All posts in “Gadgets”

Bag Week 2018: The Bitcoin Genesis Block backpack will centralize your belongings

Welcome to Bag Week 2018. Every year your faithful friends at TechCrunch spend an entire week looking at bags. Why? Because bags — often ignored but full of our important electronics — are the outward representations of our techie styles, and we put far too little thought into where we keep our most prized possessions.

It’s difficult to show people that you love blockchain. There are no cool hats, no rad t-shirts, and no outward signs – except a libertarian bent and a poster of a scantily-clad Vitalik Buterin on your bedroom wall – to tell the world you are into decentralized monetary systems. Until, of course, the Bitcoin Genesis Block Backpack.

Unlike the blockchain, this backpack will centralize your stuff in a fairly large, fairly standard backpack. There is little unique about the backpack itself – it’s a solid piece made of 100% polyester and includes ergonomically designed straps and a secret pocket – but it is printed with the Bitcoin Genesis Block including a headline about UK bank bailouts. In short, it’s Merkle tree-riffic.

The green and orange text looks a little Matrix-y but the entire thing is very fun and definitely a conversation starter. Again, I doubt this will last more than a few trips to Malta or the Luxembourg but it’s a great way to let Bitcoin whales know your ICO means business.

The bag comes to us from BitcoinShirt, a company that makes and sells bitcoin-related products and accepts multiple cryptocurrencies. While this backpack won’t stand up to 51% attacks on its structural integrity, it is a fun and cheap way to show the world you’re pro-Nakamoto.

So as we barrel headlong into a crypto future fear not, fashion-conscious smart contract lover: the Bitcoin Genesis Block backpack is here to show the world you’re well and truly HODLing. To the moon!

Read other Bag Week reviews here.

Apple slapped with $6.6M fine in Australia over bricked devices

Apple has been fined AUS$9M (~$6.6M) by a court in Australia following a legal challenge by a consumer rights group related to the company’s response after iOS updates bricked devices that had been repaired by third parties.

The Australian Competitor and Consumer Commission (ACCC) invested a series of complaints relating to an error (‘error 53’) which disabled some iPhones and iPads after owners downloaded an update to Apple’s iOS operating system.

The ACCC says Apple admitted that, between February 2015 and February 2016 — via the Apple US’ website, Apple Australia’s staff in-store and customer service phone calls — it had informed at least 275 Australian customers affected by error 53 that they were no longer eligible for a remedy if their device had been repaired by a third party.

Image credit: 70023venus2009 via Flickr under license CC BY-ND 2.0

The court judged Apple’s action to have breached the Australian consumer law.

“If a product is faulty, customers are legally entitled to a repair or a replacement under the Australian Consumer Law, and sometimes even a refund. Apple’s representations led customers to believe they’d be denied a remedy for their faulty device because they used a third party repairer,” said ACCC commissioner Sarah Court in a statement.

“The Court declared the mere fact that an iPhone or iPad had been repaired by someone other than Apple did not, and could not, result in the consumer guarantees ceasing to apply, or the consumer’s right to a remedy being extinguished.”

The ACCC notes that after it notified Apple about its investigation, the company implemented an outreach program to compensate individual consumers whose devices were made inoperable by error 53. It says this outreach program was extended to approximately 5,000 consumers.

It also says Apple Australia offered a court enforceable undertaking to improve staff training, audit information about warranties and Australian Consumer Law on its website, and improve its systems and procedures to ensure future compliance with the law.

The ACCC further notes that a concern addressed by the undertaking is that Apple was allegedly providing refurbished goods as replacements, after supplying a good which suffered a major failure — saying Apple has committed to provide new replacements in those circumstances if the consumer requests one.

“If people buy an iPhone or iPad from Apple and it suffers a major failure, they are entitled to a refund. If customers would prefer a replacement, they are entitled to a new device as opposed to refurbished, if one is available,” said Court.

The court also held the Apple parent company, Apple US, responsible for the conduct of its Australian subsidiary. “Global companies must ensure their returns policies are compliant with the Australian Consumer Law, or they will face ACCC action,” added Court.

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment on the court decision and will update this post with any response.

A company spokeswoman told Reuters it had had “very productive conversations with the ACCC about this” but declined to comment further on the court finding.

More recently, Apple found itself in hot water with consumer groups around the world over its use of a power management feature that throttled performance on older iPhones to avoid unexpected battery shutdowns.

The company apologized in December for not being more transparent about the feature, and later said it would add a control allowing consumers to turn it off if they did not want their device’s performance to be impacted.

