Smartphones


When Apple reports its earnings on Wednesday, you can expect mentions of India on the call.

Apple shipped more than 1.5 million iPhone units in India in the quarter that ended in December, up 100% year-on-year, making this its best quarter in the world’s largest smartphone market to date, according to research firms Counterpoint and CyberMedia.

Thanks to the improved sales of older generation iPhone 11, iPhone XR, iPhone 12 and the newer iPhone SE, Apple doubled its market share in India to 4% in the quarter, the research firms said.

Overall, Apple shipped more than 3.2 million iPhone units in India in 2020, up 60% year-on-year, Counterpoint said.

The shipment growth comes months after Apple launched its online store in the country and offered customers a wide-range of financing and upgrade options, AppleCare+, and lucrative perks such as a free set of AirPods with the purchase of iPhone 11. The company plans to open its first physical retail store in the country later this year.

For more than a decade, Apple has struggled to sell its handsets in India because of the expensive price tags they carry. Most smartphones that ship in India are priced between $100 to $200. Samsung, and a group of Chinese smartphone vendors including Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo flooded the market in the past decade with their affordable smartphones.

None the less, in recent years Apple has visibly grown more interested in the country that is also one of the world’s fastest growing smartphones markets. The company’s contract manufacturers today locally assemble a range of iPhone models and some accessories — an effort the company kickstarted more than two years ago. (A recent violent event at an Indian facility of Wistron, one of Apple’s contract manufacturers, however, underscored some of the challenges Apple will grapple with as it looks to scale its local production efforts in the country.)

That move has allowed Apple to lower prices of some older generation iPhone models in India, where for years the company has passed import duty charges to customers. The starting price of the iPhone 12 Pro Max is $1,781 in India, compared to $1,099 in the U.S. (Apple has yet to start locally assemble the iPhone 12 units.) The AirPods Pro, which sells at $249 in the U.S., was made available in India at $341 at the time of launch. AirPods Max, similarly, is priced at $815 in India, compared to $549 in the U.S. (It doesn’t help that an average person in India makes $2,000 a year.)

Unlike most foreign firms that offer their products and services for free in India or at some of the world’s cheapest prices, Apple has focused entirely on a small fraction of the population that can afford to pay big bucks, Jayanth Kolla, chief analyst at Convergence Catalyst, told TechCrunch.

That’s not to say that Apple has not made some changes to its price strategy for India. The monthly cost of Apple Music is $1.35 in India, compared to $9.99 in the U.S. Its Apple One bundle, which includes Apple Music, TV+, Arcade and iCloud, costs $2.65 a month in India.



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5G is the current revolution in wireless technology, and every chip company old and new is trying to burrow their way into this ultra-competitive — but extremely lucrative — market. One of the most interesting new players in the space is EdgeQ, a startup with a strong technical pedigree via Qualcomm that we covered last year after it raised a nearly $40 million Series A.

The company has been quite stealthy about its technology as it works on its design (its website as I write this literally says “Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start writing!”), but today, the company revealed more details for the first time (and presumably also updated its website).

The most interesting facet of its system-on-a-chip (SoC) design is that it is based on RISC-V. Unlike processor architectures like x86 and Arm, RISC-V is open-source, and one of the first open architectures to reach any sort of enduring popularity and ecosystem. That’s led to a bunch of new companies building on top of it, including now EdgeQ and also SiFive, which we covered late last year.

Vinay Ravuri, EdgeQ’s founder and CEO, explained that the use of RISC-V allows EdgeQ to offer chips with the flexibility of reprogrammable processors known as FPGAs while also offering a more cohesive and integrated product with better power savings. In his view, that’s been one of the big challenges in the wireless communications market to date with the rollout of 5G.

“When you are in a closed system, it compacts nicely, and everything matches,” he said, pointing to market leaders like Huawei and Ericsson whose vertically-integrated base stations are widely deployed throughout the world. The problem is that customers feel stifled by having all of their equipment come from one, irreplaceable vendor. Meanwhile, with a purely open system based on standards like OpenRAN, “you get a clunky solution” that’s cobbled together from off-the-shelf parts. That leads to increased power consumption since the components in these boxes were never faithfully designed to be used together.

