This Week in Apps: Apple’s big event, lidar comes to iPhone, Android gets a new IDE

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

Top Story

Apple introduces four new iPhones (and more)

Apple hosted its iPhone event this week, where it introduced the new iPhone 12… and the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max — effectively plugging all the holes in the market. With the release of the four new iPhones, app developers will have a range of devices to build for, from small to very large — the 12 Pro Max, for example, introduces the iPhone’s biggest-ever screen and the highest resolution, at nearly 3.5M pixels.

It also, of course, includes serious camera improvements, from a redesign of the three-lens system to including a new deeper telephoto camera, now a 65 mm-equivalent instead of 52 mm, as on previous models. There’s also an improved wide-angle lens, larger sensor, the addition of sensor-level image stabilization and a revamped Night Mode. Photographers will appreciate the new Apple ProRAW format, as well. (More on that here).

The iPhone 12 mini, meanwhile, aims to serve the customer base that prefers a smaller phone, like the iPhone SE, but without sacrificing functionality.

All the devices share some key features, including 5G connectivity, the new MagSafe connector for wireless charging and snap-on magnetic accessories, OLED displays and the A14 chip. They also have a more classic look, with straight edges that allow for additional antennas, providing next-gen wireless connectivity.

One of the bigger differences, however, between the Pro models and the regular iPhone 12 is the addition of the LiDAR Scanner, which is also found in the latest iPad Pro. The scanner measures how long it takes for light to reach an object and reflect back. The new depth-sensing technology has big implications for AR, as it allows augmented reality objects to interact with objects in the real world. AR apps will be more user-friendly, too, as they won’t need to first scan the room to place the AR object in the real world. It can be placed instantly.

Apple is leveraging the sensor for the iPhone 12 Pro camera to offer up to 6x faster focus in low-light conditions. Developers, meanwhile, can leverage lidar for use cases like AR-enabled games that work in the real world, social media (like Snapchat’s new lidar-powered Lens), home design and improvement apps involving room scans, spatial layout planning (like JigSpace), better AR shopping experiences and more.

The company also announced an affordable version of its HomePod smart speaker, the $99 HomePod Mini. The item works best for those fully locked inside the Apple universe, as it will stream a handful of music services, but not one of the most popular — Spotify. However, Apple also introduced a nifty feature for the HomePod devices, Intercom, which lets you send announcements across the speakers. While Apple and Google have offered a similar feature for their smart speakers, Intercom also works across other Apple devices, including iPhone, iPod, AirPods and even CarPlay. (What, no Mac?)

If Apple isn’t too late to capture smart speaker market share, the new speaker could see more users adopting smart home devices they can voice control through the HomePod Mini.

During the event, Apple also subtly snubbed its nose at Epic’s Fortnite with the announcement that
League of Legends: Wild Rift would be coming to iPhone 12 to take advantage of its new 5G capabilities and A14 Bionic chip.

Weekly News Round-Up

Platforms

  • Lidar comes to iPhone 12 Pro. Developers can now build AR experiences that interact with real-world objects, and AR apps can now instantly place AR objects in the real world without scanning the room. The update will mean a huge increase in the usability of AR apps but is limited to the Pro model of iPhone for now. Snapchat is already using it.
  • Apple developers can now make their apps available for pre-order even earlier — up to 180 days before release on the App Store.
  • Android Studio 4.1 launches. The new, stable version of the IDE for building Android apps introduces better TensorFlow Lite support and a new database inspector. The team also fixed a whopping 2,370 bugs during this release cycle and closed 275 public issues.
  • Google introduces the Android for Cars library. The library, now in open beta, gives developers tools to design, develop and test new navigation, parking or charging apps for Android Auto. The Google Play Store will be enabled for publishing beta apps in the “coming months.”
  • Google stops selling music. The company no longer sells tracks and albums on its Play Store, shifting all its focus to YouTube Music. The latter also just launched on Apple Watch this week.

