Tag Archives: smartphones

Smartphone sales stutter across Europe

Smartphone sales slowed across Europe in the third quarter, despite overall global sales reaching their highest ever levels, according to a new report

While smartphone sales reached their highest figure on record during the third financial quarter of 2015, growth in Europe stalled as user demand slowed, a new report has found.

Smartphone unit growth across Western Europe saw a rise of around 3pc year-on-year during the quarter, with the French market slowing to 5pc growth and the UK declining by 1pc, according to a report by GfK, which is based on consumer ‘point-of-sale’ data.

Growth was marginally higher in Eastern Europe at 4pc, where Russia and Ukraine’s declined by 6pc and 19pc respectively.

The report predicts a lift in demand in central Europe, forecasting an upturn of 4pc in the year’s final quarter, before rising to 9pc growth in early 2016.

Elsewhere in the world, growth was particularly strong in emerging Asian Pacific (APAC) countries including India, where sales rose by 40pc year-on-year – driven by strong demand from smartphone priced at $100 and under, which accounts for around 48pc of the market.

Over in China, mid-range and high-end smartphones were the drivers behind increased growth of 6pc overall. Sales of high-end handsets, defined as such by their $500 upwards price tags, which include Samsung Galaxy S6 flagship and Apple’s iPhone series, rocketed 65pc, while sales of more modestly priced mid-range units rose 25pc year-on-year.

Separately conducted research from Gartner found that smartphone sales fell for the first time during the second quarter of the year in the face of the rapidly cooling economy, falling by 4pc.

GfK predicts overall smartphone market growth in China will fall 4pc throughout 2015, before rising to a modest 3pc growth in 2016.

Unit demand in South Korea, home of Samsung and LG, fell 3pc compared to the same time a year ago, while Argentina and Brazil reported respective declines of 16pc and 15pc.

By the end of 2015, GfK estimates 1.3bn smartphones will have been sold, bolstered by a 13pc global sales rise in the fourth quarter.

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Digital detox: Could this jewellery give you your life back?

If you obsessively check your phone, there’s a fashionable new way to screen your calls, texts and emails. Jessica Salter reports

Vinaya: The jewellery that could be the cure to digital overload

We all know that we use our phones too much. The average person spends nearly nine hours a day on electronic devices according to one recent study, which also found that we spend more time checking emails in the morning than eating breakfast.

And last month, TED talk star Sherry Turkle argued in her bestselling book,Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, that being on our phones all the time is reducing our empathy. But unplugging totally is unrealistic – there are some calls you simply need to take and texts you must answer. So how can you digitally detox, while remaining partially connected?

Kate Unsworth believes she has the answer. Aged 27, she is a ‘digital native’ – Facebook was founded when she was 16 – and she admits that she used to check social media up to 20 times a day, and her emails at least 50 times a day.

‘I started to realise that my happiness depended on curbing my bad phone-checking habits. But I needed help doing it. There wasn’t anything on the market, so I had to build it,’ she says when we meet at her east London office.

Stylishly dressed in a black oversized shirt and skinny jeans with headphones around her neck, she has a large rose-gold ring with a black stone on her middle finger. It’s a piece from her line of hi-tech jewellery – that women will actually want to wear.

The stone in the ring, necklace or bracelet buzzes only when the most important calls, texts and emails (according to your preset list) come through, so that you can put your phone in your bag and forget about it. ‘I wanted to design something that would help people be more present and live in the moment,’ she says.

It’s an amazing device. The stone, called Altruis, is central to the design; it is packed with software that communicates via Bluetooth with a smartphone. ‘I’ve got my mum, my boyfriend and my two business partners programmed in, so when they email me, I know about it.’

The device has another feature where you can set a code word so that if anyone emails you with it in the subject line, you get an alert. ‘Mine is “bananas”. If my team or friends really need to get hold of me, they just text me that word,’ says Unsworth.

L-r: Kate Unsworth; Altruis rose-gold bracelet, £250, available from Vinaya

The Altruis has been 18 months in the making; a prototype has been tested by users for a year. But now it is finally available to buy in selected boutiques around the world, and on Unsworth’s website, Vinaya. From next spring, it will also be available at Net-a-Porter.

Unsworth’s journey to digital detoxing started three years ago, when she was working for a management consultancy company. ‘I was totally passionate about my job,’ she says. ‘I was giving it my all and that meant I was totally connected. If I was at dinner and an email came in, I’d reply under the table, and I’d step outside to take calls.