Ravuri says that EdgeQ stands in the middle between open and closed, offering an extensible system that is also integrated and may save, in some instances, up to 50% of the power demand for a wireless base station. The key is combining machine learning into wireless communications through a better SoC and having all the parts work seamlessly together. “The uniqueness of the communications chips is in the algorithms,” he said. “You are not selling sand, you are not connecting gates and saying this is a processor. You are connecting gates and here is an algorithm for the physical layer of communications.”

EdgeQ founder and CEO Vinay Ravuri. Photo via EdgeQ.

Adil Kidwai, who is VP and head of product at EdgeQ, said that “Under the hood, it is hardware instructions that are controlled by software … It’s a ‘soft’ modem with very low power consumption.” Since EdgeQ is based on RISC-V, the existing toolchain available in that ecosystem also applies to the company’s product, allowing engineers to use compilers and debuggers that have been built for RISC-V. Ravuri noted that EdgeQ has added about 50 to 100 of its own vector extensions to the base RISC-V implementation to optimize performance.

With the product’s design more firmly established, he said that the company is looking to sample its system with customers in the first half of this year. “Once we sample, there is a productization cycle that customers take,” he said, and he intends to be starting revenue growth by 2022. The EdgeQ base station is compatible according to the company with OpenRAN option 7.x and option 6.

The company also noted for the first time today that Paul Jacobs, the former CEO of Qualcomm, and Matt Grob, the company’s former CTO, have both joined EdgeQ’s advisory board in an official capacity. The two met Ravuri back when he was at Qualcomm and have been in touch throughout EdgeQ’s development.



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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking into how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.

Top Stories

Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS

logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler

Logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler. Image Credits: TechCrunch

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.

Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.

Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.

The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.

The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.

TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.

This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.

Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.

On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.

Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.
  • A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.
  • New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”

Platforms: Google

  • Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.
  • Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.

Gaming

  • Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.

Augmented Reality

  • Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.
  • Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.

Entertainment

  • The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.
  • Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.
  • YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.
  • Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.

E-commerce

  • WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.

Fintech

  • Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.
  • Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.
  • New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay. 
  • Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.

Social

  • Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.
  • Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.
  • TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.

Health & Fitness

  • Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.

Government & Policy

  • Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.
  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.
  • German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.

Productivity

  • Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.

Trends

  • Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.

Funding and M&A

  • Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.
  • Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.
  • On-demand delivery app Glovo partnered with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg, which is investing €100 million in building and refurbishing real estate in key markets to build out Glovo’s network of “dark stores.”
  • Pocket Casts app is up for sale. The podcast app was acquired nearly three years ago by a public radio consortium of top podcast producers (NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life). The owners have now agreed to sell the app, which posted a net loss in 2020. (NPR’s share of the loss was over $800,000.)
  • Travel app Maps.me raised $50 million in a round led by Alameda Research. The funding will go toward the launch of a multi-currency wallet. Cryptocurrency lender Genesis Capital and institutional cryptocurrency firm CMS Holdings also participated in the round, Coindesk reported.
  • Bangalore-based hyperlocal delivery app Dunzo raised $40 million in a round that included investment from Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria.
  • London-based food delivery app Deliveroo raised $180 million in new funding from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners and Fidelity Management, valuing the business at more than $7 billion.
  • Dating Group acquired Swiss startup Once, a dating app that sends one match per day, for $18 million.

Downloads

Bodyguard

Image Credits: Bodyguard

A French content moderation app called Bodyguard, detailed here by TechCrunch, has brought its service to the English-speaking market. The app allows you to choose the level of content moderation you want to see on top social networks, like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. You can choose to hide toxic content across a range of categories, like insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia and indicate whether the content is a low or high priority to block.

Beeper

Image Credits: Beeper

Pebble’s founder and current YC Partner Eric Migicovsky has launched a new app, Beeper, that aims to centralize in one interface 15 different chat apps, including iMessage. The app relies on an open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol called Matrix that uses “bridges” to connect to the various networks to move the messages. However, iMessage support is more wonky, as the company actually ships you an old iPhone to make the connection to the network. But this system allows you to access Beeper on non-Apple devices, the company says. The app is slowly onboarding new users due to initial demand. The app works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android and charges $10/mo for the service.

 



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The Galaxy S21 is a tank. It’s a big, heavy (8.04 ounces versus its predecessor’s 7.7), blunt instrument of a phone. It’s quintessential Samsung, really — the handset you purchase when too much isn’t quite enough. In fact, it even goes so far as adopting S-Pen functionality — perhaps the largest distinguishing factor between the company’s two flagship lines.

