TIME Google

Google Voice Rising, Google+ Falling

Google Voice gets free VoIP calls, with no forced Google+ integration.

If you use Google Voice to manage your phone calls and text messages, you can now use it to place free calls from your computer as well.

The new feature comes through integration with Google Hangouts. To access it in Google Voice, click the “Call” button, then select “Hangouts” in the “Phone to call with” drop-down box.

Although Google already offers free Hangouts calls in Gmail and Google+, the Google Voice integration is noteworthy for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s a sign that there’s still some life left in Google Voice, which adds features like call screening and web-based voicemail on top of your basic phone service. Last March, Voice was rumored to be on its deathbed as Google rolls all communications into its Hangouts app. But on laptops and desktops, Hangouts is just a feature within other Google services, rather than a standalone app as it is on Android and iOS. Maybe Google will consolidate all its Hangouts tie-ins someday, but for now Voice seems to be sticking around.

It’s also amusing that Google’s Alex Wiesen, in announcing the feature on Google+, pointed out how making a Hangouts call “doesn’t require a Google+ account,” almost like that’s a feature. At one point, Google was requiring that new products integrate with its social network, but lately the company has been moving in the opposite direction, de-emphasizing Google+ where possible.

TIME Rumors

Valve Might Have Made Its Steam Controller a Little Less Peculiar

An analog thumbstick would bring Valve's game controller more in line with traditional ones.

Valve’s Steam controller is apparently looking less like a crazy experiment and more like a typical gamepad in a newly-surfaced image.

As discovered by Steam Database, the design shows an analog thumbstick on the left side, which would replace the directional buttons on Valve’s previous design. If the image is legit, the controller would have a pair of round, circular touchpads on either side, though, so Valve wouldn’t totally be backing off its original vision.

Having tried the original Steam Controller prototype at CES in January, I can understand why Valve would make the change.

With something like a first-person shooter, the right touchpad still makes sense as a way to turn and aim, as it kind of feels like moving a mouse on a gaming PC. Compared to a thumbstick, the touchpad allows for more precise aiming–at least in theory.

But for movement, you don’t need precision as much as you need quick action. A thumbstick, much like keyboard controls on a PC, can be quickly thrown in any direction with minimal effort. It doesn’t really matter that the controls aren’t as fine-grained as a mouse or trackpad.

Still, Valve would be making a trade-off: The thumbstick would come in place of directional buttons, which are popular for fighting games and can be useful for old-school platformers.

Valve could have just ditched the left touchpad entirely, but I’m guessing the company would want to keep it around for games that are mainly controlled by cursor, such as strategy games. That way, users could move the cursor with their left thumbs and use their right hands for buttons and triggers.

Besides, if you’re really bothered by the lack of a d-pad and thumbsticks, there are always more traditional controllers instead.

Valve hasn’t said exactly when it will release the controller, along with the first Steam Machine consoles, but it recently pushed the effort back to 2015.

TIME Apple

You Can Sign Up to Try the New Mac OS X Now

Mac OSX Yosemite Apple
Mac OSX Yosemite Apple

The sign-up page is open for the Mac OS X Yosemite beta, but probably not for long

If you’re feeling adventurous and can act fast, you can now sign up for access to Apple’s Mac OS X Yosemite beta.

The beta program, which lets users test the latest Mac operating system software that Apple announced in June, is open to the first million people who sign up through Apple’s website.

Yosemite is a major update over the current OS X Mavericks, with a new look and improvements to built-in apps such as Mail and Safari. It also has some deeper hooks into the iPhone and iPad, letting users pick up on one machine from where they left off on another, and answer phone calls through their laptops. (Those features won’t hit until iOS 8 launches this fall.)

Keep in mind that as a beta, bugs and glitches will be inevitable. Apple suggests installing Yosemite on a secondary Mac, and only after backing up its contents.

TIME Smartphones

OnePlus One Review: Phone of Dreams

Jared Newman for TIME

It's hard to imagine a better phone for Android geeks. Too bad you can't get one.

As I walked around Google’s I/O conference last month, my phone seemed to have a mythical status among the Android faithful.

“Is that the OnePlus One?” they’d ask. “How’d you get it? Can I see?” But it wasn’t the phone’s capabilities that made them so curious. It was the fact that the OnePlus One is nearly impossible to buy.

