on the far side of an obstacle by shining a laser or structured light on a surface nearby and analyzing how the light scatters. Patterns emerge when some pulses return faster than others, or are otherwise changed by having interacted with the unseen object.

It isn’t easy to do. Reflected laser light can easily be lost in the noise of broad daylight, for instance. And if you want to reconstruct a model of the object precise enough to tell whether it’s a person or a stop sign, you need a lot of data and the processing power to crunch that data.

It’s this second problem that the Stanford researchers, from the school’s Computational Imaging Group, address in a new paper published in Nature.

“Despite recent advances, [non-line-of-sight] imaging has remained impractical owing to the prohibitive memory and processing requirements of existing reconstruction algorithms, and the extremely weak signal of multiply scattered light,” the abstract reads in part.

“A substantial challenge in non-line-of-sight imaging is figuring out an efficient way to recover the 3-D structure of the hidden object from the noisy measurements,” said grad student David Lindell, co-author of the paper, in a Stanford news release.

The data collection process still takes a long time, as the laser scans across a surface — think a couple minutes to an hour, though that’s still on the low side for this type of technique. The photons do their thing, bouncing around the other side, and some make it back to nearby their point of origin, where they are picked up by a high-sensitivity detector.

The detector sends its data on to a computer, which processes it using the precious algorithm created by the researchers. Their work allows this part to proceed extremely quickly, reconstructing the scene in relatively high fidelity with just a second or two of processing.

The white model is the actual shape of the unseen item, and the green mesh is what the system detected (from only one side, of course)

The resulting system is also less susceptible to interference, allowing it to be used in indirect sunlight.

Example of a sign reconstructed from being lasered outside

Of course, it’s not much use detecting a person on the far side of a wall if it takes an hour to do so. But the laser setups used by the researchers are very different from the high-speed scanning lasers found in lidar systems. And the algorithm they built should be compatible with those, which could vastly reduce the data acquisition time.

“We believe the computation algorithm is already ready for LIDAR systems,” said Matthew O’Toole, co-lead author of the paper (with lab leader Gordon Wetzstein). “The key question is if the current hardware of LIDAR systems supports this type of imaging.”

If their theory is correct, then this algorithm could soon enable existing lidar systems to analyze their data in a new way, potentially spotting a moving car or person approaching an intersection before it’s even visible. It’ll be a while still, but at this point it’s just a matter of smart engineering.

Featured Image: Stanford University

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Snooze-proof alarms, ridable backpacks, and more

At any given moment, there are approximately a zillion different crowdfunding campaigns happening on the web. Take a stroll through Kickstarter or Indiegogo and you’ll find no shortage of weird, useless, and downright stupid projects out there — alongside some real gems. We’ve cut through the fidget spinners and janky iPhone cases to round up the most unusual, ambitious, and exciting new crowdfunding projects out there this week. That said, keep in mind that any crowdfunding project — even the best intentioned — can fail, so do your homework before cutting a check for the gadget of your dreams.

March 3rd

Stapp One — smart insoles

We covered this one earlier in the week, so here’s an excerpt from our full article, written by Luke Dormehl:

“Developed by health experts in Austria, Stapp One insoles fit into your regular shoe, where they use state-of-the-art textile sensors to collect information about your posture, distribution of weight, movement, and location. Through this approach, its creators claim the insoles can gather details including your weight, calorie burn, posture, activity, and skeletal deformities. This information is then sent to a connected smartphone app and presented to you in a manner that’s understandable, helpful, and easy to use.

“While a lot of these metrics can be measured through other fitness trackers, Stapp One’s big claim to fame is the fact that it can hone in on postural problems. In particular, it says it can recognize and help correct back pain, foot pain, neck pain, restricted movement, foot deformities, misalignment of the spine, and musculoskeletal weakness. It’s like having a tiny physiotherapist in your shoe!”

Snoozle — snooze-proof alarm clock

People have had a hard time getting out of bed ever since — well, probably ever since beds became comfortable. And ever since the invention of the snooze button, sleep-loving procrastinators around the globe have been struggling to wake up on time. Part of the reason the snooze button is so easy to abuse is that, oftentimes, you don’t have to do much more than roll over and flop your arm onto your clock to make it shut off. To remedy this issue, the creators of the Snoozle alarm clock have designed a simple and effective new system.

