The 4a and 5 will be Google’s first 5G-enabled Pixels

Surprise. The latest version of Google’s budget Pixel device will be one of the first two to get its next-gen technology. It’s an odd strategy, to be sure, but sometimes roadmaps work out like that, I guess. You can read basically everything you need to know about the Pixel 4a in my review here. It’s a pretty basic addition to the line, albeit one that bumps up battery life from its predecessors and maintains the brand’s focus on excellent imaging with limited hardware.

At some point in the fall, it will be joined by a 5G version, priced at $499. That’s a fairly significant bump over the standard 4a’s $349 starting price, but still pretty reasonably priced for a 5G phone. Obviously the Pixel 5 will be going 5G as well — Google even said as much in a blog post this morning (with a rare peak behind the curtains). From the sound of things, the devices will be released in roughly the same timeframe, but the details are understandably still very limited on that front.

Image Credits: Google

It’s promised more on both in the coming months, though we do know for sure that both models will be available in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland, France, Germany, Japan, Taiwan and Australia. It’s a strange strategy that bucks previous next-gen technology roll outs (not the mention how virtually every other manufacturer has approached 5G). Likely it has more to do with timing that any, though there’s notably been an aggressive push to democratize 5G access, led by the likes of Qualcomm. 

It’s not an Apple Watch, it’s an Oppo Watch

Behold, the Opple Watch. Many have borrowed heavily from Apple’s wearable, but few, if any, have done so as brazenly as Oppo. Sure Fitbit received some guff for the squircle hardware design of its Versa line, but it’s not useful to get too hung up on those vague similarities — there are, notably, relatively few geometrical options for hardware makers looking to move outside the traditional circle watch face.

But based on the press material, the Oppo Watch is — to put it gently — a dead ringer for the best-selling smartwatch. There are some key differences, of course. The first and biggest is the fact that the device runs Wear OS, Google’s oft-neglected wearable operating system. Also of note is the “dual curved screen,” which allows the watch face to monopolize more space on the device, with a 73% screen-to-body ratio on the 45mm version and 65% on the 41mm. Those displays are 1.91 and 1.6 inches, respectively.

There’s a Wi-Fi and LTE version of the larger model, and both feature GPS+GLONASS tracking, along with heart-rate monitoring and sleep tracking. The battery is 430mAh on the big one and 300mAh on the smaller. The former should get around 36 hours of life on a charge, according to the company, charging back up to full capacity in about 75 minutes. There’s also a battery-saver mode that should keep it alive for a few weeks.

The watches are available starting today in select markets. If you’re in the market for a Wear OS watch, you have a lot of choices, all of which are significantly less likely to be mistaken for an Apple Watch.

Huawei overtook Samsung in global smartphone shipments for Q2

Things haven’t exactly been smooth sailing for Huawei in recent years. The company’s rapid trajectory has been disrupted by on-going battles with the U.S. government that have, among other things, blocked its access to Google apps and services. But a new report from Canalys paints a reasonably rosy picture as the hardware giant overtook Samsung to snag the top spot in global smartphone shipments for the second quarter of 2020.

The news is a milestone for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this is first time in nine years that neither Apple nor Samsung has been at the top of Canalys’ charts. Huawei’s figures were almost exclusively boosted by sales in its native China, which currently comprises more than 70% of its total figure.

Image Credits: Canalys

It’s important to note here, however, the fact that the company took the top spot by essentially shrinking at a less rapid rate than Samsung. Huawei’s overall figures are down 5% year-over-year. But that figure pales in comparison to Samsung’s 30% drop. The two Goliaths are currently at 55.8 million and 53.7 million, respectively.

Things were bad for the smartphone industry prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped overall, as people are less inclined toward shelling out hundreds to north of $1,000 for inessential upgrades. And, indeed, Huawei’s numbers dropped by 27% outside of China, but the overall slide was dampened by an 8% growth in China. Samsung, meanwhile, currently controls less than 1% of the Chinese market.

