Fewer than 10% of Americans are buying $1,000 smartphones, report says

Pictures of the Galaxy Note10.

Enlarge / The Samsung Galaxy Note10.

We’ve already seen indications that American consumers are holding onto their smartphones longer than before, posing challenges for companies like Apple and Samsung for whom mobile phone sales are important to the bottom line. A new NPD report reiterates that point but adds that fewer than 10 percent of American smartphone buyers spend more than $1,000, effectively ruling out flagship phones like the iPhone 11 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy Note10 that gather most of the marketer and media attention.

The main point of concern raised by the NPD report, though, is 5G adoption. 5G phones will likely be unaffordable for many consumers at first, with the first wave of mainstream 5G phones in 2020 likely to cost at least $1,000 in most cases. On the other hand, consumer awareness of the imminent rollout of 5G is high, and many consumers cited that coming change as a reason they’re holding out on spending big on new phones. It could be that some consumers who can afford $1,000 handsets but haven’t made the plunge will do so when 5G arrives, provided that it offers all the benefits marketers have claimed. (That will likely vary quite significantly by city and region, though.)

And speaking of cities and regions, the report also found notable differences in smartphone buying habits across different designated market areas (DMAs). For example, the NPD claims that Americans in major urban centers like New York City or Los Angeles are more likely to spend $1,000 or more on a smartphone. It’s unclear from the data whether this is a result of comparatively high average incomes in those areas or other factors.

In any case, the NPD therefore recommends to smartphone manufacturers that marketing budgets be focused on those DMAs for those types of phones, especially as the 5G era approaches.

Write what you know

This is speculation on my part, but that geographic disparity could partially explain why flagship phones get significantly more media coverage than other phones; most media professionals are in cities like that.

However, shortage of media coverage on these lower-market phones isn’t that surprising to begin with; there’s not much interesting for press or influencers to say about phones that use two- or three-year-old technologies and work just well enough for most people’s needs but don’t make any waves or innovations. And some companies, like Apple, offer phones at lower price points that used to be high-priced flagships, so they’ve already been covered extensively in their prime.

All of this reporting on the United States is to say nothing about developing countries, which remain the biggest potential growth markets for cell phones because the markets in developed economies are so saturated. Consumers in developing markets may be even more unlikely to spend $1,000 or more on a smartphone.

There are Android phones well below that price point that Ars can recommend, and Apple’s iPhone 8 lands at a still-pricy-but-cheaper $500 or so. There’s likely room for Apple to introduce a phone that pushes the price down even more to address markets outside of major cities in rich economies. But as we’ve noted in some of our reviews, the support infrastructure (that is, Apple Stores and the like) for iPhones is often comparatively inadequate in small towns or in many countries.

There has been much talk among economists and politicians lately about a gap in the US economy between affluent major cities and the rest of the country. This NPD report on gadgets, of all things, provides some evidence to back up that diagnosis, at least in part.

Guidemaster: 10 tech gifts to improve the home office

It's not easy to please everyone when it comes to gifting. But trust us, everyone could use a password manager.

Enlarge / It’s not easy to please everyone when it comes to gifting. But trust us, everyone could use a password manager.
Tara Moore / Getty Images

So far, our 2019 holiday gift guide series has covered gifts for those on a budget, gifts for frequent travelers, and gifts for the home. Today, we’re turning our attention to the office and general productivity needs.

Below you’ll find another hand-picked batch of recommendations based on a year’s worth of product testing. These are thoughtful yet pragmatic gifts to help improve your friends’ and family’s work spaces through technology. From password managers to keyboards to business-friendly laptops, we know firsthand that each of the products below can make productive time less of a slog.

Note: Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

1Password

1Password

Most workplaces require you to have more usernames and passwords than you’d like. Instead of clicking that “forgot password” button once a week, 1Password can help organize and store all of your work and personal account credentials. As long as you can remember one password, the program will do the rest of the heavy lifting.

1Password keeps all of your usernames and passwords, along with secure notes, credit card numbers, and other sensitive information of your choosing, in a vault that’s secure using AES-256 bit encryption and a secret key that only you know. It also syncs across all of your devices, allowing you to quickly log in to any of your accounts with just a couple taps or clicks. 1Password also has browser extensions for the most popular browsers so, when you inevitably create a new account somewhere on the web, you can quickly save it to 1Password without thinking twice about it.

Solid security, seamless integration, and ease of use have made 1Password one of my most used programs on a daily basis. It’s sped up my workflow immeasurably, and I spend much less time fumbling with temporary passwords and emailed security codes thanks to it. And at $2.99 per month, it’s one of the most affordable ways you can make your work and personal lives a little bit easier.

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

Nekteck 4-port 72W USB Wall Charger

The Nekteck 4-port 72W USB Wall Charger.

Enlarge / The Nekteck 4-port 72W USB Wall Charger.
Jeff Dunn

If your loved one has many devices that often need charging at the same time, the Nekteck 4-port 72W USB Wall Charger should make their day-to-day less of a headache. It’ll keep them in arm’s length of four USB charging ports, including a 60W USB-C Power Delivery (PD) port that’s capable of refilling nearly all recent smartphones and many Ultrabooks and MacBooks (15-inch MacBook Pro notwithstanding) at maximum speeds. Nekteck includes a three-foot USB-C to USB-C cable in the box, and there are three 12W USB-A ports alongside the PD port that can charge other accessories at a more traditional rate. (Just note that the whole thing can only output 72W total at a time, so you won’t get the full 12W out of each USB-A port if more than one is in use simultaneously.)

The charger connects via an AC outlet, but at 3.14×3.74×1.97 inches, the station itself won’t chew up a ton of room on a desk. It’s also been certified by the USB Implementers Forum—a body headed by Apple, Intel, and other tech giants that looks over the USB spec—so you can be confident that it won’t fry anyone’s devices over time. Plus, at $30, it’s good value for the amount of power it packs.

Nekteck 4-port 72W USB Wall Charger product image

Nekteck 4-port 72W USB Wall Charger

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

Logitech Craft

The Logitech Craft keyboard.

Enlarge / The Logitech Craft keyboard.
Valentina Palladino

A good wireless keyboard can be hard to find, but Logitech’s Craft is one of the more luxurious ones that stands out. Primarily, it’s a solid keyboard that’s relatively quiet and has decent travel, and the experience doesn’t falter even after months of continuous use. It also has a great battery life—it charges via USB-C and will last weeks on a single charge, even when used every day for hours at a time. It conveniently connect to your PC via Bluetooth or the included universal USB receiver as well.

A peculiar perk is the dial that sits at the Craft’s top-left corner. It can be programmed using Logitech options (along with other mappable keys) to do different things like adjust volume, switch tabs, and edit a photo’s contrast and brightness, and more depending on the program you’re currently using. That makes it a natural pick for creatives who will find the dial’s precision better than that of a trackpad or a mouse, but it’s also just a convenient tool for regular users as well.

