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    Google Play App Roundup: QKSMS, Civilization Revolution 2, and Car Breakers

    Apps move quickly on Android. No sooner have you found an app you can get cozy with, a better alternative has come along. We're here to make sure you're ahead of the curve -- that you're always on the bleeding edge. That's what the Google Play App Roundup is for. Just click on the links to head to Google Play and get the best new apps and games for your device.

    This week SMS goes material, the future of an empire is in your hands, and cars are crashing.

    QKSMS

    Google added SMS to hangouts a while back, but it's not ideal. For one, the Hangouts app is a little awkward, and it lacks some features users have come to expect from a text messaging app. There are still plenty of third-party messaging apps, and now there's one more to consider, especially if you're on Lollipop. QKSMS has been in testing for a few months, but now it's in the Play Store with a ton of features and all the material design you can handle (and maybe more).

    The first thing you'll notice about QKSMS is that it's super-colorful. You can even pick from a number of different colors in the settings. If the dozen or so included for free aren't good enough, you can upgrade to the pro version via an in-app purchase to unlock multiple shades for each color. The color changes the action bar, status bar, and even the nav buttons on Android 5.0. QKSMS still runs on older versions of Android, but it won't be quite as colorful. There's also a night mode that's easier on the eyes.

    This app uses a floating action button (a la Lollipop) to begin new messages, but the placement is weird. For some reason, the developers opted to put a slide-out panel on the right for quick access to the most recent conversation. It's not that this is a bad idea, but having it take up a sliver of screen space on the right pushes the FAB unnaturally to the left. It just looks awkward. Luckily, you can turn this feature off in the settings, thus placing the FAB in the right place.

    QKSMS also supports a feature many find indispensable when it comes to messaging apps--a floating reply box (this app calls it QKReply). When a message comes in, you can choose to get a popup box that lets you type and send a reply without opening the QKSMS app. On Lollipop devices, QKSMS also has support for floating heads-up notifications. If you do a lot of messaging, there's an option to add a quick compose notification to the shade that makes it easy to send new messages. I wouldn't want to waste the space on it, but I'm sure some people will. You also get enhanced notification support on Android Wear.

    Probably the coolest thing about QKSMS is that you can try it for free and never see an ad. The only thing missing from the free version is the timed night mode and all the additional theme colors. If you end up using this as your default messaging client, it might make sense to upgrade.

    Show and Tell: 3D Printed Steampunk Octopod

    One final video from Norm's recent trip to New York! Sean Charlesworth, our 3D printing expert, shares his famous steampunk octopod project, which we've talked about before had never seen in person. It's a wonderfully designed and intricate model entirely conceived of and built by Sean--a project much more complex than your typical 3D printed piece.

    Battery Life on Android: Does the mAh Rating Tell the Whole Story?

    Smartphones have gotten faster and larger over the years, but we still often struggle with battery life even on flagship Android devices with gigantic batteries. The device in your pocket is more powerful that supercomputers in the early 90s and might have four times as many pixels as your TV, but most of them still beg for a charger in a day or so. Is it really worth it? More importantly, can you tell how well a phone will perform based solely on the size of the battery? Let's take a look at how battery size figures into usage on modern Android smartphones.

    Photo via iFixit.

    Battery inflation

    A few years ago, Android phones--even flagship devices--came with tiny batteries compared to today's. The Samsung Galaxy SII had a meager 1650mAh battery, but that was enough to keep it running for a solid day and then some. The Motorola Droid X had an even smaller 1540mAh lithium-ion cell.

    These days, Motorola gets derided for announcing a phone with a 2300mAh battery. People are used to seeing phones that have much larger batteries, but it's more than the size of the battery. If we can glean anything from the performance of the dozens upon dozens of Android smartphones that have rained down on us in recent years, it's that optimization and hardware have a huge impact on battery life.

    Basically, the increase in battery life to 2600, 2800, and 3000+ milliamp-hours has gone into powering the improved specs we all crave. You won't get twice as much battery life on a flagship phone with a giant battery than you will on a modest mid-range phone with a battery half as large. So where's all the power going?

    The Best USB 3.0 Hubs 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

    The HooToo HT-UH010 seven-port hub ($40) is our favorite USB 3.0 hub because it’s compact, reliable, and has well-placed ports aplenty. But its main strength is its usability and design—we looked at many other hubs that were larger, had fewer ports, and weren’t as easy to use. We determined the HooToo is the best hub for most people after 100 hours of research, testing, and consulting with electrical engineers to learn about how power flows through USB hubs and where things commonly go wrong.