As for what this all means for the future, it seems that it may be difficult for Huawei to maintain its top spot. “Its major channel partners in key regions, such as Europe, are increasingly wary of ranging Huawei devices, taking on fewer models, and bringing in new brands to reduce risk” Canalys’ Mo Jia said of the report. “Strength in China alone will not be enough to sustain Huawei at the top once the global economy starts to recover.”

CES cancels Las Vegas event, goes online-only

CES 2020 got in just under the wire, ahead of COVID-19 reaching true international pandemic levels. And until today, the show’s governing body, the CTA, was planning to keep its record unbroken. Today, however, CEO Gary Shapiro announced via video that the Las Vegas event has been canceled. Instead, CES 2021 will follow the lead of the rest of the industry as an online-only event.

The news won’t come as a surprise to anyone following the industry. Even January 2021 seems like an extremely optimistic timeline, social distancing measures or no. While Berlin’s IFA still plans to go forward this year, all other big tech shows have been canceled or gone all digital for the foreseeable future.

“We concluded it is simply not possible to safely gather over 100,000 people indoors with a raging COVID-19 virus and no real hope for a tested and widely available vaccine by January,” Shapiro writes in a post on LinkedIn. “The world does not need more COVID-19 cases, and we decided we would do our part by ensuring we are not helping spread the disease.”

In addition to hosting a huge number of people in an indoor venue, the international nature of the event makes it a prime vector for the continued spread of COVID-19. Not to mention the fact that the United States continues to lead the world in cases, by far.

Developing…

VCs and startups consider HaaS model for consumer devices

I’ve been following consumer audio electronics company Nura with great interest for a few years now — the Melbourne-based startup was one of the first companies I met with after starting with TechCrunch. At the time, its first prototype was a big mess of circuits and wires — the sort of thing you could never imagine shrunk down into a reasonably-sized consumer device.

Nura managed, of course. And the final product looked and sounded great; hell, even the box was nice. If I’m lucky, I see a consumer hardware product once or twice a year that seems reasonably capable of disrupting an industry, and Nura’s custom sound profiles fit that bill. But the company was unique for another reason. A graduate of the HAX accelerator, the startup announced NuraNow roughly this time last year.

Hardware as a service (HaaS) has been a popular concept in the IT/enterprise space for some time, but it’s still fairly uncommon in the consumer category. For one thing: a hardware subscription presents a new paradigm for thinking about purchases. And that is a big lift in a country like the U.S., which spent years weaning consumers off contract-based smartphones.

That Nura jumped at the chance shouldn’t be a big surprise. Backers HAX/SOSV have been proponents of the model for some time now. I’ve visited their Shenzhen offices a few times, and the topic of HaaS always seems to come up.

In a recent email exchange, General Partner Duncan Turner described HaaS as “a great way to keep in contact with your customers and up sell them on new features. Most importantly, for start-ups, recurring revenue is critical for scaling a business with venture capital (and will help appeal to a broad set of investors). HaaS often has a low churn (as easier to put onto long-term contracts).”

Neo’s Ali Partovi on best practices for hiring early-stage startup engineers

On day one of TechCrunch’s Early Stage virtual conference, Ali Partovi joined us to discuss best practices for startups looking to hire engineers.

It’s a subject that’s near and dear to his heart: Partovi is co-founder and CEO of Neo, a venture aimed at including young engineers in a community alongside seasoned industry vets. The fund includes top executives from a slew of different industry titans, including Amazon, Airbnb, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Stripe.

Partovi is probably best known in the Valley for co-founding Code.org with twin brother, Hadi. The nonprofit launched in 2013 with a high-profile video featuring Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Jack Dorsey, along with a mission to make coding education more accessible to the masses.

It was a two-summer internship at Microsoft while studying at Harvard that gave Partovi an entrée into the world of tech. And while it was clearly a formative experience for the college student, he advises against prospective startup founders looking to large corporations as career launch pads.