SpeakSee makes it simple for a deaf person to join a group conversation

There’s a great deal of activity in the fields of speech recognition and the “internet of things,” but one natural application of the two has gone relatively unpursued: helping the deaf and hard of hearing take part in everyday conversations. SpeakSee aims to do this (after crowdfunding, naturally) with a clever hardware design that minimizes setup friction and lets everyone communicate naturally.

It’s meant to be used in situations where someone hard of hearing needs to talk with a handful of others — a meeting, a chat at dinner, asking directions and so on. There are speech-to-text apps out there that can transcribe what someone is saying, but they’re not really suited to the purpose.

“Many deaf people experienced a huge barrier in asking people to download the app and hold the phone close to their mouth. These limitations in the interface meant no one kept using it,” explained SpeakSee CEO and co-founder Jari Hazelebach. “But because we designed our own hardware, we were able to customize it towards the situations it will be used in.”

SpeakSee is simple to use: a set of clip-on microphones live in a little charger case, and when the user wants to have a conversation, they hand those microphones out to whoever will be talking. The case acts as a wireless hub for the mics and relays the audio to the smartphone it’s paired with. This audio is sent off, transcribed quickly somewhere in the cloud, and displayed on the deaf user’s phone.

Critically, though, each microphone also intelligently and locally accounts for its speaker and background noise.

“Naturally the microphones pick up speech from multiple people,” said Hazelebach. “So we included sensors that tell the microphone what direction the sound is coming from, and the microphones exchange these values. So we can determine which microphone should pick up which person’s speech.”

The result is quickly transcribed speech divided by speaker, delivered quickly and with decent accuracy (there’s always a trade-off between turnaround time and how the process is). And no one has to do anything but wear a mic. (They have a patent pending for this multi-microphone system.)

Hazelebach’s parents are deaf, and he grew up seeing how their ability to interact in ordinary circumstances was being limited.

The mics aren’t exactly small… but that’s how you know they’re real working hardware and not imaginary.

“As you can imagine my parents were the first to test this out,” he said. “At first we had a lot of issues but soon we started engaging with others. We wrote a post on a deaf blog and out of nowhere 200 people signed up. So we’ve been testing in the field with groups in the U.S., and also in the U.K. and the Netherlands.”

Right now English speech recognition is considerably ahead of Dutch and other languages, so the transcriptions will be better for the former, but even so the devices should work with any of 120 languages supported by the cloud service. Transcription is free for up to 5 hours of audio monthly, after which it’s a $10/month subscription. But if it works, it may be more than worth the money.

The team has a finished prototype but is seeking crowdfunding to get production off the ground. “We need to improve the electronics to meet specifications, battery life for example. We expect to ship in February of 2019,” Hazelebach said. Pre-orders are set at $350 for a dock and three mics.

The usual caveats (primarily “emptor”) apply when backing an Indiegogo type campaign — but at the very least, having spoken to the creator, I feel pretty sure this is a real, working product that just needs a boost to get to market.

This simple robot offers more cowbell

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Fellas, you’re gonna want that cowbell. And what better way to get that cowbell than with an automatic cowbell-playing robot that uses simple components to create a musical experience like no other. The system, built over at Adafruit, includes a simple Arduino controller, a potentiometer to control the speed of the cowbell hammer, and a few audio systems to play back some BÖC and the immortal words of The Bruce Dickinson: “More cowbell.”

It even includes a controller to activate a fog machine for a little extra rock and roll.

You can download the code for the system here and there is a full build guide here. Ultimately this is one of the silliest DIY projects I’ve seen in a while but, as you may recall, the only prescription for certain fevers is obviously more cowbell.

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HTC U12+ review: A good phone ruined with gimmicky buttons

Great cameras • Fast • smooth performance • Awesome see-through glass back on Translucent Blue mode
Gimmicky Edge Sense 2 features • Frustrating pressure-sensitive buttons • Kind of thick and heavy
The HTC U12+ is a very capable flagship Android phone with a premium design, great cameras, and 2018 performance, but it’s dragged down by crummy pressure-sensitive buttons and gimmicky Edge Sense 2 features.

Mashable Score3.5

HTC deserves some credit for resisting the latest mobile trends and not churning out another phone brandishing a notch with the U12+. The Taiwanese phone maker’s latest flagship Android phone couldn’t be more different than its notchy brothers on the market.

The U12+ trades thinness for thickness and it’s a weighty-feeling device in the hand as well as in your pocket. The screen doesn’t have round corners, and it doesn’t have a notch. There are dual cameras on the back and front. The back of the Translucent Blue model is partially see-through, exposing some of the components. The sides can still be squeezed to launch an app or shortcut and they’ve even got a new double-tap trick.