In many ways it — and the rest of the S21 models — are logical extensions of the product line. Samsung hasn’t broken the mold here. But the company didn’t particularly need to. The line remains one of the best Android devices you can buy. It’s a product experience the company is content to refine, while saving more fundamental changes for the decidedly more experimental Galaxy Z line.

Samsung certainly deserves credit for going all in on 5G early. The company was ahead of the curve in adopting next-gen wireless and was among the first to add it across its flagship offerings. 5G became a utilitarian feature remarkably fast — owing in no small part to Qualcomm’s major push to add the tech to its mid-tier chips. In fact, the iPhone 12 may well be the last major flagship that can get away with using the addition of the tech as a major selling point.

With that out of the way, smartphone makers are returning to familiar terrain on which to wage their wars — namely imaging. S-Pen functionality for the Ultra aside, most of the top-level upgrades of this generation come on the camera side of things. No surprise there, of course. The camera has always a focus for Samsung — though the changes largely revolved around software, which is increasingly the trend for many manufacturers.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There are, however, some hardware changes worth noting. Namely, the new S models represent one of the bigger aesthetic updates in recent memory. I’d mentioned being kind of on the fence about them in my original write up of the news, owing largely to that weird wrinkle of 2020/2021 gadget blogging: not being able to see the device in person. Now that I’ve been toting the product around the streets of New York for several days, I can say definitive that, well, I’m mostly kind of okay with them, I guess.

The big sticking point is that massive contour cut camera housing. Pretty sure I used the word “brutalist” to describe it last time. Having used the product, I’d say it’s fairly apt. There’s something…industrial about the design choice. And it’s really pronounced on the Ultra, which sports four camera holes, plus a laser autofocus sensor and flash. It’s a big, pronounced camera bump built from surprisingly thick metal. I suspect it’s owed, in part, to the “folded” telephoto lens.

Samsung sent along the Phantom Black model. The color was something the company devoted a surprising amount of stage time to during the announcement. It was the kind of attention we rarely see devoted to something as inconsequential as a color finish, outside of some Apple bits. Here’s a long video about it if you’re curious. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s nice. It’s matte black. I do dig the new metallic back; even with Corning on your side, a glass back really feels like an accident waiting to happen.

The curved screen looks nice, per usual, accented well by the round corners. The screen itself is striking — Samsung’s displays always are. The screens on the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra are 6.2, 6.7 and 6.8 inches, respectively. Those are all unchanged, save for the Ultra, which is, strangely, 0.1 inches smaller than its predecessor. It’s not really noticeable, but is an odd choice from a company that has long insisted that bigger is better when it comes to displays.

Eye Comfort Shield is a welcome addition, adjusting the screen temperature based on time of day and your own usage. If you’ve used Night Shift or something similar, you know the deal — the screen slowly shifts toward the more yellow end of the white balance spectrum, reducing blue light so as to not throw your circadian rhythms out of whack. It’s off by default, so you’ll have to go into settings to change it.

The company has also introduced a Dynamic Refresh Rate feature, which cycles between 46 and 120Hz, depending on the app you’re using. This is designed to save some battery life (a 120Hz along with 5G can be a big power hog). The effect is fairly subtle. I can’t say I really noticed over the course of my usage. I certainly appreciate the effort to find new ways to eke out extra juice.

The new era of Samsung is equally notable for what it left off. The new S models mark the end of an era as the company finally abandons expandable storage (following in the footsteps of the Z line). I mean, I get it. These devices range from 128 to 512GB of storage. For a majority of users, the microSD reader was superfluous. I certainly never needed to use it. Per the company, “Over time, SD card usage has markedly decreased on smartphones because we’ve expanded the options of storage available to consumers.”

Of course, expanding the built-in memory is going to cost you. Mostly, though, it’s always a bit of a bummer to say farewell to a long-time distinguishing factory. Speaking of, the company also ditched the in-box headphones and power adapter, notably deleting some ads in which it mocked Apple for recently doing the same. It’s the headphone jack all over again.

The company offered up a similar sustainability explanation in a recent statement. “We discovered that more and more Galaxy users are reusing accessories they already have and making sustainable choices in their daily lives to promote better recycling habits.” As a consequence, the box is nearly half as thick as those from earlier S lines, for what that’s worth.

