Month: October 2014

Skybrite streams unlimited audiobooks to your phone or tablet

For $9.99 per month, the service lets you listen to your heart’s content. Unfortunately, the library is on the small side — for now.

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Skybrite has a broad library of audiobook content, but not much mainstream stuff.
Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

There’s a “Netflix” for just about everything these days: e-books, magazines, music and, of course, movies. Ah, but what about audiobooks? That’s Skybrite in a nutshell; it’s basically “Netflix for audiobooks,” offering unlimited listening for a flat rate of $9.99 per month.

The service was born to be mobile, with apps for Android and iOS. You can browse the selection by Staff Picks, Categories and Contributors, and for any given title it’s a one-tap affair to start listening and/or add it to your Favorites.

Unfortunately, for the moment Skybrite can only stream its content; there’s no option to download for offline playback. But a company rep indicated that feature is definitely in development.

Also in development: more content. Right now, Skybrite’s audio library is home to some 3,000 10,000 titles across a wide range of categories. These include not only expected ones like biographies, business, history and fiction, but also interviews, meditation, language learning, theater performances and stand-up comedy.

Even so, there’s very little high-profile content to be found at the moment. Save for the “Hunger Games” trilogy, most of the titles in the Literature & Fiction category are from little-known authors, or are public-domain works like “Les Miserables.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but anyone hoping for mainstream, Audible-caliber selection will be disappointed.

Rabid audiobook listeners, however, may find enough material to make Skybrite worthwhile, and the company plans to expand its library considerably in 2015. (The rep indicated anywhere from 5-7 times more content by this time next year.)

You can try Skybrite free for seven days, and you don’t need a credit card for the trial. Your thoughts?

Versus: Fire TV Stick vs Roku Streaming Stick vs Chromecast

Proving the e-tailer still has a few surprises up its sleeve, Amazon announced the Fire TV Stick on Monday, a ridiculously affordable version of the set-top hardware that appears to have left little behind on its way to the shrink-ray.

Of course, stick-sized media streamers are somewhat old hat by now, with that path already well traveled by Google’s Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick – and given that Fire TV Stick won’t arrive until just before Black Friday, we don’t know for sure if it’s as amazing as Amazon says it is.

In the meantime, we’ve got technical specifications and other product details to go by, which is enough to pore over and see how Fire TV Stick stacks up against the competition.

Design

Roku Streaming Stick in HDTVSticking out like a sore thumb

Let’s face it: There’s only so much engineers can do with a device not much bigger than a stick of gum, so buyers shouldn’t expect too many design miracles from Amazon, Roku or Google.

The trailblazing Chromecast is easily the most shapely of the bunch, adopting a more rounded look toward the rear of its 72 x 35 x 12 mm frame, while the Roku Streaming Stick makes up for its otherwise squarish 79 x 28 x 13 mm (3.1 x 1.1 x 0.5 inch) looks by adopting the same purple hue as the company’s logo.

For being the new kid on the block, the Fire TV Stick is pretty utilitarian when it comes to design – it’s simply a 84.9 x 25 x 11.5 mm (3.3 x 1.0 x 0.5 inch) black rectangle with the Amazon logo emblazoned on one side, a standard male HDMI Type A connector at one end, and a micro-USB (for power only) on the opposite side.

Looks may be one thing, but any of these devices are likely to be unplugged and tossed into a bag or purse for taking entertainment on the road; thankfully, they’re all quite light and portable, with the Chromecast packing on the most weight at 34 grams (just shy of 1.2 ozs.), followed by Fire TV Stick at 25.1 grams (0.9 oz.) and the Roku Streaming Stick at 18.1 grams (0.64 oz.).

When all is said and done, we still prefer the Chromecast for a more unique design, although points could be awarded to Amazon for its ability to make the otherwise generic-looking Fire TV Stick pretty much disappear onto the back of most HDTV sets, which is more than we can say for Roku’s device, which sticks out like a sore thumb.

Remote

Amazon Fire TV Stick with remoteNo-frills remote

When Chromecast was released more than a year ago, Google was quick to point out that no remote control would be required – after all, the required smartphone, tablet or Chrome browser on a desktop computer essentially already offer complete control over playback.

Roku and Amazon have other ideas about this concept, given their respective Streaming Stick and Fire TV Stick devices actually pull content from the internet only upon the command of a remote control or mobile app.

