All posts in “App”

Microsoft’s new expense tracker Spend hits the App Store

The team behind mileage-tracking app MileIQ, a company Microsoft acquired a few years ago, is out with a new application. This time, the focus isn’t on tracking miles, but rather expenses. The new app, simply called “Spend,” arrived on the App Store on Thursday, offering automatic expense tracking for work reimbursement purposes or for taxes.

Spend doesn’t appear to be a part of some grand Microsoft plan to take on expense tracking industry giants, like Expensify or SAP-owned Concur, for example. At least, not at this time.

Instead, the app is a Microsoft Garage project, the App Store clarifies.

Microsoft Garage is the company’s internal incubator when employees can test out new ideas to see if they resonate with consumers and business users.

Through the program, a number of interesting projects have gotten their start over the years, like the Cortana-based dictation tool, Dictate; mobile design creation app Sprightly; short-form email app Send; the Word Flow keyboard for smartphones; a Bing-backed alternative to Google News; and dozens more.

The new Spend app, at first glance, looks well-designed and easy to use.

Like most expense trackers, it offers features like the ability to take photos of receipts, expense categorization features, and reporting.

However, what makes Spend interesting is the app’s automated tracking and matching, and its user interface for working with your receipts.

The app begins by automatically tracking all your expenses from a linked credit card or bank account. You can then swipe on the expenses to mark them as personal or business. These expenses are automatically categorized, and you can add extra tags for added organization.

You can also add notes to purchases, split expenses, and customize expense categories, in addition to tags.

And the app can generate expense reports on a weekly, monthly or custom bases, which can be exported at spreadsheets or PDFs. There’s a web dashboard for when you’re using the app at your computer, but Spend doesn’t appear on the MileIQ main website at this time. It does, however, have a support site.

The company says the new app is an early version, and they plan to revise it going forward as they make improvements. Microsoft has been asked for more details on its plans with Spend, and we’ll update if they have more to offer.

Pocket’s reading app won’t sound so robotic now

Last year, Mozilla made its first acquisition by snatching up Pocket, the Instapaper competitor that helps you save longer articles for later reading. Today, this popular reading app is getting a major update that gives its app a visual makeover, including a new dark mode, and most importantly, a better way to listen to the content you’ve saved.

Pocket had added a text-to-speech feature several years ago, so you could listen to an audio version of your saved articles, instead of reading them. Instapaper today offers a similar option.

But these text-to-speech engines often sound robotic and mangle words, leading to a poor listening experience. They’ll work in a pinch when you really need to catch up with some reading, and can’t sit down to do it. But they’re definitely not ideal.

Today, Pocket is addressing this problem with the launch of a new listening feature that will allow for a more human-sounding voice. On iOS and Android, the listen feature will be powered by Amazon Polly, Mozilla says.

First introduced at Amazon’s re:Invent developer event in November 2016, Polly uses machine learning technologies to deliver more life-like speech. Polly also understands words in context. For example, it knows that the word “live” would be pronounced differently based on its usage. (E.g. “I live in Seattle” vs. “Live from New York.”) The technology has evolved since to support speech marks, a timbre effect, and dynamic range compression, among other things.

To take advantage of the updated “Listen” feature, users just tap the new icon in the top-left corner of the Pocket mobile app to start playing their articles. It’s like your own personalized podcast, Mozilla notes.

In addition, the app has been given a redesign that gives it a clean, less cluttered look-and-feel, and introduces a new app-wide dark mode and sephia themes, for those who want a different sort of reading experience.

The redesign includes updated typography and fonts, focused on making long reads more comfortable, as well.

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“At Mozilla, we love the web. Sometimes we want to surf, and the Firefox team has been working on ways to surf like an absolute champ with features like Firefox Advance,” said Mark Mayo, Chief Product Officer at Firefox, in a statement about the launch. “Sometimes, though, we want to settle down and read or listen to a few great pages. That’s where Pocket shines, and the new Pocket makes it even easier to enjoy the best of the web when you’re on the go in your own focused and uncluttered space,” he said.

The updated version of Pocket is live on the web, iOS and Android, as of today.

Amazon’s revamped Alexa app makes it easier to manage your smart home

Amazon’s Alexa app has just been given a major visual overhaul, largely focused on helping users set up and control their smart home. From the app’s new devices tab, users can view all their different Alexa-enabled devices and groups on one screen, as opposed to switching between tabs like before. And the app is much more colorful, too. Instead of a set white icons on a dark background, Alexa’s device groups – like Living Room, Kitchen, Bedroom, etc. – now feature colorful backgrounds, so you can find the one you need with just a glance.

An overhaul of the devices section was needed, not only for aesthetic reasons, but because Alexa owners are stocking their house with more than one smart device.

According to a Nielsen report on smart speaker adoption released earlier this month, 4 out of 10 U.S. smart speaker owners today have more than one device, for example. Smart home device sales are also expected to reach nearly $96 billion in 2018 and grow to $155 billion by 2023, another report estimates.

