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Apple Just Killed Google’s Killer Phone Feature: Pixel 4 Review



Google’s Pixel smartphones have always been defined by iPhone-beating cameras, backed by the know-how of its software coders. With the release of the Pixel 4, however, the company has lost its lead — through a combination of Apple Inc.’s iPhone 11 camera improvements and its own lack of progress.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google is selling the Pixel 4 through all four major U.S. wireless carriers for the first time. And it’s priced like a premium device: the 5.7-inch Pixel 4 starts at $799 and the 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL costs $899. That’s at least $100 more than the iPhone 11 but without software like iMessage that many Apple users consider a social imperative in the U.S.

With the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, Apple closed the photography gap with better low-light image quality. Its camera software also makes those photos easier to take by automatically enabling night mode when required. Apple remains way ahead of any other phone maker when it comes to video quality.

Deprived of its signature advantage, the Pixel 4 struggles to stand out in a crowded smartphone market. The design — including materials, proportions and screen bezels — is utilitarian. When compared with more polished handsets from Apple and Samsung Electronics Co., the Pixel 4 is unremarkable. With a single-digit slice of the smartphone market, Google also lacks the user loyalty and inertia to keep selling without a killer feature.

Recent UBS research put only battery life above price as the top consumer buying consideration, and Google took a step back on that front in 2019. Both Pixel 4 devices have worse battery life than their 2018 predecessors, and both dramatically lag comparable iPhone 11 models. Users will reliably get through a day with the larger Pixel 4 XL, but Google reduced the battery size of the smaller Pixel 4, which makes it uncompetitive against flagship Android devices like the cheaper OnePlus 7 Pro.

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Pixel 4 smartphone.Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

“To maintain a great fit in-hand, we shrunk the battery slightly from the prior Pixel 3 device. We then leaned more heavily on software to deliver all-day battery, and designed features accordingly,” a Google spokesman said.

Aside from Apple, Google is going up against Samsung’s juggernaut smartphone lineup and a legion of Chinese device makers with better specs and more aggressive, futuristic designs. OnePlus, Xiaomi Corp. and Huawei Technologies Co. offer better value for money with big batteries, super-fast charging, dual SIM card slots and even 5G wireless options. They can’t all match the Pixel’s camera, but they aren’t miles behind and Huawei also achieves outstanding low-light photos.

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Google’s Night Sight mode continues to be an impressive technical achievement, allowing the Pixel 4 to shoot low-light scenes with composure and very little image noise.Photographer: Vlad Savov/Bloomberg

Google created a camera zoom function that relies more on artificial intelligence than optical hardware. It works well and is a technical feat, but it’s not going to make the difference in stores. Google also introduced live transcription of calls and a new face-unlocking function with the Pixel 4, but those are nice extras rather than compelling reasons to own the latest device.

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When zoomed in using Google’s Super Res Zoom system, the camera loses only a little of its quality and retains its good color reproduction.Photographer: Vlad Savov/Bloomberg

The company has yet to answer the difficult question of how to market a software-powered machine in a world where hardware and specs are still the main differentiating factors for consumers. The same UBS research that ranked battery life as the top requirement put camera specs way down in 12th place. Digital assistants like Google’s Assistant barely registered in the survey.

Even if Google had retained its lead in both those categories, its path to selling more Pixels was never going to be through maintaining the status quo. The company needed to address a wider market than the tech and photography enthusiasts that have long been the Pixel’s core demographic, and it simply didn’t do so with the Pixel 4.

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In good lighting, the Pixel 4 continues a legacy of really sharp and contrasty photos with excellent dynamic range.Photographer: Vlad Savov/Bloomberg

Google’s longer-term aspirations for its smartphone line remain unclear, more than three years into the initiative. The company prices and markets Pixels like mainstream premium devices, including high-profile advertising during the NBA Finals earlier this year. But then it designs them like niche products with limited spec sheets and an austere appearance.

In a year when Apple is enjoying better-than-expected iPhone demand thanks to its new sweeteners of longer battery life and better cameras, Google has failed to make any comparable improvements. The company that is most able, and should be most motivated, to disrupt the smartphone status quo has let another year pass without truly committing to the task.


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Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant smart speakers – they’re all open to remote laser attacks




Researchers have found that MEMS microphones are so sensitive they can interpret light as sound, allowing an attacker to shoot silent commands to voice assistants from afar. 