Logitech Craft product image

Logitech Craft

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

Listing image by Logitech

The Snapdragon 865 will make phones worse in 2020, thanks to mandatory 5G

A more accurately labeled Snapdragon 865.

Enlarge / A more accurately labeled Snapdragon 865.

Qualcomm recently took the wraps off its flagship SoC for 2020, the Snapdragon 865. As usual, we can expect this chip in all the high-end Android smartphones in 2020, and it’s 25 percent faster than last year, with fancy new camera features and AI-accelerating co-processors. What’s unusual is the way Qualcomm designed the LTE modem in the Snapdragon 865: it doesn’t have one.

This means nearly every flagship Android phone will be a 5G phone in 2020, and putting the 5G and 4G on a giant extra chip means smartphones are going to use way more power, no matter which cell network you’re connected to. When 5G networks are only going to be in their infancy in 2020, this sounds like an across-the-board downgrade to me.

In 2019, 4G had a big power and size advantage over 5G thanks to the all-in-one SoC with an integrated modem solution. In 2020, Qualcomm is so desperate to make 5G a thing that it’s making 4G worse.

More power-hungry modems for everyone

2019's Snapdragon 855 offers 4G connectivity in a single, simple package. 2020's Snapdragon 865 has no onboard modem, and it needs an extra chip.

Enlarge / 2019’s Snapdragon 855 offers 4G connectivity in a single, simple package. 2020’s Snapdragon 865 has no onboard modem, and it needs an extra chip.
Ron Amadeo

We’ve spent the past year railing against early 5G hardware from Qualcomm because 1) the networks it supports barely exist and 2) the hardware requires significant compromise in your smartphone design, even if you never use 5G. The whole reason a modern smartphone works so well is due to the SoC, the System on a Chip.

This combines every major computing component onto a single chip, which you can see in the diagram above. There’s a CPU, GPU, an “ISP” for camera functionality, a Qualcomm “Hexagon” co-processor, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and—in every flagship SoC released in the last seven years except for the Snapdragon 865—an onboard cellular modem. Mashing everything into a single chip saves power, and it saves space, which means room for a bigger battery.

We’ve already seen what happens when Android phones ship with separate modems. The first 4G phones with separate modems, like the HTC Thunderbolt, were legendary disasters. The Thunderbolt was a hot, slow, buggy mess, and it had a battery life of only a few hours. It was so bad that one HTC employee even apologized for releasing it. Qualcomm’s 2019 5G package was the Snapdragon 855 with a separate X50 modem, and those were fireballs, too.

Apple releases macOS Catalina 10.15.2, iOS, and iPadOS 13.3

The 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro with the lid closed

Enlarge / The 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro.
Samuel Axon

As has become a custom, Apple has simultaneously released software updates for nearly its entire suite of consumer products today—including iOS 13.3, iPadOS 13.3, macOS Catalina 10.15.2, watchOS 6.1.1, tvOS 13.3—and an update for HomePods. All updates should be available to all users by the end of the day.

iOS 13.3 and iPadOS 13.3 together make for arguably the most notable update. They introduce yet another feature that was originally pitched by Apple as part of iOS 13 but was delayed before that annual update’s release this September: Communication Limits in ScreenTime. Parents can now whitelist contacts for their kids’ accounts, which allows them to block their kids from communicating with anyone outside the list on Apple-made apps like Messages and FaceTime, with exceptions for emergency calls and services like 911.

These two updates also introduce new layouts for certain publications in Apple News+, adds a new interface for liking or disliking stories in News, and expands on the news options and coverage in the Stocks app.

macOS Catalina 10.15.2 gets most of these same News and Stocks features, plus the restoration of the column browser view in Apple Music and the addition of Apple Remote app support for the Music and TV apps on Macs.

Additionally, tvOS 13.3 is a somewhat notable update for recent Apple TV streaming boxes. It includes a slight homescreen redesign for video previews as well as a change to the top shelf of content visible on that screen. Whereas it previously showed you the next items in your TV app queue while that app was selected, it will now recommend new content there by displaying trailers and previews. However, an option has been adding to settings to let you switch back to the old way.

Today’s HomePod update improves voice recognition for family members and “allows individual family members to enable/disable personal requests.” watchOS 6.1.1 is a minor update that contains unspecified bug fixes and optimizations. Apple also released a security update for watchOS 5 for users who do not have an iPhone capable of running iOS 13, as watchOS 6 requires the latest iPhone software.

All of the updates today also have a plethora of bug fixes and security updates for their respective platforms, which you can find in Apple’s release notes below.

iOS and iPadOS 13.3 release notes

iOS 13.3 includes improvements, bug fixes, and additional parental controls for Screen Time.

Screen Time

  • New parental controls provide more communication limits over who their children can call, FaceTime, or Message
  • Contact list for children lets parents manage the contacts that appear on their children’s devices

Apple News

  • New layout for Apple News+ stories from The Wall Street Journal and other leading newspapers
  • Easily like or dislike stories with a tap

Stocks

  • Stories from Apple News are now available in Canada in English and French
  • Continue reading with links to related stories or more stories from the same publication
  • Breaking and Developing labels for Top Stories

This update also includes bug fixes and other improvements. This update:

  • Enables the creation of a new video clip when trimming a video in Photos
  • Adds support for NFC, USB, and Lightning FIDO2-compliant security keys in Safari
  • Fixes issues in Mail that may prevent downloading new messages
  • Addresses an issue that prevented deleting messages in Gmail accounts
  • Resolves issues that could cause incorrect characters to display in messages and duplication of sent messages in Exchange accounts
  • Fixes an issue where the cursor may not move after long-pressing on the space bar
  • Addresses an issue that may cause screenshots to appear blurry when sent via Messages
  • Resolves an issue where cropping or using Markup on screenshots may not save to Photos
  • Fixes an issue where Voice Memos recordings may not be able to be shared with other audio apps
  • Addresses an issue where the missed call badge on the Phone app may not clear
  • Resolves an issue where the Cellular Data setting may incorrectly show as off
  • Fixes an issue that prevented turning off Dark Mode when Smart Invert was enabled
  • Addresses an issue where some wireless chargers may charge more slowly than expected

Pixel 4 “Feature Drop” is a first of several planned quarterly updates

Google is going to start giving the Pixel line more than just monthly security updates and yearly major OS updates. Yesterday, Google announced the first “Feature Drop” for the Pixel 4, and according to a new report from The Verge, this is the first of several planned quarterly feature updates for Google’s flagship smartphone.

There are four big updates included in this first feature drop. The most important sounds like an update to the Pixel 4’s memory management, which Google says “proactively compresses cached applications so that users can run multiple applications at the same time—like games, streaming content and more.” The Pixel 4’s 6GB of RAM is less than most of its Android competition, which means it can’t run as many apps in the background as other phones. This feature is also coming to older Pixel devices like the Pixel 3; with only 4GB of RAM, these devices are definitely RAM starved compared to other Android phones.