As mentioned above, the cameras are remarkably similar to their predecessors, with a few key differences. The S20 Ultra sported an 108-megapixel wide lens (f/1.8), 12-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2) and 48-megapixel (f/3.5) telephoto (4x zoom), while the S21 Ultra features a 108-megapixel wide (f/1.8), 12-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2), 10MP (f/2.4) telephoto (3x zoom) and 10MP telephoto (f/4.9) (10x zoom). The dual telephoto lenses are the biggest differentiator.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The device will switch between telephotos, depending on how much you zoom in. The device performs a lot better than many competing handsets at distances requiring around 10x. Though, while the ability to zoom up to 100x is an extremely impressive thing for a phone to do on paper, the images degrade really quickly at higher levels. At a certain point, the image starts taking on the style of an impressionist painting, which isn’t particularly useful in a majority of cases.

Once Samsung (or whoever) can properly crack the code on translating that noise into signal, it will really be a breakthrough. Still, Zoom Lock is a nice addition in helping to minimize hand shake while zooming. Accidental movements tend to increasing exponentially the tighter you get in on an image. The Super Steady, too, has been improved for video recording.

Portrait mode has been improved. There still tends to be trouble with more complex shapes, but this is a problem I’ve run into with pretty much all solutions. Samsung gets some points here for offering a ton of post-shot portrait editing, from different bokeh levels, to adjusting the focal point to other effects. As with much of the camera software, there’s a lot to play around with.

Other key additions include 8K snap, a nice addition that lets you pull high-res images from a single frame of 8K video. There’s also Vlogger Mode, which shoots from the front and back simultaneously. Someone will no doubt find some social use for this, but it feels a bit gimmicky — one of those features a majority of users will promptly forget about. Additional options are generally a good thing, though the camera software has gotten to the point where there are a ton of menus to navigate.

I get the sense that most users want a way to quickly snap photos and shoot videos. The lower-end S21 entries are great for that. The hardware is strong enough to give you great shots with minimal effort. If you’re someone who really enjoys drilling down on features and getting the best images on-device without exporting to a third-party app, the Ultra is the choice for you. In addition to being a kind of kitchen sink approach, the high-end device is all about choice.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The addition of S Pen functionality is probably the most notable — and curious — thing the Ultra has going for it. On the face of it, this feels like the latest — and most pronounced — in a series of moves effectively blurring the lines between the company’s two flagships. Perhaps Samsung will make a move to further differentiate the next Note, or maybe the company is content to simply let the device meld over time.

There is one major difference off the bat, of course. Namely the fact that there’s no pen slot on the S21. This means that:

  1. The stylus is sold separately.
  2. You need to buy a case with an S Pen holder (also sold separately, naturally) if you’ve got any hope of not losing it.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I happened to have a Note S Pen lying around and found the experience to be pretty smooth. I’ve been upfront about the fact that I’m not really a stylus person myself, but Samsung’s done a good job building up the software over the years. The S Pen is a surprisingly versatile tool, courtesy of several generations of updates. But I would say if the peripheral is important to you, honestly, just buy a Note.

The components are what you’d expect from a high-end Samsung. That includes the brand new Snapdragon 888 (in some markets, at least), and either 12 or 16GB of RAM and 128, 256 or 512GB of storage on the Ultra. The battery remains the same as last year, at 5,000mAh. In spite of 5G and a high refresh rate, I’ve gotten more than a day and a half of moderate use on a single charge.

In the end, the S21 isn’t a huge change over the S20. It’s more of a refinement, really. But it does represent a big change for Samsung. The company has implemented a $200 price drop across the board for these products. The S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra start at $799, $999 and $1,199, respectively. None are what you would call cheap, exactly, but $200 isn’t exactly insignificant, whether it means easing the blow of getting in on the entry level or taking the pain out of going for a higher-end model.

It’s a clear reflection of a few years’ worth of stagnating smartphone sales, exacerbated by some dire numbers amid COVID. It’s nice to see a company take those issues — and concern around spending $1,000+ on a smartphone — to heart beyond simply offering up a flagship “lite.”

 



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Samsung lowers prices with its latest Galaxy S phones, Google completes its Fitbit acquisition and Beyond Meat is coming to Taco Bell. This is your Daily Crunch for January 14, 2021.

The big story: Samsung unveils Galaxy S21 line

Samsung’s new line of phones includes the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra, priced at $799, $999 and $1,119 respectively, an across-the-board price cut of $200. Brian Heater writes that the Ultra, in particular, “has one very important trick up its sleeve” — namely compatibility with the S Pen.

