MONEY Cable TV

Why TV’s Cable Box Monopoly Needs to be Stopped

Cable Box
Shutterstock

There's no incentive for improvement or innovation in cable boxes.

Something looks out of place in the American television setup. The LCD TV on your wall is modern and minimalist, somehow only costing you $449. The glossy Apple TV “hockey puck” sits trim and unassuming, and you hold its unibody-aluminum 7-button remote control. A matte black box the size of a Webster’s dictionary displays the time in green-yellow seven-segment display, frozen in time since 1995. One of these things is certainly not like the other.

For years, cable companies have held what is tantamount to a monopoly over cable boxes, renting the proprietary devices to U.S. households for an average of $231 per year, which multiple U.S. Senators, Consumer Reports, and, most recently, The New York Times editorial board have decried.

“Consumers should have a choice of devices, and they should be able to buy the boxes outright or pay for them through their monthly plan,” Times’ board wrote quite sensibly. After all, if consumers had the option, they could purchase their own boxes for less than $200 each and save significant money over the long run.

This monopoly has not only hurt the consumer’s wallet but the devices themselves. While every other aspect of television has innovated exponentially, the set-top cable box is stuck in an awkward limbo, un-prodded to improve aesthetics or user experience by competition of any kind.

This kind of tone-deafness to consumer needs has served to deepen the contrast between the old guard of TV and online streaming. When you pit hidden fees, proprietary devices, a lack of choice of provider, bad design, and user experience against the ultra-simple, affordable, and intuitive plug and play of a simple Netflix and Apple TV setup—or even a pair of HD rabbit ears—it’s no wonder more and more people are cutting the cord.

On Friday, the F.C.C. will evaluate imposing regulations to improve the setup, a move at which cable and satellite companies would probably balk. But it would be good for them too, in a way. Instead of focusing on squeezing a small but irksome monthly fee out of its customers in the short term, kicking a can down the road as they bleed customers, they would be forced refocus on improving their product through innovation and competition, investing themselves into the industry’s future.

MORE: How to Watch All the TV You Want Without a Cable Bill
3 Moves to Cut Your Cable Bill Right Now

TIME Video Games

Nintendo Is Finally Making a Smaller New Nintendo 3DS

Nintendo

A tinier version of Nintendo's 3D gaming handheld, for smaller hands and pockets.

The New Nintendo 3DS, which shipped as an XL-only mongo clamshell in the U.S. last February, is finally getting the sidekick it deserves: a notably smaller New Nintendo 3DS.

Nintendo announced the pocket-sized version of its popular games handheld at GameStop’s annual managerial conference in Las Vegas Monday afternoon. The tinier system will be available only bundled with Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer (downloadable, not a physical cartridge), two Animal Crossing-themed cover plates, an Animal Crossing Amiibo card, a 4GB SDHC memory card and six augmented reality cards on September 25 for $219.99.

Nintendo

The announcement finally brings the U.S. into alignment with Japan, where both XL and regular-sized versions of the system were available at launch last October. The New Nintendo 3DS adds a second eraser-style thumbstick, improved audio, longer battery life, a faster processor and an eye-tracking sensor that helps stabilize the system’s eponymous 3D effect when moving it around. Nintendo says it’s sold “more than 15 million systems in the Nintendo 3DS family” in the U.S. alone.

For comparison, the XL version weighs 329 grams, while the non-XL version weighs 253 grams, and the XL is 6.3 inches by 3.68 inches by 0.85 inches, versus the non-XL’s 5.6 inches by 3.17 inches by 0.85 inches.

Nintendo originally decided not to sell a smaller version of its New Nintendo 3DS stateside because the original 3DS XL significantly outsold the original 3DS. But the counterargument, put forth by a vocal minority when the New Nintendo 3DS XL arrived, was that it left younger players with smaller hands in a less ergonomically comfortable spot. (To say nothing of portability: the basic version of the handheld is just barely pocketable, while the XL definitely isn’t.)

$219.99 isn’t a bad deal if you’re hip to the younger-audience-targeted Animal Crossing series, and pairing the latest installment with a handheld that fits more comfortably in smaller hands is no accident. The New Nintendo 3DS XL runs $199.99 without a bundle game or other extras, and Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer will sell for $39.99 by itself. Subtract the original non-XL 3DS’s price $169.99 from the new one’s $219.99 ($50), then the game’s price from that difference, and you’re effectively paying $10 for the cover plates and Amiibo card.