If you’re the type who can’t resist the allure of your mattress even after standing up, perhaps an alarm that forces you to leave your bedroom altogether is the best choice — and that’s precisely what Snoozle does. Once activated, the alarm won’t turn off until you pick it up and place it atop an accompanying pad — which would ideally be placed in your bathroom, kitchen, or somewhere else far, far away from your bedside. Not a bad idea, right? How much easier would it be to wake up on time if your snooze button was right next to the coffee maker in your kitchen?

NASA Exoplanet Travel Bureau Posters — awesome wall art

A couple years ago, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) commissioned a team of artists to design a series of travel posters that depict exotic locales in our solar system. They were (and still are) absolutely awesome, and are illustrated in a way that makes them resemble classic travel posters. All in all, JPL’s artists created a total of fourteen posters — and since the artwork was funded with taxpayer dollars, NASA went ahead and made all of it available for free. You can actually download and print them yourself right now if you want to.

The only downside? Unless you have access to a large format printer, putting NASA’s artwork on a full-fledged poster is a bit of a pain. So, to make it more accessible, German graphic designer Tim Hippmann is currently running a Kickstarter to raise funds for some full-size reprints.

“The posters are free for download and reprinting, so I wanted to print them in a printer studio for my working place,” Hippmann explains on his campaign page. “But they were not that size I needed, so I decided to retouch the posters and fit them to international standard sizes in Europe and the U.S.: 70 by 100 centimeters, and 24 by 36 inches.”

Orbiform — solid of constant diameter

This is a weird one. It really serves no purpose other than to just sit on your desk and look cool — or maybe act as a paperweight. Still, it’s undeniably cool. It’s called the Orbiform, and it’s what’s known as a “solid of constant width.” What this means is that, despite the fact that it’s shaped a bit like an acorn, it actually has a constant width no matter how its oriented. If you put a bunch of these underneath a board, the board would roll around as if it was sitting atop a series of spheres.

“An Orbiform,” the creators explain, “is a little-known, unintuitive geometric shape, with fascinating mathematical properties. Orbiforms were unwittingly used by polymath Leonardo da Vinci in 1514, mathematically discovered by mathematician Leonhard Euler in 1771, and placed in application by engineer Franz Reuleaux in 1876. We are Kickstarting a 3D Orbiform derived from a triangle to spread our enjoyment of mathematics and design with math lovers, designers, creators, educators and students.”

Movpak — backpack skateboard hybrid

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DT’s Lulu Chang covered this one earlier in the week, so we’ll let her give you the rundown:

“Two years ago, the folks behind Movpak managed to raise over $250,000 to bring their electric skateboard and backpack combination to life. Now, the team is ready to ship a new-and-improved version of the electric skateboard that takes portability to a whole new level to eager backers around the world. You see, once you’re finished riding the Movpak, you won’t need to pick it up and tuck it under your arm. Rather, you’ll be able to simply fold it up into a backpack and go about your merry way. So whether you want to consider it a backpack you can ride or a skateboard you can wear, it seems like the perfect tool for your urban commute.

“Riding the Movpak is as easy as pulling a dedicated handle. From there, the board easily slides out, and using a companion remote, you’ll be able to control your speed and braking as you cruise down streets. In order to recharge the Movpak, just plug the charger into any standard outlet for a couple hours. The deck of the eboard is constructed with a combination of wood, metal, and Kevlar compounds, which promises to make the board simultaneously strong and flexible.”

Can you really trust app store ratings? We asked the experts

app store ratings twitter rating

As smartphones have soared in popularity, app development has exploded. There are currently more than 3.5 million Android apps and games in Google’s Play Store, and more than 2 million apps and games in Apple’s App Store, according to App Annie. With such a feast of choice, people need a little help separating the wheat from the chaff.

App stores offer a review rating system for precisely this purpose. After you download and install an app, you can rate it out of five stars and write up a review detailing your thoughts. Review scores are aggregated and used to determine an overall score for the app. The higher the score an app gets, the more people liked it, at least in theory. In practice, a lot of reviews are less than useful for prospective installers and there’s a thriving trade in fake reviews. One star, one-line reviews complaining that an app didn’t work on this or that device, or that there was some billing issue, aren’t always a good indication of whether the app will meet your needs. But what about multiple five-star ratings with repetitive, unnatural-sounding reviews?