    How we decided

    A USB 3.0 hub is for people who have a computer with at least one USB 3.0 port and either want more of them or want them in a more accessible place. Most hubs have one or two charge ports, but a USB hub is not the same as a dedicated USB charging station.

    To find the best for most people, we surveyed hundreds of readers, interviewed engineers, and did our own research to find out what makes a USB hub great. We found that the best USB hub must have USB 3.0 ports and dedicated power. It needs to be reliable, well-designed, light, and compact. A decent warranty and LED indicators for each port are also useful. Most people want a hub with five to seven ports, but there was enough demand for four- and 10-port hubs that we decided to find a recommendation for each.

    Our Pick

    The HooToo HT-UH010 is the best USB hub because it has a great, usable design that most of the competition lacked. It has seven USB 3.0 data ports, a 1-amp charge port for smartphones, and a 2.1-amp charge port for high-power devices like iPads. The upward-facing ports reduce desk clutter, and the HooToo is sturdy and reliable for simultaneous USB 3.0 file transfers and device charging. It also has LED indicators for each data port, lengthy cords for easy setup, and an 18-month warranty.

    The vertically stacked ports mean you won’t have trouble plugging in bulkier USB devices next to one another. And, because the ports are located on top of the hub rather than arranged around the sides, devices stick up instead of fanning out and taking up valuable desk space. Much of the competition had side-facing ports that were too close together or made USB devices take up way more space on our desk. The HooToo hub is compact, and—bonus—it’s aesthetically inoffensive.

    In Brief: Amazon Announces Echo, a $200 Connected Speaker

    Amazon just announced a $200 Bluetooth speaker that also doubles as a connected voice assistant, like Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana. The Echo is primarily a cylindrical wireless speaker with Bluetooth support, but also Wi-Fi to tap into streaming radio or Amazon's own Prime Music services. Its novel feature is voice control, answering to the keyword "Alexa"--three syllables help distinguish it from the word "Echo". The device has seven microphones, which Amazon claims will be able to recognize voice commands from anywhere in the room, without yelling. With those commands, you can ask for weather reports, news, as well as control music playback. I think this is a really cool idea for a connected home accessory, though it doesn't tap into existing smart home technologies--yet. Echo is currently only available by invitation only, but Amazon Prime subscribers who get into the program can buy it for $100. Amazon's promo video introducing the Echo is below, and I'm looking forward to testing this.

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    Tested In-Depth: Amazon Kindle Voyage

    How much more improvement do current ebook readers need? We sit down to show off all the new features in Amazon's latest Kindle, the $200 Voyage, and compare it with the Paperwhite model. We discuss whether the high-DPI screen makes a difference for reading books, and if exisiting Kindle owners should upgrade.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (October 2014)

    In a world with dozens of interesting Android phones, you need to go in with a good idea of what's on offer so you don't end up regretting your decision. Most phones these days come with a 2-year contract or a payment plan that takes about that long to complete. With that in mind, it's time to take stock of the state of Android smartphones on the top US carriers and figure out which ones are the best bets.

    The Nexus 6 is on the horizon for some carriers, but others are being more coy. Is it worth waiting, or does another phone do well enough?

    AT&T

    You've got a ton of options on AT&T--too many perhaps, if there is such a thing. AT&T is getting the Nexus 6, but there's no release or pre-order date. As such, I'll hold off on making an official proclamation on it this time around. Right now it's down to the Moto X and LG G3. Let's get started with the new Moto X.

    The basic design of the Moto X hasn't changed much from last year, but it has seen an increase in screen size from 4.7-inches to 5.2-inches. The AMOLED panel used here is 1080p and has great colors and clarity. The larger display isn't as easy to use in one hand as its predecessor, but it's more than manageable. The curved back also helps the Moto X sit nicely in your hand.

    The new Moto X also has 2GB of RAM, a Snapdragon 801, and a 2300mAh battery. The battery is a little on the small side for a flagship device, but it will still be good enough to get you through a day and then some. The design of the Moto X is also really great. The metal frame feels solid and tight. The way the glass front curves down to meet the edges makes the phone very pleasant to use too. Moto Maker customizations are also killer if you want to create a more distinctive device.