That makes the Roku Streaming Stick or Fire TV Stick a better choice for viewers who prefer to hold a traditional remote in their hands, which are powered by a pair of AA batteries.

Roku’s RF-based remote resembles the one that comes bundled with its current-generation set-top boxes, complete with shortcut buttons for favored nation channels M-GO, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix and Blockbuster On Demand; unfortunately, Roku skimped on the headphone jack featured on its more expensive hardware.

Amazon likewise cheaped out on the remote for its Fire TV Stick, which offers only basic navigation and playback buttons and none of the voice search or game controller functionality full-sized Fire TV owners enjoy.

However, Amazon is separately offering both the $29.99 Fire TV Voice Remote as well as the $39.99 Fire Game Controller, each of which also happens to be fully compatible with Fire TV Stick right out of the box.

For those looking to toss hardware remotes in a desk drawer and forget about them, the news is even better: All three devices can be controlled from mobile apps on iOS or Android, although at this writing Amazon’s free Fire TV Remote app is a no-show on Apple’s App Store.

Apps

Fire TV appsAmazon still has work to do

Although Google has made great strides over the last year or so in securing the support of content providers for Chromecast, Roku continues to dominate with more than 1,000 channels, ranging from movies to TV shows, sports, news and music.

Aside from iTunes Store content – which none of these stick-based devices are capable of playing – any of these sticks are capable of streaming the most popular services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube, although there is one noticeable exclusion on Chromecast, which lacks Amazon Instant Video support.

While Roku may cater to more eclectic tastes thanks to a diverse channel catalog, all three devices are also capable of streaming from the likes of Plex, software frequently used by home theater junkies to view content stored on their own computer or network-attached storage (NAS).

That just leaves us with fringe services such as Walmart-owned VUDU, which is available on Roku and compatible with Chromecast, but has thus far chosen to sit on the sidelines for Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Fire TV and now Fire TV Stick.

We’re giving the apps nod to Roku here for sheer quantity and diversity of choices, but we wouldn’t count Chromecast or Fire TV Stick out for the future, as Google and Amazon continue to line up support from other content providers.

With Galaxy Note 4 Developer Edition, you get to tinker

Priced at $700, the device is geared toward people who want an unlocked version of the phone that they can customize without any of the extra stuff thrown in by the carrier.


The developer edition of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 lets you tinker.
James Martin/CNET

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 is now available in a developer flavor for those of you who like to tweak and tinker with your phones.

Available through Samsung at a price tag of $700, the Galaxy Note 4 Developer Edition is virtually identical in features to the retail model sold by Verizon. You’ll find the same 5.7-inch 2,560×1,440-pixel screen, 16-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization, S-Pen stylus, and metal rim.

The version sold by Samsung is tied to Verizon, so by default you’ll have to use it on Verizon’s network. It also comes with all the extra software and apps courtesy of Verizon. But you can easily wipe those away.

A developer edition of a phone allows you to replace the existing OS and add-ons with a custom ROM. A custom ROM typically carries just the Android OS and the basic apps, so you’re not saddled with any of the features added by the manufacturer or the carrier. From there, you can install a variety of apps of your own choosing and make other changes. You can also install different custom ROMs offered by developers, each with their own features and apps.

Though the term “developer” makes it sound like the phone is geared just toward app developers, anyone who wants to tinker with the device can buy it if they’re willing to plunk down the $700.

Those of you who prefer to stick with a locked, carrier-subsidized Galaxy Note 4 can pick one up through Verizon or AT&T for $299 with a two-year contract. The phone is also available through T-Mobile and Sprint.

Google would like to make Android Wear compatible with iOS

Google’s Android Wear OS is enjoying quite the uptake at the moment, appearing on the likes of the Moto 360 and the new LG G Watch R.

But a very intriguing new development could be making the open-source OS compatible with Apple’s iOS – as hinted by Android Wear’s product manager Jeff Chang.

Chang spoke to Huffington Post UK and explained that iOS’s large user base is, obviously, quite an attractive target for the team.

“We always want as many users as possible to enjoy our experience, so in terms of enabling more people to use Android Wear we’re very interested in making that happen,” he said.

Platform alteration

Chang went on to caveat his remarks with the observation that Apple holds all the keys when it comes to iOS and the hardware it runs on. And he points out that Cupertino might not be inclined to share.

“It’s not always completely up to us, right?” He said. “There are technical constraints, API constraints so we are trying really hard.”