Gaming the system

Good review scores are vital if you want a coveted place in the app store charts. They boost your chances of appearing on curated lists and recommendations, and the bottom line is they can persuade people to install your app. Little wonder then, that some developers are willing to bend, or even break, app store rules to get closer to five stars.

The fact that many developers game the system has been an open secret in the industry for years.

“While we haven’t performed any specific analysis to quantify the scale of the problem, fake reviews do exist and have been shown to materially affect app review scores,” Paul Barnes, regional director at App Annie, told Digital Trends.

The fact that many developers game the system has been an open secret in the industry for years. A brief web search for “paid app reviews” or similar terms reveals several services selling app reviews and installations to artificially boost the standing of apps in the main app stores. While a small number of app reviews might cost $2 to $3 each, developers buying in bulk can secure discounts, with reviews costing below a mere 50 cents.

There’s no gray area here – this practice violates the Google Play Developer Program Policies and Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines. It can result in the removal of suspect reviews, the removal of the app, or even the expulsion of the developer from the program.

“Both Apple and Google have demonstrated they take the issue extremely seriously, and they continuously monitor reviews left on their respective stores,” Barnes said.

app store ratings iphone

The problem is that determining what constitutes a fake review is easier said than done. Many of these services employ real users who download and install the apps and then post glowing reviews. While developers used to buy reviews in big chunks and post suspiciously similar write ups, things have gotten more sophisticated.

You can now dictate the wording of reviews, decide on post frequency, and stir in some four-star reviews alongside the five-star reviews to make it look more natural. Some of these paid app review services also guarantee they will replace any reviews that are deleted.

“We want ratings and reviews to be authentic and a true reflection of comments from the users.”

“We want ratings and reviews to be authentic and a true reflection of comments from the users,” Andrew Ahn, product manager at Google Play, told Digital Trends. “Spammy reviews, such as off-topic comments, solicitation, content with profanity, are just some of the categories we filter out. We also prohibit fake or incentivized reviews.”

Interestingly, the practice of buying reviews isn’t just about securing positive feedback for your own app — it can also be used to knock the competition down.

“There are two types of issues with incentivized reviews,” Ahn said. “One is buying good reviews to better promote your own app, and the other is buying negative reviews to harm competing apps. We cover both cases to keep the ecosystem clean and fair.”

Meteoric success, like what happened with the game Flappy Bird, immediately raises questions, as does a sudden drop in ratings, like with CNN’s iOS app.

app store ratings CNN

In July 2017, CNN’s iOS app was “review bombed,” meaning the app store was flooded with malicious reviews over the course of a single week. It went from receiving around 30 reviews a day total, to receiving thousands of negative reviews between July 5 and July 11.

“It’s unclear if this was caused by automated bots or a coordinated approach from a politically-motivated group that opposes the network,” Barnes said.

Even when suspicious reviews are flagged, it seems that developer expulsions and app takedowns are relatively rare. If the manipulation isn’t blatant, it’s easy to imagine how difficult it might be to prove wrong doing on the part of a developer.

“We are able to filter out most incentivized reviews, so it does not impact the placement or presentation of an app in a meaningful way,” Ahn said. “In some egregious cases, we may take down the app for violating the Google Play Developer Program Policies.”

If you’re having trouble trusting app store ratings, we don’t blame you.

Quietly removing suspect reviews and giving developers a slap on the wrist is an understandable approach; Google and Apple don’t want to alienate app developers or deal with them too harshly.

The saga of an app called Dash and its removal from the App Store is an interesting, and rare example of an ejection that turned into a public argument. It’s tough to know the truth of the matter in a case like that. Apple claimed the developer paid for reviews, and the developer stated it was his relative’s account that was tied to his credit card, which in turn was also tied to his own account. Other apps, like One Night Stand: Adult Hook up, which is discussed in greater detail on Reddit and is still available in the App Store with a rating of 4.9 out of 5, seem to be clearly breaking the rules with impunity.

While developers buying fake reviews can be difficult to detect, there is a much clearer incentivization strategy we’ve seen in a few apps and games over the years. Sometimes you’ll be offered a free in-app purchase or some in-game currency in return for a positive review. If the developer explicitly asks for a five-star review, then this breaks the same guidelines as buying fake reviews, but there’s some wiggle room here.

It’s common for apps and games to ask for reviews via a pop-up after you’ve been using the app or playing the game for a while. These pop-ups may repeat every so often until you go ahead and leave a review. Someone came up with the bright idea of sending users who gave a positive score to the normal app store review page but diverting users who gave a low score — often anything less than five stars – to their own website to leave feedback. This is a loophole that doesn’t seem to be breaking any rules right now, but we know it’s on Google’s radar.