    On the software side, the Moto X ships with Android 4.4.4 with a promised update to Android L as soon as it's ready. This is Android more or less the way Google intended it. There are no UI skins, no features changed for the sake of brand differentiation, and no lag to speak of. Motorola instead adds useful features that work alongside what Android already does well. For example, Moto Display shows notifications on the screen while the device is asleep. You can even wave your hand over the phone to wake the screen up. It also listens for voice commands while asleep, whether it's charging or not. Other Android devices can only do that when charging.

    Watch Beautiful Industrial Robots at Work

    The Association of Robots in Architecture runs an annual conference and competition showcasing the work of industrial robots used in many different fields--manufacturing, fabrication, and even art. This video shows the submission of Carrara Robotics, an Australian robotics company whose robot beautifully demonstrates precision marble cutting. The other entries on Robots in Architecture's Vimeo page are just as delightful--check out that robot photographer!

    Google Play App Roundup: djay 2, Haunt the House: Terrortown, and Battleheart Legacy

    It's that time of the week again. Time to shake off the weekend vibe and get back to work. But you can probably spare a few minutes to check out some new apps. This is the Tested Google Play App Roundup, which is where we tell you about the best new and newly updated apps on Android. Just follow the links to Google Play.

    This week we get ready to get down, get scared, and get questing.

    djay 2

    I cannot claim to know much about DJing, not can I even say I'm particularly worried about audio performance on Android devices. However, i can certainly see why some people are. Phones and tablets have become more than content consumption devices--you can actually create cool things with the right software. Android has been lacking music mixing and creation apps, but djay 2 has now come over from iOS with turntables ready to spin.

    Djay 2 is a music app that gives you two virtual turntables on which you can load any song in your library. it then works just like a real life digital turntable. You can play, spin, skip, and fade between the two tracks. And that's just scratching the barest surface of what this app includes. Before I get to all that, it's worth noting how much work went into making djay 2 possible on Android.

    From the start, iOS was built with low-latency audio in mind, but Google has struggled a lot more with this feature over the years. From the time you tap on something to the time the system can produce a corresponding sound can easily be 20-30ms on Android. For music performance, that's far too long. The delay can actually be pretty disorienting. Android 5.0 should finally patch this, but djay 2 developer Algoriddim says this app has been painstakingly designed to offer super-low latency on almost all modern Android devices. To my (admittedly untrained) ear, it certainly seems like they nailed it.

    Show and Tell: 3D Printing a Lightsaber

    This week's Show and Tell is another awesome project shared by our 3D printing columnist Sean Charlesworth. Norm visits Sean while in New York to check out a beautiful 3D printed lightsaber hilt that was assembled from 14 individually printed pieces. The designer of this model also created a four-piece kit for ease of assembly--all the files are available online. With some proper finishing work, it looks as good as the original prop!

    10 Ways You’re Being Tracked And How To Stop It

    You’d have to have your head in the sand like an ostrich to not realize that you’re constantly under surveillance in the modern world. Your actions are tracked by dozens of parties, from governments to banks to retailers. If you want to get out of the eyes of Big Brother, it’s going to take some work. Let’s run down who’s watching you right now.

    In Brief: How to Photograph an Atomic Explosion

    The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently interviewed film archivist (and early ILM visual effects artist) Peter Kuran, who literally wrote the book about How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb. Kuran, who also directed a 1995 documentary about nuclear weapons testing, runs a website and YouTube channel dedicated to restoring and archiving films from American atomic history. Kuran talks about the current digitization efforts of nuclear research film, and what scientists and historians can learn from re-examining the footage. The HD video that Kuran and his team archive are also a resource Hollywood filmmakers tap into when needing to show footage of atomic explosions--like in this year's Godzilla.

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    Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 vs. Nvidia Tegra K1: The Value of 64-bit on Android

    Odds are good that if you buy a high-end Android device in the next few months, it's going to be packing either the Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 or Nvidia Tegra K1 SoC. We're at a pivotal moment in Android hardware as OEMs begin gearing up for the switch to 64-bit architectures, but only one of these chips has a 64-bit option. Let's take a look at where Nvidia and Qualcomm are going with their respective platforms, and whether or not you should hold out for a 64-bit device.

    ARM, but not from ARM

    The overwhelming majority of computing hardware in Android devices is ARM-based. Intel has successfully muscled its way into the market with updated x86 Atom parts. Android supports x86 and a few OEMs make tablets with Atom, but it's nowhere near as popular as ARM. All throughout the recent history of mobile devices, ARM has been the core architecture, but not all ARM chips are created equal.

