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    Google Photos Launches with Unlimited Backup

    Google's relaunched Photos service and app are here, and it's a big deal for the company. As we've discussed on This is Only a Test, Photos is our favorite part of Google+, for its automated backup feature and ease of downloading and sharing pics. Now it's split off of Google+ completely, relaunched as a sort of Gmail for Photos. That could be a good thing for Android and iOS users who have hundreds if not thousands of photos saved on their phones. But as with typical Google services, you should also think about what Google gets out of it too.

    Here's how the new Photos service works. On the app front, it's the updated version of the Photos app for Android, which Google has been using to compete with default Gallery apps on OEM phones. The app is as useful as its ever been, allowing automated uploading of every photo and video saved on your phone, either over Wi-Fi or cellular. "Full resolution" photos are now saved, up to 16MP, though they're actually high-quality compressed versions of the JPEGs found on your phone. Each phone compresses their JPEGs differently, so we'll have to do more comparisons to see whether Photos backups are truly archival quality. Still, we're just talking about smartphone photos, so most people don't care about a little bit of compression. Videos are saved up to 1080p resolution, and Google is touting unlimited backup storage using the high-quality compression setting. (You can still archive actual original photos, with a storage quota.) Detected duplicate photos on your phone can also automatically be deleted, saving you some local storage. The app is also now available on iOS with the same features, making it at least a solid complement to Photostream.

    What's new is mostly on the web side, where Photos has been streamlined for better archiving and search of your photos. This is where the Gmail analogy is most appropriate. Instead of treating Photos as a Flickr or Instagram like showcase of the photos you want to share, the thought is that it's an archival service first, sharing service second. The thought is that you don't have to worry about curating anything--just let Photos handle all the sorting and backup of your photo dump, and allow it to tap into Google's image-processing algorithms to digest it. Then, just like searching through old email, you can dig through old photos by searching for people, locations, and even objects Google has recognized in your photos (eg. animals, food, plants, etc). Backend work has clearly been going on for a while, since the new Photos is already up and running, and surprisingly fast. It's like Lightroom for the smartphone photos you don't plan on tweaking to death.

    So what does Google get out of it? The company said that it has no plans to monetize it with ads, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have advertising--its core business--in mind. What Google gets is an incredible dataset of user photos to refine its image-recognition algorithms. It really sounds like a play a computer vision, like Stanford researcher Fei-Fei-Li's use of photosets to teach AI how to recognize an image of a cat. Except in that case, the dataset was only 15 million photos--Google has access to orders of magnitude more data, with both active and passive user feedback just through the use of the Photos service. Improving image search puts us one more step toward better video search, as well. And unlike Flickr or Instagram, search is something that Google actively monetizes.

    For more on Google Photos, Steve Levy of Medium has an insightful interview with the service's director, Bradley Horowitz.

    In Brief: Amazon Announces Free Same-Day Prime Delivery

    Hey gang! We were travelling all day on a work trip, but I'm finally getting caught up on some of the big news that broke at Google I/O and elsewhere today. Thought it would be good to start by rounding up some quick news hits before deeper thoughts. First, Amazon announced that it is now offering its Prime subscribers free same-day delivery for orders over $35. This applies to a million items in its inventory, and is launching in 14 metropolitan areas nationwide. Next, GoPro's CEO confirmed that the company was developing its own quadcopter for use with its cameras. Apple also quietly bought up augmented reality start-up Metaio, for unknown reasons. My bet is for some kind of maps integration. And finally, the Kickstarter-funded 80s parody film Kung Fury is finally out! A lot happened today!

    Norman
    Testing: Ares Quadcopter Accessories

    A few weeks back, I presented an overview of a few quads from the Ares brand. Overall, I was quite impressed with the quality and flying traits of the Ares birds. Since performing my testing, I have acquired some of the accessory items that can be utilized with the Ethos QX 130 or the larger Ethos HD. I'll show you how these add-ons work and why they might even help your flying skills.

    There are five accessory units to choose from: a camera ($29.99), winch ($12.99), rocket launcher ($12.99), water blaster ($12.99), and bubble machine ($12.99). I had already experimented with the camera during my initial review of the QX 130. I found it to be consistent with all of the other tiny cameras that are mounted on some mini-quads – not very good. This time around, I'll focus on the remaining four options and see how they measure up.