The Pixel line has long had a “Call Screen” feature that allows the Google Assistant to pick up a call and ask the caller who they are and what they want. Their answer would then be transcribed on your phone screen, allowing you to see what that call was about without having to actually pick up the call. Before, this was a manually activated feature—your phone would ring, and instead of pressing the “answer” button, you could send the call to the Google Assistant. With this new update, the Google Assistant can now screen calls automatically. Robocalls can be automatically declined, and unknown numbers can get sent to the Google Assistant, where the caller can identify themselves, and then the phone will ring, showing the caller’s statement on the call screen.

The last two features are just app updates. Google Photos is getting the ability to blur the background of any picture in your collection, even for photos you took “years ago.” Google Duo, a Google video chat app, is getting an auto-framing feature that tracks your face, smoother 90FPS video playback, and a background blur feature.

You can order the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR starting tomorrow

Apple has emailed its customers notifying them that its new Mac Pro desktop computer and accompanying Pro Display XDR will be available for order starting tomorrow, December 10. However, the company has not yet revealed when units would actually ship to buyers or any details about build-to-order configuration pricing. This news came around the same time that records of FCC approval of both tower and rack-mount configurations of the Mac Pro surfaced.

The Mac Pro is Apple’s attempt to answer six years of complaints about the 2013 Mac Pro. The 2013 version was not as customizable as some users wanted and bet on a video architecture that did not pan out for segments of the computer’s target audience, such as video production professionals. The new device is a sort of middle ground between the Mac towers of yore, which could house certain industry-standard components that users could select themselves, and the company’s current focus on proprietary hardware. Users will be able to purchase modular upgrades made specifically for the Mac Pro by Apple and its partners.

The Pro comes with eight PCIe expansion slots and offers anywhere from eight to 28 cores, plus memory up to 1.5TB and 12 DIMM slots. Pricing starts at $5,999, but we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see how much various upgrades add to that price.

Below: Apple’s Pro Display XDR.

Priced at $4,999, the Pro Display XDR is a niche monitor primarily aimed at creative professionals doing work like video color coding and photo editing. The high price nets buyers a display that can sustain 1,000 nits of brightness and a so-called 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio.

It has 576 blue LEDs, each of which is modulated at 10 times the display’s refresh rate (60Hz). We don’t expect this to sell very many units, but the Pro Display could be a boon in certain fields like film production where it has previously been prohibitively expensive (even compared to this) for multiple people in the pipeline to see assets as they will ultimately be seen by consumers with high-end TVs or in movie theaters.

Apple released its iMac Pro around this same time two years ago, but while that all-in-one solution satisfied some users, others have been asking for a traditional tower desktop. The new Mac Pro is as close as they’re likely to get. Since orders start tomorrow, we might be able to see targeted ship dates through the online store then. But we’ll have to wait and find out.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

WireGuard VPN is a step closer to mainstream adoption

You want receipts? I got receipts.

Enlarge / You want receipts? I got receipts.
Jim Salter

As of this morning, Linux network stack maintainer David Miller has committed the WireGuard VPN project into the Linux “net-next” source tree. Miller maintains both net and net-next—the source trees governing the current implementation of the Linux kernel networking stack and the implementation of the next Linux kernel’s networking stack, respectively.

This is a major step forward for the WireGuard VPN project. Net-next gets pulled into the new Linux kernel during its two-week merge window, where it becomes net. With WireGuard already a part of net-next, this means that—barring unexpected issues—there should be a Linux kernel 5.6 release candidate with built-in WireGuard in early 2020. Mainline kernel inclusion of WireGuard should lead to significantly higher uptake in projects and organizations requiring virtual private network capability.

Normal, day-to-day Linux users probably won’t see in-kernel WireGuard until late 2020. Ubuntu is one of the faster-moving mainstream distributions, and its next Long Term Support (LTS) release is in April 2020. But the Linux 5.6 kernel and Ubuntu 20.04 will likely be in release candidate status at the same time, so its inclusion in 20.04 seems unlikely. The interim 20.10 Ubuntu release seems like a much safer bet for Canonical’s first use of a 5.6 or later kernel. Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) inclusion will likely be a year or more beyond that; the current RHEL 8.1 shipped in May 2019 with the 4.18 kernel, which was already 9 months old.

Although highly speculative, it’s also possible that WireGuard could land in-kernel on Ubuntu 20.04 even without the 5.6 kernel—Donenfeld offered to do the work backporting WireGuard into earlier Ubuntu kernels directly. Donenfeld also stated today that a 1.0 WireGuard release is “on the horizon.”

While WireGuard is most frequently seen in a Linux context right now, it’s available and very capable on all major platforms, including Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and BSD. Although the highest possible performance comes from running in-kernel, the userland implementation typically still handily outperforms traditional VPNs such as IPSEC and OpenVPN, with faster connection times, lower latency, and significantly decreased battery usage.

Render shows OnePlus tackling the midrange market with OnePlus 8 Lite

2020 will bring all the usual yearly updates from all the usual phone vendors, but one interesting new addition is a cheaper smartphone from OnePlus. The king of value flagship smartphones is making what looks like a midrange device.

The news comes to us from OnLeaks and 91Mobiles, which have whipped up CAD-based renders of the device. OnLeaks says there’s no name for the device yet, but for now, the report is going with “OnePlus 8 Lite.” The render shows a device with a flat display measuring somewhere around 6.4-inches and a front camera that lives in a hole punch in the middle of the display, just like a Samsung device. The hole-punch camera is apparently the design OnePlus will go with across its lineup—OnLeaks has released “OnePlus 8 Pro” renders earlier, featuring this same Samsung-y front camera design.

Other features on the render include two cameras and a lot of sensors on the back, a USB-C port and speaker on the bottom, and a physical mute switch on the side. It’s hard to imagine an Android phone shipping without a fingerprint reader (unless you’re Google, I guess), so an in-screen fingerprint reader is probably included. There’s no headphone jack, which is a shame for a mid-range device.

The design doesn’t really matter, though. What we’re mainly interested in are the specs and price, which are mysteries for now. OnePlus regularly delivers the best bang-for-your-buck in the industry, and having the company build something cheaper than a flagship smartphone has the potential for greatness. For now, we’ll have to be on the lookout for more info before the launch sometime next year.

Cloudy with a chance of neurons: The tools that make neural networks work

Machine learning is really good at turning pictures of normal things into pictures of eldritch horrors.

Enlarge / Machine learning is really good at turning pictures of normal things into pictures of eldritch horrors.
Jim Salter

Artificial Intelligence—or, if you prefer, Machine Learning—is today’s hot buzzword. Unlike many buzzwords have come before it, though, this stuff isn’t vaporware dreams—it’s real, it’s here already, and it’s changing your life whether you realize it or not.

A quick overview of AI/ML

Before we go too much further, let’s talk quickly about that term “Artificial Intelligence.” Yes, it’s warranted; no, it doesn’t mean KITT from Knight Rider, or Samantha, the all-too-human unseen digital assistant voiced by Scarlett Johansson in 2013’s Her. Aside from being fictional, KITT and Samantha are examples of strong artificial intelligence, also known as Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). On the other hand, artificial intelligence—without the “strong” or “general” qualifiers—is an established academic term dating back to the 1955 proposal for the Dartmouth Summer Project on Artificial Intelligence (DSRPAI), written by Professors John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky.