Since the bug is general to MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) microphones, the attack can work against all devices that use them, including Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Facebook Portal, and Apple Siri. 

Injecting voice-commands to smart speakers from a long range might not sound like a major threat, but devices from Google, Amazon, and Apple are shaping up to be a main hub for controlling gadgets in the smart home, including lights, smart locks, and garage doors. 

Amazon says that 85,000 smart home gadgets now integrate with Alexa, while Apple is trying to get more gadgets to work with its HomeKit system. 

Given smart gadgets’ central role, the MEMS mic vulnerability could allow an attacker to issue commands to do things like open a garage door, open doors protected by smart locks, or even unlock and start a Tesla that’s connected to a Google account. 

The laser study was conducted by researchers at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo and the University of Michigan, who detail their work in a new paper, ‘Light Commands: Laser-Based Audio Injection Attacks on Voice-Controllable Systems’. 

“We show how an attacker can inject arbitrary audio signals to the target microphone by aiming an amplitude-modulated light at the microphone’s aperture,” they explain. 

“We then proceed to show how this effect leads to a remote voice-command injection attack on voice-controllable systems. Examining various products that use Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Facebook’s Portal, and Google Assistant, we show how to use light to obtain full control over these devices at distances up to 110 meters and from two separate buildings.”

The attack, dubbed LightCommands, works because the diaphragm in microphones converts sound into electrical signals. The research details how an attacker can use silent laser beams to cause vibrations in the diaphragm and then issue commands.

The researchers’ video shows how LightCommands work. Source: YouTube  

The key condition required for the attack is a line of sight to the device. The researchers only demonstrated the laser-based audio injection from 110 meters away because it was the longest hallway available to them. 

To accurately focus a laser on a target from that distance only required a commercially available telephoto lens, a tripod, and maybe a telescope to see the target device from a long distance. 

A key issue that could force OEMs to adapt threat models is that most voice-command systems lack proper user authentication because it’s assumed that users must be close to the device, which is typically shielded by walls, doors and windows. Light-based command injection may change the equation.

The attack is interesting because there’s no immediate and automated method of detecting whether someone is using a laser to commandeer a device with a MEMS microphone. Since there’s no sound involved, a user could monitor for light beams reflected on the device. 

And the researchers theorize that the attacker’s first step would be to set the device’s volume to zero to avoid detection. From there, the attacker could buy things on Amazon or Google, or worse, open the garage door. How vulnerable a house is to the attack depends on how many smart things are connected to it. 

Interestingly, the researchers found that Google Home and Amazon Alexa smart speakers block purchasing from unrecognized voices, but they do allow previously unheard voices to execute commands like unlocking connected smart locks. 

Voice-controlled systems such as smart speakers also open up the possibility for PIN eavesdropping, allowing a remote attacker to use a laser microphone to steal codes.           

The researchers describe several software and hardware mitigations that manufacturers can use to block laser command-injection attacks. For example, the voice-controlled system could ask the user a simple randomized question before executing a command. However, that solution could also annoy users. 

Alternatively, smart speakers typically use multiple microphones, meaning that if only one of them receives a signal, the command should be ignored. 

On the hardware side, manufacturers could also create a barrier that physically blocks laser beams, while allowing sound waves in. However a very determined attacker could boost the power of the laser and “burn through” any physical barriers.


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Apple AirPods Pro In-Depth Review: Snappy Design, Dazzling Sound




Apple AirPods Pro were announced on Monday, October 28. I’ve been using the new true wireless in-ears since literally minutes after they were unveiled and testing them almost non-stop. Seriously, I’ve barely slept. 

AirPods have been one of Apple’s most successful products ever. Since the launch of the first pair in 2016, Apple has pretty consistently been scrambling to keep up with demand. Within three months of going on sale AirPods had become the number one wireless headphones worldwide and they soon went on to become the number one headphones, period. 

The new Pro model, in stores from Wednesday October 30, comes with a price hike – $249 compared to $159 for the entry-level AirPods, which continue to be on sale. The model with the wireless charging case costs $199, so this new version is still pricier than that, though the new case does come with wireless charging as standard at least. 

So, are they any good, are they worth it and which model should you buy?


The New Design Is Different, But Unmissably Apple

Gloss white plastic with metallic accents: that first impression could apply to any AirPods. But look more closely and you’ll see the new in-ears are very different, even if instantly recognizable as being designed by Apple. Today In: Innovation

The case is the same oblong with rounded corners, though this time it’s wider than it is tall rather than the other way around. 