Right now, the only way to purchase a OnePlus One is through an invitation from another owner. And because OnePlus only seeded the phone to a small batch of original owners through a contest and other promotions, there aren’t a lot of Ones to go around. (Mine came direct from the OnePlus PR department, with no invites attached.)

It’s easy to see why Android geeks are clamoring for the OnePlus One. It has all the hallmarks of a high-end Android phone, including a 5.5-inch 1080p display, a 2.5 GHz quad-core processor, 3 GB of RAM, 64 GB of storage, a 13-megapixel rear camera and a 5-megapixel front camera.

But at $350 unlocked, it’s roughly half the price of an unlocked iPhone 5s or Samsung Galaxy S5. While you can get subsidized phones for cheaper, an unsubsidized plan from AT&T or T-Mobile would save a lot of money in the long run when paired with a OnePlus One.

Besides, the OnePlus One is a standout phone even without the cost savings.

The funny thing is that when I show this phone to regular people, it draws an entirely different reaction. There’s nothing outwardly impressive or even noteworthy about it, save for the black backing that’s as grippy as ultra-fine sandpaper. (A 16 GB white model has a ground cashew backing that’s supposed to feel like baby skin. I found someone at I/O with this version, and while it felt pretty smooth, I didn’t have my test baby on hand for comparison.)

Still, much of the OnePlus One’s appeal comes from what it doesn’t do. In contrast to so many other Android phones, the One is devoid of questionable gimmicks and flare for flare’s sake. The front of the phone is unadorned with tacky brand names or logos, and there are no dual-lens cameras, finicky fingerprint readers or problematic curved glass. When the screen is off, it’s nothing but a thin silver frame surrounding a panel of black glass. The simplicity is striking.

Jared Newman for TIME

Start it up, and you’ll find something very close to stock Android 4.4, with hardly any unnecessary bloatware. The handful of tweaks that do exist come courtesy of CyanogenMod, a modification of stock Android that many enthusiasts install on their phones anyway. There’s a quick settings bar that appears above your notifications, a set of audio equalizer controls and a store for themes that alter the phone’s look and feel. But none of these additions feel intrusive, and most of them can be modified or removed.

Because the system is unburdened by junk and excessive visual flourishes, the OnePlus One always feels fast. The phone never left me hanging as I switched apps, swiped through homescreens and opened the camera. That’s not always the case with the latest mainstream Android phones.

The camera also lacks frilly features, but it’s dependable all around. Its f/2.0 aperture means it can handle low-light photography about as well as the HTC One (no relation), and while it’s not quite as good as HTC’s phone at fending off shaky hands, it’s capable of snapping much more detailed photos. I had no major issues with responsiveness either, as the phone takes about a second to establish focus and snaps photos instantly thereafter. My sole complaint is that you can’t hold the shutter button down for burst mode like you can on the HTC One and iPhone 5s. (There is a separate burst mode option, but that defeats the purpose when you’re trying to capture the perfect moment.)

Jared Newman for TIME

The other thing you only appreciate with time is the OnePlus One’s battery. I tend to charge my phone every night, but after most days I had well over 50 percent battery life in the tank. That includes days when I was constantly using the phone’s mobile hotspot or watching lots of video. It was nice having a phone where battery life was not a concern at all.

My only problems with the OnePlus One tended not to rise above nitpick status. The display, while clear and crisp enough at 1080p, can be a bit hard to read outdoors on sunny days, and its auto-brightness setting doesn’t always hit the appropriate level. I could also do without some of the software tweaks that OnePlus has added, such as the settings shortcuts that are redundant with Android’s own quick settings panel, and the gesture-based shortcuts that I always seemed to enter accidentally. But as I said above, OnePlus allows you to switch these off.

Most of the time, the OnePlus One just did what it was supposed to do. And outside the geekier climes of Google I/O, it never drew attention to itself by causing headaches or getting in the way, and never felt like it was anything less than a high-end handset.

That’s exactly how a smartphone should be, and it’s sad that so many Android vendors feel the need to distract with flips and cartwheels instead. If OnePlus can actually distribute this phone more broadly–and I’m told an actual pre-order system is coming eventually–its ability to excite people without glitz and gimmickry will be its greatest trick.

TIME Microsoft

Making Sense of Microsoft’s Windows Phone Plans

Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp., speaks during a keynote session at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington on July 16, 2014.
Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp., speaks during a keynote session at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington on July 16, 2014. Bloomberg/Getty Images

Microsoft's low-end push doesn't exactly match up with its high-end ambitions.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is wasting no time distancing himself from his former boss, Steve Ballmer.