All “artificial intelligence” really means is a system that emulates problem-solving skills normally seen in humans or animals. Traditionally, there are two branches of AI—symbolic and connectionist. Symbolic means an approach involving traditional rules-based programming—a programmer tells the computer what to expect and how to deal with it, very explicitly. The “expert systems” of the 1980s and 1990s were examples of symbolic (attempts at) AI; while occasionally useful, it’s generally considered impossible to scale this approach up to anything like real-world complexity.

Sadly, we're not here yet.

Enlarge / Sadly, we’re not here yet.
NBCUniversal

Artificial Intelligence in the commonly used modern sense almost always refers to connectionist AI. Connectionist AI, unlike symbolic AI, isn’t directly programmed by a human. Artificial neural networks are the most common type of connectionist AI, also sometimes referred to as machine learning. My colleague Tim Lee just got done writing about neural networks last week—you can get caught up right here.

If you wanted to build a system that could drive a car, instead of programming it directly you might attach a sufficiently advanced neural network to its sensors and controls, and then let it “watch” a human driving for tens of thousands of hours. The neural network begins to attach weights to events and patterns in the data flow from its sensors that allow it to predict acceptable actions in response to various conditions. Eventually, you might give the network conditional control of the car’s controls and allow it to accelerate, brake, and steer on its own—but still with a human available. The partially trained neural network can continue learning in response to when the human assistant takes the controls away from it. “Whoops, shouldn’t have done that,” and the neural network adjusts weighted values again.

Sounds very simple, doesn’t it? In practice, not so much—there are many different types of neural networks (simple, convolutional, generative adversarial, and more), and none of them is very bright on its own—the brightest is roughly similar in scale to a worm’s brain. Most complex, really interesting tasks will require networks of neural networks that preprocess data to find areas of interest, pass those areas of interest onto other neural networks trained to more accurately classify them, and so forth.

One last piece of the puzzle is that, when dealing with neural networks, there are two major modes of operation: inference and training. Training is just what it sounds like—you give the neural network a large batch of data that represents a problem space, and let it chew through it, identifying things of interest and possibly learning to match them to labels you’ve provided along with the data. Inference, on the other hand, is using an already-trained neural network to give you answers in a problem space that it understands.

Both inference and training workloads can operate several orders of magnitude more rapidly on GPUs than on general-purpose CPUs—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to do absolutely everything on a GPU. It’s generally easier and faster to run small jobs directly on CPUs rather than invoking the initial overhead of loading models and data into a GPU and its onboard VRAM, so you’ll very frequently see inference workloads run on standard CPUs.

3D printing can keep aging Air Force aircraft flying

A huge airplane is in the process of liftoff.

Enlarge / USAF Boeing B-52H Stratofortress taking-off with undercarriage retracting and trailing-edge wing flaps lowered at the 1998 Fairford Royal International Air Tattoo RIAT.

Glenn House and his colleagues spent more than four years making a new toilet for the B-1 Lancer. The challenge wasn’t fitting the john into the cockpit (it went behind the front left seat) but ensuring that every part could handle life aboard a plane that can pull five Gs, break the sound barrier, and spend hours in wildly fluctuating temperatures. The end result didn’t just have to work. It had to work without rattling, leaking, or revealing itself to enemy radar. Getting it OK’d for use aboard the bomber was just as complex as making it. “Getting a part approved can take years,” says House, the cofounder and president of Walpole, Massachusetts-based 2Is Inc.

Until last year, 2Is was in the military parts business, furnishing replacement bits for assorted defense equipment. (Pronounced “two eyes,” it sold off the parts business and now focuses on defense-related supply-chain software.) Providing spare parts for the military is a peculiar niche of the economy. Things like aircraft and submarines spend decades in service, and the companies that made them or supplied their myriad parts often disappear long before their products retire. So when something needs a new knob, seat, or potty, the military often turns to companies that specialize in making them anew.

These outfits must work from dusty two-dimensional drawings or recreate long-lost molds that exactly match the standards of the original parts. Working on very small orders—sometimes for just two or three of a given item—they don’t enjoy the economies of scale that make it reasonable to spend five figures on tooling. A fussy approval process can mean waiting years to recoup an investment. And so, in many cases, they don’t bid on these military contracts, preferring steadier, more reliable jobs.

That’s a problem for the Air Force, whose fleet dates largely from the Cold War. Its C-5, B-52, and KC-135 planes average 40, 56, and 57 years old, respectively. The average Air Force aircraft is 23 years old. Every quarter, the military branch sees 10,000 part requests go unfilled, despite its readiness to pay an exorbitant amount of money to replace bits and bobs that once cost pennies—try $10,000 for a toilet seat cover in a C-17 Globemaster III.

“We’re gonna have to find better ways to keep old things flying,” says Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition technology and logistics. And he has one, represented by the toaster-sized piece of plastic he keeps in his office. It’s a latrine panel for a C-5 Supergalaxy cargo plane. In the past, the Air Force has paid $8,500 to replace this part. But this one cost just $300, because it’s 3D-printed.

Roper says that 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, can produce many of the parts for which the Air Force finds itself desperate, from C-5 gasket handles to F-15 longerons. “If I need two or three parts for a B-52,” he says, “I can just turn that over to one of our printers.” In the past few years, the Air Force has made thousands of parts this way, and it can work for just about anything made of metal or plastic. Composite and carbon fiber could work, too— even circuit boards.

Advanced Manufacturing Olympics

But a novel approach means novel problems. It’s still not easy to turn a two-dimensional drawing into something a 3D printer can understand. The Air Force needs new ways to prove that these parts can handle the rigors of life in the air, that they’ll be as durable and reliable as the originals. Its scientists are exploring new techniques and creating their own mixes of metals to suit their needs. But Roper is eager to move their work out of the experimentation phase.

That’s why he’s organizing a new kind of war game: the Air Force Advanced Manufacturing Olympics. Slated for July 8-9 in Salt Lake City, the competition aims to bring in all sorts of players—additive manufacturing companies, traditional defense contractors, tech startups, universities—to compete to solve various problems.

The “open box of parts floor exercise” will ask teams to replicate certain parts without being given the design specifications, while meeting the Air Force’s exacting standards. “Approval sprints” will be about developing new ways to prove their work is as good as what came before. In the “supply chain marathon,” teams will puzzle over how to get a fresh part to a given place, like Afghanistan. Maybe it’s better to make it in the US and ship it, or to keep 3D printing machines at the front line, or something in between. Roper and his team at the newly created Rapid Sustainment Office are still working out the prizes for these events, but those rewards will be some mix of money and the chance to work with the Air Force or its contractors. Medals will be 3D-printed, of course.

Beyond solving these individual problems, Roper hopes to rethink how the Air Force maintains its arsenal. Upkeep and logistics account for 70 percent of a platform’s total cost, and every dollar saved here can go to another program (or back to taxpayers).