‘I’d even do it in the middle of the night and start again as soon as I woke up at 6am. It got to a point where my boss and my client both said they didn’t expect me to be online all the time, but I couldn’t help it. I was always “on”.’

One evening in February 2013, Kate was waiting in a restaurant when her friend called to say she would be two hours late.

‘I thought I would just catch up on work while I waited. Then my battery died and I remember feeling so angry. But I ended up having a glass of wine, relaxing, and thinking, “This is what I should have been doing in the first place.” By the time my friend got there, I felt like my whole perspective had changed. I realised I needed to switch off more.’

She banned herself from her phone completely, from the internet outside of office hours and started leaving work at 5pm. ‘From 5pm to 9am I wasn’t online. It didn’t affect my work at all. In fact, I found that it made me more focused and productive.’

She started noticing things happening around her. ‘I vividly remember sitting on a bus on my way to work behind a couple in their 70s. She leant over to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek, and he turned to her and smiled. I burst into tears. I felt like for the first time in ages I was present enough to witness these small things that happen around us all the time.’

But after a strict two-week detox, Unsworth found herself slipping back into bad habits. ‘You get to the end of the day, you’re tired, and you think, “Sod it, I’ll check Facebook.” I assumed there was a product out there to help, but there wasn’t.’

Clockwise from top left: Altruis gold pendant, £275; Altruis rose-gold ring, ring, £220; Altruis gold and black ring, £220, all available from Vinaya

Kate had grown up tinkering around with electronic equipment. As a teenage wannabe DJ growing up in Cheshire she couldn’t afford brand-new kit, so her dad taught her to fix broken speakers. ‘I wasn’t a tech enthusiast at first, but I realised that actually technology allows you to be really creative.’

Then throughout her mathematics and statistics degree at Edinburgh, and a postgraduate in economics and econometrics, during which she learnt coding, she set up a business with her younger brother selling reconditioned ex-rental laptops to students.

She also knew the wearable-techmarket inside out. Although in 2013 it was a year before the term would become mainstream, she had been consulting on the industry and writing internal reports. Before and after work she started setting up meetings and Skype calls with anyone she thought could help, and began researching how and what she could create. ‘At some point I just realised that this was actually achievable. So I left my job.’

She found two partners: Dan Müller, an engineer who was working for a jewellery company, and Fabio Pania, an electronics engineer. Together they launched Vinaya, which has just secured funding from investors includingCarmen Busquets, founding investor of Net-a-Porter. The company now has 30 salaried staff.

But this isn’t just about creating a product that will sell. Unsworth is really committed to the idea that it will improve people’s lives. She has travelled in Asia and the company’s name, Vinaya, is a Buddhist term meaning ‘discipline’.

Kate incorporates spirituality into her office life – the team have daily yoga in the morning and meditation at 4pm, and her office is filled with candles and books on happiness. ‘I highlight bits in them and pass them round.’ But, she acknowledges,

‘There are definitely some members of the team who are less interested in the philosophical side of it, and more interested in the technical solutions.’ (The second floor is full of soldering irons; not a candle in sight.)

While half the company is focused on product development, the other half is an ‘innovation lab’. As a trained statistician, Kate was frustrated by the current studies on happiness, which she felt weren’t scientific enough. She employs a neuroscientist and conducts experiments, such as a recent one where they measured brain activity in CEOs partaking in a digital detox in the Moroccan desert.

Vinaya’s blog is filled with posts on research in the field, such as a report that shows empathy in young adults has been decaying since the turn of the century, or that children and adults are losing the ability to talk to one another. ‘There’s so much interesting research out there,’ Kate says. ‘Let’s bring it to light and look to create products out of it.’

She does practice what she preaches. If you email her, you get an automated message – extraordinarily for a young tech CEO – that she is only checking her email occasionally, and giving other contacts in the company to try.

This, she says, has reduced her emails by 70 per cent. She has removed all social media apps from her phone ‘so I don’t check them mindlessly’ and has a programme installed on her computer that only allows her on those sites for five minutes a day. ‘It’s enough time to check a contact detail or reply to a message, but that’s it,’ she says.

She is not, she insists, anti-technology. For her, it’s about working out how to live with it. ‘Technology’s going to be here indefinitely, in a much bigger way than it is today,’ she says. ‘So it’s about saying, “Let’s be smart about this. Let’s think about how we can integrate technology into our lives in a way that is beneficial to us.”

