After entirely too much teasing, Google has at last taken the wraps from Android 4.4 KitKat. The new mobile OS is based on efficiency that brings smartphones to "the next billion people," according to Android Senior VP Sundar Pichai. Google's own apps use less memory, and the interface will automatically scale back to fit on devices with only 512MB of RAM. While the company can't enforce anything, it wants KitKat to be ubiquitous on Android phones released in 2014, regardless of performance -- a lofty goal when some low-end phones still ship with Gingerbread or Ice Cream Sandwich.
Much of the interface has been streamlined. There's now a camera shortcut and more immersive "now playing" content on the lock screen, and there's an option to rearrange home screens. The navigation interface disappears when you're inside of supporting apps, giving back real estate on devices without hardware keys. The dialer and Hangouts make it easy to search for nearby addresses; fans of self-expression will be glad to hear that emoji icons are available in the keyboard. New frameworks bring both AirPrint-like wireless printing and support for third-party cloud storage in the Gallery app. Behind the scenes, Google is improving battery life through sensor batching, which cuts back on data requests. Developers can write apps that support infrared control, pedometer-like step counting and a carrier-independent NFC payment architecture.
KitKat also puts a stronger emphasis on Google's main business, search. Voice search is going hands-free through keyword activation, and it will ask questions if it needs clarification. The speech recognition engine is about 25 percent more accurate, according to Google. An upcoming refresh of Google Now, meanwhile, will bring up context-sensitive cards for both shopping as well as attractions. You'll get to buy movie tickets through Fandango when at the theater, for instance.
As to when you'll get the software? Today, buying a Nexus 5 is the quickest way to get KitKat; Google tells us that upgrades for other devices will roll out in the "coming weeks." Other manufacturers haven't yet said that they'll upgrade their phones to the new Android version, although we're anticipating at least a few announcements for recent hardware.
Android for all and the new Nexus 5
Just in time for Halloween, we have two new treats for Android fans. First, we're excited to unwrap our latest platform release, KitKat, which delivers a smarter, more immersive Android experience to even more people. And second, we're introducing Nexus 5-a new Nexus phone developed with LG.
The first thing you'll notice about KitKat is we've made the experience much more engaging: the book you're reading, the game you're playing, or the movie you're watching-now all of these take center stage with the new immersive mode, which automatically hides everything except what you really want to see.
Bringing more Google smarts to Android
Behind the polish on the screen is the power under the hood. Take the Phone app, which for most people hasn't really changed since the days of flip phones. Now, we're making calling easier than ever, by helping you search across your contacts, nearby places, or even Google Apps accounts (like your company's directory), directly from within the app. And with the new Hangouts app, all of your SMS and MMS messages are together in the same place, alongside your other conversations and video calls, so you'll never miss a message no matter how your friends send it. This is just a small taste of KitKat-learn more on our site.
Google has always focused on helping users get immediate access to the information they need, and we want to bring this same convenience and power to users on Android. With the new Nexus 5 launcher, Google smarts are deeply integrated into the phone you carry around with you, so getting to the information you need is simple, easy and fast. Swipe once from the home screen to get Google Now literally at your fingertips. Put Google to work for you by saying "OK, Google" to launch voice search, send a text, get directions or even play a song you want to hear. And in the coming weeks, we're enhancing Now with important new card types that bring you information about contextual topics that interest you such as updates from a favorite website or blog.
Reaching the next 1 billion users
Building a platform that makes mobile phones accessible for everyone has always been at the heart of Android. Until now, some lower-end Android phones couldn't benefit from more recent Android releases due to memory constraints. With KitKat, we've slimmed down Android's memory footprint by doing things like removing unnecessary background services and reducing the memory consumption of features that you use all the time. We did this not only within Android but across Google services like Chrome and YouTube. RAM (or memory) is one of the most expensive parts of a phone, and now Android can run comfortably on the 512MB of RAM devices that are popular in much of the world, bringing the latest goodies in Android 4.4 within reach for the next billion smartphone users.