Amazon itself sells a variety of smart devices, like Cloud Cam, Ring doorbells and Ring cameras. And it just introduced a whole mess of new Alexa-enabled devices at an event in Seattle last month, including everything from wall clocks to subwoofers to Alexa-powered microwaves.

It’s clear the retailer expects people to continue to build out their smart home, and its app needed to adapt accordingly.

In the new version of the app, the device types are displayed as icons across the top of the screen – starting with “Echo & Alexa” devices, then “Lights,” “Audio,” “Plugs,” and others. Below this are the colorful groupings of devices by room, each with their own “On/Off” button.

A small “+” button at the top right of the screen allows you to easily add your newest device, too.

Adding Bluetooth speakers to multi-room music groups is also now supported, the app’s update text says.

The redesign also makes it simpler to call, message or “drop in” on your other Alexa devices – the latter being the feature that turns Echo speakers into a voice-controlled intercom system of sorts, triggered by saying “Alexa, drop in on…” followed by the device name. It’s especially handy for larger homes, where there is an upstairs and downstairs, for example, or for reaching family members in another part of the house. You can also Drop In on trusted contacts, like grandma or grandpa.

Now, these communication options each have their own button at the top of the messaging screen in the app so you can just push a button to call, message or drop in, as you prefer.

The new Alexa app is live on the iOS App Store. Amazon hasn’t made a formal announcement about the changes, as they still be rolling out to users following the update.

Apple Store app for iOS gets voice search

Apple is making a huge change to the way you search for products in its online store.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company just released an update to its Apple Store app on iOS that adds voice search. Now, you only need to tap the microphone icon in the search bar and say the keywords out loud to search the entire store for the product you’re looking for.

The new voice search feature appears in the latest app update (version 5.1), and brings over the redesigned search bar that first appeared in the  App Store and iTunes Store. Following the redesign, trending topics will now appear with a ‘Try Searching’ heading. 

More importantly, with voice search you can now ask for things naturally without having to type them in. For instance, you can ask for the nearest Apple Store or a USB-C to micro SD card dongle. The app will return results for either query.

When I asked for cases that work with my device, it populated several iPhone X cases on its own. The smarter search can also locate a store and search previous orders.

The new search field in the Apple Store app includes trending topics and voice searching.

The new search field in the Apple Store app includes trending topics and voice searching.

Image: Screenshot by jake krol/mashable

For those of you who use Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program, you can also quickly get information about your account, like when an upgrade will be available. This is crucial for anyone who closely follows the latest iPhone releases.

The redesigned bottom navigation bar.

The redesigned bottom navigation bar.

Image: screenshot by jake krol/mashable

Along with enhanced search, there’s also a slight design tweak. The bottom bar has a simpler design language that looks very sleek.

Beyond all of these subtle changes, the Apple Store app is essentially the same. Hopefully, Apple will realize the usefulness of this voice search and bring it to the App Store and iTunes. For now, this is a pretty sweet consolation.

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Google Measure app is available (but glitchy) on even more phones

Even more Android users can now measure things with their phones.

Google Measure — or what is essentially a virtual measuring tape in an app — is now compatible with any device that runs ARCore, Google’s platform for building augmented reality tools. 

The Measure app was previously only compatible with devices that supported Project Tango, Google’s now-defunct augmented reality computing platform. But an update today makes the Measure app compatible with various Samsung Galaxy, Sony, and Pixel devices.

Google has recently unveiled a lot of consumer AR apps, but they don’t really function that well in practice. Google Lens, for example, was supposed to identify objects when you pointed your smartphone’s camera at them, but it often performs poorly in real world settings. The Google Translations app, it’s worth mentioning, has an AR feature that is actually pretty accurate, but the feature was enabled through Google’s acquisition of WordLens and was not built by Google from the ground up.

Although Google Measure boasts greater compatibility after today’s update, the augmented reality app is still clunky and impractical, especially compared to its iOS counterpart — also called Measure — which is built into iOS 12.

Unlike Apple’s competing app, Google Measure cannot detect objects very well and has poor depth perception. The app says it’s best used on a well-lit, patterned platform, but it barely discerns patterns regardless of the lighting and is unusable on patternless surfaces, like a plastic table.

Dots will appear to indicate where you can start the measurement. You then drag and drop either the length or height options at the bottom to the dotted area.

Dots will appear to indicate where you can start the measurement. You then drag and drop either the length or height options at the bottom to the dotted area.

Once you drag the desired tool past  the dots, however, your measurement will not register even if it is on the same plane and pattern.

Once you drag the desired tool past  the dots, however, your measurement will not register even if it is on the same plane and pattern.

The measurements are also easy to botch. For example, if the phone doesn’t scan the surface you’re measuring properly, or if you don’t place the end point in exactly the right spot — you wind up with wildly wrong measurements. Of course, in most situations where you’re recording the distance or length of something — it’s best to be as exact as possible. It’s hard to imagine trusting this app with any major construction projects, but it should be enough to get the job done for most basic measuring tasks.

You can try out this app for yourself if you own any one of these devices. You may find that it’s frustrating or a waste of time, but at least it’s free.

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