Google Makes Changes in Effort to Fight Piracy

GoogleGoogle has made some changes recently in an effort to fight piracy. They have released a 26 page PDF titled How Google Fights Piracy that you can read if you want to know all the details. The key point seems to be an effort to highlight legitimate resources where people can legally purchase (or rent) music, movies, and other digital content. Google says “The right combination of price, convenience, and inventory will do far more to reduce piracy than enforcement can.”

The PDF (or “white pages” as some have termed it) mentions Google Play and points that Android users can visit Google Play and legally purchase music, movies, TV shows, ebooks, apps, and games. The implication is that Google Play is an example of “the right combination of price, convenience, and inventory”.

Google also gives details regarding copyright removal notices and ranking. Websites that have had a high number of removal notices may appear lower in search engine results. In other words, a new algorithm will push websites that have had a lot of valid copyright removal requests lower in the search rankings. I think the idea is to make it easier for people to find legitimate sources of content by making those websites appear higher in the ranking.

There has also been a change to Google’s autocomplete. Google has taken steps to prevent “terms closely associated with piracy” from appearing an the autocomplete. At the same time, they are putting links to legitimate sources of copyrighted content that match your search into the right hand panel (where the ads appear).

This change also goes along with one of Google’s anti-piracy principles, specifically the one that can be summarized as “follow the money”. Part of that principle states: “Rogue sites that specialize in online piracy are commercial ventures, which means the most effective way to combat them is to cut off their money supply”.

Apps and Android Fragmentation

Smashing Magazine LogoWhen it comes to developing for Google’s favourite operating system, Android fragmentation is often bandied around as an issue for app developers. But how bad is it really and what’s the impact?

Fortunately you don’t have to make do with my wild guesses and assumptions as Smashing Magazine have a done a comprehensive critical analysis of testing done by app and game developers using the TestDroid cloud-based testing suite. Over 17 million tests were run on 288 different devices over 3 months early in 2014. Depending on region and measurement, the 288 devices represent somewhere between 92% and 97% of Android phones. With the credentials laid out, let’s take a look and see what the testing revealed.

Most of us will have seen the version stats from Google, showing the relative percentage of Android versions. Put simply, Froyo is less than 1%, Gingerbread is around 10% and ditto for Ice Cream Sandwich. Jelly Bean takes the lion’s share at nearly 55% and KitKat comes in second at about 25%.

Android LogoSmashing Magazine’s testing showed that on average 23% of apps exhibit a problem when moving between versions of Android. The biggest problems arose with Gingerbread (30%) followed by KitKat at 21%. Jelly Bean and ancient Honeycomb were next. Interestingly, although Gingerbread is the oldest version with significant market share, 40% of tested apps still work with this version.

The figures also reveal that ICS is the most stable version of Android with a low failure rate that broadly continues through Jelly Bean, though KitKat was more problematic with an increased error rate.

While the OS can cause problems, the hardware’s not blameless either. The research looked at screen resolution and the impact of memory on apps as well. Devices with resolutions of  2560 × 1600, 1280 × 800 and 1280 × 720 pixels gave the fewest problems, typically 1.5% or less. Small screen resolutions were the worst with 400 × 240 and 320 × 240 pixels being particularly bad.

On the RAM front, 512 MB seems to be a significant cut-off point and it’s no surprise that Google recommends this as a minimum. With this amount of memory or less, around 40% of tested apps exhibited problems. At 768 MB and above, the error rate falls to 16% and by 1 GB RAM, it’s down to 1%.

Overall, this is all interesting stuff and a fascinating insight into what app developers have to put up with. I’ve only covered a few of the areas and there’s additional analysis on drivers, OEM customisations and chipsets. I thoroughly recommend that you read the whole article over at Smashing Magazine to understand more.

Taking a slightly different view from a user perspective, if you want a really stable device, you should be buying a high resolution device, with 1 GB RAM and running Ice Cream Sandwich. Hmm.

Songza is “Thrilled” to Become Part of Google

Songza logoSongza has announced that they are becoming part of Google. They stated that they are “thrilled” to make the announcement and that they “can’t think of a better company to join in our quest to provide the perfect soundtrack to everything you do”. Not much else was said, other than that no immediate changes to Songza are planned (“other than making it faster, smarter, and more fun to use”, that is.)

Google announced that they, too, are “thrilled” to welcome Songza to Google. In its brief announcement, Google gave users some assurance about potential changes. “We aren’t planning any immediate changes to Songza, so it will continue to work like usual for existing users”.

So, Google is thrilled, and Songza is thrilled. Will current users of Songza be equally thrilled? That remains to be seen.

Time reported that Songza did not reveal the purchase price. Time also noted that The New York Post, “citing unnamed sources”, reported that Google was offering about $15 million for Songza. I’m never certain how much trust to give to “unnamed sources”, but there we are.

Of course, the discussion about Google buying Songza must include a mention about Apple’s announcement (in May) that it would buy Beats Electronics. And, let’s not forget about Google’s ownership of YouTube. It appears that there is a fight going on between Google and Apple as each attempts to capture the attention of music lovers.