‘Because that’s what life is about; we should be on a path that helps us be more human and not less. It’s so we don’t morph into robots.’

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Smartphones and tablets need ‘bedtime mode’ to improve children’s sleep

Phones, tablets and e-readers currently cause sleep disruptions, and need to shift to ‘bed’ mode at night, says children’s sleep medicine expert

More devices like the iPhone, iPad and Kindle emit a blue light that causes our sleep to be restless and disrupted, according to a new study.

Led by Dr Paul Gringras at the Department of Children’s Sleep Medicine, Evelina London, the study found that manufacturers have started making bigger, brighter, bluer screens in an effort to increase the efficiency of our screens during daytime. As an unwanted byproduct, this light is affecting our sleep and productivity.

Kindle, for instance, didn’t backlight its screen in older models, but the new version tested – the Kindle Paperwhite first generation – does.

The study, reported first by the BBC, said that this type of light is likely to cause the most disruption to sleep, as it most effectively suppresses melatonin, a hormone that reminds us to sleep every night; the light also increases alertness.

In fact, using our devices before bedtime could even affect our performance during the day, because exposure to this blue light changes our body’s natural rhythms.

“The development of light-emitting devices means that for many people, a ‘book at bedtime’ is now often an ‘e-book,'” the paper pointed out.

Reading a traditional paper book by the light of your bedside lamp doesn’t affect your sleep, because bulbs emit a yellow-red light. “In comparison, the same book read in electronic format will provide a very different light signal with biological effects,” the researchers said.

Both adults and children can avoid these negative effects by keeping our digital devices outside of the bedroom, which is easier said than done. For Android devices, apps like F.lux can adjust a computer display’s colour according to its location and time of day, which may be more helpful on a daily basis.

Ultimately, though, the push to adjust screen lighting has to come from manufacturers. “All hardware devices [should have] an automatic “bedtime mode” that shifts blue and green light emissions to yellow and red as well as reduces backlight/light intensity,” Gringras and the team write.

“We hope that as technology improves, ‘brighter’ will not always be synonymous with ‘better’.”

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ARM announces new Cortex-A35: ultra-low power, 64-bit

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen consumer tablets and smartphones mostly jump from 32-bit ARM cores (the Cortex-A9 and A15) to their 64-bit counterparts (Cortex-A53 and A57). At the lower-end of the market, however, 32-bit continued to rule the roost. While ARM billed the Cortex-A53 as a replacement for the Cortex-A7 initially, tests showed that the A53’s power curve was high enough that it wasn’t a drop-in replacement for the 32-bit chip. Now, ARM has announced a new 64-bit processor that does replace the Cortex-A7, while simultaneously improving performance and flexibility.

The new Cortex-A35 is designed as a successor to the Cortex-A5 and A7, but presumably tilts towards the A7’s power efficiency and performance ratio rather than the minimalist Cortex-A5. A5 customers likely don’t have much need for 64-bit in the near future in any case — if you work in environments where the A5’s performance is good enough, it’s probably good enough for the foreseeable future. The exact positioning and replacement cycle is shown below:

A35-1

Anandtech reports that the A35 is targeting environments where power is below 125mW (ARM claims the A35 can operate at 1GHz while drawing just 90mW — and that’s on a 28nm process. Since ARM intends for the chip to deploy at the 14/16nm node, real power and voltage levels should be even better. This allows for a greater frequency range or even lower power consumption for Internet of Things devices that don’t require much in the way of performance.

A35-2

Like the A5 and A7, the Cortex-A35 is an in-order core with an eight-stage pipeline and limited dual-issue capabilities. What’s changed compared to those cores is that ARM has improved memory accesses, branch prediction, and instruction fetch to boost both power efficiency and overall performance. ARM borrowed heavily from the A53’s memory architecture to improve the A35’s final design, and boost the cache subsystem’s overall capabilities as well.

Flexible implementation

ARM has always offered flexible core implementations, but the Cortex-A35 takes that approach to new levels. The Cortex-A35 can be configured with 8K-64K L1 caches and an L2 cache between 128KB and 1MB. Customers who wish to do so can implement a Cortex-A35 core with an 8K L1, no FPU, Neon, L2 cache, hardware cryptography, or multi-core capability. Our recent story on an impending lawsuit against AMD over the core counts on Bulldozer processors argued that attempting to legally define a CPU “core” is effectively impossible, and ARM’s implementation offerings on the Cortex-A35 are part of the reason why. Two different vendors can build two different Cortex-A35’s with entirely different hardware capabilities, including functions we think of as essential to a modern processor, like the FPU.