That said, as with the XL, Nintendo doesn’t include a power adapter with the system, so hopefully you already own one (Nintendo’s assumption for the lion’s share of New Nintendo 3DS sales, I’ve been told), or you’re okay forking out another $13 (you can find used ones for a few bucks less) to buy an accessory that’s essential to the system’s functioning at all, since you can’t use swappable batteries.

TIME Smartwatch

Samsung’s New Smartwatch Has 1 Very Unique Feature

Samsung Gear S2
Samsung Samsung Gear S2

A "rotating bezel" offers a new way to control the device

Samsung on Monday announced the Gear S2 smartwatch, the company’s follow-up to last year’s Gear S.

In a move differentiating the device from Apple’s Apple Watch, Samsung designed the S2 in circular style more reminiscent of typical watches. And whereas the Apple Watch has a rotating “digital crown” for controlling many apps, Samsung’s new device has an input mechanism called a “rotating bezel,” along with Home and Back buttons.

Samsung is offering the Gear S2 in two varieties: The default Gear S2, available in grey or silver and seen above, and the Gear S2 “classic,” a black version of the device with a leather band. The device is powered by Samsung’s own Tizen operating system, as opposed to the many non-Apple smartwatches that run Google’s Android Wear.

Customers can also opt for a 3G version of the Gear S2, which boasts wireless data connectivity that allows the device to serve up information without the help of a nearby phone.

Other features found in Samsung’s Gear S2 include NFC payments, a fitness app and a battery the company says lasts two to three days.

Samsung has not yet revealed details about the Gear S2’s availability or price. The company may release more information during this week’s IFA consumer electronics trade show in Berlin, Germany.

TIME the big picture

Apple’s Former CEO Built a Very Impressive Cheap New Phone

Obi Worldphone
Obi Worldphone Obi Worldphone

And it's way cheaper than anything Apple makes

Since stepping down as Apple’s CEO in 1993, John Sculley has become one of the technology industry’s top spokespeople, while also serving as a mentor to many business leaders and startups. Sculley, who Apple lured away from PepsiCo in 1983, is also a world traveler, and over the past two decades has spent much time in India, Africa, and parts of Asia. During his travels, Sculley witnessed first-hand the rise of a new middle class whose spending is driving economic growth across parts of the developing world.

All that growth means a desire for new technologies. Even in some of the poorest countries, Sculley observed, there is now high demand for smartphones and wireless connectivity. Our research, for instance, shows that about 2.8 billion people in the world have some kind of mobile handset, while we expect another 1 billion to buy smartphones for the first time over the next three to four years.

But Sculley believes most of the world’s relatively cheap, $150-or-less smartphones aren’t very good. He and his partners began to wonder if there was a way to make a high-quality smartphone while keeping prices at $200 or below for buyers who wanted a better product at lower prices. So Sculley set out to work on a new brand called Obi Worldphone, and, along with famed designer and fellow Apple alum Robert Brunner of Ammunition, built what became the Obi Worldphone SF1 and SJ1.5.

The idea behind the Worldphone lineup was to create no-compromise smartphones designed in Silicon Valley using top-tier components but sold for under $200. The end result took two forms: The SF1 is an elegant fiberglass-body Android smartphone with metal trip, sporting a five-inch screen, an eight-core Qualcomm 614 processor, a Sony-made camera and Dolby sound. The 16GB model goes for $199, while the 32GB costs $249. The SJ.1.5 is a lower-end device that supports wireless networks no faster than 3G, and sells for $129.

The end result — and I’m talking about the higher-end SF1 here — is what I believe to be the best Android phone under $200, and probably one of the best-designed Android phones at any price.

Sculley’s crew at Obi believes the market for smartphones in the U.S., Europe, and even China are largely saturated, so their first target markets will be Nigeria, South Africa, Vietnam, Turkey and Pakistan. What I find most interesting about Obi is that, like Apple, it views design as a critical element of whatever products they create. But unlike Apple, Obi holds that viewpoint while striving to keep its devices cheap.

“Apple is a design-led company,” Sculley told me recently over lunch. “We’ve said we want to be a design-led company, in an entirely different market than Apple would ever go into.”