There are no statistics on how many apps are removed from app stores because of incentivized reviews, but Google removed more than 700,000 “bad apps” last year alone. The majority were copycats, contained inappropriate content, or were considered potentially harmful malware, but the fake review issue is also being treated seriously.

Android developers looking to challenge suspicious reviews can do it from the Play Console. This will bring the attention of a specialist, who will decide whether the review violates posting policy and needs to be removed or not. The rest of us can use this form to report Play Store reviews as inappropriate or spam, or you can go to the review, tap the three-dot icon, and hit Spam. You can also go to the very bottom of the app listing and hit Flag as inappropriate if you notice fake reviews.

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For anyone that uses Amazon’s Appstore, there’s another tool at your disposal. It may only have around 600,000 apps and games to choose from, but because Amazon has had issues with fake reviews on other kinds of products for years now, there’s an independently-developed review analyzer tool called ReviewMeta that also works for apps. Paste the link into the tool and it provides a simple pass or fail by analyzing the public data to look for things like repetitive phrases or suspicious one review accounts with unverified purchases. It’s not perfect, but it’s interesting to try out and see a clear methodology for rooting out fake reviews.

For Apple’s App Store, the best way to report fake reviews is to contact iTunes support.

If you’re having trouble trusting app store ratings, we don’t blame you. We would like to see all the major players take more action to combat fake reviews. Luckily, there are plenty of trustworthy websites out there that review apps and games, and you can always dig into our curated lists of the best Android apps, best iOS apps, and our weekly App Attack column.

Editors’ Recommendations

BuzzFeed’s Matthew Henick takes content role at Facebook


Matthew Henick, formerly the head of BuzzFeed Studios, is joining Facebook’s media partnerships team, where he will serve as head of content planning and strategy.

In a post on Facebook, Henick argued that the social network is “a storytelling platform at its core,” and it sounds like he wants to help Facebook take advantage of those storytelling opportunities:

Good stories draw the audience in, but great stories deepen the audience’s connection to each other. The future of storytelling is social. As media learns to wield the advantages of the digital world, a completely new video experience is emerging on mobile, with a potential for social and interactivity that we’re only beginning to tap. It resists silos like “first” and “second screens.” I think everyone in the world should be able to touch this experience — whether they want to consume it, create for it or even monetize it — in a singular, unified way. Facebook is in an amazing position to offer that. It’s a clear extension of the company’s mission to bring the world closer together.

Even at BuzzFeed, it sounds like Henick’s role was to connect digital media with more traditional forms of storytelling — he led a team focused on turning BuzzFeed content into TV series and feature-length films. BuzzFeed announced earlier this year that it was restructuring its entertainment group.

Facebook, meanwhile, launched a new Watch section last year where users can check out original shows.

Brace for impact: The best rugged phones can endure anything you throw at them

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Every time you drop your phone face down, there’s a slight moment of fear that overcomes you right before you pick it up to (hopefully) see that your phone’s screen didn’t crack. We’re accustomed to this feeling because we all know that smartphones have a delicacy problem. Some companies are aware of this, and they’ve spent years trying to make the best rugged phones they can.

Over time, smartphones have gotten more water resistant, and for most people a protective case is all they’ll ever need. But a case and some water resistance isn’t enough for people who work in construction or engineering and need something that can survive rain, dust, and the occasional fall onto hard materials.

We’ve scoured the internet to find everything from a phone developed by a construction company to a flip phone that can hang with the best of them. You might also have heard that the Cat S61 and the Land Rover Explore are on the horizon, but we can’t recommend them yet since, well, they’re not out yet. Rest assured that we’ll be testing those phones as soon as they’re available, and you’ll get our honest thoughts on whether they’re worth your salt. For now, these are the best rugged phones on the market.

Keep in mind that not all of these phones may work for your carrier, but there are ways to fix that.

Cat S60

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The Cat S60 is just as tough as any other Caterpillar product, but the S60 brings more to the table than just a smartphone wrapped in a metal and carbon fiber frame.

Its coolest — and most useless to 99 percent of the population — feature is the built-in FLIR thermal camera. As the name implies, you can take thermal photos and videos, and it looks just like it does in the Splinter Cell games. The display is 4.7 inches and 720p, made from tough Gorilla Glass with raised edges to ensure that your screen won’t crack.

