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    Why Google is Embracing Mesh Networking with Google Wifi

    As more and more devices have started relying upon internet connectivity, it's much more important that all the nooks and crannies of your home have proper WiFi coverage. The routers of old simply aren't up to the task, but new models have implemented a variety of clever antenna technologies to make coverage better. However, mesh networking might be the wave of the future.

    Google has joined other companies like Eero and Netgear in making a mesh networking product. It's called Google WiFi, and it's coming out just a year after the OnHub. What's going on with that?

    Jumping on the mesh networking bandwagon

    So, why is mesh networking suddenly the hot new thing? A few years ago, routers were not very smart. They'd blanket an area with signal, and hopefully you were able to pick it up on your device, because the router wasn't going to give you any help. Beamforming was added in the 802.11n specification, and it allowed routers to focus a signal at active devices. It wasn't a requirement, so there was no guarantee a router would support this technology. Smart home devices might not always be in a convenient place for wireless coverage because you usually have other considerations when adding things like cameras, lights, and so on.

    At the same time, we've moved beyond 2.4GHz WiFi frequencies to 5GHz. This allows for much more data bandwidth, but the higher frequency also loses power more quickly as it passes through walls and other obstacles. At first 5GHz was at least relatively uncongested with traffic, but now there's plenty. Routers with higher power output and technologies like beamforming are necessary to maintain high throughput for applications like HD video streaming and large file transfers.

    In Brief: How to Watch Netflix Remotely In Sync with Friends

    Remember the Xbox 360's Party Mode? It was a Netflix feature that let you watch streaming video with friends remotely, completely in sync. Microsoft removed that feature, and there was never any easy way to duplicate it on a desktop, other than to call your friend up on the phone and manually synchronize playback. Until now. Showgoers is a simple Chrome extension that lets you share a private URL to friends to automatically sync up playback, including pauses, fast forwards, and jumping to any point in the timeline. Super neat!

    Testing: Nest Cam Wireless IP Camera

    We first tested the Dropcam Wi-Fi video camera three years ago. Since then, the company released a Dropcam Pro model, was bought up by Google's Nest division, and has now rebranded itself Nest Cam. Its new eponymous flagship was just launched last month, and I've been using it for the past week and a half. It's a neat device: $200 gets you a webcam that pipes 1080p video through your Wi-Fi network to Nest's servers, which you can monitor and review on a smartphone app or its website. A subscription plan allows you to scrub through saved video and grants some other cloud-enabled features. You never store the video locally; a trade-off for ease of set-up and a seamless app experience. By and large, Nest Cam is just like the Dropcam Pro with a new camera sensor and redesigned chassis--not an essential upgrade if you've already spent $200 on the previous model.

    But for new users and those interested in home security-lite, Nest Cam is an easy way to set up video monitoring of a room in your home, office, or even the sidewalk outside your window. After using the camera for a little bit, here's what stuck out to me about the experience.

    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!

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    Google Announces Project Fi Wireless Service

    Google is now selling cellular internet service. Kind of. Today, they announced Project Fi, a MVNO service that taps into multiple-cellular networks as well as Wi-Fi. As a Mobile Virtual Network Operator, Google doesn't own the network it's selling service on--Project Fi piggybacks on Sprint and T-Mobile, and the trick is that compatible phones and SIM cards can seamlessly switch between the networks and open Wi-Fi hotspots without a break in connection (with data encrypted), even if you're making a phone call or streaming video. The catch is that this kind of network switching only works with certified hardware, of which Google's own Nexus 6 is the only device to support at launch. Here's Google's promo video for the service, which doesn't go into many details of how it works:

    Splitting data connections between multiple networks can theoretically increase coverage, but the real advantage here is pricing. Project Fi starts at $20 a month for unlimited talk, text, and Wi-Fi tethering, and cellular data is priced at $10 a GB. Google has worked out a deal so that you're only charged based on how much cellular data you use--so you'll be refunded for unused data, prorated. For example, if you sign up for 3GB of data for $50 a month ($20+$30), but only use 800MB, you'll be credited $22 at the end of the billing cycle. Project Fi will also come with a companion app for data usage tracking. Learn more about Project Fi at its website, where you can also request an invite to test the service.

    In Brief: Dropbox Adds Office Online Integration

    Microsoft and Dropbox today announced further integration between their two web services, Office Online (Microsoft's free document editing web apps), and the Dropbox website. In the former on, you're now able to create and edit Word, Excel, and Powerpoint documents and have them saved directly to Dropbox, as you would previously have done with OneDrive. That's a little more convenient than manually exporting a local document file when working with something like Google Docs. And when browsing your files on, recognized Office files can not only be read, but opened and edited in Office Online and saved back to your Dropbox. You have to link your Microsoft and Dropbox accounts to enable the feature.