When 2Is was founded in 2002, House thought additive manufacturing had a lot of potential. But until a few years ago, the technology wasn’t at the point where it could make parts that were precise and durable enough for military use. “We retreated to the standard manufacturing process,” he says. While he thinks these techniques are a tough sell for safety-critical parts like struts, engine blades, and landing gear, he says he’s encouraged to see the Air Force take an aggressive approach to advancing the new technology. And that if he was still in the parts business, he’d make the trip to Salt Lake City and go for the gold.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

Hulu is finally offering 4K and 5.1 audio on Roku devices

Image of a woman in a bonnet that is both post-modern and Puritan.

Enlarge / The Handmaid’s Tale, a Hulu original series.

The long, give-and-take saga of 4K streaming on Hulu continues with the addition of 4K streaming for supported Roku devices. Hulu also added 5.1 surround sound capabilities on Roku.

The Disney-owned streaming platform updated its user-facing help pages with the information sometime in the past few days. Previously, only 1080p streaming was possible with the Hulu app on Roku devices, despite many Roku devices’ hardware support for 4K. Unfortunately, Hulu still does not support HDR.

It’s been a rocky road for 4K on Hulu. The service first offered 4K streaming on select titles for some devices in 2016, then removed support in 2018. It was then re-added on some devices like the Apple TV 4K, but it was not available on Roku sticks or boxes.

The current list of platforms on which Hulu can stream 4K video includes:

  • Apple TV (5th generation or later)
  • Chromecast Ultra
  • Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick
  • LG TVs (2017-2018 UHD models)
  • Roku and Roku Stick (select models)
  • Xbox One

Presently, the vast majority of content on Hulu is limited to 1080p, however. 4K titles include Hulu Originals such as The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu trails behind other services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney’s own Disney+ in 4K and HDR support, though it still offers slightly better HD bitrates than HBO Now, which does not deliver high-quality streams or support 4K or HDR despite its pricing at the high end for streaming services. Unlike Netflix, Hulu does not charge a higher monthly fee for access to 4K streams.

As noted, Hulu has also expanded the list of supported platforms for 5.1 surround sound. This is the current list:

  • Android TV (select models)
  • Chromecast
  • Amazon Fire TV (3rd generation and Cube) and Fire TV Stick 4K
  • LG TV (WebOS 3.0 and above)
  • Nintendo Switch
  • PlayStation 3
  • PlayStation 4
  • Roku and Roku Stick (select models)
  • Samsung TV (select models)
  • VIZIO SmartCast TVs
  • Xbox One

Disney recently announced a streaming bundle that includes Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+. However, it includes the ad-supported version of Hulu, not the ad-free one, and ESPN+ requires additional addons from partners like MLB.tv to access certain programming.

Google Assistant gets a big note-taking revamp, with support for several apps

The Google Assistant and Google Keep, now back together.

Enlarge / The Google Assistant and Google Keep, now back together.

Shopping list creation can be a very handy feature to have in a voice assistant. As you pull the jug of milk out of the fridge and realize it’s a little light, just give a quick “Hey Google, add milk to my shopping list,” and the little voice box on the kitchen counter will dutifully jot down that you need more milk. In the early days of the Google Assistant, this feature was pretty good—your lists were created in Google Keep, a fully featured note-taking app. In 2017, Google seriously limited the usefulness of Google Assistant shopping lists when it took away Google Keep integration and instead forced the feature into Google Express, Google’s online-shopping-focused Amazon Prime clone.

It has been two and a half years now, and Google Keep integration is coming back to the Google Assistant. Google is actually introducing a full-blown note taking feature set now. You can pick from several note apps—Google Keep, Any.do, AnyList, and Bring—and you can juggle multiple lists now instead of just a single shopping list. Shopping lists, holiday gift lists, a list of who is naughty and nice—It seems like you can pick any arbitrary name you want and the Google Assistant will create it and add to it. These lists can now pop up on Google Smart Displays, too—just ask for them.

The Google Assistant’s 2017 integration with Google Express (now called Google Shopping) was a mess. Google Express was nowhere near the fully featured note-taking app that Google Keep was, and overnight users lost the ability to reorder items with drag and drop, share lists and do real-time collaboration with other users, attach location or time-based reminders to lists, and add voice recordings and images. The Google Express-hosted shopping list turned your shopping list into a big advertisement for Google Express, adding search links next to all your items, encouraging you to order them online through Google’s $95-a-year shipping service. If you were just intending to run down to the local grocery store, that wasn’t really supported by the Google Express UX.

To set up the new notes feature, Google says, “Simply connect the Assistant with the app you use to create notes or lists. Select the “Services” tab in your Google Assistant settings and then choose your preferred provider name from the “Notes and Lists” section.” To get to the Google Assistant settings, you have to open the Google (Search) app, tap on the “More” tab at the bottom, then “Settings,” then “Google Assistant,” then the “Services” tab, and from there Google says you should see the “Notes and Lists” section. If you’re like me and still see the “Shopping List” section instead of “Notes and Lists,” you haven’t been upgraded yet. The rollout is still currently underway.

Guidemaster: The best tech that will make your home an even better place

irobot roomba 980

iRobot

We could all use a little more help around our home, and luckily now there’s a lot of tech that can lend a hand. There are a plethora of smart home devices that can do everything from lock your doors, vacuum your carpets, or keep a watchful eye over your possessions while you’re away.

Wading through the ocean of smart home tech isn’t easy—and, admittedly, much of the smart home space is not worth your time or your money. However, we’ve tried (and personally purchased) many home tech devices that actually do deliver on what they promise. These items make keeping your home how you like it much easier.

Not all of the home tech we recommend falls into the large and nebulous category of “the Internet of Things,” either—some are kitchen appliances, home speakers, gaming accessories, and other devices that most people primarily use in the home in order to make that space feel more like our own. Some after a lot of lived-in testing time, here’s all of the home tech that we think would make great gifts this holiday season.

Note: Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Philips Hue lights

Philips Hue color smart light bulbs.

Enlarge / Philips Hue color smart light bulbs.
Philips

One of the easiest ways to start making your home smarter is with smart light bulbs and Philips’ Hue line are a good option. First, you can get white or color bulbs—while most will be happy with plain, ol’ white, color bulbs can be fun if you want to add personality to a room with color-changing light scenes.

Second, all Hue bulbs connect to a bridge that comes with most Hue starter packs. The bridge helps the lights communicate with each other and with your home Wi-Fi, which is how you control them. Using the Hue mobile app, you can turn on and off individual lights or entire rooms lights, dim them to your liking, and set schedules. You can have all the lights in your home come on before you arrive home from work, so you’re not walking into a dark house.

Third, Hue light bulbs connect to a bunch of other smart home systems like Works with Alexa, IFTTT, Apple HomeKit, the Google Assistant, and more. That means you can control your lights using voice commands or other smart commands that you customize. Not only are Hue lights an easy and affordable way to get into smart home tech, but they also make the lights in your home even more convenient to control on a regular basis.