Introducing Nexus 5
Along with our sweet naming tradition, we also introduce a new device with each platform release to showcase the latest Android innovations. For KitKat, we partnered with LG to develop Nexus 5 -- the slimmest and fastest Nexus phone ever made. Its design is simple and refined to showcase the 5" Full HD display. Nexus 5 also keeps you connected at blazing speeds with 4G/LTE and ultra fast wifi. The advanced new lens on Nexus 5 captures more light for brighter night and sharper action shots. And with optical image stabilization, you no longer have to worry about shaky hands and blurry pictures. A new HDR+ mode automatically snaps a rapid burst of photos and combines them to give you the best possible single shot. Learn more on our site.
Nexus 5 is available today, unlocked and without a contract, on Google Play in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan and Korea (and coming soon to India), starting at $349. Just in the time for the holidays, Nexus 5 will be available soon at the following retailers: Sprint, T-Mobile, Amazon, Best Buy and RadioShack.
Android 4.4, KitKat, which comes on Nexus 5, will also soon be available on Nexus 4, 7, 10, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One Google Play edition devices in the coming weeks.
How's that for a treat?
Last year, Google unveiled a new wireless charging pad alongside the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10, and the company has taken advantage of 2013 to come up with another one. This new charging pad has been announced in tandem with the Nexus 5, and will include support for it and the Nexus 7. It's supposed to go on sale in the Play Store today, though pricing is still an unknown. So what's different this time around? The new pad, which should work with any device that offers Qi compatibility, has been completely redesigned (it's shaped like a square instead of a hockey puck) and now features magnets that will make it easier for devices to stick on it -- provided those phones and tablets in question have magnets built in as well. We'll have more information about the chargers as we get it, so stay tuned!
Nicole Lee contributed to this post.
Sure, it's got a protective Gorilla Glass 3 coating, but there's only one way to really protect that new Nexus 5: cases. If you're breathlessly refreshing the Play store for a shot at ordering Google's new handset, you may want to check out the associated bumper case (available in black, grey, red and yellow) and LG's QuickCover case (in white or black) which wraps around to also safeguard that 4.95-inch screen. Both are currently listed as "coming soon," so you won't actually be able to add them to your cart. But if you find either option tempting, know that the bumper case will set you back $35, while the more luxe QuickCover is retailing for $50. That is, assuming, you were able to successfully place an order for the Nexus 5, anyway.
From the horse's mouth, we're hearing some unfortunate news: Google has taken to its Spanish support pages to announce that the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is not on the list of devices to receive Android 4.4 KitKat. This seems a bit odd, given the new update's focus on "the next billion" and offering solid performance to other budget devices, but at the moment things aren't looking up for owners of the phone -- or any older Nexus devices, for that matter. We've reached out to Google for clarification on this and will update you if and when we hear back.
Coursera is already one of the leading providers of MOOCs (or massive open online courses) in the US, and its now getting a helping hand from none other than the US government in broadening its worldwide ambitions. The company announced a new initiative today that will see it partner with the State Department and a number of other organizations on a series of "learning hubs" around the world, where students will be able to go and access the internet and participate in MOOCs as a group.
Those classes won't be quite as "massive" as your usual MOOC, however. According the The New York Times, the classes will all be small ones -- some with as few as 15 students -- and they'll be supplemented by weekly in-person sessions with a local instructor for what Coursera's Lila Ibrahim describes as a "blended learning experience." For its part, the State Department says that it hopes the courses will not only help students where they are, but "help connect them to U.S. higher education institutions" as well.
Now that we know which of Google's Nexus devices will be eligible for an update to Android 4.4 KitKat, other manufacturers are starting to speak up about their rollout plans as well. Jason Mackenzie, president of HTC America, confirmed to us in an interview that the company is going to aggressively push out the latest version of Android to the HTC One. The Google Play edition will be updated within the next 15 days, the Developer edition and unlocked versions will get it within 30 days, and the remaining SKUs in North America (including all carrier variants) will have it in 90 days or less. With the exception of the Google Play edition, HTC plans to keep its signature Sense UI at version 5.5 (which has been available on global devices running Android 4.3); and although Mackenzie couldn't go into details on how the new KitKat features will be implented in Sense, we expect to see plenty of them make an appearance in the update in some way.