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    The Strange Origins of Familiar Sounds

    There comes a point in every human’s life when they realize that almost everything around them was created by someone. Every word was written by human hands, every special effect painstakingly assembled by teams of artists, and every sound recorded and played. Today, we’ll trace down the beginnings of ten sounds that you’ve probably heard over and over in your life and tell you how they came to be.

    Google's Vision for Android Wear UI

    Google I/O is this week, and we expect lots of details relating to the Android Wear initiative, including possibly some early hardware. Ahead of the developer conference, Google has released this developer preview video giving an overview of how the company wants developers to adapt their apps for the new smartwatch platform. Like with the Pebble system, Android Wear will ideally display the glanceable information from apps, like notifications. But users will also be able to send information back to their phones over the watch's microphone, activating services like Google Now or even voice recording. LG and Motorola's take on Android Wear hardware will be interesting, but it's really the software interface that will make or break Google's smartwatch. (h/t Wired)

    In Brief: Amazon Launches Prime Music Service

    Late last night, Amazon stealthily launched Prime Music, the rumored free streaming service for Prime members. Over 1 million songs are touted for free streaming, though those don't include songs from the Universal Music Group's library, nor many new hits. The launch of the service is accompanied by new streaming apps for iOS and Android (Cloud Player renamed to Amazon Music), which promise offline playback as well. As of right now, only the iOS version of the app is available. Prime subscriptions stay at $100 (for now), but it's easy to see Amazon using these value-adds (including Prime video and Kindle Prime Eligible) as a way to eventually raise the price of its Prime service. It's about changing the mindset of what of "Prime" entails, and using the costly two-day free shipping as a way to move into Netflix and Spotify's business. This likely won't get people to quit Spotify or Rdio (or even Beats Music) just yet, though it's likely that many of the 20 million+ existing Prime subscribers aren't already subscribed to a separate music streaming service.

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    In Brief: Project Naptha OCRs Web Images

    If you're using Chrome, try this new web demo out right now. Project Naptha is a browser extension that taps into open-source OCR (optical character recognition) algorithms to let you copy and paste text from web images straight from your browser. It works very much like OCR software did a decade ago, except instead of processing text from a scanned document, it can do it from a webcomic, screenshot, or even Advice Animal image macro. The secret sauce isn't just OCR transcription, but using a technique called Stroke Width Transform to detect that there's text embedded in an image in the first place. The extension uses several tricks to hide computation--it tracks cursor movement and predicts where you might highlight over an image before scanning ahead and running processor-intensive character recognition algorithms. Its creators are also experimenting with the ability to translate highlighted text (much like the WordLens app) and even use "inpainting" algorithms to erase text from an image (similar to Photoshop's Content-Aware Fill feature).

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    In Brief: Amazon Lands HBO Streaming Video Deal

    Netflix can't be happy about this. Amazon and HBO today announced that they've struck a multi-year deal for Amazon to stream content from HBO's back catalog of shows and cable television specials to Amazon Prime subscribers. Beginning May 21st, Prime Instant Streaming will feature the "HBO Collection", which includes shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, among others. HBO original movies, documentaries, and comedy specials are also part of the deal, but not HBO's current breadwinners like Game of Thrones and True Detective (or past hits like Sex and the City). Some newer shows like Veep and Girls will eventually make it to Amazon, but only three years after they were originally released. The licensing deal is exclusive to Amazon, so Netflix won't have a similar offering. HBO has maintained that it's exploring options for a standalone HBO Go subscription option, and this doesn't preclude that.

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    Why Facebook Buying Oculus VR Is Probably a Good Thing

    Earlier today, Facebook announced that it was buying virtual reality startup Oculus for $2 billion, and as is the usual, the Internet erupted in panic. Despite actively disliking what Facebook has become and avoiding the service wherever possible, I actually think Facebook buying Oculus is probably a good thing for Oculus, the virtual reality community, VR enthusiasts, and even gamers.

    If you take Mark Zuckerberg's post regarding the Oculus acquisition at face value, it seems clear that Facebook's impetus for buying Oculus is to accelerate Oculus's potential as a communications medium, taking it beyond games and turning it into a technology that becomes part of the fabric of our lives, just like computers, the Internet, and smartphones have been integrated in our lives.