Philips Hue White and Color starter set product image

Philips Hue White and Color starter set

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

Zojirushi rice cooker

Zojirushi rice cooker.

Enlarge / Zojirushi rice cooker.
Zojirushi

I make a lot of rice and I’ve gone through at least two rice cookers in the process. After my last $25 rice cooker broke on me, I decided to invest in the Zojirushi NS-TSC10 Micom rice cooker and—this is not hyperbole—it’s changed my cooking life. Gone are the days of burnt or undercooked rice as Zojirushi’s magical machine has propelled me into a world where all kinds of rice are cooked to perfection every single time.

I attribute this to actually reading the directions that come with the rice cooker. If you do this and follow the instructions, washing the rice before cooking and using the proper settings on the cooker itself, everything made in this machine will be tasty. In addition to rice, Zojirushi’s machine comes with a steaming basket for steaming vegetables and other foods, and it even has a cake setting.

But the machine truly shines make rice. You don’t have to guess how much water to include as the interior pot has indicators for that, and you don’t have to guess cooking times either. The machine senses how much rice and water you put into the pot and automatically sets the cooking time. All you have to do is wait for it to play a cute little jingle as soon as your rice is done and then experience rice heaven. I’ll never go back to a cheap rice cooker again, and I implore anyone who eats a lot of rice to consider a Zojirushi machine.

Zojirushi NS-TSC10 rice cooker product image

Zojirushi NS-TSC10 rice cooker

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

The iPhone 11’s U1 chip necessitates constant geolocation checks, Apple says

Multiple smartphones on table.

Enlarge / From left to right: iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max.
Samuel Axon

Earlier this week, security reporter Brian Krebs published a story explaining that Apple’s latest iPhones (iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro) periodically check the user’s location even if the user disables location services individually for each and every app and service in the iPhone’s Settings app.

While this behavior ended when the user disabled location services system-wide, it was a bit of a head-scratcher. What was the iPhone doing and why? Was it sending this information to Apple? Why couldn’t users find information on what was happening? Krebs had notified Apple of the issue as a potential security problem back in mid November, but the company responded this week stating:

We do not see any actual security implications… It is expected behavior that the Location Services icon appears in the status bar when Location Services is enabled. The icon appears for system services that do not have a switch in Settings.

While Apple deemed this not to be a security issue, Krebs rightly pointed out that it remained a potential privacy issue, given Apple’s promises that users have control over how and when iPhones track or report their locations.

Will Strafach, founder and CEO of the company behind the Guardian firewall app for iOS, looked into the issue and tweeted that it seemed likely that the location data associated with these events wasn’t leaving the device. But he still couldn’t explain exactly what was happening. This was his tweet:

FWIW, tried to dig into this and replicate.

it is very likely that it is something locally which does not have an exposed switch, no evidence of data sent to remote servers.

begs the question: why does Apple not answer for this directly?

Well, as of today Apple has answered for it directly. In a statement to TechCrunch’s Zack Whittaker, Apple explained:

Ultra-wideband technology is an industry-standard technology and is subject to international regulatory requirements that require it to be turned off in certain locations… iOS uses Location Services to help determine if iPhone is in these prohibited locations in order to disable ultra-wideband and comply with regulations… The management of ultra-wideband compliance and its use of location data is done entirely on the device, and Apple is not collecting user location data.

When Apple introduced the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro this fall, it included a new chip called the U1 that enables ultra-wideband (UWB) for locating other devices in immediate proximity. Presently, it is only used for the phone’s AirDrop file-sharing feature, but it is expected to be used for other features such as augmented reality and the company’s rumored upcoming Tile competitor in the future.

The brief flash of controversy on Twitter and tech blogs over this issue illustrates the challenges Apple faces with its privacy-oriented marketing. When the company attempts to position itself as the privacy-friendly alternative to data-collecting competitors, it invites a great deal of scrutiny—and users are right to be hawkish, given their experiences not just with Apple’s competitors but with Apple in the past.

It also adds to the mystery surrounding Apple’s inclusion of the U1. In today’s space- and power-cramped iPhones, Apple doesn’t introduce new components lightly. It recently even removed the hardware for 3D Touch, once a heralded feature, apparently to make room for more battery capacity.

Curiously, Apple has not only introduced this new chip but a new regular location check-in to facilitate it, without using said chip for any major features yet. We’ll have to wait to see what the company’s future plans for UWB technology are. In the meantime, be aware that your iPhone will check your location periodically even if you haven’t given any individual apps or services permission to do so, though it appears the location data does not leave your device.

Also note that this is not the only circumstance in which the iPhone locates you without prompting. For example, when you have location services enabled, your iPhone may scan for nearby Wi-Fi networks and cell phone towers and send anonymized information about them to Apple to improve other users’ wireless performance when they’re in the same location.

Apple told TechCrunch that it plans to add a new user-accessible toggle for the UWB-related behavior in an upcoming software update.

The Motorola One Hyper brings a pop-up camera, all-screen design for $400

Motorola has what might be the best-looking mid-range smartphone with the “Motorola One Hyper,” a $400 phone with flagship touches like an all-screen front design and a motorized, pop-up camera. It’s like a mini OnePlus 7 Pro! You won’t find any notches or other screen blemishes here.

For specs, you have a 6.5-inch 2340×1080 IPS LCD, a 2GHz Snapdragon 675, 4GB of memory, 128GB of storage, and a 4000mAh battery. The are two rear cameras: a 64MP main sensor and a 8MP wide angle lens, and a 32MP front camera. Both the main front and back cameras have a pretty high megapixel count, and both have an optional “quad pixel” mode, which merges every four pixels together for better light pickup.

There’s a rear fingerprint reader, a 3.5mm headphone jack (!), a microSD slot for expandable storage up to 1TB, and NFC. There is clearly some cost cutting here, but that’s to be expected at $400. You’ll get a USB-C port capable of 45W quick charging, but you’ll only get a 15W charger in the box. The body is made of plastic, and while it has a “water-repellant design” there’s no official IPxx rating. Motorola is not great at OS updates, but at least out of the box, the phone has Android 10.

The One Hyper is being sold unlocked, and it’s GSM compatible, so in the United States it will only work with AT&T and T-Mobile. Buy the One Hyper direct from Motorola and the company will even throw in a Moto G6 or G6 Play (a $249.99 value) with your purchase.

Listing image by Motorola

Amazon’s inexpensive Eero mesh Wi-Fi kit is shockingly good

Eero specs at a glance
Kit type three-piece mesh
Wi-Fi 6 support no
Radios one 2×2 2.4GHz (each unit)
one 2×2 5GHz (each unit)
Wired Ethernet 2 Gigabit jacks per unit
Family Filtering Yes, with $30/yr subscription
Internet Pause Yes, both manual and scheduled

We finally got our hands on Amazon’s redesigned second-gen Eero kit, and we won’t bury the lede—it’s a fantastic performer, especially for the price. Although its performance isn’t on par with the Plume Superpods, it was easy to set up and didn’t outright fail any of our torture tests. Eero maintained decent browsing latency all around the house, even while simultaneously delivering four emulated 4K video streams.