After making clear last week that Windows is not the center of Microsoft’s universe anymore, Nadella took another swing at his predecessor’s “devices and services” strategy by announcing 12,500 layoffs at the Nokia team. Combined with the 5,500 layoffs at other parts of Microsoft, it’s by far the largest round of job cuts in company history.

With the layoffs will come a shift in strategy. Microsoft says it’ll push harder into low-cost Windows Phones, while terminating Nokia’s other affordable phone projects. Nokia X, an experiment in putting Microsoft services on Android-based handsets, will go away as Microsoft loads future designs with Windows Phone instead. Nokia’s other low-end platform, Asha, will also disappear, according to The Verge.

On the high-end, Microsoft sees Windows Phone–and other devices like Surface–as a showcase for Microsoft services. Future flagship phones will be timed to launch alongside major versions of the operating system and new releases from Microsoft’s Applications and Services Group.

One might imagine, for instance, a future Windows Phone integrating a new version of Office, or an upgrade for Cortana that works across phones, tablets, PCs and Xbox consoles. Microsoft will likely pitch its hardware as being the best way to experience those services. (“We want to show the way,” Nadella said at the Worldwide Partners Conference last week.)

The problem is that Microsoft’s high-end and low-end strategies don’t really square with one another. While Microsoft has enjoyed some success in the affordable phone market, the company’s newfound focus on productivity and “getting stuff done” mean that those high-end users are the real prize. They’re the ones who are most likely to use premium Microsoft services like Office 365 and OneDrive.

From Nadella’s latest memo, it seems Microsoft is committed to the low end mainly because it’s done well in certain markets. But how does that help Microsoft with its productivity focus?

One could argue that building the user base, even with low-cost phones, helps attract the app developers that Windows Phone really needs. But low-end users don’t necessarily spell dollar signs for app makers. Apple’s iOS App Store, for instance, pulls in far more revenue than Android’s Google Play Store, despite Android having far greater market share. Windows Phone has neither the volume nor the demographics to lure app developers on a large scale, and cheaper phones aren’t going to change that.

That’s why I think Windows Phone’s best shot at survival will come from deeper hooks into other Microsoft products that people use already. As I wrote in my Windows Phone 8.1 review, things like tighter OneDrive integration, better Office tools and more links between phone and console gaming all come to mind.

Microsoft is rumored to be moving in this direction with a unified version of Windows codenamed Threshold, which is reportedly coming next year. It’ll be interesting to see what Nadella does between now and then.

TIME robotics

That Jibo Robot Does the Same Stuff as Your Phone, but People Are Freaking Out Anyway

jibo
Jibo

Jibo promises to be a lovable robot assistant, but it's unclear why you'd actually need one.

A crowdfunding campaign for a “family robot” called Jibo is picking up steam, blowing through its fundraising goals within the first day.

What is Jibo? It’s a little pod with a motorized swivel, equipped with cameras, microphones and a display. It recognizes faces and voices, and can act as a personal assistant by setting reminders, delivering messages and offering to take group photos. It also serves as a telepresence robot for video chat.

As of now, Jibo has raised more than $200,000 on IndieGogo–well beyond its $100,000 goal–and has racked up plenty of breathless coverage. Early bird pricing of $100 sold out long ago, but you can still claim a unit for $499, with an estimated December 2015 ship date.

Sorry to burst the hype bubble, but I’m not seeing how Jibo will more practical than a phone, a tablet or even a wearable device. Most of the things Jibo promises to do can be done better by the handset in your pocket–which, by the way, you don’t have to lug around from tabletop to tabletop.

To see what I mean, let’s deconstruct the scenario in Jibo’s pitch video, in which a man gets home from a long day at work. Jibo, perched on a nearby counter, turns on the lights, records an order for Chinese take-out, then starts reading back a voicemail from his girlfriend. The man then doubles the take-out order on the fly.

It’s the kind of demo that makes perfect sense unless you think about it too much. If home automation goes mainstream, a dedicated robot won’t be necessary, because our phones will do a better job of signaling when we’ve walked through the front door. The idea of having your messages read to you when you get home is a throwback to answering machines, which are obsolete now that we can check our messages from anywhere. As for the take-out order, you’ve got to be the dullest person in the world to order “the usual” every time you get home, and I’m not sure the man’s girlfriend will take kindly to having no input on what food she gets.