A35-3

In typical configurations, ARM is telling users to expect a 6% improvement in integer performance, 16% in browsing performance, 36% in floating point, and 40% in a Geekbench-style MPI test. That’s compared to the Cortex-A7 and assumes equivalent process technology and clock speed tests. Overall, the goal is clearly to provide a chip that better suits an evolving IoT ecosystem (assuming IoT developers ever manage to create a smart product worth owning that isn’t riddled with security flaws).

By offering low-power devices that include advanced security capabilities like TrustZone, ARM is giving developers some hardware options to help with that goal. Whether or not designers will use them is another question. Devices based on the Cortex-A35 are expected to be in-market by the end of the year, and ARM has suggested that some companies might choose to use a pair of Cortex-A53 / A35 cores in Big.little configurations to take advantage of the efficiency of its lower-power cores. ARM has previously stated that it expects companies to continue to pair Cortex-A72 cores with Cortex-A53 cores, but it’s possible that we’ll see a few OEMs offer A72 / A35 pairings to maximize both power savings and performance.

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That used iPhone? Here’s what happens before you buy it

When it came time for Caleb Gonsalves to buy a new iPhone earlier this year, he didn’t run to the nearest Apple store. Instead, he headed to the website of reseller Gazelle to search for a used iPhone 6, saving himself money and the pain of waiting another year for his wireless contract to end.

“The idea I could just sell back a phone [an iPhone 5S]…and put the money to a new phone that was discounted…was amazing,” said Gonsalves, a 27-year-old executive at a tech startup based in Boston.

He ended up trading in a 32-gigabyte iPhone 5S for $216 and applied the cash to help pay for a used 64GB iPhone 6 from Gazelle that cost $401. At the time, a new version of that phone would have cost $749.

Gonsalves isn’t alone when it comes to buying and selling used phones online.

As the US wireless market moves away from traditional two-year contracts, more consumers are upgrading their phones at a faster clip, while looking for ways to do it on the cheap. Device resellers like Gazelle are benefiting from that trend by offering affordable alternatives in used smartphones. Since the iPhone 6S hit the market in late September, about 100,000 iPhones have been traded in to Gazelle, a level in line with the typical trade-in number during “S” generations, the company said. Apple tends to do major redesigns every other year, opting for more subtle changes in the off-year denoted by the “S” in the product name.

Most of Gazelle’s business revolves around the iPhone, but it also buys and sells Android devices. And it’s not the only company in this market. eBay, uSell and various other companies also have businesses related to used mobile devices.

Gazelle, based in Boston, got its start offering consumers a place to sell their old or unwanted electronic wares. Last year it opened up an online storefront to sell them back to you, and it has since moved 50,000 iPhones.

“As subsidies have been taken away from carriers, folks are realizing their iPhone habit is a $650 habit, not $200,” Gazelle Chief Marketing Officer Sarah Welch said. “There has been an explosion in demand for high-quality used phones.”

To see what happens to those iPhones before they reach new buyers’ hands, CNET visited Gazelle’s facility in Louisville, Kentucky, for a behind-the-scenes glimpse.

To sell a smartphone, consumers go to Gazelle’s site and describe the phone’s condition as “broken,” “good” or “flawless” and then receive an estimate for its value. The company then sends a prepaid box to the consumer, who has 30 days to return it with the phone to the Louisville facility. The long window allows sellers to lock in a high price before the newest iPhone is announced, but gives them time to upgrade before sending off the old phone.

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How a startup’s tiny dots could lead to better smartphone photos

With tech called quantum dots, InVisage promises to surpass the limits of today’s image sensors and vastly improve digital photos and videos. The first devices with its technology should arrive in early 2016.

The future of photography is arriving here with a steady drip, drip, drip.

At least that’s the plan for InVisage Technologies, a 75-person startup that hopes its exotic new material known as quantum dots will dramatically improve smartphone cameras when it arrives in devices in the first quarter of 2016.

“It’s revolutionary on a number of fronts,” said Chief Executive and co-founder Jess Lee, who will unveil the company’s first product on Wednesday.