The phone is also IP68 certified, so it can be submerged in water that’s 16 feet deep for up to an hour, take a six foot dive onto concrete, or be left out in below zero temperatures or 130 degree Fahrenheit weather and still work with no problems.

It comes equipped with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, and you can add more storage thanks to its MicroSD slot. Along with its SOS button and dual SIM card slots, the phone is a construction worker’s dream, but its $629 price tag is off-putting, especially when you can find the S50 (which is basically the same, minus the FLIR feature) for hundreds of dollars cheaper.

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Kyocera DuraForce Pro

Best Rugged Phones

The DuraForce Pro’s exterior is a mix of polycarbonate and thick rubber, and its backside is conveniently curved so that it can fit comfortably in anyone’s hands. It’s only IP68 certified to be dustproof and waterproof for up to 30 minutes under 6.5 feet of water.

The DuraForce Pro also comes equipped with a really cool feature called Smart Sonic Receiver. While you’re on the phone, the receiver cancels up to 100 decibels of background noise by sending vibrations directly to your eardrum. If you’re constantly working around loud machinery, this feature is for you.

The phone doesn’t have a SIM card slot, and you can’t buy it unlocked, which means you have to go through a carrier, and that leaves the phone loaded with bloatware. The battery can last up to a day with medium use, which is actually on the low side for rugged smartphones. It does fortunately have a nifty Quick Charge feature that lets you charge up to 60 percent of the battery in 30 minutes.

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Homtom HT20

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The HT20’s biggest draw is that it’s the cheapest smartphone on the list, at just over $100, but that comes at a price.

Don’t get us wrong, this phone is still incredibly durable. It’s IP68 certified to be waterproof for up to three feet of water for up to 30 minutes, it has a heavy duty Gorilla Glass screen that prevents scratches and cracks, and its magnesium alloy frame and rubber bumps make it virtually shockproof.

Where the phone is really lacking is internally. It tends to run slow if you have multiple apps open thanks to only having 2GB of RAM. The 3,500 mAh battery holds a decent charge, but it lacks a rapid charger (which is uncommon for rugged phones). But on the plus side, it has dual SIM slots, and the 16GB of storage can be bumped up to 64GB if you put in a MicroSD card.

You’re losing some standard features that come with rugged phones, but the HT20 is durable enough, and its price point will be hard to pass up for some.

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Blackview BV8000 Pro

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Another strong handset from Chinese up-and-comer Blackview, the BV8000 Pro certainly isn’t the cheapest device we’ve found, but it is one of most well-rounded. It’s as durable as you’d expect from a smartphone on this list being constructed of metal with rubberized areas that provide extra grip on the phone. It’s fully IP68 certified, and although it doesn’t have any plugs to protect the ports on the phone, extra care has been taken to ensure the headphone jack and the USB-C charging port don’t let in water. That said, Blackview does recommend you ensure all water is out of the ports before you attempt to use them — a hair dryer is recommended.

There’s also been extra care made to make the BV8000 Pro into a device that could easily pass as a more usual phone — barring the obviously rugged design. The screen is a 5-inch IPS LCD that supports a full HD 1080p display, and a 16-megapixel camera from Samsung takes decent photos with a good f/2.0 aperture. Don’t get us wrong — it’s not going to get on our best smartphone cameras list, but it’s not bad for a rugged phone. A hefty 4,180mAh battery powers 6GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage — and it’s running on Android 7.0 Nougat as well, setting it apart from many other rugged smartphones.

NFC and a fingerprint sensor are bonus extras too, making this a good rugged all-rounder that can adapt to a variety of situations.

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Kyocera XV+

Believe it or not, flip phones are making a comeback, and if you really want to cut out any danger of breaking your phone, then you might want to consider getting one. Sounds archaic at first, but the XV+ is an old-school phone with new-school features like GPS navigation and Kyocera’s patented Smart Sonic Receiver which made the DuraForce Pro such a standout.

There’s obviously no touchscreen, and you won’t be able to play Angry Birds on it, but the XV+ is IPX68 certified to be submerged under six feet of water for 30 minutes and endure shock, rainstorm, extreme temperatures, and dust. The XV+ is specifically for Verizon, but you can find variants of the same phone for other carriers at Kyocera’s website.

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Editors’ Recommendations