And get this: The volume and power buttons aren’t even real buttons! They look like physical buttons, but they don’t actually move when you press them. They’re like the faux haptic home button on the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8.

Different is good when you’re way ahead of the competition and can experiment with weird new features without missing a beat. But in the ultra competitive mobile space where bang-for-the-buck matters more than ever, cute party tricks just aren’t compelling enough reasons to throw at $800 at.

Thick, but still sleek design

The U12+  is kinda a fatty for a phone.

The U12+  is kinda a fatty for a phone.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

I knew the U12+ wasn’t like other phones from the moment I ripped the plastic wrap off its metal-and-glass body.

At 8.7mm, it’s thicker than the 7.7mm iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, and even the 7.8mm Huawei P20 Pro.

I’m aware we’re talking about a mere millimeter of thickness here, but I felt it every time I picked it up. If I hadn’t started doing daily pushups as part of a challenge with a friend, I think my hands would have gotten sore from constantly handling it. It sounds like I’m being dramatic, but when I switched for a few days from my iPhone 7 to an iPhone 8 Plus last year, the bigger size and heavier weight initially gave me finger fatigue.

The U12+’s thickness doesn’t mean the phone isn’t premium — it’s a very well-built device. The metal-and-glass design, while not symmetrical from the profile like an iPhone X or Galaxy S9, is still sleek. Unfortunately the test unit HTC sent somehow got a deep scratch on the back after the first day of babying. 

The Translucent Blue is the only color with a see-through back.

The Translucent Blue is the only color with a see-through back.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

I tested out the Translucent Blue version, but it also comes in Ceramic Black and Flame Red, though the latter don’t have translucent glass backs. Exposing the rear is a nice design touch I wish more phone makers were brave enough to try. It’s a nice throwback to other translucent and transparent gadgets from the ’90s and ’00s, like the iMac and Game Boy Color.

Without a notch, the U12+’s 6-inch display doesn’t cover as much of the front as other phones, and depending on your preference, that’s either a good or bad thing. I’m all-in on phones with notches if that means a higher screen-to-body ratio, but the U12+’s slim top and bottom bezels didn’t bother me; the Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S9 both sport the same “forehead” and “chin,” and I highly recommend both.

The 6-inch screen isn't OLED, but it still looks great. Also, no notch.

The 6-inch screen isn’t OLED, but it still looks great. Also, no notch.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

The display is good. It’s a very good Super LCD 6 panel with a crispy 2,880 x 1,440 resolution, wide color gamut, and HDR 10 support. But it’s no OLED screen. Most people won’t care, but when even a $530 phone like the OnePlus 6 has an AMOLED screen with deeper blacks, it’s disappointing the U12+ doesn’t. Also, for whatever reason, I found the OnePlus 6’s display easier to read in direct sunlight even though it has a lower peak brightness level.

Though many phones are just getting around to putting stereo speakers in, HTC’s flagships have had them for years. The U12+ has the company’s usual BoomSound stereo speakers — one firing from the bottom and one through the earpiece. They’re louder and sound better than my iPhone X and even the Pixel 2 XL in my opinion.

No headphone jack, but you get a pair of nice USB-C wired earbuds with the U12+.

No headphone jack, but you get a pair of nice USB-C wired earbuds with the U12+.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

There’s no headphone jack on the phone — HTC ditched the port years ago — but you do get a pair of USonic USB-C wired earbuds that come with active noise cancellation, which are much better than the iPhone’s pack-in EarPods.

The fingerprint reader's fast and responsive.

The fingerprint reader’s fast and responsive.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

On the back, just below the camera, is your typical fingerprint sensor. It works as well as any other. The U12+ also supports Face Unlock, but it’s also no different from the face recognition on other Android phones. Which is to say it’s fast and convenient, but you’ll still need to use the fingerprint reader for Google Pay and if you want better security for your data.

Real buttons > haptic buttons

The only hardware feature that’s so polarizing I have to devote an entire section to it are the buttons.

Rather, the buttons that aren’t real buttons. As I briefly noted earlier, the volume and power buttons aren’t mechanical — they’re pressure-sensitive.

Press on the volume buttons when the phone’s off and they won’t move. The power button rumbles the whole button when pressed, and when the phone’s on, the volume buttons vibrate just the same.

These look like buttons, but they're pressure-sensitive ones that vibrate when pressed. They suck.

These look like buttons, but they’re pressure-sensitive ones that vibrate when pressed. They suck.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

They work the just like the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8’s haptic home button. It’s a weird feeling at first, but you get used to it. Except they’re not very good on the U12+ and are more trouble than innovation.

