Enlarge (credit: Microsoft)

In a bid to make Skype more social, Microsoft is launching a whole new generation of Skype clients. The big new feature? "Highlights," a way of publishing photos and videos so that your contacts can keep up with what's going on in your life. Highlights are more or less a replica of the Snapchat Story, a way of sharing time-limited pictures and videos to your contacts. It changes the client from being a strictly conversational application (with both one-to-one and group chats) into something that also offers a broadcast style.

While Microsoft's Skype messaging system is still regularly used by hundreds of millions of people, it's not the mindshare winner it once was. A range of mobile-oriented upstarts—including Kik, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger—have proliferated in the smartphone era. Skype initially struggled in this new world, with its peer-to-peer architecture making it a poor fit for a world where connectivity can be intermittent and conversations are expected to migrate between devices.

Over a number of years, Microsoft has moved Skype to a more conventional client-server architecture, using the opportunity to add useful features such as vastly improved file sharing and offline messaging. With this ground work finally done, the company has been developing a new client, internally named Skype for Life, to try to reconnect with this audience.


Steve Ballmer (credit: Microsoft)

Talking at Recode's oddly-named Code Conference, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer expressed one big regret from his time at the company: that they didn't get into hardware soon enough.

"I was too slow to recognize the need for new capability, and particularly in hardware," he told Kara Swisher. "I wish we'd built the capability to be a world-class hardware company."

The desire to get into hardware was motivated by two things. First, because even as a software company, Ballmer said that "one of the new expressions of software is essentially hardware." This is a theme that's been alluded to by Microsoft's Surface division on many occasions: Surface hardware is designed in tandem with, and to be a reflection of, Windows software, with each part showcasing the other. After early stumbles, the Surface team has produced a number of products that have been well-received, and the device appears to be carving out a decent niche for itself.


Bcom

Researchers at the French research institute Bcom, with the aid of a wunderkind plucked from a nearby university, have developed software that converts existing SDR (standard dynamic range) video into HDR (high dynamic range) video. That is, the software can take almost all of the colour video content produced by humanity over the last 80 years and widen its dynamic range, increasing the brightness, contrast ratio, and number of colours displayed on-screen. I've seen the software in action and interrogated the algorithm, and I'm somewhat surprised to report how good the content looks with an expanded dynamic range.

But garbage in, garbage out, right? You can't magically create more detail (or more colour data) in an image. Well, you can—Google produced detailed face images from pixelated source images—but philosophically it is no longer the same image. When a film is cropped for TV broadcast, or you receive a blocky low-bitrate stream from Netflix, or Flickr changes the JPEG profile on an uploaded photo... are those the same image as the artist/director/videographer intended? Or are they different?

Does it even matter? If you're a broadcaster with a ton of archived SDR footage and millions of colour-thirsty potential customers who might pay for a special HDR channel, surely the only question is whether it's technically possible to convert SDR content to HDR, and whether that converted footage is subjectively enjoyable to viewers. Remaining objectively faithful to the original is just an added bonus.


Enlarge/ Meet some of the people doing Android heavy lifting...

Google I/O doesn't need skydivers or LCD Soundsystem to keep us interested year to year—we'll happily settle for what is becoming an annual chat with members of the Android team. Heading into this year's conference, the group was fresh off the release of the second Android O Developer Preview and the announcement of Project Treble, a massive modularization of Android's hardware dependencies that should make updates a little easier on everyone involved with the OS. So as usual, there was plenty to talk about.

Dave Burke, VP of engineering for Android, has made time for us at severalrecent conferences, but this year we also had Stephanie Saad Cuthbertson, PM director for Android, in on the conversation. Given the opportunity, we tried to keep these questions pretty technical. What follows is a transcript with some of the interview lightly edited for clarity. For a fuller perspective, we've also included some topical background comments in italics.

Project Treble

The second Android O developer preview was a big departure from past developer preview releases. Other than a bunch of new emoji, there weren't any new major features or additions. Compare this to the Android N Developer Preview, which added features like Vulkan, a new VR platform, and a new update installation process in the second and third preview releases. What's the deal?