    Reading between the lines, I'm pretty sure Zuckerberg wants to build Neal Stephenson's Metaverse. I'm actually OK with that.

    Dear Comcast, re: Throttling Netflix and the Relative Value of Your Services

    This is the letter I sent to Neil Smit, CEO of Comcast Cable, and Brian L Roberts, CEO of Comcast Corporation this morning in response to my experience streaming video on Netflix at lower than SD bitrates last night on my 50Mbit/sec Comcast connection at home. I've been a Comcast subscriber for 8 years and have been reasonably happy with the service, despite the high price and some availability hiccups, because of the high performance of my Internet connection. If Comcast is going to take that advantage away, I'll happily drop them for a more user-friendly local provider.

    Photo credit: Flickr user alykat via Creative Commons.

    Mr. Smit and Mr Roberts,

    Over the last few weeks, I've seen reports that your company was throttling traffic from Netflix when it traversed your network. The complaints seemed like the kind of hyperbole that permeates the Internet, but after watching a movie on Netflix last night, I can assure you, there was no hyperbole. Judging by the bitrates I saw on my Comcast connection, if anything, the complaints were measured and reserved.

    I realize that issues related to backbone peering are likely more complex than a person like myself can understand, but I do understand that your service is degrading the quality of another service I pay for and enjoy. Video I stream from Netflix today looks worse on your service than it would have on the 6Mbit/sec DSL connection I had in 2005 before I became a Comcast customer.

    I realize that you're worried because your customers have indicated that they get comparable value from services like Netflix as they do from Comcast's TV service. This would worry me too, if I were you. However, the problem isn't Netflix's offering, it's yours.

    The Lasting Legacy of the DIVX Disc

    Do you remember the DIVX disc? DIVX, not to be confused with the video codec DivX, was a movie rental scheme that Circuit City and some law firm cooked up to try and disrupt the video rental market five years before Netflix existed.

    For $4 or $5, you could buy a movie on a DIVX disc at Circuit City, Good Guys, Futureshop, or another retailer, then take it home to watch it in a special DIVX player. The player would connect to the Internet using a dial-up phone line and authorize your player to watch that movie for a short period of time. You could watch the movie as many times as you wanted during that window, but once your time was up, you'd have to "rent" the movie again for a few more bucks.

    Photo credit: Flickr user weirdo513 via Creative Commons, from PAX East 2011.

    Sound familiar?

    DIVX ultimately failed, likely because of the upfront cost and quality issues with the actual films. To play the discs, you had to buy a player that cost $100-150 more than a DVD-only player, and you had to run a dedicated phone line to the box. Most DIVX versions of movies were lower quality than their DVD counterparts. The DIVX discs usually contained cropped pan-and-scan version of the film, rather than the anamorphic widescreen that was becoming common on DVDs. The discs also lacked extra features--they didn't contain making-of documentaries, deleted scenes, or audio commentaries.

    People also had privacy and ecological concerns with the format. We feared that the DIVX player would spy on their behavior, uploading their disc viewing activities during its regular calls into the DIVX mothership. There were also concerns about the wastefulness of a disc-based format designed for single viewing. After the rental period expired, the discs were essentially worthless, and people were concerned that if DIVX succeeded, our landfills would end up filled with one-use plastic discs with copies of Speed 2: Cruise Control and Enemy of the State.

    Photo courtesy eBay user imodify.

    So if DIVX was such a bad idea, why am I talking about it today? It started with this Twitter post, from Dave Pell. Dave, who is responsible for the excellent Next Draft newsletter, is one of many people who have complained about the hidden catch of the 24-hour time limit. His complaint is that when he starts watching a film on a weeknight evening, if he doesn't finish it during that sitting, he won't have a chance to come back to it until the 24-hour rental period has expired. Unless he pays another $6, he'll never see the nail-biting conclusion to The Adjustment Bureau. I wanted to find the origin of the 24-hour rental window, as it exists on iTunes, Amazon's Instant Video, the Google Play store, Microsoft's Xbox Video, and pretty much every other on-demand video rental service I've seen*.

    In Brief: Our Favorite Animated GIF Maker

    Everything old is new again. The animated GIF, which was the Oxford English Dictionary's 2012 word of the year, is more relevant than ever. Even Pinterest may have plans to integrate GIF support. And creating your own animated GIF is super easy. We showed you how last summer using a small (and free!) piece of software called GifCam, and just this month, it's been updated with a bunch of new features in version 3.0. For example, you can use its frame-editing tool to draw "green screen" areas to create cinemagraphs, and output in five different color reduction profiles to conserve file size. It's a 1.5MB exe that every Windows user should keep on their desktop. And if you're using OS X, here's a decent alternative. In fact, here are three other free GIF creation tools if you want to experiment. I would love to see your best creations--share them in the comments below!