I constantly found myself pressing harder than I should have to register a click. I couldn’t figure out  how to take a screenshot because pressing the down volume button with the power button didn’t work.

The haptic buttons does mean the phone is more sealed from the elements like water and dust, but it’s just not a worthwhile tradeoff. Not when there are plenty of phones that are also IP68-rated and have mechanical buttons that still work fine. 

The U12+ also comes with Edge Sense 2, the second generation of the squeezable side tech that debuted on the U11 and Google incorporated into the Pixel 2 and 2 XL.

You can still squeeze the phone to launch an app, shortcut, or the Google Assistant or Alexa. But you can also double tap the sides to activate a number of shortcuts; by default the touch feature shrinks the homescreen for easier one-handed use. 

Additionally, the edges know when you’re holding them. So if you’re holding the phone in landscape for, say, playing a game, it can auto lock to to that orientation. Ditto for holding the phone in portrait.

I found these feature fun at first, but quickly became annoyed by them and turned them off, but you may feel differently.

At the end of the day, Edge Sense 2 and the pressure-sensitive buttons are gimmicks most people could do without. They don’t make the U12+ more intuitive or easier to use and often get in the way.

Pretty solid cameras

You get one wide-angle and a 2x telephoto camera.

You get one wide-angle and a 2x telephoto camera.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

You can always count on Apple, Google, and Samsung to push phone photography to its limits. But HTC’s quietly crept up since the U11 last year.

The U11 had one of the best cameras — some even went as far to say it rivaled or was better than the Pixel 2 — on a smartphone.

I didn’t have a chance to test out the U11, but after shooting with the U12+, I see what everyone’s talking about.

On the back, there’s your now typical dual-camera setup. The main camera is a wide-angle 12-megapixel shooter with f/1.7 aperture and the secondary camera is a 16-megapixel telephoto lens with f/2.6 aperture. You get optical image stabilization and electronic stabilization as well for smoother shots and video.

The front has dual 8-megapixel selfie cameras.

The front has dual 8-megapixel selfie cameras.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

It’s now common to find dual rear cameras on most phones, but the U12+ has twin cameras on the front, too. Both front-facing cameras have 8-megapixels with f/2.0 aperture. The second camera is there just for assisting portrait mode photos.

Both the front and rear cameras take fantastic photos. They’re not as contrasty as shots from the Pixel 2, but shots are sharp, have good dynamic range, and aren’t oversaturated. The camera’s also fast to launch, autofocus, and shoot. 

Nice, nice. Good dynamic range.

Nice, nice. Good dynamic range.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

The colors pop.

The colors pop.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Liking the sharpness.

Liking the sharpness.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Like many flagship phones, the U12+ can shoot portrait-style photos — HTC calls it “Bokeh mode” — with blurred backgrounds with both the back and front cameras.

I took a few selfies and the cameras did a decent job separating the foreground from the background. See for yourself how it compares with the Pixel 2 XL’s portrait mode.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

And here’s a comparison with the front-facing cameras:

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Drop the gimmicks

Android 8.0 with HTC Sense is not as offensive as it used to be.

Android 8.0 with HTC Sense is not as offensive as it used to be.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Over a thousand words into this review and I haven’t even gotten to the specs and performance. And that’s on purpose because it’s nothing particularly special.

The fact is, the U12+ is as fast as any other 2018 Android flagship. It has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip, 6GB of RAM, 64GB or 128GB of internal storage (expandable up to 2TB via microSD card), and a 3,500 mAh battery. And the phone runs on Android 8.0 Oreo with HTC’s own Sense skin. 

I wish there was more to say, but there really isn’t. The U12+ is speedy, animations are fluid, and apps open quickly and stay suspended in the memory well. 

It's Android... and it's fast just like almost every other 2018 flagship Android phone.

It’s Android… and it’s fast just like almost every other 2018 flagship Android phone.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Battery life is where the U12+ really falls short. A 3,500 mAh battery is generous by most standards, but the phone always drained quickly. It’s a big phone with a big battery so I expected it to last a day and a half, but it barely made it from morning to evening. 

It’s no secret HTC’s been struggling for years. The company’s phones are no longer the must-haves   they once were. These days, Samsung, Huawei, OnePlus, and even Google are making the Android phones everyone lusts for. They have the best of everything for a complete package.

There are legitimate things to appreciate on the U12+, but like LG, the company’s glory days are long behind it. If there’s any company that HTC could learn a lesson from, it’s OnePlus. Next time build a great, gimmick-free phone and sell it at hundreds less than Samsung or Apple. People will flock.

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