Don’t get us wrong, there’s still a lot of daylight between Eero and Plume—but with the Eero kit retailing for $250 normally, and currently on special for $189 with a free Echo Dot and without need for a subscription (for most features), it’s a heck of a deal.

On the other hand, if you want Eero because of its Alexa integration… maybe you ought to wait a bit.

Setup is short and sweet

Eero mesh Wi-fi system product image

Eero mesh Wi-fi system

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

The setup process for Eero was gratifyingly quick, especially in comparison to the exhausting procedure Nest Wi-Fi put us through last month. But although it was quick and easy, some of the fancier bits seemed to be broken. In particular, the Eero app wants to offer you placement advice for your units based on a fake floorplan. There are buttons which offer to let you alter that floorplan to match your own—but at least in our testing, it didn’t work. We tapped “Shape,” “Floors,” and, on the next screen, “Edit home layout” until our fingers were raw, but nothing happened.

Luckily, we know this home—and which layouts do and don’t work in it—extremely well by now, so we just shrugged, placed our Eeros, and called it a day. The whole thing was over and done with in well under 10 minutes—under five, if you don’t count the time spent waiting for Eero units to cold boot when first plugged in.

As always, we strongly recommend you physically label Wi-Fi mesh gear with the location where it should go.

Enlarge / As always, we strongly recommend you physically label Wi-Fi mesh gear with the location where it should go.
Jim Salter

As always, we’d like to remind everyone that you should label your mesh kit units physically as you set them up, as well as virtually inside the Eero app. You’ll eventually be glad that you did.

Listing image by Jim Salter

Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 865 is 25% faster, comes with mandatory 5G

A picture of the Snapdragon 865.

Enlarge / The Snapdragon 865.

Today, Qualcomm detailed its new flagship SoC for 2020: the Snapdragon 865. This is going to be the chip that ships in every single high-end Android phone that comes out in 2020, and there’s a lot to go over.

First up: we’re getting the usual modest speed increases that Qualcomm delivers every year. Qualcomm says the CPU and GPU are 25-percent faster compared to this year’s Snapdragon 855. Like last year, this is an eight core, 7nm chip, but as AnandTech reports, now it’s being manufactured on TSMC-improved 7nm “N7P” node, the same manufacturing process used by Apple’s A13 SoC.

This year the bigger CPU cores have been upgraded from Qualcomm’s Kryo 485 cores in the 855, which were based on ARM’s Cortex A76 design, to the new “Kryo 585 CPU,” which uses ARM Cortex A77 cores. The frequencies are unchanged from last year: the single “Prime” A77 core is at 2.84GHz, and three other A77 cores are at 2.42GHz. Four Cortex A55s make up the smaller cores for background processing and other lower-power tasks and are clocked at 1.8GHz.

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Qualcomm builds a bigger, better in-screen fingerprint reader

In-screen fingerprint readers were the standard form of Android biometrics on 2019 flagships, and in 2020 we’ll start seeing the second-generation versions of this technology. Qualcomm is hosting its big tech show this week, and one of the first announcements is the new version of its “3D Sonic Max” ultrasonic in-screen fingerprint sensor. The second-gen sensor is absolutely huge. Qualcomm says it’s 17 times larger than the previous version.

In-screen fingerprint readers offer the benefit of being invisible and under the screen, and they can go on the front of the device while still allowing for an all-screen smartphone design. Being on the front lets you activate the fingerprint reader while the phone is on a desk, without picking it up. The downside is that there’s not tactile guidance for where your finger should go. There’s just a big, smooth pane of glass, and if you miss the fingerprint sensor, you’re going to fail to unlock your phone. For in-screen fingerprint readers, bigger is better, since a wider target area means less of a chance you miss the invisible reader.

Qualcomm’s first in-screen fingerprint reader, available on the Samsung Galaxy S10, was basically as small as it could possibly be: 9mm×4mm. This is much smaller than a fingertip, which is somewhere around 14mm×14mm—you were only scanning a tiny sliver of your fingertip. Qualcomm’s second-gen reader is huge: 30mm×20mm. Qualcomm says this is big enough to scan two fingers at once, and—while I’m not sure why you would ever want to do this—”simultaneous two-finger sensing” is actually supported. You can be extra-secure at the cost of one-handed usage.

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Sundar Pichai becomes CEO of Alphabet and Google, as Larry Page steps down

A man in an open-collar suit stands in front of a Google logo.

Google co-founder Larry Page.

Google and Alphabet co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are no longer executives at Alphabet or Google. The Alphabet CEO and president, respectively, have announced they are leaving their positions. Current Google CEO Sundar Pichai will take over as CEO of both Google and Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Page and Brin explained the move on Google’s company blog:

With Alphabet now well-established, and Google and the Other Bets operating effectively as independent companies, it’s the natural time to simplify our management structure. We’ve never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think there’s a better way to run the company. And Alphabet and Google no longer need two CEOs and a President. Going forward, Sundar will be the CEO of both Google and Alphabet. He will be the executive responsible and accountable for leading Google, and managing Alphabet’s investment in our portfolio of Other Bets. We are deeply committed to Google and Alphabet for the long term and will remain actively involved as Board members, shareholders, and co-founders. In addition, we plan to continue talking with Sundar regularly, especially on topics we’re passionate about!

Alphabet was created in 2015 as a way to organize and separate the various “other bets” that Google was making with increasing frequency. Alphabet was created as Google’s parent company, then-current Google CEO Larry Page and President Sergey Brin moved up to Alphabet, and Sundar Pichai was elevated to Google CEO. The move was seen as a semi-retirement for the two co-founders, allowing them to step away from the day-to-day monotony of running an ad and search engine company and focus on more exciting, futuristic endeavors like self-driving cars, robots, flying delivery drones, and Internet delivered via balloon. Page also has health issues to deal with: he has been fighting vocal cord paralysis since 1999, which at times has caused him to lose his voice entirely and be unable to perform normal CEO duties.

There has always been a fuzzy division line between Alphabet and Google. The various Alphabet divisions, of which Google is one, are often described as “independent companies,” but the companies frequently collaborate together, share resources, or get spun off or merged with Google. Google acquired the AI outfit DeepMind and then spun it off as an Alphabet subsidiary, but DeepMind and Google still collaborate on new Android features, data center improvements, and speech technology for the Google Assistant. Nest was acquired by Google, spun off as an Alphabet company, and then dissolved into Google over the course of five years. Some independent Alphabet companies still use the Google name, like Google Fiber, adding to the confusion. Having the two companies share the same CEO will blur the lines even more.

Pichai also gave a statement in the blog post, saying it will be business as usual at Alphabet. “I want to be clear that this transition won’t affect the Alphabet structure or the work we do day to day,” the new Alphabet CEO writes. “I will continue to be very focused on Google and the deep work we’re doing to push the boundaries of computing and build a more helpful Google for everyone. At the same time, I’m excited about Alphabet and its long-term focus on tackling big challenges through technology.”

