Thursday, 19 January 2017 04:50

Forgotten audio formats: 8-track tapes

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Enlarge (credit: airplaneengine)

The 8-track cartridge, aka the Stereo 8, first appeared at trade shows in 1964, just 18 months after the cassette, and it did initially seem to have it all: it was comparatively small, portable, and had pretty good audio quality. And despite its roots in the Mad Men in-car market of the 1950s, it was seemingly future-proof, too, with a unique potential for quadraphonic sound (a potential later realised, in part). Within a few years various megastars were using it and it was swiftly installed in virtually every radio station in the western world—and, with rising domestic sales, it even had a massive ad campaign fronted by TV star Jimmie "Dy-no-mite!" Walker.

Yet within a few years of that expensive media blitz, the cartridge was dead in the water as far as the consumer market was concerned—and, by the mid-1990s, it was a rare antique even in broadcasting studios. What went wrong is easily explained with hindsight—though it seemed mysterious at the time.

To begin at the beginning, the 8-track was based on something refined by the one-and-only Earl "Madman" Muntz. Master Muntz was a businessman, engineer, and promoter who became famous—or, rather, infamous—in the US for his outrageous clothes, stunts, and TV appearances. He was quoted—and mocked—by many top celebs and comedians such as Bob Hope and Jack Benny. And Muntz loved publicity so much that during the height of McCarthyism—with people being sacked or deported merely for having communist friends—he seriously asked one of his advisers "do you think I’ll make the front pages again if I now join the Communist Party?"

Enlarge/ Apple has added Touch Bar support to Logic Pro along with a bunch of other features. (credit: Apple)

Apple has released major updates to its Logic Pro X audio recording and editing software for macOS and the lighter-but-free GarageBand app for iOS, introducing big new features and improving compatibility between the two apps. A more minor update to GarageBand for macOS, which includes no major new features but compatibility updates for the iOS version, has also been released.

Logic Pro X version 10.3 is the latest app to pick up support for the new MacBook Pro's Touch Bar. It adds controls for skimming through and tuning specific tracks on the Touch Bar's screen, as well as a touchscreen keyboard and drum pads and customizable key commands.

There are updates for the Touch Bar-free majority of the iOS userbase, too. An updated UI expands the number of colors available to label your tracks, can auto-zoom horizontally as your songs get longer, and can show the waveforms for audio files that are being trimmed. The tweaked design also "improves legibility in a variety of lighting conditions." On the production end of things, you can create playlists of different regions and edits on a track to listen to alternate versions of a song you're working on and get better control over your stereo channels, among other things.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017 09:40

Google will reportedly launch Android One in the US

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A report from The Information (paywall) claims that Google is going to bring its cheap smartphone initiative, Android One, to the US. Android One was originally cooked up for developing markets like India, which saw Google lay out guidelines for OEMs to make cheap smartphones that were actually good. Android One took "good enough" hardware and paired it with stock Android and fast updates.

The line started out with $100 devices, with a second generation moving up to the $200 range. According to the report, in the US the devices will be a little more expensive, with releases in the $200 to $300 range. The Information wasn't sure which OEM might make the phone, but it floated LG as a possible partner. LG and Google are reportedly already collaborating on an upcoming smartwatch.

A big question will be who is in charge of the updates on this device, since Google has flip-flopped on Android One software updates in the past. Google handed things for the first generation, which resulted in fast updates—the $100 phones were the first to get Android 5.1. After a rough reception in India, Google watered down the program, and updates changed from "direct from Google" to "from Google's hardware partners." To further complicate matters, there is still one Android One phone that gets updates direct from Google, the General Mobile 4G. It was even in the Android N beta program.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017 06:30

A more advanced guide to total Android customization

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When Android was brought to market, it was pitched as an open, customizable OS that was the antithesis of Apple's lock-down smartphone platform. While both OSes have moved closer together over the years, the high customizability of Android is still around. Last year's beginner's guide to Android customization slightly grazed the surface of what's possible with a truly adaptable OS. And now it's time for part two, diving into more advanced customization methods.


One of the earliest Android customizations was a user-replaceable keyboard. Most devices from third-party OEMs are going to come with some kind of non-Google keyboard—either an AOSP derivative branded by the OEM or a pack-in app that was sold to the highest bidder.

One of the earliest Android customizations was a user-replaceable keyboard. Most devices from third-party OEMs are going to come with some kind of non-Google keyboard?either an AOSP derivative branded by the OEM or a pack-in app that was sold to the highest bidder.

For third-party offerings, Swiftkey is a popular option. By collecting lots and lots of your data, this keyboard tries to learn how you write and provide a better auto correct. This involves sending tons of your data to Swiftkey. It wants to scan all your e-mail, all your SMS messages, and everything on your Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Evernote accounts. It also has themes, a permanent number row, swiping, and all sorts of fun typing stats.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017 09:35

Report: Android Wear 2.0 to launch February 9

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After a delay past the holiday season, it seems Android Wear 2.0 is finally ready for the public. Google itself has started telling developers to prepare for an "early February" launch, and now leaker Evan Blass has chimed in to say Android Wear is coming out on February 9.

Wear 2.0 features a total overhaul of the OS. There's a whole new UI, an on-watch app store, and even a teeny, tiny keyboard you can type on. With 2.0, Android Wear will finally support NFC and Android Pay, but you'll need a watch with NFC. It will also bring the Google Assistant, Google's rebranding of its voice command system, to watches.