    Mounting

    Each of the accessory units features a simple clip-on mount that secures it to the bottom of the quad. They also have a wire pigtail that must be connected to the quad's control board. When connecting to the QX 130, the body must be removed to expose the plug sockets on the top side of the control board. With the Ethos HD, the control board is oriented with the sockets on the bottom side. While the body can stay in place, the plugs are more difficult to access. I used a small plastic flat-blade screwdriver to push the plugs into their sockets and also to pry them out.

    This view of the Ethos QX 130 control board illustrates where the accessory units must be plugged in (bottom edge). The layout is similar for the Ethos HD, but the board is inverted and access is slightly obscured.

    Every accessory package also includes a set of helicopter-like skids with carbon fiber legs. When added to the QX 130, these parts raise the ground stance of the quad so that the underslung add-ons stay out of the dirt. It isn't necessary to raise the Ethos HD to clear any of the accessories.

    The accessories are operated using one or two of the four buttons located on the lower-right face of the transmitter. This works okay except that you have to release one of the control sticks to press the desired button. It would be nice if the accessory buttons were located on the rear of the transmitter so they could be actuated without releasing any of the controls. I've considered hacking one of my Ares transmitters to install rear-mounted buttons, but it hasn't happened yet.

    Maker Faire 2015: Justin Gray's Armored Robots

    In experimenting with converting farm equipment to electric vehicles, fabricator Justin Gray has created a fleet of remote controlled robots that are as beautiful as they are tough. Heavily armored and uniquely sculpted, these robots looked like they rolled off the of the Mad Max set. We chat with Justin about his robots and how they each have a personality of their own.

    Android M Rumor Roundup: Privacy, Android Pay, and More

    Google turned Android upside down last year with the unveiling of Lollipop, known at the time only as Android L. Just one year later, Google is set to move on to another sweet treat, this time starting with M. With Google I/O just days away, the rumors are swirling.

    What can we expect from Android M? Let's go over the possibilities.

    A Privacy Overhaul

    Android has become successful because it offered a distinct alternative to the Apple way of doing things. Android fans have responded positively to that over the years, but one place everyone seems to wish Google would borrow more from Apple is in the realm of app privacy controls. Android has none, but iOS puts that power in the users' hands.

    A few years ago, Android's system of application permissions was seen as superior to iOS. When you install an app, the Play Store shows you what system permissions it wants. That could be something as innocuous as accessing the vibration motor or as serious as reading your contact list. The problem is there's no way to selectively deny permissions. If you install, the app gets everything it asks for. on iOS, the device pops up a notice when an app asks for access to sensitive information like your location or contacts. It's not the most elegant solution, but you can turn simply block it and still use the app.

    There was a hint that Android had the capacity to do more with permissions when the AppOps permission control interface was uncovered in Jelly Bean a few years ago. However, that was just an internal dev tool, and it was subsequently pulled from public builds. The damage was done, though. People wanted this kind of functionality. Android M could finally give it to them.

    According to several rumors, the next version of Android will include an overhaul of how permissions are managed on Android. This is a tricky thing because apps need to fail gracefully when you block a permission. AppOps could break things, but whatever Google does needs to support legacy apps.

    There aren't currently details on how this would be handled, but I'd bet Google won't go so far as to clone AppOps for Android M. That tool was far too complex for average users to make heads or tails of. More likely is a series of toggles in the app management interface. Maybe you'll be able to selectively disable the more sensitive permissions like location access and read/write to the internal storage.

    Searching for Home Theater 3D Audio That Doesn’t Suck

    Dolby 7.1 surround sound was pretty easy for me to resist; $700 plus for a new AV Receiver and another $700 in speakers to add two more channels behind my head? Nope. I'm good sticking with 5.1 surround sound. So to even think about 9.1? Hah!

    But Atmos, Dolby's latest sound technology seems a lot more impressive, and may be a lot harder to resist. Think of it, literally, as 3D audio. The system is designed to deliver sound from above you, not just around you. When utilized properly, it fills a room with sound, and gives filmmakers the tools to place individual sounds exactly where they want them in the theater space and move them around.

    And, unlike 3D movies, I don't think it's a sucktastic gimmick. (All due apologies to Mr. Cameron and Avatar, but, most movies didn't do 3D nearly so well.)

    That said, this was going to be a really simple column. Dolby Atmos sounds really cool, but my fear was that you would have to spend a grand or more on a receiver that supports Atmos. And then you'd have to mount FOUR speakers in your ceiling. And there's not much content mixed for it yet. Like 7.1, it could be an easy pass.