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    What You Should Know About PlayStation Now

    Sony PlayStation Now sounds like a schmaltzy documentary, but it's actually the implementation of Gaikai we've been anticipating since Sony bought the game streaming company. Beginning this summer (or in late January if you're a beta tester), PlayStation Now users will be able to stream PlayStation 3 games from vast server arrays to their PlayStation 3s or PlayStations 4s or PlayStation Vitas or 2014 Bravia TVs.

    Support for all of those platforms won't happen at once; Sony's blog explains streaming will begin with PS3/PS4 consoles, come to the Vita next, and then Bravia TVs. After that, PlayStation Now will expand beyond the land of Sony hardware, which means tablets and smartphones. Android's almost certainly a given, but iOS and PC/Mac web browsers could be targets, too. Gaikai's original demo made Mass Effect 2 playable in a browser.

    Photo credit: Sony Electronics Flickr.

    Sony purchased Gaikai in July 2012. In 2013, Sony announced that the PS4's x86 architecture, which was a major departure from the PS3's PowerPC Cell processor, ruled out backwards compatibility. The solution was streaming old games from the cloud via Gaikai, but the technology wouldn't be ready for launch, and that was about all we heard about the streaming for the rest of the year.

    Theoretically, PlayStation Now could allow gamers to stream thousands of PlayStation games, from the PS1, PS2, and PS3 to modern hardware. But there are a lot of variables we don't know about. For a good gaming experience, PlayStation Now will need to be low latency, and that will be affected by how big the data centers are, where they're located, and the speed of the end user's broadband connection. With low bandwidth, games are going to be laggy and artifacted.

    Even with a blazing 50 or 100 megabit connection, the pressure will be on Sony to deliver a high bitrate stream at as low a latency as possible. Sony recommends at least a 5 megabit connection, but the specifics will likely evolve a bit after PlayStation Now goes into beta in late January.

    PlayStation Now leads off with PS3 games, and we don't know if that library will just include first-party titles or a wider selection of games. Likewise, PS1 and PS2 games aren't announced for streaming, but seem likely for the future. Sony's blog states games will be rentable individually, but a subscription option will also be available. PlayStation Now will likely tie into Sony's PlayStation Plus service in some way, but that all-you-can-eat subscription won't be a free giveaway.

    Early reports about Now from CES 2014 are positive. Polygon writes "Performance in games like The Last of Us and God of War: Ascension was impressive. Lag input was noticeable, seemingly more so on Vita when moving The Last of Us' Joel and waiting a beat for him to respond, but more than playable. Even the higher frame rate, faster paced action of Ascension was playable, though compression artifacts and more muted colors were present."

    A couple more tidbits: Now users will be able to play multiplayer games as normal, against or with players playing games with a disc or download version of a game. The Vita's back touch panel will compensate for its missing trigger and clickable stick buttons. The DualShock 3 will sync with 2014 Bravia TVs over USB or Bluetooth.

    If you want to be among the first to get "exclusive information" about PlayStation Now--like how to sign up for the beta, perhaps--Sony's got an email form for you to fill out.

    Spotify Launches Free Plans for Smartphones and Tablets

    Spotify announced a new way to listen to its garishly obnoxious advertising on Wednesday--free Spotify is coming to Android and iOS! The good news, of course, is that millions of songs are now free on tablets and smartphones, which have previously been limited to paid versions of the Spotify service. Spotify users who don't mind listening to radio ads can download the Spotify apps on iOS and Android to get at the vast musical library, which now contains Led Zeppelin's discography.

    The new free versions of Spotify on tablets and smartphones are not identical, however. Tablet users get the same features as the desktop app, because Spotify says "tablets are becoming the new desktops." That means searching through entire artist libraries, building playlists, yada yada.

    Mobile smartphone users who download Spotify for free receive a more limited interface. Spotify calls it shuffle play. You can play any music saved to your playlists, or the playlists of people you follow using Spotify's social features. You can also shuffle the libraries of artists and listen to their entire discographies that way. But there's no selective playing or searching for specific albums or songs. If you're listening on mobile, you'll do it in shuffle mode.

    The premium version of Spotify costs $10 per month. Premium subscribers ditch the audio ads and can download songs for offline listening, which is especially handy for mobile users who don't always have enough bandwidth for steady streaming.