Apple, famed for its ‘walled garden’ approach, is sometimes willing to play nice with rival software. Earlier this year the company allowed Microsoft to finally launch Office for iPad on its tablet range.

But with the introduction of HealthKit and particularly the Apple Watch, a new market segment for the company, it’s probably a tad unlikely Apple will be receptive to an approach from Android Wear.

As with most smartwatches time will tell.

A big screen with nothing to show for it

Phablets are a confusing segment of the smartphone world. Consider the Posh Mobile Memo S580: I’m still convinced that a 5.9-inch smartphone is a ludicrous notion, even in spite of my massive hands. But phones insist on getting larger, and device manufacturers — including Samsung, LG and Google — have long since begun to obey.

Smaller players like Posh Mobile evidently aren’t keen on being left out. The company is a distributor based out of New Jersey that primarily sells its phones online through Amazon, Newegg and eBay, and in some retail stores in the US and Latin America. All of its phones are unlocked, dual-SIM models that let you swap between two SIM cards on the fly. The Mobile Memo is the biggest of the bunch, a 5.9-inch device with a budget price tag: its MSRP is listed at $169.99, though you can find it for $99 on Amazon here in the US.

Unfortunately size is about all the Mobile Memo has to offer. Lackluster performance and an unappealing display make this phablet one to skip.

Design and specs

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A big phone with a bad screen.
Josh Miller/CNET

The Posh Mobile Memo is huge. It’s 6.5 inches tall, with a 5.9-inch screen. While not absurdly heavy at 8.9 ounces (255g), the weight and width make the device cumbersome. The phone feels solid, with a rigid, glossy plastic body accented by silver plastic trim. It’s also 3.5 inches wide: my massive hands can almost reach from one side of the screen to the other, but smaller hands will be dwarfed here.

Three capacitive buttons run along the bottom edge of the device and light up when pressed: these are the menu button, the home button and the back button. The physical volume rocker and lock button sit on the upper right corner, within relatively easy reach of my oversize mitts. Smaller hands will have some difficulty getting to them, and you’ll definitely need to adjust your grip if you’re holding the Memo up to your face while making a call.

For comparison’s sake, the Posh Mobile Memo is exactly as wide as the BlackBerry Passport. While I enjoyed using that phone, the width becomes a sore point if you’re trying to do anything one-handed. More sensible phablets eke out massive screen sizes without going so wide: consider the 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 4, which is 3.09 inches wide. And then there’s Google’s 5.9-inch Nexus 6, which is 3.27 inches wide. Those devices, while huge, can still be used with one hand in a pinch.

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Dual-SIM card phones aren’t especially popular in the US.
Josh Miller/CNET

I wouldn’t call the Memo ugly, though I’m not sure Posh Mobile’s “Elegance for all” claim really holds up here. It just looks like a generic, plastic smartphone, albeit a massive one. And any claim to elegance or quality design flies out the windows once you fire it up and take a look at the dismal display, which has a meager 800×480-pixel resolution.

I almost assumed that was a typo, or some glitch to be ironed out with a patch. But no: in the year 2014, Posh Mobile has released a 5.9-inch smartphone with a sub-HD resolution display. Images look washed out; colors lack warmth and vibrancy. Things get worse if you aren’t looking at the phone dead on, as the contrast starts to degrade rather quickly. High-definition video is right out, and my sample high-resolution photos looked dull, their details blurred. I’ll admit that text is rather easy to read, owing to how large everything is.

A dual-core 1.2GHz CPU sits under the hood, coupled with 512MB of RAM. There isn’t much in the way of storage space at 1.5GB, so you’ll need to rely on a microSD card for expansion: the Memo supports up to 32GB cards. The phone’s backplate is a bit of a pain to pry off — I was consistently worried I’d snap the flimsy plastic — but once you’re in, you’ll find that aforementioned memory card slot, as well as room for two SIM cards. That’s a great feature for travelers, and dual-SIM phones are extremely popular in Latin America, a significant chunk of Posh Mobile’s market. You don’t need to pop out the 2,500-mAh battery to reach any of these slots, which is a nice touch.

Software and features

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The low resolution is a sore point on such a big display.
Josh Miller/CNET

Apple keeps its eye on sapphire screens despite major set-back

Despite losing its primary manufacturing partner, Apple is adamant on producing sapphire screen for its mobile devices.