    Turns out I was wrong on two of those counts. You can have Atmos even if you a) don't have all the money, and b) aren't allowed to cut holes or pull cable through the ceiling (with caveats). But before we talk bargain receivers and Atmos enabled speakers, let's talk about the Atmos technology itself.

    Disney Research Experiments with Robot Gait

    From Disney Research, an experiment to design bipedal robots that walk with the gait of animated characters: "We start from animation data of a character walking. We develop a bipedal robot which corresponds to lower part of the character following its kinematic structure. The links are 3D printed and the joints are actuated by servo motors. Using trajectory optimization, we generate an open-loop walking trajectory that mimics the character’s walking motion by modifying the motion such that the Zero Moment Point stays in the contact convex hull. The walking is tested on the developed hardware system." (h/t Gizmodo)

    In Brief: How JPEG Image Compression Works

    Your smartphone's camera sensor and lens are the primary factors contributing to how your photos look, but your camera app's JPEG compression algorithm is also an important factor. Not all lossy compression settings are the same, and YouTube channel Computerphile has a new series explaining JPEG compression. The latest video features image analyst Mike Pound, who explains the Discrete Cosine Transform function that is the key behind JPEG. It's a really interesting watch that's not too difficult to follow along! (h/t Petapixel)

    Norman
    The Best Fitness Tracker Today

    This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a list of the best technology to buy. Read the full article below at TheWirecutter.com.

    If you're looking for the best way to track your activity and exercise, the $150 Fitbit Charge HR is the fitness tracker we'd recommend for most people. According to our tests—which included 60 hours of research and 10 days of real-world testing—the Charge HR is more accurate at counting steps than most other wrist-worn trackers, and it works seamlessly with Fitbit's popular social ecosystem. It has continuous heart rate monitoring for both resting and active use; automatically activated sleep tracking with vibrating alarms; and a legible OLED screen with caller ID. And unique among trackers in this price range, the Charge HR uses a strap modeled after a traditional watch band, which means it won't fall off accidentally.

    For a deeper dive into the full research and testing we did on our picks, (as well as a longer list of trackers we looked at), check out our full version of this guide.

    Google Play App Roundup: Randomly RemindMe, Atlantic Fleet, and MixRadio

    You probably want more apps, but more than that, you want the right ones. That's what we're here to deliver with the weekly Google Play App Roundup. This is where you'll find the best new and newly updated apps and games on Android. Just click the link to head right to Google Play.

    This week reminders are more random, the seas are not safe, and there's music to stream.

    Randomly RemindMe

    No matter what phone you have, you can ask Google Now to remind you about something. Although, many of us are prone to procrastination and might ignore Google's gentle urging. That's where Randomly RemindMe comes into play. This app creates recurring reminders on a set schedule, or spaced randomly throughout the day.

    So why would you want something like this? I can think of a few use cases, but I've been testing it as a way to remind myself to get up and move occasionally (I sit at my desk all day writing, as you might imagine). Setting reminders at regular intervals can be distracting because when you know another reminder is coming up soon, you can become sort of "hyper-aware" of it. Randomly RemindMe seems less disruptive to my workflow and could be used for plenty of things. Maybe you want to be reminded to drink more water or check on your kids/pets?

    The app has a largely material design aesthetic. When you set a new reminder, you can pick between the default random mode and a traditional set interval for reminders. Choose the mode, the number of reminders, notification icon, and fill in all the blanks. You can even set a notification LED color if your phone supports it. Randomly RemindMe is essentially letting you build a rich notification that will show up in the shade when the time comes.

    Randomly RemindMe has acknowledge and dismiss buttons on the notifications. Acknowledge basically signifies that you saw the alert and will (ideally) do what you're supposed to do. Dismiss signifies that you didn't do whatever you were supposed to do. So these two buttons are more or less a way to track how often your reminders successfully spur you to action.

    I'm surprised that Randomly RemindMe is free and contains no in-app purchases--there aren't even any ads. There's probably some functionality here that people would pay for. Maybe some sort of paid add-ons will happen later. For the time being, go ahead and take advantage of it for free.