There’s plenty of competition for low-end Android headsets. Companies like Xiaomi and Huawei are the pride of China, while India’s MicroMax is making a name for itself as well. But Obi’s design-focused mentality could help it stand out in this increasingly crowded market.

It’s too early to tell if Obi and its Worldphone will find any kind of success. But Sculley is a world-class marketer. With the right team, great distribution deals and a powerful product like the SF1, Obi could end up a powerful player in a potentially massive market.

Tim Bajarin is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists, covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc and has been with the company since 1981 where he has served as a consultant providing analysis to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry.

TIME Gadgets

Google Just Opened a New Front in Its Battle With Apple

Google Hosts Its I/O Developers Conference
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Google Android Wear director David Singleton announces Androidwear updates during the 2015 Google I/O conference on May 28, 2015 in San Francisco, California.

There's now an Android Wear app for Apple's iPhone

Most shoppers aren’t yet convinced they need a smartwatch — but that isn’t stopping Google from stepping up its fight for wrist-based supremacy against Apple.

Just a few months after Apple introduced its first smartwatch, Google on Monday introduced an iPhone app for Android Wear, its year-old smartwatch software. Android Wear powers devices that compete with Apple’s own Apple Watch, like Motorola’s Moto 360 and LG’s G Watch R.

Using the iOS Android Wear app, iPhone users will be able to sync their smartphones with various Android Wear watches. The app will relay information like incoming phone calls, text messages and heads-up notifications from apps directly to the face of an Android smartwatch. It will also include a fitness feature for tracking steps and setting training goals, and it will come equipped with Google Now, Google’s Siri-like virtual assistant that responds to voice commands.

The iPhone-compatible version of Android Wear won’t support third-party apps, meaning the number of actions iPhone owners can perform directly from a watch face will be limited. However, a Google spokesperson said the “vast majority” of popular Android Wear features will be available to iPhone users.

Android Wear got off to a relatively slow start in 2014, making up an estimated 720,000 of the 4.6 million smart wearable bands sold that year. It’s unclear how many Android Wear devices have sold this year, but research firm IDC estimates Apple shipped 3.6 million Apple Watch units during the device’s first quarter on the market.

The Android Wear app will be compatible with the iPhone 5, 5c, 5s, 6 and 6 Plus running iOS 8.2 or newer. The LG Urbane is the only Android Wear watch currently on the market that will support iPhone compatibility, but all future watches will be compatible.

TIME Solutions That Matter

See How Kids Are Getting 3D-printed Hands for Free

A global network of almost 6,000 volunteers is making it happen

With standard prosthetic hands costing anywhere from several thousand to a hundred thousand dollars, convincing insurance companies to buy new hands and arms for growing kids every couple of months is an impossible task.

After watching a YouTube video about 3D-printed prosthetics, RIT professor Jon Schull had an idea. With one YouTube comment, he harnessed an online community of volunteers and problem-solvers to work toward one goal—providing free, 3D-printable prosthetics to kids in need.

Two years later, Schull has taken his idea and turned it into a global network of almost 6,000 volunteers. To date, the e-NABLE network has printed over 1,500 devices in 50 countries, and the network continues to grow at a rapid pace.

e-NABLE’s wrist and elbow actuated prosthetics cost only $30-$50 apiece, and require up to three days worth of printer time and assembly. Schull’s volunteers are matched with a child in need, and provide the customized, completed hand or arm at no cost to the child’s family. e-NABLE’s network is currently working on making the devices available in other countries, as well as printing the hands with different skin tones and with different materials that will make the hands look more similar to the human hand.

While e-NABLE’s volunteers are spawning new variations of hands and arms faster than he can keep up with, Schull hopes to be able to expand his model to help solve new problems. He sees heads-up displays, text-to speech translators, and even gene printing in e-NABLE’s future.

“I believe we… have proven that there are probably hundreds of thousands of digital humanitarians ready willing and able to lend a metaphorical hand for the global good,” Schull said. “And so the…goal is to figure out what iceberg this is the emerging tip of.”

TIME Apple

Apple Just Took a Swipe at Google With This New Feature

Apple just ad-blocked Google

Apple is setting itself up for a confrontation with Google over its talked-about ad blocking feature that is set to be introduced in its latest mobile operating system.