“I spend a lot of time mentoring college students, that’s a big part of what I do at Neo,” Partovi said.

“And for anyone who wants to be a founder of a company, there’s a spectrum, from giant companies like Microsoft or Google to early-stage startups. And I would say, find the smallest point on that spectrum that you’re comfortable with, and start your career there. Maybe that’s a 100-person company or maybe for you, it’s a 500-person company. But if you start at Microsoft, it’ll be a long time before you feel comfortable doing your own startup. The skills you gain at a giant company are very valuable for getting promoted and succeeding in giant companies. They’re not often as translatable to being your own founder.”

Microsoft showcases gameplay from ‘Halo Infinite’ and other Xbox Series X titles

Last month Sony showcased gameplay from a slew of upcoming PlayStation 5 titles, including Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Stray and NBA 2K21. Today it was Microsoft’s turn. The company announced 13 titles for the Xbox Series X back in May, but today it gave gamers the best look at what the next-gen console will have to offer when it arrives at the end of the year.

Like Sony, the company promised to offer some actual gameplay from the upcoming titles, though plenty of standard gaming trailers were also on display at the virtual event. Xbox chief Phil Spencer kicked things off by noting that there would be titles from 9 of 15 Xbox developers on display, including five first-party games.

As expected, the company kicked off with the latest version of Halo, because, hey, it wouldn’t be an Xbox release without one. Halo Infinite got a substantial portion of the spotlight, with extended gameplay from the start of the title. 

The company says the title will be “several times larger” than the last few Halo titles combined. More big Bungie news, with the arrival of Destiny 2 on the Xbox Game Pass. The title will be available free to Game Pass subscribers later this year. 

Rare’s Everwild was one of the biggest surprise hits of the event — and easily one of the most striking. The title was offered up as a preview trailer late last month, but the developer offered up a better look at the dreamy, psychedelic game.

Another Xbox mainstay, Forza, also got some time at the top of the event. With the Motorsport name, the game bucks the standard number system of the past several entries in the popular racing title. The game will run at 60 FPS in 4K and will utilize the system’s ray tracing tech for improved graphics. The title is likely to debut at some point next year.

Another in a long line of date-less titles is the latest entry in the popular zombie series, State of Decay. The third installment didn’t get much info beyond that, but did get the lovely above cinematic trailer.

Arriving this month for PC and Xbox One, Grounded is a delightful Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-style backyard adventure. An Xbox Series X release is also scheduled. Today’s event closed out with a fairy getting swallowed by a frog for an extremely quick preview of Playground Game’s Fable IV.

 

Fox Sports is adding ‘virtual fans’ to empty baseball stadiums

The Toronto Blue Jays may not have a have a home yet this season, but one things for sure: plenty of teams are going to be playing in the uncanny valley this year. The spectacle of a major league baseball team playing in front of an empty has some precedent from places like Korea, Taiwan and Japan, which got a head start on the season while MLB players and owners were hashing out the details of their own shortened 60-game season.

And while a number of teams are enlisting the help of cardboard fan cutouts and artificial crowd noise to dull the pain of an empty stadium, Fox Sports is convinced it’s found a technological solution that’s totally good and fine and not at all nightmare inducing horror show of artificial humanity.

“We had a vision for making our Major League Baseball broadcasts look as natural as they were before COVID,” Fox Sports EVP Brad Zager said in an interview with Variety. “A lot of that is having a crowd in the stadium.”

Which, fair enough. The return of baseball — and sports generally — is an earnest (and not at all a crass,  profit-fueled enterprise) attempt to regain some of that normalcy we’ve all been clamoring for months to return to. And I totally get it. I love baseball and am very excited to watch my team play this week. But honestly, this only contributes to the weirdness in an uneasy sort of way.