HTC is still working on a rollout plan for the other devices in its portfolio, such as the One max and One mini, but Mackenzie assures us that the company will have a statement concerning those other phones in the near future. He also reiterated HTC's commitment to rapidly pushing out updates, telling us that "we're not going to [roll out updates] in a lazy fashion. We're going to make it a priority to have every dot release out on the One within 90 days."
Since Mackenzie spoke to us on behalf of the company's North American branch, we're still awaiting word on HTC's plans for its global devices. Given the fact that US operators are set to push out updates in the next 90 days, we'd be surprised if it doesn't arrive sooner on One units around the world.
When Bre Pettis unveiled MakerBot's Digitizer, you couldn't wipe the smile off his face. And, upon opening our own unit, it's easy to understand why. When you lift the plastic unit, swaddled in black foam, out of its cardboard box, you feel like you're stepping into the future. 3D scanning isn't exactly new, but the allure hasn't worn off yet. It's the missing ingredient in the Brooklyn-born company's ecosystem. Its printers have improved in leaps and bounds since it first started shipping the Cupcake CNC as a kit back in 2009, it finally has a user-friendly software suite in MakerWare and Thingiverse provides a vast repository of designs for people to download and print. But until now there has been no easy, affordable way for users to turn the objects they already own into printable 3D models. Of course, "affordable" is a relative term. At $1,400 the Digitizer isn't exactly an impulse purchase, but it's certainly cheaper than comparable systems.
And what qualifies as a "comparable" system? Well, we're talking about desktop scanners that capture a full 360 degrees, are largely hands-off and self-contained (i.e., not a DIY kit built around a Kinect or smartphone). That means the Digitizer is actually entering a rather sparsely populated field. The big questions though, are how does it fits into the MakerBot universe and, more importantly, the life of the DIY enthusiast? Does the Digitizer do as advertised and turn your pile of doodads into easily replicateable digital files? You know where to look for answers, after the break.
Digitizer hardware hands-on
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Like we said, even before you power up the Digitizer, it already puts a smile on your face. The simple black plastic body definitely isn't going to win any design awards and it doesn't exactly ooze luxury, but it is playfully futuristic, in a way reminiscent of early '90s children's toys. It's angular, understated and utilitarian, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Oddly there is some assembly required: the four rubber feet used to keep it from slipping about a desktop come packaged in a small zip-top bag. After you pop those little rubber guys in place, you're free to plug the Digitizer into an outlet and your computer's USB port and get going... with the calibration that is.
Just like the replicator before it, the Digitizer needs to be carefully calibrated for effective use. And, while the process is much quicker and less labor intensive (no constant adjusting of knobs here), the scanner actually appears to be much more sensitive and needs more frequent tune ups. MakerBot's instructions call for recalibrating every 20 scans or once a week, but we needed to run the calibration three times in the course of a week and never topped 10 scans before our results started getting funny. But, more on that later.
The calibration process itself involves making sure the filter is placed over the 1.3-megapixel camera at the center of the raised bar on one side, then placing a special calibration tool on the turntable. Over the course of about 10 minutes you'll be asked to place the checkered, three-sided calibration tool in a variety of poses while the MakerWare app takes measurements from the camera and dual lasers that flank it. From there scanning is a relatively straight forward process, so long as you follow MakerBot's words of advice. Those words: avoid anything dark, shiny, transparent, fury or larger than eight inches in any direction. If you do, the results will be decent, if hardly mind blowing. MakerBot's example scan of a gnome figurine is quite a bit clearer than any results we managed to get. Even when we scanned a plain white Munny figure, the model displayed some weird pitting, misshapen ears and webbing between the arms and the body.