Apple’s latest iOS 9 will allow third-party developers to introduce apps that will enable ad blocking on Safari, its mobile browser. If millions of Apple’s mobile users utilize this for a faster browsing experience, the move could disrupt a growing $70 billion mobile-marketing business, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

This cripples revenue for publishers and tech firms that are already facing losses from present-day ad blocking. A study by Adobe and PageFair shows ad-blocking extensions in desktop web browsers result in $22 billion in lost revenue to the websites that host ads.

Any form of ad blocking on mobile devices will hit Google especially hard. A Goldman Sachs report estimated that the company earned around $12 billion in mobile search revenue, with 75% of it generated from users of iPhones and iPads. Online advertising contributes around 90% of Google’s annual $66 billion revenue.

The ad-blocking feature also doesn’t include blocking within apps, a distinction that benefits Apple, since it takes a 30% cut on money generated from apps.

“It seems like this is part of the ongoing tussle between these two entities,” Peter Stabler, a Wells Fargo analyst, told the Journal. “It’s yet another arrow that Apple can put into the ankle of Google.”

TIME Minecraft

Minecraft Inventor Markus Persson: Being a Billionaire Is Lonely

GAME British Academy Video Games Awards - London
Yui Mok—PA Wire/Press Association Images Swedish programmer and creator of Minecraft Markus Persson.

His melancholy tweets are raising eyebrows

Is it tough being a billionaire? Minecraft creator Markus Persson recently seemed to suggest he isn’t fully enjoying his financial freedom.

A series of Tweets that Persson sent out caught the attention of several members of the media, with Re/code and others claiming Persson seemed lonely and isolated while hanging out in glamorous Ibiza.

Persson, you may recall, scored a massive deal when the developer company he founded – Mojang – was acquired by Microsoft for $2.5 billion. He left the company to start his own projects, thus Persson is no longer associated with the game he created.

The deal is part of why his personal worth has been pegged at about $1.3 billion, according to Forbes.

Here’s an example of a tweet that caught the media’s attention:

After the tweets lead to national headlines, Persson on Monday chided the media, and said he’s doing just fine these days.

TIME Video Games

This Xbox Bundle Comes With a Crazy New Controller

Microsoft

It'll set you back half a grand, but it comes with a faster hard drive and boutique ultra-customizable wireless controller.

Upgrading the Xbox One’s storage space became a non-issue when Microsoft added support for external hard drives a while back, but slipping a tiny hard drive inside the black box to reduce clutter and prune your power strip? Still a trick.

The Xbox One Elite Bundle, just announced Monday, offers a fairly typical solution but with an unusual perk. Instead of simply popping a 1 terabyte hard drive in the box, hiking the price and calling it a day, Redmond’s gone a step further and upgraded the classic cylinder-based drive to a solid state hybrid version. That means the drive has a small solid state partition (generally much faster than cylinder storage) on which it’ll store your most frequently accessed files, reducing metrics like load times as well as energy usage.

Microsoft hasn’t identified who the drive manufacturer is, nor what percent of the drive’s total is solid state, nor what the drive’s technical ratings are (with solid state hybrid drives, performance can vary considerably). It’s only saying the drive will allow players to “get to the action up to 20% faster from energy-saving mode.”

Another bundle perk: it’ll come with the Xbox One Elite wireless controller, the much-anticipated retool of the system’s already laudable de facto controller with interchangeable paddles, hair trigger locks, “high-performance construction” and the option to customize just about everything else. The Elite controller is due out as a standalone next month; this is the first (and only) version of the Xbox One it’ll ship with as a pack-in.

And if you’re weary of the regular Xbox One’s easily scratched, smudge-magnetic glossy finish, the Xbox One Elite will ship with a matte texture. Microsoft says it will sell the system for $499 in the U.S. exclusively through GameStop and Microsoft Stores starting November 3 (GameStop’s annual expo runs this week, thus the announcement timing).

The controller by itself, due a trifle sooner in October, is going to be pretty pricey at $149.99. So putting it in a bundle with a desirable matte-finish Xbox One that’s also sporting a superior solid state hybrid drive appears to be at least a modest money-saver, considering the stock Xbox One with half as much storage (a 500GB cylinder hard drive) runs $349, or $399 for the 1TB model.

TIME Gadgets

This New Wearable Helped Me Chill Out

Spire
Spire Spire

Every breath you take, every move you make, this device is watching you

With a heart-rate sensor, haptic feedback, an accelerometer and more, the Apple Watch is full of potential. And even though I bought one on launch day knowing full it would arrive with more possibility than utility, here I am four months later still disappointed in the reality.