Archos Helium 50 4G Smartphone Review

Archos LogoFrench firm Archos has been in the smartphone business since 2013 with a range of over 10 models but the phones are still relatively rare outside of their home country. At this year’s CES, Archos announced the Helium 45 and 50, affordable 4G smartphones with 4.5″ and 5″ screens respectively and Archos have kindly sent me a Helium 50 for review. Let’s take a look.

The Helium 50 doesn’t stray far from the classic smartphone form factor: it’s a rectangle with curved corners and there’s nothing really to make it stand out from the crowd – let’s say it could do with a bit more Gallic flair. Dimensions are 145 x 7.5 x 9 mm (5.7” x 2.8” x 0.35”) and weighs in at 160g. The build quality feels good and the rear shell clips on firmly.

Front View

No major surprises – head phone socket on top, volume rocker on left, power on the right and microUSB on the bottom right for charging. Oddly for a new smartphone model, the buttons at the bottom are fixed – they’re not the expected soft buttons – and one of them is a menu button too, which I believe is deprecated on the newer versions of Android.

Rear View

Although a slim phone regardless, the camera isn’t quite flush with the back.

Archos 50 Camera

Perhaps slightly of note is that when you peek inside, between the microSD card slot and the SIM slot, there’s an empty slot that could potentially take a second SIM.

Inside

On paper, the Archos 50 is running Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) on a 1.2 GHz quad-core Qualcomm ARM processor, partnered with an Adreno GPU driving a 5” 1280 x 720 (HD) screen with IPS. There’s 1 GB RAM, 8GB storage plus a microSD slot under the back cover. Not cutting edge specs by any means. Running Geekbench 3, the Helium 50 scores 341 in the Single-Core and 1156 in the Multi-Core test (cf 502 and 1499 for the Nexus 4). Disappointingly, although advertised as an 8 GB phone only 4 GB seems to be available to the user. Clearly a microSD should be an early purchase for new owners.

Archos 50 Specs Benchmarks

Initially, the smartphone’s performance seems good. Nova Launcher animations are smooth and games like Shardlands and Iron Man 3 look detailed and fluid with the Adreno GPU earning its keep. Unfortunately after using the phone for a time the lack of RAM becomes noticeable: while running apps work fine, returning to a previous app often requires the app to restart rather than smoothly switching back.

Shardlands

While talking about games, Ingress shows up the Helium’s GPS. While it’s accurate enough once settled, the GPS can be slow to update and sometimes stalls in one place for 20-odd seconds. It’s probably not so much of an issue with less demanding uses but in Ingress, fast and accurate GPS is critical to hacking and taking a portal.

On the plus side, Android seems to be mostly stock Jelly Bean with a few minor tweaks and some custom Archos apps for music, videos, FM radio and file management. The apps are good and in their favour is that they have built-in access to SMB shares and UPnP servers, which is a definite “thumbs up” from me. If interested, the Video Player is available from Google Play to try out on other phones.

Media Menu Media Player

Moving on to the camera, it has the most comprehensive range of settings that I’ve seen on any camera app – there are no less than three separate settings menus with several options that I didn’t have a clue about – “Max longshot NUM” anyone?! Despite the plethora of settings photographs were a little disappointing with the default settings. Even on “Super fine”, photos were a little grainy.

LionZoom In

Finally, in terms of connectivity, 4G is nippy and watching films via Netflix or BBC’s iPlayer is feasible over 4G (but beware the volume caps!) There’s no doubt that this is the future and I can see that this will appeal to commuters on public transport who want to take advantage of the spare time. Obviously speed and 4G availability will be dependent on your mobile operator but I was pleased with EE’s performance when I was able to get a 4G signal.

In conclusion, I used the Archos Helium 50 4G as my daily phone for about a month and it works: it works fine. All the apps run, it has a big screen, it plays music and it’s well-built, but there’s no doubt that the uninspiring design and low RAM drop it down the leaderboard in comparison with other Android smartphones. On the flip side, the Helium 50 is a 4G smartphone with a 5″ screen, priced at only £199 off-contract which is attractive, especially when compared to other 4G phones at twice the price.

Thanks to Archos for the loan of the Helium 50.

Payleven Mobile Payments at The Gadget Show

Payleven Chip and PINOne of the common problems facing start-ups and small businesses are the costs associated with taking credit card payments. The transaction costs can be high for small turnovers and point-of-sale machines are expensive with a monthly rental fee. To counter this problem, Payleven offers a low-cost mobile payment solution for European businesses using a Chip’n’PIN card reader that uses Bluetooth to communicate with both Apple, Android and Amazon smartphones and tablets. The Chip’n’PIN unit costs only GB£60 (ex-VAT) with a transaction charge of 2.75%. Payleven have partnered with GoTab to offer a complete solution for around £250 including a tablet and the card reader.

The approach is similar to US-based Square, but as Chip’n’PIN is only beginning to be required across the pond, Square’s reader unit is a simpler card-swipe device that plugs straight into the smartphone. Having a full Chip’n’PIN card reader in Europe is a necessity but the independent unit makes the transaction look much more professional anyway.

Simon from Payleven tells me about their solution and takes me through some of the features.