In an exclusive look into its operations tucked inside a drab office building in the heart of Silicon Valley, InVisage showed CNET how it makes the tiny particles in an ultra-clean lab where staff wear coats, gloves, booties and hairnets to protect the material from contamination.

InVisage’s product, the QuantumFilm image-sensor chip, begins with a chemical reaction that fills a vial with an inky black liquid drop by drop. Concentrated, 1 fluid ounce is enough to make enough image-sensor chips for 10,000 cameras. The quantum dots themselves are less than 5 nanometers wide — small enough that more than 20,000 of them side by side would be only as wide as a human hair.

Chips with the light-detecting layer of quantum dots will outdo today’s image-sensor technology, Lee said. First, their better dynamic range can handle highlights and shadows better, letting you avoid the glare of overexposed faces in the sun while still discerning the subjects in the shade. Second, a fast-acting “global shutter” avoids the Jello-wobble effect that hurts today’s videos taken when the subject or camera is moving. Last, QuantumFilm-based cameras can be made thinner so phone makers can avoid the protruding camera lens present even on today’s top-end phones like Apple’s iPhone 6S and Google’s Nexus 6P.

Cameras are crucial to smartphone-powered activities like sharing photos with friends and family. We post more than 80 million images a day on Instagram alone. But image quality often falls short. Look no farther than Apple’s “shot on iPhone 6” ad campaign to see how smartphone makers push camera improvements to try to stand out in a crowded market.

“Image sensors are critical to smartphones,” ranking third in importance after battery power and the display, said InfoTrends analyst Ed Lee. “People continue to take more and more photos, and it’s going beyond just memory keeping and social sharing” as people use phones to search, scan and tryaugmented reality apps that add a digital layer to the real world.

‘Extremely difficult task’

InVisage won’t have an easy time meeting its ambitions. It’s going up against giants like Sony, which according to analyst firm IHS, accounts for about 42 percent of the $9.6 billion image-sensor business. Success requires increasing production to thousands of chips a day while maintaining quality. And it’s been tough developing InVisage’s technology. In a 2010 interview with CNET, Lee said he expected QuantumFilm image-sensor chips to arrive in 2011.

“Succeeding in the market will be an extremely difficult task for InVisage,” said IHS analyst Brian O’Rourke. “The image sensor market is ferociously competitive. The last startup to succeed in this market was OmniVision, which started in the 1990s.”

Even if it took five years longer than hoped, InVisage is fledging from the nest now, with help from more than $100 million raised in venture capital.

“While we’ve been taking longer to come to market than we originally predicted, this is brand-new technology,” said Lee, who previously worked at OmniVision.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) fabricates most parts of each QuantumFilm chip, but InVisage completes the job by adding the quantum dot layer. Lee wouldn’t identify which companies are buying its chips but said they are “aggressive early adopters…looking for a way to differentiate.”

Initially, InVisage expects to charge smartphone makers the same price as the latest silicon-based sensor technology. In the longer run, it expects to lower manufacturing costs.

InVisage is starting with smartphones but plans to power traditional still and cinema cameras, too.

“We have high interest in the high-end space,” Lee said. “It’s a personal goal of mine to get our technology into those hands.” High-end products have big marketing value for mainstream products, he added.

Quantum whats?

Today’s image sensors are specialized computer chips with a layer of silicon that is sensitive to light. The more light that strikes each of millions of pixels on the image sensor, the more an electrical charge builds up for that pixel. Circuitry converts that charge into image data.

QuantumFilm uses a super-thin layer of its light-sensitive quantum dots instead of silicon. Each dot is made of a semiconducting material that conducts electricity or not depending on its environment. Different dot sizes are sensitive to particular colors of light.

One of the biggest quantum dot advantages is better dynamic range — the span between the darkest shadows and the brightest highlights. QuantumFilm can record image details at brightness levels that would overwhelm a silicon sensor. Specifically, QuantumFilm remains sensitive to detail even as it absorbs up to eight times as much light, or up to three stops in photography terms. That translates into a sensor that better captures reality without resorting to multi-exposure “HDR” high dynamic range tricks.

QuantumFilm also has a useful feature called global shutter that reads each pixel of video data simultaneously. That can bring realism to videos otherwise spoiled when the camera holder or subject is moving.