My problem with the Apple Watch is that I figured some developer would have come up with a true killer app by now. Well, a killer one for my needs, at least. The thing I wanted most was for the Watch to be able to detect when my heart rate was elevating, tap me on the wrist, tell me that I was stressed, and help me to chill out. Instead, it tells me when I’ve been sitting for too long, which I ignore, because I’m stressed and have work to do. So to tackle my angst, I’ve turned to another new wearable: Spire.

An iPhone-only linked sensor (sorry, Android users), Spire tracks your motion just like almost every other connected-self product on the market, only it goes a step beyond by also watching your breathing patterns. Small, smooth, and shaped like a stone, this $149 breathing sensor is designed to either slip inside your waistband or up under your bra strap. I wore it tucked it into my pants, and it was comfortable most of the time, pinching my skin only when I sat for long periods. My wife also tried on Spire and said she could hardly feel the device at all.

The goal of the zen wearable is to get you to better control your breathing. There are dozens of apps on the market that can help you do this for a tiny fraction of the cost, but they’re passive solutions — they need you to open up an app before you begin calming down. Spire and its accompanying app are proactive, telling you to chill out when it detects that you’re anxious. It does this by monitoring your breathing constantly, alerting you when it senses a change to your typical respiration patterns.

My first day with the device was a pretty typical one. I was chained to my desk, banging away on a deadline, and feeling my chest tightening with every minute I got closer to filing my story. I was wearing Spire while I worked, and had the app open on my iPhone in front of me (which you do not need to do to use the device).

It was remarkable to watch the app monitor my breathing — I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Bluetooth device stream data back to my phone so quickly. A small line charted my inhales and exhales instantly, assuring me that every breath I took was being captured.

The app tabulates your statistics three different ways: activity, calm, and focus. You’re able to set daily goals for these states of being, and your progress is displayed on a clover-like graphic that fills in as you get closer to your goal. Spire also keeps track of streaks, storing that information in little “cards” where you can further explore what about your breathing makes you seem calm, focused, or active.

As I worked away while wearing the Spire, I wasn’t exactly locked into my writing. Email was popping up, Facebook notifications were going off, and I was falling down the rabbit hole of the web too frequently to make progress. But when I looked back to the app, it said I’d been focused for more than 30 minutes. It seemed like as I wore Spire, it couldn’t tell whether I was goofing off or focusing. It’s likely that my breathing when I procrastinate is the same as when I’m crushing my work.

Likewise, Spire wasn’t able to detect my daily stress as well as I hoped. When I’m under the gun, I tend to feel a tightening in my chest that eventually takes up residence between my shoulder blades. A good run or a short nap can help ease the tension, but I’ve never been able to wrangle it through breathing exercises.

And speaking of exercise, Spire is able to tell the difference between heavy breathing generated by a workout from anxious breaths that happen when life has you worked up. Since it has an internal accelerometer to track your steps, it knows when you’re huffing and puffing from exercising, not agonizing. I wore it for a run, but the Spire app isn’t necessarily workout oriented, so though it logged my steps, I decided to ditch it on future jogs. As for monitoring me when I was at rest for its “calm” metrics, it was able to tell the subtle difference between me kicking back with it on, versus me kicking back with it on my nightstand. But Spire does not work as a sleep monitoring device, at least not yet.

Since it didn’t catch me at my most anxious, I began to think Spire is just another wearable full of potential. And then it buzzed. I was in the kitchen frantically tapping away at my phone, writing an email about a frustrating financial situation gone awry, and the notification popped on my screen, telling me that I seemed tense, and that I should slow my breathing. It took me aback, so I tried to follow its directions. Then, my son, who was waiting for his dinner, started to scream. And again, the Spire started to vibrate. Money. Family. Screaming. These are all stressful things, triggers that I would have ignored were it not for this device.

As I continued on with the device over the next week, I eventually loaded Spire’s watch app onto my Apple Watch. And now, instead of the stone triggering an alert on my phone, it beams it over to my wrist. Like the Apple Watch, Spire isn’t perfect. But when you pair the two together, you get a great stress monitor. It’s definitely helped me to breathe a little easier, but I’m still hoping for a one-device solution. Hoping, but not holding my breath.

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