Enlarge/ Qualcomm's prototype of a Snapdragon 835 motherboard has an area of 50.4 square centimetres. (credit: Qualcomm)

Qualcomm's Snapdragon ARM-based systems-on-chips are mainstays of the smartphone world, but the company is now positioning them as more than just smartphone processors: in conjunction with Microsoft and the new Windows 10 for ARM processors, Qualcomm is now pitching the chips as components of a new PC platform that brings together the best of the PC and the smartphone.

The Snapdragon 835 chip, incorporating Qualcomm's latest X16 LTE modem, forms the basis of the Snapdragon Mobile PC Platform. Qualcomm claims that using the Snapdragon platform will offer a combination of the PC form factor and breadth of software, with features that are standard in smartphones: on-the-go connectivity, light weight, silent operation, long battery life, and no fan.

Qualcomm says that PCs built using the new chips will offer up to 50 percent more battery life than x86 systems, with four- to five-times longer standby times. They'll take the Connected Standby capability already found in some Windows PCs—this allows the system to do things like sync mail and receive notifications even when "sleeping"—and make it better, thanks to their LTE connectivity.


Ron Amadeo

Nest is adding a third camera to its lineup, after the Nest Cam and Nest Cam Outdoor. The new Nest Cam IQ occupies a premium spot over the other two, and it is an indoor-only $300 "sort-of 4K" camera.

I say "sort-of 4K" because the Nest Cam IQ does have a 4K (8MP) sensor, but to reduce storage and wireless data needs, it only records in 1080p. The 4K sensor is used for a digital zoom feature, and with a fancy cloud-powered "enhance!" mode, Nest is promising a "12x digital zoom." Zooming happens automatically when the Nest Ca IQ detects a person, at which point the camera will start saving two video streams, one at full crop and one zoomed in. Recording two video streams at once means the IQ is doing a significant amount of on-board processing, which is powered by a surprisingly beefy six-core Qualcomm processor.

I say "sort-of 4K" because the Nest Cam IQ does have a 4K (8MP) sensor, but to reduce storage and wireless data needs, it only records in 1080p. The 4K sensor is used for a digital zoom feature, and with a fancy cloud-powered "enhance!" mode, Nest is promising a "12x digital zoom." Zooming happens automatically when the Nest Ca IQ detects a person, at which point the camera will start saving two video streams, one at full crop and one zoomed in. Recording two video streams at once means the IQ is doing a significant amount of on-board processing, which is powered by a surprisingly beefy six-core Qualcomm processor.


Essential

2017 is the year of the slim-bezel smartphone, and the latest to enter the fray is Andy Rubin's "Essential" smartphone startup. Today the company announced the "Essential Phone," a flagship Snapdragon 835 device headed to the US for $699.

You certainly can't accuse the Essential Phone of being boring. It has possibly the strangest implementation of a front-facing camera we've ever seen; the device is made of ceramic and titanium; there's a magnetic modular connector on the back; and there isn't a single logo on the entire device.

You certainly can't accuse the Essential Phone of being boring. It has possibly the strangest implementation of a front-facing camera we've ever seen; the device is made of ceramic and titanium; there's a magnetic modular connector on the back; and there isn't a single logo on the entire device.


Enlarge

IKEA recently released its own line of Wi-Fi enabled smart lighting called Trådfri. While great value—prices start at just £15 for a bulb and dimmer—the Trådfri range was limited to use with the Swedish furniture retailer's own app and hardware remotes.

Now, IKEA is bringing Trådfri up to speed with the competition by adding support for voice control via Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple Siri. Voice functionality will trickle out across the range starting this summer and running through to autumn. The update makes Trådfri one of the most affordable smart lighting solutions available.

Individual bulbs retail between £9 and £12, with the Wi-Fi hub costing £25. A bundle of bulb and dimmer switch costs £15, while a bundle of bulb and motion sensor costs £25. By contrast, similar Philips Hue bulbs sell for £15, and a motion sensor costs £35 without an included bulb. The Philips Hue starter kit does come in cheaper at £60, but the £70 Trådfri "Gateway kit" contains two bulbs, a Wi-Fi hub, plus an extra remote.


Enlarge (credit: Mark Walton)

While this phone is not currently scheduled for release in the US, we thought you would be interested in this review from our colleagues in the UK.