There is something to be said for a device that can persistently listen for your commands and act on them, but this is the same problem that wearable devices are trying to solve, and they’re better-suited to being wherever you are. While group photos and telepresence are potentially useful, now we’re getting into some very specific situations that don’t really justify a $500 purchase, regardless of how endearing Jibo tries to be. The only way Jibo makes sense as a robot is if it gains more physical capabilities, like a way to clean your windows or cook dinner, but it’s far too early to say whether that’s going to happen.

Maybe it’s unfair for me to judge at such an early stage, but that’s exactly what Jibo is trying to do through crowdfunding. The creators are asking people to throw money at something they’ve never seen, that has only been shown to the press in limited demos, and that won’t even ship until the tail end of next year. All we have to go on right now is a slick-looking pitch video and a whole bunch of promises. As talented as the folks behind Jibo seem to be, I’ve seen enough undercooked crowdfunded projects to know that some skepticism is in order.

TIME Money

How Much Is a Bitcoin Worth? Let Google Tell You

Google Search now includes Bitcoin in its currency calculator, lending a little more legitimacy to the cryptocurrency.

If you need to know the current value of a Bitcoin, it’s now faster than ever to figure out through Google.

The search engine’s currency calculator now supports Bitcoin, so you can type “1 Bitcoin to dollars,” “10000 yen to BTC” or “How much is 500 Bitcoin worth?”

As Coindesk points out, Google added a Bitcoin currency tracker to its finance searches last month. Currency conversion is the next logical step, given that Microsoft’s Bing started calculating Bitcoin values in February. Though Bitcoin has struggled to gain recognition from some governments, support from the major search engines may help lend some legitimacy to the cryptocurrency.

Google does caution that conversion rates may not be accurate down to the minute, but you can always consult other sources like Coindesk if you need more detailed data.

TIME Rumors

Amazon Appears to Be Testing All-You-Can-Read Kindle Ebook Subscriptions

Amazon Kindle
Amazon Kindle in Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 15, 2013. Yasuyoshi Chiba—AFP/Getty Images

The "Kindle Unlimited" plan could include more than 600,000 ebooks for $9.99 per month.

Amazon loves its subscription business models, so it’s no surprise that the company might be testing an unlimited ebook plan.

The so-called “Kindle Unlimited” plan would reportedly cost $9.99 per month. It was first noticed by users on a Kindle forum, and then by GigaOM. Amazon has since wiped most the evidence from its site, but you can still see some of the test pages on Amazon’s site and on Google Cache.

While Amazon already offers ebook rentals as part of Amazon Prime, users can only take out one book per month, and can only read those books on Amazon devices such as Kindle e-readers and Kindle Fire tablets. Kindle Unlimited would apparently be available on all devices–including iPads and Android tablets–and would have no reading limits.

Unfortunately, none of the major book publishers seem to be participating, as GigaOM points out. Though there are some smaller publishers on board, many of the titles come from Amazon’s own publishing arm.

Still, some publishers are warming to the idea of ebook subscriptions, with Scribd and Oyster offering all-you-can-read books from HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster. If Amazon can offer a similar service that integrates with users’ existing Kindle libraries, it could be a hit that shakes up the way people pay for ebooks. But maybe giving more power to Amazon is what publishers are worried about.

TIME Software

BlackBerry Has a Virtual Assistant Now

BlackBerry Assistant
The BlackBerry Assistant app is meant to compete with Apple's Siri, Google Now and Microsoft's Cortana virtual assistants BlackBerry

Because you can't have a modern smartphone platform without advanced voice commands.

BlackBerry is still fighting for survival as a mobile phone maker, and its latest move is to add a virtual assistant on par with Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Windows Phone’s Cortana.

Newer BlackBerry phones already support voice commands, but the BlackBerry Assistant sounds more advanced. Users can set reminders, launch apps, send BBM messages, search through e-mail and calendars, listen to recent e-mails, set the ringer to “phone calls only” and find out what’s happening on Twitter. All of these actions happen within the app, which apparently adapts to the user’s behavior and becomes more accurate over time.

While it doesn’t sound like a major departure from virtual assistants on other platforms, the ability to use more than just a rigid set of voice commands has become table stakes on mobile devices. BlackBerry needs this kind of feature if it wants to hang onto its mobile device business.