All three phones are available for pre-order now and start shipping on January 29.

In addition, Samsung announced the Galaxy Buds Pro, which cost $199 and come with a stated five hours of battery life. And it’s launching a Bluetooth locator, dubbed the Galaxy SmartTag.

The tech giants

Google’s Fitbit acquisition is official — This follows regulatory scrutiny on both sides of the pond.

Amazon’s Ring Neighbors app exposed users’ precise locations and home addresses — The bug made it possible to retrieve the location data on users who posted to the app.

Beyond Meat shares soar after inking deal with Taco Bell on new menu items — Taco Bell announced that it would work with Beyond Meat to come up with new menu items due to be tested in the next year.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Medium acquires social book reading app Glose — Glose has been building iOS, Android and web apps that let you buy, download and read books on your devices.

Tiger Global is raising a new $3.75B venture fund, one year after closing its last — Despite being named Tiger Private Investment Partners XIV, this is actually the firm’s thirteenth fund.

Carbyne raises $25M for a next-generation platform to improve emergency 911 responses — The Israeli startup aims to help emergency services get more complete information about callers, and to provide additional telemedicine services.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Five consumer hardware VCs share their 2021 investment strategies — Investors are generally bullish on at-home fitness startups.

Poshmark prices IPO above range as public markets continue to YOLO startups — This is the late-2020, early-2021 IPO market in action.

Twelve ‘flexible VCs’ who operate where equity meets revenue share — Founders seeking non-dilutive funding: start here.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Tech and health companies including Microsoft and Salesforce team up on digital COVID-19 vaccination records — The so-called “Vaccination Credential Initiative” includes a range of big-name companies from both the healthcare and tech industries.

2020 was one of the warmest years in history and indicates mounting risks of climate change — 2020 either edged out or came in just behind 2016 as the warmest year in recorded history, according to data from U.S. government agencies.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.



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Samsung wasted no time this year. With Mobile World Congress pushed back six or so months, the hardware maker hitched its wagon to the tail end of the CES whirlwind — though unlike its press conference earlier in the week, the company is very much on its own for the latest Unpacked.

And why not? In spite of broader issues with the mobile industry (certainly not helped by the COVID-19 pandemic), the Galaxy line is still very much a draw. People may not be as eager to buy a flagship as they were a couple of years ago, but when they do, it’s frequently a Samsung device.

I tend to save pricing for the end of these kinds of posts, but it really bears mention up front. Samsung’s launching three key iterations of the S21 line today: the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra. Those are priced at $799, $999 and $1,119 respectively, here in the States. That’s down from $999, $1,199 and $1,399 last year. While it’s true we’re still very much in the flagship price range here, a $200 drop is not insignificant.

Image Credits: Samsung

Rather, it points to a very conscious correction — one that goes beyond simply introducing a budget flagship or flagship lite to appease that segment of the market. Smartphone sales were already lagging before the pandemic, and the routine pricing of flagships above $1,000 was a considerable piece of that. Obviously the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation for myriad reasons, and 5G, which was expected to lead to a sales rebound didn’t move the needle nearly as much as anticipated.

Of course, 5G was a headliner feature for Samsung all the way back in 2019. The company has been all-in with the Galaxy line for a while now, and frankly, the feature is just kind of expected now. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Samsung is going back to imaging as a key differentiator.

Here’s what Mobile head TM Roh has to say about the new handsets:

We are living in a mobile-first world, and with so many of us working remotely and spending more time at home, we wanted to deliver a smartphone experience that meets the rigorous multimedia demands of our continuously changing routines. We also recognize the importance of choice, especially now, and that’s why the Galaxy S21 series gives you the freedom to choose the best device for your style and needs.

I absolutely understand why companies continue to go the “in these challenging times” route with these announcements, though I will say that, for the most part, the notion of device upgrades as a response to COVID-19 is really overstated here, beyond the aforementioned price drop. And I suspect that, with fewer people leaving the house these days, the dream of a smartphone as a primary productivity device has probably dampened of late.

Image Credits: Samsung

Still, the S21 Ultra, in particular, has one very important trick up its sleeve. Samsung is further blurring the line between the Galaxy S and Note by making the Ultra S Pen compatible. The experience will vary to some degree, but users will be able to use the stylus to write and draw on the handset. It’s sold separately and there’s no in-device housing for the pen, though Samsung will be offering a case that will hold it. It will be interesting to see if the company goes out of its way to distinguish the new Note, but it seems equally possible that the lines are simply converging. After all, the S Pen has long been the key distinguishing factor.