    When we're talking about ARM SoCs (systems-on-a-chip), we're actually talking about more than the CPU component. There's also the GPU, memory controller, digital signal processor, and more. We'll get to that later--the first point of distinction between the Snapdragon 805 and the Tegra K1 is in the way they implement the ARM architecture.

    Chip makers have the option of licensing ARM's Cortex cores and building a chip around them. That's what Samsung and many smaller firms do. Qualcomm has for a long time licensed the ARM instruction set, which is ARMv7 for 32-bit and ARMv8 for 64-bit. These licenses are considerably more expensive than just getting a stock ARM core, but it allows Qualcomm to design its own custom CPU core for SoCs, and that's just what it's been doing ever since its Scorpion core for the original Snapdragon SoC in late 2008.

    In Brief: Microsoft Announces $200 Fitness Tracking Band

    Microsoft's answer to Apple's watch isn't a watch at all. It's a $200 fitness tracker dubbed the Microsoft Band, and was announced today as part of Microsoft's new cloud-based Health Platform. The band, which looks more like a Nike Fuelband or Jawbone Up than watch, has a thin rectangular display with Microsoft-style tiles that show information like step counts, notifications, and the time. 10 sensors on it track heart rate, calorie burn, and sleep quality--it's something Microsoft wants users to wear all day. It'll work with Android and iOS devices, but Windows Phone users will get access to Cortana integration for voice queries. Microsoft strongly emphasized that this is not a smartwatch, so it's not going to buzz constantly like the Pebble of Android Wear watches. The Microsoft Band is available now, and Microsoft Health will soon have an SDK and support for cross-platform applications.

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    Color Grading Breakdown for a Beauty Commercial

    Joey shared this awesome video with us yesterday, a time-lapse screen capture of post-production colorist < ahref="http://www.colormeup.de/">Andreas Bruekcl's work on a L'Oreal beauty commercial. The three-minute clip shows about 30 minutes of realtime grading of video shot with on an Arri Alexa, and gives just a taste of the incredibly complex task of tweaking colors and lighting of video for production. It's far more complex than the developing of RAW photos in Lightroom, for example, because the colorist has to mask and track moving elements for video. Something to keep in mind: this is a process that almost every shot of every produced live-action commercial, television show, and film goes through today, to some extent.

    Everything You Should Know About Android 5.0 Lollipop

    Google took the unprecedented step of offering an early developer preview of Android L (now Android 5.0 Lollipop) last spring. We knew this version of Android was going to be a big shift, something for which developers would need to plan. However, it wasn't until the recent official announcement that it became clear how massive this change would be. Android 5.0 is a break from the past, and in many ways a complete reinvention of the platform.

    Here's what you need to know about Android 5.0, the most significant update the platform has ever seen. It's enough to change what most people think of Google's mobile operating system, and I'm really excited about it.

    Bye-bye battery woes

    If you can recall one of the long-time complaints about Android, it's very possible Android 5.0 addresses it. For example, don't you hate how Android phones always seem to have questionable battery life unless they're equipped with a huge battery? Well, no more. Lollipop is supposed to improve battery life noticeably.

    I've been testing the latest developer preview of Android Lollipop, which is API-complete according to Google. Both the Nexus 5 and Nexus 7 are managing at least a third more battery life than before. This is thanks to Google's so-called Project Volta, an initiative in Android 5.0 to address those nagging battery life concerns. Granted, this is not the final version of Lollipop, but the difference is astounding.

    A major component of the battery life improvements have to do with a better system of managing background processes. Android does multitasking by permitting any app to wake the phone and keep it awake so it can perform an action. In the event of an error or incompatibility, these "wakelocks" can last too long and drain the battery. I tend to follow the sleep stats of my devices closely because I have to install so many apps on a daily basis. Android 5.0 appears to keep things running incredibly smoothly. When devices are in sleep mode, the processor is in deep sleep (i.e. not wakelocked) about 90% of the time. Absolutely amazing.

    Android 5.0 also includes an approximation of remaining battery life in the settings and on the lock screen when charging. After letting the Nexus 7 calibrate for a few cycles, it reports a full week of standby time, and I believe it. In the event you do run low on battery life, there's a new system-level battery saver mode that disables animations, background data, vibration, and lowers the screen brightness.