Another perk: Because quantum dots are laid down in a continuous film, the number of pixels on a sensor isn’t baked into the hardware. A smartphone could be set to capture images with a maximum number of pixels for fine detail then changed to a smaller number of larger pixels for better low-light performance.

Digital image sensors have evolved slowly for decades, starting with technology called CCD (charge-coupled devices) before moving to conventional technology called CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) chip manufacturing that’s better suited to video and to use in smartphones. The most recent development has been backside illumination (BSI), which flips CMOS image sensors like pancakes so light shines on the back of the chip and electronic components won’t block light.

Lee thinks quantum dots are the next step for the entire industry in the quest for better image quality. “There’s nothing else out there,” he said.

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New Android adware tries to root your phone so you can’t remove it

A new piece of Android malware has been revealed by security firm Lookout, and it’s a clever one. The malware in question is a type of trojan adware called Shuanet, which is masquerading as 20,000 different popular apps. Shuanet doesn’t just display ads, though. It also attempts to root any device it is installed on, allowing the malware to survive factory resets.

Shuanet shares a lot of code with several other adware trojans that Lookout has detected recently known as Kemoge and Shedun. What’s interesting about Shuanet is that it doesn’t seek to wreak havoc on an infected device or clog it with other malware. This is adware first and foremost, so the goal is to get people to use their devices and see the ads.

The malware operators are downloading the legitimate Android APKs of popular apps, then integrating Shuanet and reposting them in third-party app stores. The thousands of apps repackaged by Shuanet include the likes of Facebook, Snapchat, NYTimes, WhatsApp, and more. These apps appear to function normally after being installed, so the user might not even realize anything is wrong. Just a few annoying popup ads, but such is the price we pay for living in a connected world, right?

ShuanetThe aspect of Shuanet that is grabbing headlines is that it roots your device, which is sort of true. It certainly tries to root any Android device it is installed on, but according to Lookout, it’s not using any new secret system vulnerabilities. It’s simply a package of older community-developed exploits that enthusiast users install to gain root access for their own enjoyment. If Shuanet successfully roots a phone, it moves the infected app to the system partition, which means it will survive a factory reset. The only way to remove it would be to use a root-enabled file explorer to find and remove the package. That would be tough if you didn’t know which app was the source of the infection.

This isn’t as calamitous as it sounds at first. As we’ve mentioned in the past, there are no universal root exploits on Android, and all of the public exploits included in Shuanet have been patched (for example ExynosAbuse and Framaroot). Thus, a device is only vulnerable if it’s running a rather old version of Android. Notice how the example image provided by Lookout is a Jelly Bean phone? A newer phone wouldn’t be rooted by Shuanet, but the ad features could still work.

It’s still very hard to get infected with Shuanet. You’d have to disable installation protection, ignore the Google security warnings, then manually install one of these apps from a shady third-party app store instead of simply getting it from Google Play. I’m not sure who would do that, but Lookout says it has seen it happening in the wild. It does not provide a figure for the number of infections, though.

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Exclusive NBA content is headed to Verizon’s Go90 app

Go90, Verizon’s fresh new video service aimed directly at millennials, is already growing. The company just announced a multiyear partnership with the NBA, and in addition to Verizon becoming the NBA’s official sponsor, Go90 users are getting exclusive access to NBA original content, daily highlights, and out-of-market games. Verizon also says it plans on working with the NBA on a collection of original series. The youths of Gen Z should be excited.

Go90 launched last month as a way for Verizon to appeal to young, mobile audiences eager to watch videos on their phones. This deal brings the NBA into Verizon’s Go90 content fold, joining big Viacom properties like The Daily Show along with videos from all over the web. Users even have the option to share highlights via text and social media. Unfortunately, while a deal like this is certainly a coup, it doesn’t mean Go90 will be successful in the long run.

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Inside BlackBerry’s last-ditch plan to win you back with Android

Once the mobile maker to beat, BlackBerry is fighting for survival. Its secret weapon: the first-ever BlackBerry phone powered by Google’s Android software.

Most people go to Las Vegas to gamble, party or see a show.

On a warm winter’s day in January 2014, Ron Louks journeyed there to gamble. But he wasn’t trying his luck at the tables. He was there, on one of his first days on the job as head of BlackBerry’s smartphone business, to bet on the company’s future.