Optoma Pico-Projector at The Gadget Show

Optoma specialise in digital projectors with a range going from personal pico-projectors all the way up to professional stacking projectors for large-scale installations. Here at The Gadget Show, Optoma were showing off their  ML750, an ultra-compact LED projector about 12 cm square and 4 cm deep. The picture below doesn’t get over how small the unit is.

Optoma ML-750 Projector

James from Optoma runs through the features of the ML750, which with the addition of a small wireless dongle (the little white object in the top left of the photo) allows presentation and streaming directly from the tablets and smartphones over wi-fi to the projector. The feature works with both Apple and Android devices using a downloadable app.

The native resolution is 1280×800 but will show 720p and 1080i video sources. It’ll even do 3D with additional active shutter glasses, though I’m not sure anyone is interested anymore. Still, the feature’s there.

I’m not a big projector expert, but at the event the ML750 was showing a series of film clips and it was very watchable. Obviously nothing like an HD monitor but for a portable device showing a 32″ display, it was impressive.

Available online for GB£400.

Libratone Speakers at The Gadget Show

Danish audio specialists Libratone are relative new kids on the block, being established in 2009/10, but they’re making a strong impression with their colour co-ordinated hi-fi wireless speakers. I took the opportunity to learn more about Libratone’s range from Tom at The Gadget Show.

Libratone Speakers

Libratone ZippLibratone works with both Apple and Android devices supporting a range of protocols, including AirPlay, Wi-Fi Direct and DLNA, Libratone has four models in the range;
– the Lounge, a soundbar to go below a flatscreen TV
– the Zipp, a cylindrical speaker which is both AC and battery powered
– the Loop, a freestanding or wall-mounting round speaker
– the Live, a freestanding three-sided dipole speaker

All the speakers have removable covers that can be changed to suit the decor, either fitting in discreetly or standing out as a feature. Although it’s difficult to assess the audio quality in an exhibition hall, the demo I heard was suitably impressive and if you are in the market for this kind of product, I would definitely give them a listen.

Sony Xperia Z2 at The Gadget Show

Xperia Z2The Android smartphone market leaders have all been refreshing their top-end ‘phones, with Samsung’s Galaxy S5 and HTC’s One (M8) already available. Sony’s previously announced Xperia Z2 will be available in the UK very shortly and I chat to Laura about what we can expect in the latest offering from Sony.

At The Gadget Show, I had a chance to play with the Z2 and its 5.2″ full HD (1920×1080) “Live Colour LED” screen looked really good. The handset was responsive, animations were smooth – everything that you’d expected from a top-of-the-line phone. There’s a 20 megapixel rear camera which ought to produce the some excellent photos too given that the Z2’s predecessor had one of the best Android cameras. The Xperia Z2 also has a big battery at 3200 mAh, which is larger than both the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5. But the “pièce de résistance” is that the Xperia Z2 is waterproof to 1.5 m for 30 minutes (IP55/58). If you don’t believe me, here’s a scuba diver with a Z2 in a tank.

Xperia Z2 Underwater

Hopefully, I’ll be getting a review smartphone to give the Z2 a more thorough examination.

Safe Games for Kids by Toca Boca at The Gadget Show

Toca BocaAs a a parent with a tablet-loving daughter, I’m always worried that she’s either playing inappropriate games or else building up whopping a credit card bill via in-app purchases. Being tech-savvy, I can easily rectify the latter by controlling the password to my account, but this doesn’t always negate pester-power. The former is still a concern and I’m not alone as these two issues are relevant to parents everywhere.

To help mums and dads, Swedish outfit Toca Boca, “a play studio that makes digital toys for kids” have created a range of open-ended, non-competitive games that appeal to children where the initial purchase cost is the only time you need to flex the credit card. There are over 20 apps available for Apple, Android and Amazon devices, and include games for young hairdressers, chefs, doctors, vets, chemists, scientists and drivers. The themes are very similar to some of the popular “free” games that are out there; the Toca Boca versions usually cost US$2.99 but there are no subsequent in-app purchases.

I chat to Sonia about the Toca Boca apps and how parents can be more confident in what their children playing on their tablets without the worry of an enlarged credit card bill.

DesignMi Stands at The Gadget Show

Over the years, I’ve seen lots of innovative ways to hold tablets and smartphones at just the right angle for viewing movies or reading tweets and DesignMi continues that tradition with a great range of stands for all tablets and smartphones, plus a couple of models only for the iPhone. I chat with Bhupesh about these solid UK-made stands.

DesignMi Tablet and Smartphone stands

Machined from aluminium, the stands use microsuction pads to both keep the stand stuck to the table and to hold the tablet on the stand. The larger MiStand has a magnetic ball joint that allows the tablet to be positioned at almost any angle and orientation. There’s a range of colours and the Gadget Show stand had exclusive gold- and platinum-plated versions. POA, as they say.

Platinum MiStand

For iPhone 5 owners, the MiDock is incorporates the Lightning connector so the phone can be charged and synced while in the dock. The stands are currently on pre-order for shipping in May 2014. The larger MiStand is £55 and the smaller MiStand Mini is £18. I’m tempted….