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The act of scanning an object is about as simple as it gets. Make sure the filter is over the camera (this is /super/ important), place your target in the middle of the turntable and click start scan. The only setting to mess with is adjusting the shade of the object your scanning, between light, medium and dark. Then you've just got to find something to do for about 10-12 minutes and stay out of the way of the scanner. Don't touch it, bump it or even get too close to it. That's not only to avoid screwing up your virtual model, but also to protect your eyes from the laser line generators. Sure, they're listed eye-safe, but they're still pretty unpleasant when they hit your retinas.
Once that's done, you simply crop your model to the proper height and upload your scan to Thingiverse, if you'd like. You can back up your scans privately or share them for others to download, manipulate and print on their own. MakerWare will walk you through sliding the filter off the camera to take a snapshot of your real world target, ask you to log in and upload the scan.
It all seems simple enough, until you hit a snag. Once one thing goes wrong, the whole shebang has a sort of meltdown. When MakerBot says that dark, transparent or shiny objects are not ideally suited to scanning, what they really mean is: don't even bother. (Though, we've been told you can dull the luster on shiny items with cornstarch and achieve better results.) We tried to scan a pair of matte black sunglasses with particularly dark gray lenses, and ended up with something you'd find MoMA. We immediately saw a problem when the scan started updating live on our iMac, so we cancelled it. When we clicked retry the scan simply failed and we had to restart the scanning service to get MakerWare back up and running. This happened almost anytime we had to cancel a scan or put the computer to sleep. Even after we recalibrated the Digitizer the results were still a mess. While we were able to make out the general outline of a pair of glasses, it was buried in a sea of seemingly random shapes. Even some good, usable scans turned up weird anomalies, such as the UFO hovering above Om Nom you see above.
The Digitizer is fun and potentially ground breaking, but it's also occasionally frustrating. The device is as small and unobtrusive as you can reasonably expect and, in the grand scheme of things, not particularly expensive. MakerBot has even succeeded at making the scanner damn-near fool-proof. But, it's hardly perfect. Results are sort of a mixed bag and, if you stray from the suggested ideal conditions, chances are you'll get something completely unusable. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the Digitizer isn't practical for the average user -- it's clearly targeted at tinkerers and DIY enthusiasts. But that doesn't mean things will always be that way. Call us optimistic, but we choose to see the Digitizer as the first tentative step towards something revolutionary.
Now that we know what smartphone market share looked like in the third quarter when broken down by manufacturer, it's time to compare performance by platform. As you'd imagine, the world is still Android's oyster. Strategy Analytics estimates that the OS has crossed the symbolic 80 percent mark, reaching 81.3 percent of smartphone shipments by the end of September. Not that Google was the only company doing well -- Nokia's strong US sales helped Windows Phone grow to 4.1 percent of the market, or nearly double what it had a year ago. Whether or not these trends continue is another matter. Although Android likely isn't in danger given the launches of phones like the Galaxy Note 3, there are also new iPhones and Lumias on the scene; there may be one or two surprise upsets when the fourth quarter is over.
Google says it’s cracking down on third-party Google Voice apps, expanding SMS support in Hangouts early next year
Google didn't have much to say about Google Voice integration in its Hangouts app when it announced the latest version earlier this week, but the company's Nikhyl Singhal has filled in a few more details on his Google+ page today. Singhal notes that while the update (and its SMS support) only works with Google Voice numbers if you have the service enabled on your Sprint phone, it's "working to support SMS messages for all Google Voice phone numbers by early next year." He further goes on to say that the company is also working to offer Google Voice phone numbers outside the US and support MMS, but he's not going so far as to offer a timeline there, saying "we need to work with carriers and this can take some time."
Beyond that, Singhal also confirmed that Google will now be more heavily enforcing its Terms of Service and cracking down on third-party apps that offer unauthorized calling and SMS services through Google Voice. Those app makers will apparently have until May 15, 2014 to transition their users to another service. As for the new Hangouts app itself, while it's available on the new Nexus 5, other Android users will still have to wait a bit longer for the update to show up in the Play Store.