Reuters reports Apple is currently reviewing its options to continue producing sapphire screens. The Cupertino company is even purportedly considering teaming up again with GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT), the company’s former primary sapphire screen producing partner that recently filed for bankruptcy.

“We’re going to continue evaluating GTAT’s progress on larger sapphire boule (raw cylinders of artificially created sapphire) development, as well as consider other options for the facility,” Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet said.

Between the sapphire screens used in the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus‘ Touch ID sensor and a sapphire-laden Apple Watch still on its way, there are many reasons for Apple to continue its production of the scratch-resistant material.

Call it a separation phase

Earlier today a settlement between the two companies revealed GTAT was backing out of its current sapphire production business.

As part of the deal the advanced materials company was allowed to walk away with all its intellectual property. GTAT also agreed to pay back the $439 million (about £272m, AU$498m) Apple had prepaid as an investment.

While GTAT will stop making sapphire materials, it plans to focus on supplying the equipment needed to make sapphire materials. The two firms also agreed to continue in a technical exchange, sharing information on the development of new processes to grow next-generation sapphire.

So although they’re broken up, Apple is strongly interested in getting back together with GTAT to produce more sapphire screens in the future. We just hope it doesn’t delay the Apple Watch and its vague “early 2015” release time frame.

Samsung Galaxy S5 tipped to receive Android 5.0 in December

According to oft-accurate blog SamMobile, the Galaxy S5 could see its Lollipop update before the year ends.

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The Galaxy S5 should be among the first Samsung devices to see Android 5.0.
Screenshot taken by Juan Garzón/CNET

Samsung could soon deliver an Android 5.0 update to the Galaxy S5, says SamMobile. According to a source close to the blog, the Lollipop build may be here sometime in December.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that all versions of the device will see Android 5.0 in the next two months. The probable scenario is that the unlocked, international model is first in line, followed by additional regions in the ensuing weeks.

It’s also worth pointing out that wireless providers can sometimes delay the update process by a few weeks or months. But, should US Galaxy S5 owners see Lollipop in the first two months of 2015, that time frame is considerably better than previous Android releases.

Lest they risk losing market share, Samsung will want to ensure their key devices see timely software updates. While other hardware makers have already confirmed updates and rough dates for Android 5.0, Samsung has remained somewhat tight-lipped.

Sony Smartwatch 3 goes up for pre-order, Android Wear gets GPS support

The first Android Wear update is here and with it you’ll finally be able to go on a run with just their smartwatch and still track their progress as well as listen to tunes.

The Android Blog posted that this Android Wear update brings GPS functionality. With these tools you’ll be able to track your distance and speed on a run without needing to bring along your handset.

Unfortunately the Sony Smartwatch 3 is practically the only wearable that comes with GPS baked in. Even then the Sony smartwatch only became available for pre-order on Verizon for $249 (about £155, AU$283) starting today. It’s will also come to the Google Play store soon.

Meanwhile, the Samsung Gear S is on the shortlist of smartwatches that will come with built-in GPS.

Offline tunes

Luckily, everyone will be able to take advantage of the newly added direct Bluetooth connection feature, which allows users to pair wireless headphones with their smartwatch directly. Now users can play music from their watch even if most devices come with a very limited 4GB of space.

Over the next few days Google says it will push the update to the slew of Android Wear devices currently out now including the LG G Watch and Moto 360 and Samsung Gear Live. The search company has also rejiggered the Google Play store and put Android Wear apps into eight categories (Featured, Health & Fitness, Travel + Local, Social, Tools, Communication, Productivity, and More Apps).

Meanwhile, there are still more updates on the horizon including custom watch faces, but expect to wait until the end of the year for this feature.

Getting started with Inbox by Gmail

​Google just released a new way to keep your email organized so you can spend more time being productive. Read on to learn how to use all the new features of Inbox by Gmail.

Sorting through a bunch of email is not a great way to spend your time, both on and off the clock. As a solution, Google has designed a new email service called Inbox by Gmail — available on Android and Chrome — that will help you get through your messages faster. Think of it as a mixture of the best Gmail and Google Now features. Sound interesting? Let’s get started:

How to access Inbox by Gmail

Right now, Inbox by Gmail is available by invite only. Google has not given current users the ability to invite their friends. To gain access, you will need to send a request for an invite to inbox@google.com. Note: Google Apps is not currently supported.

What does this button do?