BlackBerry Assistant will be part of the company’s BlackBerry 10.3 software. While there’s no word on when BlackBerry 10.3 will launch, it will be built into the BlackBerry Passport–a phone with a square screen and physical keyboard–when it arrives in September.

TIME Wearables

Android Wear Face-Off: LG G Watch vs. Samsung Gear Live

LG's G Watch (left) and Samsung's Gear Live (right) Jared Newman for TIME

How to pick a smartwatch if you're one of Android Wear's earliest adopters.

Let’s say you plan to ignore the advice of most reviews and buy an Android Wear smartwatch right now. Even though more stylish designs are on the way, you’ve got money to spend and want to see what the fuss is about.

How do you choose between Samsung’s Gear Live and LG’s G Watch? After using each one over the last couple of weeks, I think it’s pretty easy to decide. But first, let’s go through the pros and cons of each watch:

Style

You won’t win a lot of style points for either watch, as they are both thick, square slabs that take up a lot of space across the wrist. In fact, if you hold them next to each other, the watch bodies, bezels and screens are almost exactly the same size.

Where Samsung’s Gear Live stands out, though, is the use of metal around the body and on the clasp under your wrist. The watch band also appears thinner due to its tapered edges, and the snap-in mechanism is less bulky than the G Watch’s more traditional buckle. The Gear Live is a bit gaudier, but it also makes a statement. That’s more my style, given that neither watch is understated to begin with.

Advantage: Samsung Gear Live

Features

The Gear Live and G Watch have almost exactly the same features, as they are required to run the same Android Wear software. Samsung does include a heart rate monitor, but I had trouble getting consistent readings and question whether this is a useful feature anyway. (If you can check your own pulse, you can just as easily measure it with the basic stopwatch function on either watch.)

The G Watch’s best feature, oddly enough, is its selection of watch faces. It has a lot of sharp-looking ones that Samsung doesn’t, and while this will become less of an issue as more third-party watch faces hit the Google Play Store, it’s nice to have some quality faces out of the box.

Advantage: LG G Watch, slightly

Jared Newman for TIME

Comfort

As I mentioned above, the Samsung Gear Live’s watch band has a couple of pins on the end, which you snap into any two holes further up the band. The G Watch has a standard buckle that keeps the watch securely fastened, along with a loop of plastic for holding down the excess strap material.

I found the Gear Live’s band to be more comfortable overall, with ridges on the inside that let your wrist breathe a bit, and it’s nice not to have any excess material to deal with. By comparison, the G Watch’s flat, rubberized band seemed to make my wrist feel sticky and sweaty before long. Both watches do have removable straps, at least.

Advantage: Samsung Gear Live

Battery and Charging

This one isn’t even close. Not only does LG’s G Watch have a larger battery, it also has a better charging cradle that you can just drop the watch onto at night. It’s much more convenient than the Samsung Gear Live’s charging pod, which needs to be snapped onto the underside of the watch in a particular way.

You’ll likely want to charge either watch every night, which actually isn’t a big deal once you get in the habit. (In a way, it’s better than having to charge every few days, because the nightly charge becomes routine.) But the need for a nightly top-up makes a convenient charging mechanism all the more important.

Advantage: LG G Watch

Jared Newman for TIME

Display Quality

In theory, the 320-by-320 resolution AMOLED panel on Samsung’s Gear Live should be the winner over LG’s 280-by-280 LCD screen, as it provides sharper images and better viewing angles.

But the G Watch does have one advantage in its outdoor readability. While neither watch performs well in direct sunlight, LG’s watch does a slightly better job of fending off the sun’s glare at full brightness. It’s not a big enough difference to beat the Gear Live’s display overall, but it does make the displays closer in quality than they look on paper.

Advantage: Samsung Gear Live, slightly

Verdict

Style and comfort are extremely important to me considering this is something I have to wear every day, and the Gear Live’s advantages in those areas outweigh its pesky charger and inferior watch faces. (If I was buying one myself, the Gear Live’s $199 price tag compared to $229 for the LG G Watch wouldn’t hurt.)

LG’s G Watch is still worth considering for some users, especially those who plan to swap in their own straps. But I’m not going that route, so the Samsung Gear Live will be my go-to smartwatch as I continue to get a feel for Android Wear.

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