The basic design is similar – a charging socket in the base and a hinged lid. Oh, and it charges via Lightning cable just as previous AirPods did. This time the cable in the box is Lightning to USB-C rather than to USB-A. 

The AirPods themselves have much shorter stems than before and are bigger up top, with a rounder earbud to nestle in your ear – it definitely feels like a snugger fit this time around. 

Although they are very slightly heavier than previous AirPods, they don’t feel heavy, not least because more of the unit sits in the ear.

The finish is slicker, smoother and more high- end, all gloss apart from one matte panel which is the touch-sensitive panel that we’ll come to shortly. 

model's own
The new style of the latest Apple earbuds. AirPods Pro: model’s own.SARAH M LEE

Some people have always felt AirPods look a bit weird when you’re wearing them. You’ll have to make your own mind up but I think these look pretty great, in or out of the ear.

left and right
Apple AirPods, left, AirPods Pro, right.DAVID PHELAN

The Fit is All-New

Instead of the one-shape-fits-all earbud on the AirPods, Apple has radically rethought things this time around. Now there are silicone earbuds designed to fit deeper into the ear and offer a complete seal against the outside world noise so it’s just you and your music. 

Flexible though the silicone tip is, it’s not versatile enough to fit everybody’s ears. So, along with the medium tips installed on the AirPods Pro, there are two more pairs, small and large, tucked away in the bottom of the AirPods Pro box. Just in case you’re not sure which is the perfect fit for you, Apple is ready to help. 

The Ear Tip Fit Test… only Apple.APPLE

Pairing AirPods Pro is the same incredibly easy process as before: open the charging case near to your iPhone and… well, that’s more or less it. Here, though, there’s an extra feature – the Ear Tip Fit Test. With the AirPods in your ears, it’ll play music, briefly. 

Inside the AirPods there’s a microphone facing inwards. As the music plays the microphone is listening and can tell from what it hears whether the seal is good enough or not. If it’s not, it’ll advise adjusting the position of the bud in the ear or trying one of the others. 

Incidentally, if you want to take the test again, simply go to Bluetooth and select AirPods Pro.

I did it a couple of times and it turns out my perfect fit is a small tip in the left ear, medium in the right. Well, nobody’s perfect.

Apple also points out that it has devised a simple but effective connection system which ensures the silicone tips stay in place perfectly until you want to remove one, in which case, I recommend a firm action. Be bold.

This system is also there so you don’t have to worry about an earbud getting stuck in your ear when you remove the AirPod Pro. The only time I had any issue was the one time I didn’t hear a satisfying click as I pushed the tip onto the earbud. Guess what? Next time I took the AirPod out of my ear, the tip stayed behind.

The noise-canceling is uncanny

The perfect seal is stage one in getting great audio. Stage two, and the tentpole feature of the new headphones, is active noise cancelation.

As well as the inward-facing microphone, there’s one listening to the outside world. It takes the sound it hears, and generates a sound that’s 180 degrees out of phase so the two sounds cancel each other out.

Sometimes this works well – think the stunning Bose 700 Headphones – and often not. 

Here, it’s nothing less than stunning. 

I tested the AirPods Pro on the London Tube, and though I still knew I was in an underground train, all kinds of noise were muted or at least reduced. Conversations around me which had previously been audible, if not actually interesting, faded away as if it were a dream-like special effect. Which, I suppose, it is.

Unboxing Apple AirPods Pro.SARAH M LEE

In Full Transparency

For those situations where you want a balance of your music and the outside world, Apple has something it calls Transparency mode. With previous AirPods, to hear someone talking to you, you’d have to take one bud out of an ear, in itself a highly natural thing to do. When the sensors recognized you’d done that, the music would pause. 

All that still works, of course. But now, you can carry on listening as well as hearing what’s happening outside. That’s good if you’re walking down the street, for instance. Transparency mode means the microphone on the outside lets in the outside world which, by the way, includes your own voice which would otherwise sound muffled because of the AirPods in your ears. But it also plays the music at a lower level. 

This is a great feature and I’ve been using Transparency mode a lot. 

That touch-sensitive force panel

The little matte, flat area on each AirPod stalk is what Apple calls a capacitive force sensor. It’s there to help you navigate your music, for instance. On earlier AirPods, you’d tap the stalk firmly. But doing that now isn’t quite as pleasant, bouncing the spongy silicone tip into your ear. So, that sensor is the answer. Press once to answer a call or pause or play a track.  Press twice to skip forward, three times to go back.