Messages in Inbox by Gmail are treated like a task list. You can pin messages to the top of your list, snooze them for later or sweep them away. Here’s an explanation of each feature button:

Pin (thumbtack icon)




Screenshot by Nicole Cozma/CNET

This is an upgraded version of Gmail’s star markings. Pinning will keep the message at the top of your inbox, regardless of the category it belongs in.

Snooze (clock icon)




Screenshot by Nicole Cozma/CNET

If you’re a fan of Boomerang for Gmail, then you’re going to love this feature. You can have Inbox remind you at a preset time, specific time or even a location, about taking action on an email. To quickly use this feature, swipe left across a message.

Sweep (check-mark icon)



Screenshot by Nicole Cozma/CNET

This is a fancy way of saying “Done.” Essentially, this will archive the message, not leave it lingering in your inbox. When viewing the list of messages, if you tap this button, it will archive all messages that are not pinned. (This might be great or terrible, depending on how you use your email list.) Additionally, you can swipe right across a message to use this feature.

If you’re wondering where the Delete and Mark as Spam options have wandered off to, you can now find them in the three-dot menu button in the top right-hand corner.

Other useful features

Bundles



Screenshot by Nicole Cozma/CNET

These are very similar to the current tabs in Gmail, except now there are more categories. However, instead of seeing new messages in your inbox from multiple bundles — as you would with the Unread first setting for Gmail categories — you’ll get an expandable entry that is labeled by bundle name.

Assists



Screenshot by Nicole Cozma/CNET

Inbox by Gmail has a new assist feature that will attach useful information to reminders and email, like phone numbers or addresses. For example, if you create a reminder to make a dinner reservation and provide the restaurant name, the service will add the phone number and operating hours.

Highlights



Screenshot by Nicole Cozma/CNET

The Highlights feature will add at-a-glance information to the email list, so you don’t have to look through each message for a specific attachment. If the attachment is a photo or video, you will see a thumbnail to help identify it.

Compose Menu



Screenshot by Nicole Cozma/CNET

Remember when Google Docs received a face-lift that added a new document button to the bottom right-hand corner of the screen? This same design has been implemented into the Inbox by Gmail app and Web UI, with an added bonus. When you press the button, recent contacts and actions will appear. This is just one more way Google wants to help you handle email efficiently.

Reminders



Screenshot by Nicole Cozma/CNET

At the top of the app, you’ll see a toggle button that switches between email and reminders. Here you can access any reminders you’ve added via the app or Google Now.

According to Google, Inbox isn’t meant to replace Gmail, but instead offer an alternative way to deal with your messages. What do you think? Will this replace the Gmail app on your device and in your Web browser? Or will you continue to use Gmail proper? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Pebble’s next smartwatch will be ‘more everything’

Pebble says the firm’s new smartwatch, due Q1 next year (much like the Apple Watch) will be, “More everything… more beautiful, more thin… Just say ‘more’ then insert adjectives.”

While at pains to make clear that she couldn’t tell us anything more specific about the successor to the Pebble Steel, Pebble “evangelist” Myriam Joire revealed that it would be highly customisable – above and beyond the current choices of plastic or metal body and a selection of straps.

Asked if this would include modular components, as on the forthcoming Blocks wearable, she said “It may do… Or it may not”. So there you go.

That aside, the next-gen wearable will be “an evolution not a revolution” but with “some revolutionary elements.” She implied that the Pebble’s distinctive e-ink screen would remain, saying, “It’s always on and it gives us great battery life… Sure, we’d love to have an AMOLED screen but that wouldn’t deliver great battery life. Moore’s Law will eventually solve this problem, though.”

Watching Apple

On the topic of Apple’s forthcoming competitor product, former Engadget mobile editor Myriam had plenty of interesting thoughts.

She predicts that the gold versions, “will be around $10,000,” and questioned whether the kind of watch-loving, wealthy customer who Apple would be pitching such a thing to would be willing to pay that amount for a device that can’t be passed on to the next generation, in the way that they would a Patek Philippe.

She also asserted that the recent Apple wearable hype-fest had caused Pebble sales to rise, asthe mass market became more aware of smart watches, and went in search of one they could buy right away. The Pebble Steel is also significantly cheaper than Apple’s.

“I don’t think Apple sees us as a competitor,” Myriam concluded, citing the “four pillars” of Pebble’s brand as being lengthy battery life, multi-OS compatibility, affordability and waterproofing. She also suggested that Pebble may soon take its platform onto other devices, saying, “we’re a wearables company, not a watch company.”