The devices also get Ultra-wideband capabilities, which will bring a number of capabilities, including the ability to unlock car doors and AR messages to find lost items. More detail on that soon, no doubt.

Visually, the biggest change here is the camera housing, which gets streamlined. I’m holding off judgement until I see it in person, but the new “Contour Cut” housing feels a bit more brutalist or perhaps industrial than the prior generation. The device also drops the expandable memory. A strong argument could be made that current on-board storage has made microSD redundant for many or most, but it was always a nice little differentiator.

The company has also removed the headphones charging adapter from the box, a move the world saw coming when the company deleted ads ribbing Apple from dropping accessories over what it said were environmental concerns. It’s the headphone jack all over again, because history rhymes.

Hardware-wise, the triple-camera situation is similar. On the S21 and 21+ you get a 12-megapixel ultrawide, 12-megapixel wide and 64-megapixel telephoto with 30x space zoom. The Ultra bumps that up to a 12-megapixel ultra-wide, 108-megapixel wide and a dual-telephoto lens system with 3x and 10x optical zoom. That’s the first time Samsung has offered a dual-telephoto setup. The Ultra also sports improved low-light shooting, courtesy of the Bright Night sensor.

Image Credits: Samsung

Software imaging updates include the ability to pull stills from 8K shooting, improved image stabilization and new modes like “Vlogger view,” which shoots from the front and rear camera simultaneously. I see limited use for that last bit in my own life, but I’m sure folks will find a creative use for it.

The screens measure in at 6.1, 6.7 and 6.8 inches (that last one is a decrease from the S20 Ultra’s 6.9 inches). All sport a 120Hz refresh rate that adapts based on usage. The phones also get the new Eye Comfort Shield, which reduces blue light as the day goes on.

Here in the States, all three phones sport the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. The S21 and S21+ start at 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, while the Ultra starts at 12GB and 256GB. The batteries are pretty healthy, clocking in at 4000, 4800 and 5000mAh. They’re all available for pre-order now and start shipping January 29.



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Smartphone sales are bad — and have been for a couple of years now. Certainly this ongoing pandemic hasn’t helped. All the talk about how 5G and new form factors were going to cause a kind of bounce-back all fell by the wayside, as people put a pause on unnecessary luxuries.

Samsung is the only company that’s seen some success with the foldable form factor, and that whole thing got off to a…rough start. There were plenty of technical issues at first, leading to a less than auspicious first impression. These days, price continues to be a major hurdle — especially during a time when paying $1,000 and up on a phone is a major red flag for many.

In the world of phone form factors, two is, at the very least, the start of a trend. And on day one of CES both LG and TCL have offered their take on yet another form factor designed to offer more screen real estate in pocketable devices.

Image Credits: TCL

LG’s product is — for the moment — the more notable of the two, largely because the company plans to actually release the thing. In an interview published this morning, spokesperson Ken Hong told Nikkei, “As it is released at CES 2021, I can tell that it will be launched this year.”

And, indeed, LG’s a company not afraid to take chances with a wacky form factor. There are a number of examples of the phenomenon in recent years, most notably the swiveling screen on the LG Wing.

Still, the product didn’t amount to much more than a brief tease during a press conference (an excuse to transition between scenes, really), so you’d be forgiven for assuming that the tech still has a long way to go.

TCL, meanwhile, noted up front that the product is still firmly in the concept phase, but managed to give us a better look. I suppose it’s easier to parade concept than an unfinished real-world product. Details are still slim, but the company says the device is capable of expanding from 6.7 to 7.8 inches.

One imagines — or, at least, hopes — that the industry has learned from the issues stemming from the first batch of foldables. Sometimes the race to bring technology to market results in delivering something half-baked, an issue that came back to bite companies like Samsung and Motorola. Lab testing is one thing — the real world is a different thing entirely.



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Snapchat’s parent company Snap has acquired StreetCred, a New York City startup building a platform for location data.

Snap confirmed the news to TechCrunch and said the acquisition will result in four StreetCred team members — including co-founders Randy Meech and Diana Shkolnikov — joining the company, where they’ll be working on map- and location-related products.

A big component of that strateg is the Snap Map, which allows users to view public snaps from a given area and to share their location with friends. Last summer, the Snap Map was added to Snapchat’s main navigation bar, and the company announced that the product was reaching 200 million users every month.