Most useful of all, you can press and hold the sensor – I found this easiest by squeezing the stalk. When you do this, the AirPods toggle between noise-canceling and Transparency mode. 

So you know you’ve done it, a chime sounds. Actually, there are two chimes and the one that goes with switching to Transparency honestly has something more airy and open about it. 

You can also control the toggling from the iPhone by opening Control Center and long-pressing on the volume slider – noticing in passing that the volume slider has a tiny icon of the AirPods Pro on it. The slider will open to a new screen with three buttons at the bottom: noise-canceling, Transparency and Off.

What an AirPod Pro looks like underneath.APPLE

Audio Quality is a Big Step Up

Compared to regular AirPods, the sound quality here is considerably improved, even with noise-canceling off. But, to be honest, you’ll want it on most of the time because it sounds amazing. 

I once asked a Sony executive what noise-canceling should sound like – because on some headphones it can have a heavy, oppressive feel, like you’ve just died, I imagine. The exec said it should sound like the silence in a concert hall between movements. Alive, in other words, and present. 

That’s certainly the case here. The Apple active noise-canceling has a warm, inviting tone to it. 

set up
Set-up is as easy as ever.SARAH M LEE

Battery life

Nothing new here. The new AirPods have the same battery life as the old ones. That’s five hours from the buds and another 19 hours of juice in the case. If you have noise-canceling or Transparency on, you can knock half an hour off the time. These are Apple’s figures but so far I’ve found they easily match this claim.

Is it worth $249?

The audio quality alone, I think, justifies the price. It’s on a par with the Sony WF-1000XM3 in-ears, which is just tremendous. Those earbuds are a little cheaper than these but they are a bit bulkier, a bit less attractive. Oh, and the Sony charging case is much bigger. 

With AirPods, you’re not just paying for the sound. Assuming you have an iPhone to pair it to, the simplicity with which the gadgets work together is a big part of the overall experience – the way the AirPods automatically switch from your iPhone to Mac when the same Apple ID is on both. It’s pretty cool. 

New Apple AirPods Pro: hard to resistDAVID PHELAN


You’ve probably spotted, I’m pretty smitten with these new earbuds. The look is great, the fit sublime and the audio quality, particularly with noise-canceling turned on, is pretty amazing. Apple is up against serious competition these days, from Sony, the new Amazon earbuds and an upcoming pair from Huawei. 

But AirPods Pro puts the company out in front, matching snappy design with great features, sublime operation and dazzling sound.


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Sony’s PS4 is the second best-selling console of all time




Sony’s PlayStation 4 has become the second best-selling console of all time, surpassing the original PlayStation, which sold 102.5 million units. Sony said that it sold 2.8 million PS4s this quarter (including the PS4 Pro), on top of the 100 million mark it hit last quarter. That’s down considerably (1.1 million units) from last year, but was enough to push it to 102.8 million, just above the original PS. It’s not likely to catch the PS2, however, which sold 155 million units.

The drop in numbers make it pretty clear that the PlayStation 4 is arriving to the end of its life. Not only are unit sales down, but gaming revenue and profit dropped as a whole by 17 percent and 35 percent, respectively, over 2018. Sony expects 2019 PS4 sales to be less than it originally forecast by 1.5 million units.

Holiday sales might also not fare great compared to last year, considering that Sony has announced that the PlayStation 5 is will arrive for the 2020 holiday season. Gift-givers might instead go for more PS4 games, as they’ll be compatible with the new console. Upcoming PS4 titles including Death StrandingThe Last of Us 2 and Shenmue III.

In total, Sony saw a slight drop in sales (three percent) over the same quarter last year, but recorded a record 279 billion yen ($2.56 billion) profit. While gaming dragged down earnings, most of its other divisions fared a bit better (except for one, guess what it is). Sony Pictures made a profit of $1.75 billion on the strength of Spider-Man: Far From Home, and music sales were up eight percent. And thanks to sensors, its imaging division saw a big 22 percent boost in sales.

Unfortunately, smartphone sales dragged down its newly formed Electronic Products & Solutions segment, which merged its mobile, camera, TV and audio product lines. Sony was hoping that its successful camera and A/V divisions could bring some magic to mobile, but that seems a long way off right now.


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