After landing in the desert city at the start of the annual Consumer Electronics Show, Louks checked in with BlackBerry CEO John Chen and then set off for his first and most important appointment. Tellingly, it wasn’t with a wireless carrier or one of BlackBerry’s manufacturing partners. It was with Google.

“Android, in our mind, was a longtime coming,” Louks said in an interview last week.

Chen, a software industry veteran hired to help save the Canadian company in late 2013, had already been talking to Google about how BlackBerry could better work with Android, the world’s most popular operating system.

The next step was up to Louks, who previously worked at HTC and Sony Ericsson.

Nearly two years after that Vegas meetup, BlackBerry is getting ready to sell the $700 BlackBerry Priv, its first smartphone not powered by the company’s own mobile software. Chen and Louks hope that by tying their fortunes to Android, BlackBerry will do something it hasn’t been able to do in five years: win over customers who abandoned its once-almighty keyboard-based gadgets for Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy phones.

If the Priv is a flop, that will likely spell the end of the BlackBerry smartphone.

“If this doesn’t resonate with users, there’s not much else they can do,” said Chris Hazelton, an analyst at 451 Research.

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Samsung Galaxy Note 5 vs. Nexus 6P: Phablet fight

For the last few years, Samsung has dominated the premium phablet space with its Galaxy Note devices. They had the best screens and the biggest batteries for those who wanted a large phone. Now Google has refined the Nexus lineup and is offering the Nexus 6P, a pure Android phablet with great hardware at a reasonable price. It doesn’t have the same productivity features Samsung touts in the Note 5, but let’s see how they stack up.

Design

Gone are the days of plastic Samsung flagship phones. Now it’s all about metal and glass, which forms the entirety of the Note 5’s body. It has an aluminum band around the edge and a glass panel on the back. The Note 5’s rear panel is curved a bit at the edges to make the larger phone easier to hold, but it is still made of slippery glass. The Nexus 6P is by far the most sturdy Nexus phone ever built. It has an aluminum unibody frame that wraps around the edges of the device. There’s a Gorilla Glass panel on the back that houses some antennas and the camera as well.

note

The Note 5 and Nexus 6P have a similar feel in the hand as they have very similar sizes and weight. The Nexus is 7.3mm thick compared with the Note 5 at 7.6mm. The Nexus 6P weighs 179g, which is only a little heavier than the 171g Note 5. The Nexus 6Pa also has front-facing stereo speakers, but the Note 5 only has one speaker mounted on the bottom.

Because these are both sealed devices, the batteries aren’t intended to be swapped by the user. The Samsung device has a 3,000mAh cell, which is a little smaller than past Note devices. It’s a reasonable battery for a phablet, but plenty of enthusiast users are disappointed that you can’t swap batteries when that was a hallmark of past Notes. The Nexus 6P comes from a long line of devices without swappable batteries, so it’s more expected. Huawei also managed to cram in a larger 3,450mAh battery. In general, the Nexus gets better battery life than the Note 5, but that’s also thanks to the software, which we’ll get to later.

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On the front of the Note 5 is Samsung’s customary array of physical navigation buttons under the screen. The back and multitasking buttons are capacitive, and the home button clicks. That’s also where the fingerprint sensor is on this device. It’s fast and reliable, but it seems less special now that the Nexus 6P is available. There are no physical nav buttons on this phone, but it does have a fingerprint sensor on the back right where your index finger likes to sit. This makes it a snap to unlock the phone — just tap the sensor (called Nexus Imprint) and the phone wakes up and unlocks. It’s faster and more convenient than Samsung’s implementation.

Display and internals

Samsung has been the king of smartphone displays for years. That’s still true, but only because it made the panel on the Huawei-built Nexus 6P. Google and Huawei actually worked out a deal to get the latest generation AMOLED tech for the new Nexus phone, which has never happened before to my knowledge. Samsung usually only sells the last-gen technology to other manufacturers.

Both the Nexus 6P and Note 5 have a 5.7-inch 2560×1440 Super AMOLED (518 pixels per inch). They both look absolutely fantastic with very good clarity and high maximum brightness. They’re very usable outdoors, and the colors are vibrant without being blown out. Google has also added a more accurate optional sRGB color mode to the Nexus 6P, which is a nice touch. The Note 5’s screen might be calibrated a little better in the default mode, but the real difference is the included digitizer for Samsung’s S Pen.