SPECS AT A GLANCE: Nokia 3310
SCREEN2.4-inch QVGA LCD (167ppi)
OSNokia Series 30+
STORAGE16MB (plus microSD expansion)
NETWORKING2G GSM 900/1800
PORTSMicro USB, 3.5mm headphone jack
CAMERA2MP rear camera
SIZE115.6mm x 51mm x 12.8mm
WEIGHT80g
BATTERY1200mAh
STARTING PRICE£50 (buy here)
OTHER PERKSA really bad version of Snake

That the new HMD-made Nokia 3310 was the star of this year's Mobile World Congress says more about how dull smartphones have become than it does about the appeal of Nokia's chintzy slab of noughties nostalgia.

Despite the retro appeal, the Nokia 3310 (buy here) is little more than a Nokia 150 (a basic feature phone that sells for a mere £20) wrapped up in a curved glossy shell and sold for a millennial-gouging £50. It is, for all intents and purposes, a fashion statement—a phone for the beard-grooming, braces-wearing festival set that think tapping out texts on a T9 keyboard is the ultimate irony.


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LeEco, often called the "Netflix of China," is in the news again, and again it is because another disaster has befallen the company. After announcing a $2 billion merger with TV-maker Vizio and then canceling it, as well as purchasing a Silicon Valley property from Yahoo and then selling it, LeEco's rapid expansion to the US is now rapidly unwinding. Massive layoffs are coming, and the CEO is ceding some control over the company.

CNBC reports that more than 85 percent of LeEco's US staff is being laid off. It cites one source as saying "only 60 employees will be left" after cuts to the 500-strong US workforce are made. CNBC obtained an e-mail calling for an ominous all-hands meeting for this afternoon, where the move will no doubt be explained to employees. The report says the remaining 60 people will be tasked with "encouraging Chinese-American consumers to watch LeEco's Chinese content library." It seems as though LeEco's US consumer electronics plans are dead.

But that's not all! Reuters reports that Ji Yueting, the founder, CEO, and chairman of LeEco is ceding some control over the company. He has stepped down as the CEO of the LeShi division, which is the only part of LeEco that is listed on the Chinese stock market. He will be replaced by Liang Jun, a former Lenovo executive, while Ji Yueting will still be "CEO of LeEco." The CFO also quit, citing "personal reasons."


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  1. IT News

    The Google Assistant SDK will let you run the Assistant on anything

    Enlarge/ Build your own Google Home with the Assistant SDK. Today Google is launching yet another Google Assistant feature: the Google Assistant SDK. This will allow developers to run the Google Assistant on their own hardware prototypes. While the SDK is only launching in "Developer Preview" mode today, this is presumably the beginning of a push&n

    HTC U11 hands-on—A squeezable, all-glass device with dual hotword support

    Today, HTC is taking the wraps off its newest flagship smartphone, the HTC U11. This is a proper Snapdragon 835 flagship—Qualcomm's latest chip—and it comes with two notable features: a fancy "squeeze" function that launches a configurable action and dual hotword support for both the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.The HTC U11 is 
  2. SmartPhones

    Trump has an iPhone with one app: Twitter

    Enlarge (credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)Early in March, President Donald Trump surrendered his personal Android phone—the phone from which scores of controversial Twitter posts had been launched. Based on Twitter metadata, Trump retired the Android device after expressing outrage over the DNC's failure to let the FBI search

    Spotify and—no joke—iTunes are coming to the Windows Store

    Enlarge (credit: Microsoft)Microsoft's education-centric Windows 10 S has caused some controversy for its inability to run apps from outside the Windows Store, but as we've argued, it does have the potential to attract developers to the Windows Store and create a healthier app ecosystem for all Windows users. Today at its Build conference, Mic
  3. Tablets

    Sleep it off: What you can and can’t learn from sleep tracking wearables

    Beddit Fitness trackers didn't always monitor sleep, but the feature is now a sought-after staple in most devices, as sleep is just as important as exercise to a healthy lifestyle. Most wristbands monitor sleep now, and there are even specialized devices that go on your head

    Casual gamers who want an affordable desktop now have an option from Dell

    Enlarge (credit: Dell)Most companies that make gaming PCs and laptops are trying to snag the attentions of new "casual" gamers. These customers either can't afford to spend thousands of dollars on a high-end gaming device—or they don't want to. However, they still want a machine that can handle their regular bouts of gaming.Dell's c
  4. Laptops