    Show and Tell: Mpow Streambot Bluetooth FM Transmitter

    For this week's Show and Tell, Norm shares a car accessory that has been essential in numerous road trips this year. If you don't have bluetooth or a line-in jack for media in your car, the Mpow Streambot FM transmitter is an easy way to play podcasts and music over your stereo system. The Wirecutter recently selected it as a great Bluetooth car stereo pick for music streaming! (Thanks to B&H for providing the One Man Crew system for this video. Find out more about it here!)

    Google's Project Wing Delivery Drone Prototype

    The type of consumer qudacopters designed for aerial photography and FPV racing aren't ideal for automated delivery--you can't just tie a string to a Phantom. At Maker Faire, we learn about Google's Project Wing prototype, which has a lightweight VTOL design that allows it to take off vertically and still fly long distances. It's even been tested in the field!

    Google Research's Projects at Maker Faire 2015

    Google had a big presence at this year's Maker Faire, bring several of their research projects to share with makers--including a giant knife-wielding robot! We chat with Chris DiBona, Google's director of Making Science, about experiments in imagery, 3D printing, robotics, and aerial Wi-Fi.

    Maker Faire 2015: MegaBots' Giant Fighting Robot

    We ran into a giant mech at Maker Faire! MegaBots' creators constructed this massive concept robot in hopes of building a league of combat bots for spectators. Their fighting robots would be piloted by teams of drivers, and use massive hand-made paintballs to knock armor and other pieces off of their opponents. We enter the cockpit of this robot and check out its controls!

    Testing: Duet Display for iPad and Mac OS

    For the past few days, I've been testing an iOS tool called Duet Display. Eric Cheng of DJI clued me in on the $15 app, and it's one of the more interesting and useful iPad utilities I've used so far. Simply, it allows you to use any iPad--whether it's an old 30-pin or current Lightning cable model--as a second screen for your Mac or PC. Yep, it's platform agnostic, and the desktop client is free. Using a 9.7-inch or 7.9-inch tablet as your secondary monitor may not sound like a great idea, and it's not something I would use on a regular basis. But since I keep both a laptop and my iPad in my backpack for most places I go, this is something that may have a lot of utility for frequent work travel.

    The ability to use an iPad as a second display isn't new--iOS apps like Air Display have granted that ability for years. But those apps rely on a tethered or shared Wi-Fi connection, which limits the quality and responsiveness of the extended display image. The host computer is essentially sending compressed video over to the iPad, and that requires a lot of bandwidth. Duet Display uses a wired connection, so the only limiting factor is the host computer's ability to render and compress a desktop to send over the cable (Duet Display is admittedly a bit of a CPU and power hog, if you're running on laptop power). I was impressed by how good the desktop on my iPad Mini looked, and how responsive the cursor was as I moved windows between screens. It's not exactly zero lag, but darn close.

    How To Get into Hobby RC: Short Course Trucks

    'Short Course Trucks' are currently some of the most popular vehicles for RC racing. There are several reasons for the popularity of these designs. First of all, they replicate the full-scale short course racers that compete at outdoor tracks and stadiums all over the US. Perhaps a more significant aspect is that short course trucks are exciting to drive. Many short course designs are close adaptations of the top-tier 2-wheel-drive and 4-wheel-drive buggies that are at the cutting edge of RC off-road design.

    RC short course trucks are not only for racing; they are also well suited to bashing. Their wide tires let them run on a variety of surfaces. It also helps that they have meaty bumpers and full-fendered bodies covering the tires. These help to keep the truck right side up when knocking into things like curbs and other vehicles.

    The Cutback

    My first short course truck is the Tower Hobbies Cutback. Although it has some race-ready features (brushless motor, full ball bearings), the Cutback is primarily meant for bashing. That works out great for me since I haven't raced in years. That being said, the Cutback might be competitive at some local-level tracks.

    This truck arrives fully assembled, with a painted body and a 2-channel 2.4GHz pistol-grip radio. I had to provide four AA batteries for the transmitter and onboard batteries to run the truck. I'll talk more about those batteries in a bit.

    Short Course Trucks are a popular aspect of RC for both racing and bashing. The vehicles emulate full-scale off-road racers.

    This is a four-wheel-drive truck with three gear-type differentials, one on the front end, one on the rear end, and one on the drive shaft. The core of the chassis is a 3mm-thick aluminum plate. Attached to this plate is a nylon tub that houses the electronics and drive components. Other parts such as the suspension arms, bumpers and spur gear are made of molded nylon as well. Interestingly, all of these plastic parts are covered by a 1-year warranty with free replacement.