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The S Pen docks in the bottom of the Note 5, allowing you to write on the screen almost like you would on paper. The S Pen has pressure sensitivity and quick access to a raft of Samsung productivity tools. The S Pen is the best stylus you can get on an Android phone right now, and the Nexus 6P doesn’t really have an equivalent feature.

On the inside, the Note 5 and Nexus 6P are simultaneously the same and quite different. Both have an octa-core 64-bit ARM chip, but the have different pedigrees. The Note 5 runs on the Samsung Exynos 7420 with a quad-core cluster of high-power Cortex-A57 CPUs and a second group of four highly efficient Cortex-A53 cores. It runs cooler and faster than the Snapdragon 810 in most other phones. The Nexus 6P has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 with the same core configuration, but this chip has been extremely warm in other devices, which has led to heavy thermal throttling. Interestingly, the Nexus 6P seems to avoid all that. It’s fast and it stays fast without overheating.

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The Nexus 6P also has 3GB of RAM and comes in 32, 64, and 128GB storage variants. The Note 5 has 4GB of RAM and only comes in 32GB and 64GB versions. Neither device has a microSD card slot for added storage, but Samsung’s UFS 2.0 NAND flash is much faster than the eMMC 5.0 used in the Nexus 6P. Not many activities will make use of that, but it might come up from time to time. It’s worth noting that Samsung’s memory management model in TouchWiz leans toward closing apps in the background rather than filling up all the available RAM first.

Cameras

Google has finally started taking the camera experience seriously with the Nexus 6P. This device has a 12.3MP sensor with large 1.55µm pixels and a f/2.0 aperture. That means it takes great low-light shots, and there’s laser-assisted autofocus to make sure you capture your subject. The Note 5 has a similarly excellent 16MP camera with an f/1.9 aperture. It doesn’t have laser autofocus, but it’s still very effective at finding the subject, though a little slower.

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Samsung’s camera adds optical image stabilization, which compensates for hand shakes while taking photos and video. The Nexus 6P doesn’t have that, but there’s electronic stabilization for video. It works well enough, and the still photos are usually captured fast enough that the lack of OIS isn’t a big deal.

HDR image capture is very good on both phones, but it’s substantially faster on the Note 5. Google’s HDR+ implementation produces very well-exposed images, but it takes longer to capture. That can cause some blurring with moving subjects.

Software and everything else

Here’s where things really get interesting — Samsung has always had great hardware features (eg, screens and cameras), but software has been an issue. Samsung’s AndroidUI is known as TouchWiz, and it’s been greatly despised in past years. The company started to turn things around with the Galaxy S5, and on the Note 5 things are vastly improved. The UI is more responsive and most of the half-finished features have been removed. The strange blue-green UI remains, but at least there’s even a theme store that can change it.

The Note 5 is running Android 5.1.1 right now, but the Nexus 6P is shipping with Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Because this is stock Android running on a Nexus device, you get all the latest and greatest features with none of the carrier bloatware. In fact, Google has even reduced the number of pre-loaded apps it includes. The UI is just much more attractive and consistent than what Samsung is doing right now.

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The Nexus 6P has a ton of cool Marshmallow features like doze mode to reduce idle battery drain, more granular app permissions, and Google Now On Tap. On that last count, I’m not completely smitten with On Tap yet (it seems to miss a lot of stuff), but it has potential. The Note 5 will get an update to Android 6.0 in the coming months with many of these features, but it has all the stylus additions as well.

Samsung’s Air Command pop up is accessible at any time with the S Pen stylus — just tap the button. It offers quick access to the note taking and screen capture tools designed specifically for this input device. These are things you don’t get on the Nexus 6P, but you really only benefit if you’re a fan of styluses. If the S Pen never comes out of the holder, the Note 5 loses much of its distinctiveness.

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The Note 5 is available from all the major carriers, and you can get a GSM unlocked version if you don’t mind scrounging around in the gray market. The upshot is that you can buy a Note 5 on a payment plan with your carrier. The Nexus 6P is available only from Google, and isn’t expected to come to any carrier stores. It’s completely unlocked and has support for CDMA and GSM networks with a ton of LTE bands. Since Google sends out the updates to this phone, there will be no messy carrier delays for this phone.

The Note 5’s full price is upwards of $700 for the 32GB model. It’s a good thing carriers will let you finance that, because it’s a lot to drop on a phone. The Nexus 6P, however, retails at $500 for the 32GB. You have to pay that all upfront or you can finance it with a Project Fi line of service.

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