Trends

  • Shopping apps forecast. U.S. consumers were expected to spend 60M hours in Android shopping apps during Prime Day week, (which just wrapped) according to one forecast from App Annie.
  • Prime Day downloads grow. Sensor Tower estimates global installs of the Amazon app grew 23% year-over-year, to 684K, as Prime Day neared. Installs on Wednesday were up 33% to 750K. However, U.S. installs were down by 22% 10/13-10/14. Apptopia noted that app sessions, however, were up 27% year-over-year.
  • Shopping, Food & Drink app launches up more than 50% year-over-year. Shopping apps grew 52% while Food & Drink apps grew 60%, due to COVID-19 impacts, according to Sensor Tower.
  • Subscriptions. U.S. consumers spend $20.78 per month on app subscriptions, Adjust study says.
  • TikTok sale impact on ad industry. 73% of marketers said a TikTok sale in the U.S. would impact their 2021 advertising plans. 41% also believed the deal could allow Walmart to overtake Amazon in e-commerce.
  • Amazon expands AR experimentation to its boxes. The retailer launched a new AR application that works with QR codes on the company’s shipping boxes to create “interactive, shareable” AR experiences, like a pumpkin that comes to life.

Security

  • Robinhood said a “limited number” of its users’ accounts were hacked. The service itself was not hacked, but around 2,000 customers had accounts compromised by cybercriminals who first compromised users’ personal emails outside the trading app.

Other News

  • Zoom’s new events platform brings apps to video conferencing calls.
  • Messenger update brings new features, including cross-app communication with Instagram. The app gets fun features like chat themes, custom reactions and, soon, selfie stickers and vanish mode. But the bigger news is the (potentially anti-competitive) merging of Facebook’s chat platforms.
  • Life360 leverages TikTok teens’ complaints to start a dialogue and invent a new feature, “Bubbles,” which allows teens (or anyone) to share a generalized location instead of an exact one. The feature gives teens a bit more freedom to roam and make choices without so much parental oversight. Parents, meanwhile, can still be sure their teen is OK, as features like emergency SOS and crash alerts remain functional.
  • Must-read: The MacStories iOS and iPadOS 14 Review. Federico Viticci offers a 23-page deep dive into the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.

Funding and M&A

    • Future raises $24M Series B for its $150/mo workout coaching app amid at-home fitness boom. The app pairs users with real-life fitness coaching for personal training at home. The round was led by Trustbridge Partners with Caffeinated Capital and Series A investors Kleiner Perkins participating.
    • River raises $10.4M for its app offering news, events and other happenings from around the web, ranging from news stories from top publishers to sports to even notable tweets. The app presents the information in a real-time stream, browsed vertically. There’s also a “For You” page, similar to TikTok.
    • Roblox confidentially filed with the SEC to go public. This cross-platform gaming platform has boomed during coronavirus lockdowns. According to reports, the listing could double Robox’s $4B valuation.
    • Robo Adviser Wealthsimple raises $87M. The funding for the investing app with comparisons to Robinhood was led by Menlo Park-based Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV), valuing the business at $1B.
    • Fitness platform Playbook raises $9.3M. The company offers tools for personal trainers who want to make their own videos, which consumers then browse in Playbook’s mobile app. Backers include E.ventures, Michael Ovitz, Abstract, Algae Ventures, Porsche Ventures and FJ Labs.
    • Live streaming app Moment House raises $1.5M seed. The startup aims to recreate live events in a digital format. LA area investors invested, including Scooter Braun, Troy Carter, Kygo’s Palm Tree Crew and Jared Leto. Patreon chief executive Jack Conte and Sequoia Capital partner Jess Lee also participated.
    • Twilio acquires Segment for $3.2B to help developers build data-fueled apps.
    • E-learning platform Kahoot raises $215M from SoftBank. The Norwegian startup claims to have hosted 1.3 billion “participating players” in the last 12 months. The company’s gamified e-learning platform is used both in schools and in enterprise environments.

Downloads

Mycons

Mycons is a new app that makes it easier for users, including non-designers, to create and buy custom icons for their iOS home screen makeovers. In the app’s “Icon Studio,” users can create icons by swapping out the background, choosing a symbol and placing it on the icon accordingly. You can also create a whole set of icons in a batch export. If you don’t feel like designing your own, you can opt to purchase premade packs instead.

The app is a free download with a one-time, in-app purchase to unlock the fully functionality of the icon designer. The icon packs, which include different variations and matching wallpaper, range from $7.99-$9.99.