At the same time, Snapchat has been adding other products that tie into a user’s locations, such as Local Lenses, which allow developers to create geography-specific augmented reality lenses that interact with physical locations.

Meech and Shkolnikov should be bringing plenty of mapping experience to Snap — Meech was formerly CEO at Samsung’s open mapping subsidiary Mapzen, and before that the senior vice president of local and mapping products at TechCrunch’s parent company AOL (subsequently rebranded as Verizon Media). Shkolnikov, meanwhile, is the former engineering director at Mapzen.

StreetCred had raised $1 million in seed funding from Bowery Capital and Notation Capital. When I spoke to Meech in 2018, he said his goal was to “open up and decentralize” location data by building a blockchain-based marketplace where users are rewarded for helping to collect that data.

While the financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed, the existing StreetCred platform will be shut down as part of the deal.



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After a dismal year, the global smartphone market will slowly start recovering in 2021, predicts TrendForce. But Huawei won’t benefit and, in fact, will fall out of the research firm’s list of the world’s top six smartphone makers by production volume.

In 2020, global smartphone production dropped 11% year-over-year to 1.25 billion units. This year, TrendForce expects it to increase by 9% to 1.36 million units, as people replace old devices and demand grows in emerging markets. But even that slight recovery is contingent on how the pandemic continues to impact the economy and the global chip shortage that is currently causing production delays across almost the entire electronics industry.

In 2020, the top six smartphone brands in order of production volume were Samsung, Apple, Huawei, Xiaomi, OPPO and Vivo. But this year TrendForce expects Huawei to slip out of that ranking, with the new top-six list comprising Samsung, Apple, Xiaomi, OPPO, Vivo and Transsion.

Those six companies are expected to account for 80% of the global smartphone market in 2021, while Huawei will come in at seventh place.

The main reason for Huawei’s drop is the divestment of its budget smartphone brand, Honor. Huawei confirmed in November that it is selling Honor to a consortium of companies to save the division’s supply chain from the impact of United States government trade restrictions.

The spin-out was meant to shield Honor from the sanctions that have hurt Huawei’s business. But “it remains to be seen whether the ‘new’ Honor can capture consumers’ attention without the support from Huawei. Also, Huawei and the new Honor will be directly competing against each other in the future, especially if the former is somehow freed from the U.S. trade sanctions at a later time,” said TrendForce’s report.

In a previous report published shortly after Honor’s sale was announced, TrendForce predicted that the deal, along with the global chip shortage, meant Huawei would take just 4% of the market in 2021, compared to the 17% it held in 2019, and estimated 14% in 2020. Apple is expected to take away some market share from Huawei’s high-end smartphones, while Xiaomi, OPPO and Vivo will also benefit. TrendForce expects the newly spun-out Honor to take 2% market share in 2021.



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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Samsung’s next flagship is set to debut January 14. The company just confirmed earlier rumors surrounding the date for its next Unpacked event (virtually, of course). This one sports the name, “Welcome to the Everyday Epic.”

“Over the past year, mobile technology has taken center stage in everyday life as people are working remotely and spending more time at home,” the company writes. “The accelerated transition to a mobile-first world brings with it the need for devices that can transform everyday life into an extraordinary experience.”

The event’s timing is an interesting artifact of 2021’s wacky show scheduling, with the COVID-19 pandemic still very much being front of mind. Past Unpackeds were generally timed around Mobile World Congress. That show has been delayed until the summer, however, in hopes of returning to an in-person event. So Samsung has opted to kickstart sales a month or so earlier this year.

In fact, the event is a mere days after CES. Gone are the days a gadget journalist could take a few days to decompress after the year’s biggest hardware show. It also, perhaps, doesn’t bode well for Samsung’s announcements during CES itself (though the electronics giant has more than enough divisions to keep its presence at the show interesting).

Another odd change this year is the fact that you can already reserve the S21, sight unseen. There’s little doubt it will be a solid phone, though there are plenty of questions around how the company will up the ante in the era of flagging smartphone sales. The leaks so far have been kind of underwhelming, though Samsung’s usually got a couple of fun surprises up its sleeve.

We’ve already seen enough of the Galaxy Buds Pro that they don’t qualify as a surprise, exactly. But the company has a solid enough track record with earbuds that there’s reason to be excited. The AirPods Pro competitors are said to be priced at a reasonable $199.



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