Fox News showcased the technology in a tweet preview of gameplay, including some close ups on fans that look like Sims characters in Orioles paraphernalia (write your own Orioles digs, if so inclined). The faux fans (fauns?) cheer, boo and even do the wave. It’s a strange but fitting attempt at the new normal from the network that gave us Cleatus, the football robot.

The virtual fans will be on full display this Saturday.

Gorilla Glass Victus can survive a two-meter drop and is set to arrive on a Samsung device soon

You might not know Gorilla Glass by name, but odds are pretty good you own at least one device sporting Corning’s chemically strengthened glass composite. It’s been a ubiquitous feature of consumer products ranging from smartphones to wearables for more than a decade now, courtesy of excellent drop and scratch resistance. All in all, it has made its way onto north of eight billion devices over the years.

Corning just announced the latest version of the glass — Victus. In drop tests, the glass has managed to survive drops of up to two meters onto hard, rough surfaces. It’s also 2x more scratch resistant than Gorilla Glass 6. All good news from the sound of it.

The new glass bucks the standard numbering sequence (leaving off with 6 back in 2018). Here’s some stuff I found out about the word “victus” on Wikipedia (see? I research):

  1. It’s derived from the Latin word vīvō (to live, survive)

  2. It means living, way of life or lifestyle

  3. It’s a 2014 historical novel by Catalan anthropologist Albert Sánchez Piñol (honestly, the first two seem more relevant here).

Image Credits: Corning

Here’s what a Corning spokesperson said about the shift away from from the far more straightforward naming scheme, “This glass is a significant improvement compared to our previous flagship, Gorilla Glass 6, for both drop and scratch. We felt a glass this good deserved a name that made clear the significance was beyond incremental.”

So, will we see a Victus 2 in 18-24 months? Perhaps a different Latin name? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, the glass is set to debut on Samsung products “in the near future,” which almost certainly means one of the five “power devices” the company has promised to deliver at its upcoming Unpacked event. The Galaxy Note 20 seems like a pretty solid candidate on that front. And back, for that matter.

The Herman Miller x Logitech gaming chair will set you back $1,500

I’ve learned a lot during this pandemic. About myself, about the world. But perhaps most important of all, I’ve learned the value of a good chair. In normal years I’m rarely home, between work and travel, and as such it’s not something I gave much thought to. So naturally, I spent the first month and half cultivating some serious lower back pain.

The truth of the matter is that we have no idea how much longer we’re going to be dealing with all of this, and as such, I can’t recommend investing in a good chair enough. You can get a pretty solid one for a couple of hundred dollars, if you know where to look. Or there’s always Herman Miller.

The company’s office chairs are pretty universally well-received, and they’ve got a price tag to match. Even with that in mind, however, its venture into the world of gaming chair is still… well, “investment” is certainly one way to put it. The company’s collaboration with gaming peripheral mainstay Logitech is going to set you back a cool $1,500.

Image Credits: Herman Miller

According to the companies, the Embody Gaming Chair was designed with help from 30 physicians, with a focus on good posture (something many gamers can likely use) and the ability to sit in one spot for an extended period of time, because, let’s be real here, gamers are gonna game.

There’s padding with “copper-infused particles” designed to cool off the body, and “pixelated support,” which helps more evenly distribute the sitter’s weight. Herman Miller describes that bit thusly:

Thanks to a dynamic matrix of pixels, Embody’s seat and back surfaces automatically conform to your body’s micro-movements, distributing your weight evenly as you sit. This reduces pressure and encourages movement, both of which are key to maintaining healthy circulation and focus.

The chair itself is made up of 42% recycled materials and is up to 95% recyclable — though hopefully you won’t be thinking about that for a while, given the pricing. There’s also a 12-year warranty that should let you hold onto it for a little bit longer. Which, again, will hopefully be a while at that price.

The Embody is going to be the first of a number of collaborations going forward, including a $1,300 gaming-focused desk and a $300 monitor arm. At the end of the day, your lower back will be more thankful than your bank account.