Android Wear is hoping to recover from a rough couple of months. The initial developer preview of Wear 2.0, which debuted at Google I/O 2016, got a chilly reception from fans. Google then went back to the drawing board and eventually ended up reverting some of the more controversial changes. After a whopping five developer previews, Wear 2.0 is expected to be pushed out to most 2015 smartwatches.

Enlarge (credit: Valentina Palladino)

Misfit hasn't changed much since joining the Fossil family. Its Phase hybrid smartwatch came out late last year and represents the most collaboration with Fossil the company has had. Around the same time as the Phase's launch, Fossil announced that most of its brands will come out with "hybrid" smartwatches, or fashionable timepieces that have some connected features.

The Phase is Misfit's hybrid. It combines smart features like activity tracking with a design that fits in with the rest of its device family and that will (hopefully) appeal to Misfit fans. Starting at $175, the Phase hopes to prove that the right mix of crucial smart features and minimalist style is worth the same amount of money as a device that focuses on only one of those aspects.

Design: More watch than smartwatch

Misfit has always masked its wearables with stylish shells, but the Phase is its first attempt to make a true smartwatch. As far as design goes, the company succeeded: the 41mm case has an analog face with thin dashes instead of numbers or Roman numerals for each hour. There are just two buttons on its right side, and the two parts of its band can be easily detached using their button-like closures.

Thursday, 12 January 2017 11:37

Uber has been built directly into Google Maps

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Go ahead, enlarge it and marvel. (credit: Google)

Google Maps is providing a big update for ride sharers: direct booking integration. In a post on the official blog today, Google announced you'll now be able to search, browse, request, and pay for an Uber directly from Google Maps. You don't even need the Uber app installed; Google says you merely need to sign into your Uber account for it to work.

Booking a ride is easy. After picking a destination in Google Maps, next to the "car" and "mass transit" tabs is a ride sharing tab. Tap on it, and you'll see the fees and arrival times from Uber. From there, pick a credit card through your Uber account and hit "request." All the usual Uber features seem to be here, including arrival times, driver ratings, and a driver call button.

Oddly, there is a "Lyft" tab in the video along with screenshots, but Google doesn't mention anything about direct Lyft booking in its post. This is most likely just the old Google Maps interface, which let you browse rides and see the cost without the ability to book a ride directly.

Booking a ride is easy. After picking a destination in Google Maps, next to the "car" and "mass transit" tabs is a ride sharing tab. Tap on it, and you'll see the fees and arrival times from Uber. From there, pick a credit card through your Uber account and hit "request." All the usual Uber features seem to be here, including arrival times, driver ratings, and a driver call button.

(credit: Vector)

Fitness wearables company Fitbit didn't announce any new products at CES 2017, and we didn't expect it to. However, just days after the show ended, news of a new acquisition has come out. Fitbit has purchased the European smartwatch startup Vector, which already has two devices in the luxury connected watches market. Both watches boast 30-day battery lives. A message on Vector's website confirms the acquisition but does not disclose how much Fitbit paid for the startup. Vector CEO Andrei Pitis also confirmed the news to TechCrunch and said Fitbit is acquiring the company for its "software platform and design team."

"We believe this is an important milestone as a moment when we will start building other new and amazing products, features, and experiences, incorporating our unique technology and knowhow with Fitbit’s experience and global community," the Vector team wrote on its website.

Vector came onto the scene in 2015 with its Luna and Meridian smartwatches that are compatible with Android, iOS, and Windows devices. Both watches have similar features: activity tracking, onboard apps, their own OS with discrete notifications and "streams" (or visuals of cherry-picked information from social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook), and an impressive 30-day battery life.

Enlarge/ Edge in all its Windows 10 build 15002 glory. (credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft has released Windows 10 build 15002 to Windows Insiders on the fast update ring.

The new build comes to most of us more than a month since the last build was released back on December 7, and it includes a substantial number of changes and new features. The company wanted to avoid pushing out new builds around the holiday period, but with that now a distant memory, it's back to work for the Windows developers. A few people even got their hands on the build early as Microsoft published it to its servers over the weekend, albeit without release notes.

There's no Mobile update this time around, nor any indication of when a Mobile update will ship.


Nokia is getting back into the smartphone business. A company called "HMD," which includes a number of old-guard Nokia employees, has emerged to resurrect the brand from the ashes of the Microsoft acquisition. Recently the company announced its new phone: the "Nokia 6." It runs "the latest version" of Android Nougat (so 7.1.1?), it's milled out of a single block of aluminum, and it has a 5.5-inch "HD" screen. The bad news is that is has a Snapdragon 430 SoC and is exclusive to China. But hey, this looks like a good first step and serves as a peek into the future of the new Nokia.

According to the press release, the Nokia 6 is launching in "early 2017" for 1,699 CNY ($245, £200). It has a Snapdragon 430 SoC, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a 16MP rear camera, and an 8MP front camera. There is lots of talk about the aluminum unibody design, which HMD promises is part of the "Nokia phone hallmarks of quality, superior craftsmanship and relentless focus on the consumer experience."

The video on shows a Micro USB 2.0 port, which is disappointing in 2017. It also shows a fingerprint reader/home button combo and a bottom-firing speaker. There is definitely some heavy Android skinning present in the video, but it's unclear if this is for China only or something that we'll see on Nokia's entire lineup.

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