Huawei is now shipping smartphones with zero US components

Huawei is settling into life without the US thanks to the Trump administration’s export ban, and so far the company seems to be adapting. According to a new report from The Wall Street Journal, Huawei’s latest flagship smartphone, the Mate 30, contains zero US parts. The Journal has access to an analysis from UBS and Fomalhaut Techno Solutions, which tore apart the phone and found manufacturers for each component.

No US components is an improvement over Huawei’s previous flagship, the P30 Pro. We did our own version of this analysis back in May for the P30, where we looked over teardowns for US components. The P30 Pro is Huawei’s previous flagship smartphone, and while it was designed and launched before the US export ban, it still didn’t have a heavy reliance on US manufacturers. Huawei says it has been working to reduce its reliance on US companies for some time, with Huawei’s deputy chairman, Ken Hu, writing in May that “The company has known [a US export ban] could be a possibility for many years. We have invested heavily and made full preparations in a variety of areas, including R&D and business continuity, which will ensure that our business operations will not be greatly affected, even under extreme conditions.” So far, Huawei’s preparations seem to be working.

On the older P30 Pro, Huawei already had its own SoC, thanks to its HiSilicon chip design division. HiSilicon was also responsible for several smaller chips, like audio, the RF transceiver, power-management, and mid-band 5G chips. From there the P30 components were a whirlwind tour across the world: a display from BoE in China, cameras from Sony in Japan, RAM from SK Hynix in South Korea, an NFC chip from NXP in the Netherlands, and a battery from Huizhou Desay Battery Co. in China. The biggest US components were the flash memory from Micron, LTE antennas from Skyhook and Qorvo, and SMPS (switched-mode power supply) chips from Broadcom.

With the export ban in place, finding alternative, non-US suppliers for these parts apparently wasn’t a big deal. Flash memory can be had from Korea (Samsung) or Japan (Toshiba). The chips from Skyhook and Qorvo have been replaced with in-house HiSilicon versions.

Like we wrote back in May, hardware isn’t Huawei’s problem. The big problem is software and apps. No one can really stop Huawei from using open source Android as the base OS, but it can’t license the Google apps, which means no Play Store, Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube, or any other Google service. Huawei won’t get Android’s primary app store, and it won’t get apps from any US developers, like Facebook (which owns WhatsApp and Instagram), Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, Uber, Lyft, and a million others. Most of the top app list would be off-limits. Huawei is trying to push its own Android ecosystem with replacements for Google apps like the Play Store, and longer-term it’s trying to develop its own smartphone OS. But as Steve Ballmer will tell you, what really matters is “developers developers developers developers.” It’s illegal for most of the biggest app developers to ship in the Huawei app store.

The Journal quotes analyst Handel Jones, president of International Business Strategies Inc., as saying “Independence of US supply indicates that the strategies of the US in trying to isolate Huawei are not working.” Software is the one thing the US can really hold over Huawei, and the biggest consequence of the export ban so far has been the Mate 30 shipping without Google apps. The lack of Google apps doesn’t even affect Huawei’s biggest market, its hometown of China, which doesn’t have the Google apps to begin with. Outside of China, research firms IDC and Canalys have Huawei losing anywhere from 12% to 17% of overseas shipments in Q2 and a further drop of 6% in Q3.

The United States has considered stronger sanctions against Huawei. According to a report from Reuters, the White House is considering kicking Huawei out of the US banking system. This would involve putting Huawei on the Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals” (SDN) list, which, according to the report, would “make it virtually impossible for a company to complete transactions in US dollars.” Currently the list houses Russia’s Rusal aluminum company along with some Russian oligarchs, Iranian politicians, and Venezuelan drug traffickers. Putting Huawei on the SDN list is considered “a nuclear option” by US officials, but so far they aren’t launching the nuke.

Listing image by Getty Images | Smith Collection/Gado

Samsung starts Android 10 update at a record pace: Only three months late

Samsung is starting the slow and arduous process of updating its flagship smartphone to the latest version of Android: Android 10. This is just the beginning of the Android 10 rollout for Samsung, which, according to tracking from SamMobile, starts with Exynos-powered Galaxy S10s in European and Asian countries, including Germany, South Korea, the UK, India, Poland, and Spain.

Android 10 came out on September 3, and with the first devices landing the update on November 28, Samsung took 86 days to begin to roll out stable builds of Android 10 across its user base. Samsung still has a long way to go to release Android 10 to everyone with a Galaxy S10, though. Devices in Europe, Africa, and most of Asia ship with a Samsung Exynos SoC, while devices in North America, South America, and China ship with a Qualcomm Snapdragon SoC. So far, only the Exynos units have gotten the update.

If Samsung follows last year’s update timing, it will need another 40 days before its devices in the US get the update, which requires both a Qualcomm build of Samsung’s software along with approval and “validation” meddling from US carriers. Samsung’s direct “unlocked” customers get the worst end of the update stick and typically get the update last. In 2018, unlocked customers had to wait 55 days after the first rollout to get the update. For the record, Samsung’s roadmap lists “January” as the Android 10 update timeframe for the Galaxy S10, but that does not specify SoC or carrier concerns.

Samsung is actually improving compared to last year. The company took 141 days to first ship the 2018 Android update (Android 9 Pie) to its 2018 flagship, the Galaxy S9. Samsung taking three months to ship an OS update in 2019 might not sound impressive, but for Samsung, it’s a big improvement. With recent core OS changes like Project Treble, Google has been making Android easier to update, and it seems like these improvements are even helping Samsung along.

Samsung is still the worst major vendor when it comes to Android updates. Google offers day-one updates for the Pixel line, and others like OnePlus now follow close behind with updates that are just a few weeks late. Even if Samsung completes its Android 10 rollout in the next month—which would be a huge improvement—that’s still far behind the competition. The whole ecosystem is slowly improving, with Google even putting out a blog post that credits Project Treble with improving update speed. In July 2018, just before Android 9 Pie launched, only 8.9% of the devices were on the previous version, Android 8 Oreo. This year, when Android 10 launched, 22.6% of the ecosystem had made it to the previous version, Android 9 Pie.

Samsung likes to style itself as a competitor to Apple, but the company doesn’t even attempt to compete with Apple’s iPhone support package, which has day-one OS updates and a whopping five years of major OS updates. Samsung takes three to six months to ship an OS update and only does so for two years. Apple’s superior support means its phones have a much higher resale value than any Android device, including Samsung’s flagships.

Samsung can skin Android to add new user-level features and changes, but it typically does not (or cannot) add new system-level APIs, security improvements, or core system changes. For that, it needs Google and major Android updates, and this year Android 10 brings a new gesture navigation system, even more modularization and easier updates with Project Mainline, new notification-panel features like smart replies and focus mode, and new emojis. There are tons of privacy and security changes, like scoped storage, which limits what apps have access to your other app data, more fine-grained privacy controls, and further hardening of the media stack against malicious files.

Listing image by Ron Amadeo