Spotify’s new iOS 14 widget

Image Credits: TechCrunch screenshot of Spotify widget

It’s here! The widget a number of people have waited for since the launch of the new version of iOS has arrived. 

The widget, which arrives in the latest version of the Spotify iOS app, comes in two sizes. The smaller widget will display just your most recently listened to item, while the medium-sized widget will instead show the five most recent items — four in a horizontal row and the most recent at the top. In that case, you can actually tap on the small thumbnail for which of the five you want to now stream to be taken directly to that page in the Spotify app. The widget also automatically updates its background color to match the thumbnail photo.

Google introduces song matching via humming, whistling or singing

Google has added a new feature that lets you figure out what song is stuck in your head by humming, whistling or singing – a much more useful version of the kind of song-matching audio feature that it and competitors like Apple’s Shazam have offered previously. As of today, users will be able to open either the latest version of the mobile Google app, or the Google Search widget, and then tap the microphone icon, and either verbally ask to search a song or hit the ‘Search a song button’ and start making noises.

The feature should be available to anyone using Google in English on iOS, or across over 20 languages already on Android, and the company says it will be growing that user group to more languages on both platforms in the future. Unsurprisingly, it’s powered behind the scenes by machine learning algorithms developed by the company.

Google says that it’s matching tech won’t require you to be a Broadway star or even a choir member – it has built-in abilities to accommodate for various degrees of musical sensibility, and will provide a confidence score as a percentage alongside a number of possible matches. Clicking on any match will return more info about both artist and track, as well as music videos, and links that let you listen to the full song in the music app of your choice.

Google explains in a blog post announcing the feature that it’s able to do this because it basically ignores the fluff that is the quality of your voice, any accompanying instruments, tone and other details. The algorithm is basically boiling the song down to its essence, and coming up with a numerical pattern that represents its essence, or what Google calls its ‘fingerprint.’

This is an evolution of how Google’s existing music recognition tech works, which is present in the passive ‘Now Playing’ feature that’s available on its Pixel smartphones. That feature will listen passively in the background for music, and provide a match when it finds one in its offline database (all done locally). That same technology is at work in the SoundSearch feature that Google later introduced via its app.

Google isn’t the first to do this – SoundHound’s Midomi offers music matching via singing or humming. But Google is obviously much more widely used, so it’ll be interesting to see if it can achieve better hit rates, and overall usage.

Google Pixel 5 review: Keeping it simple

I’m going to be totally honest with you. I don’t really understand Google’s phone strategy right now. And for what it’s worth, I’m not really sure Google does either. I wrote about it here, but I’ll save you from having to read an additional 800 words on top of all these. The short version is that Google has three phones on the market, and there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of distinction between them.

The Pixel is a portrait of a hardware division in transition. That applies to a number of aspects, from strategy to the fact that the company recently saw a minor executive exodus. It’s pretty clear the future of Google’s mobile hardware division is going to look quite different from its present — but 2020’s three phones are most likely a holdover from the old guard.

What you’re looking at here is the Pixel 5. It’s Google’s flagship. A device that sports — among other things — more or less the same mid-range Qualcomm processor as the 4a announced earlier this year. It distinguishes itself from that budget handset, however, with the inclusion of 5G. But then here comes the 4a 5G to further muddy the waters.

There are some key distinctions that separate the 5 and 4a 5G, which were announced at the same event. The 5’s got a more solid body, crafted from 100% recycled aluminum to the cheaper unit’s polycarbonate. It also has waterproofing and reverse wireless charging, a fun feature we’ve seen on Samsung devices for a few generations now. Beyond that, however, we run into something that’s been a defining issue since the line’s inception. If you choose not to use hardware to define your devices, it becomes difficult to differentiate your devices’ hardware.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Since the very beginning of the Pixel line, the company has insisted that it will rely on software advances to push the products forward. It’s a nice sentiment after years of feature arms races between the likes of Apple and Samsung. But that means when it comes time to introduce new devices, the results can be fairly lackluster. That certainly applies to the Pixel 5.

From a hardware perspective, it’s not a particularly exciting phone. That’s probably fine for many. Smartphones have, after all, become more commodity than luxury item, and plenty of users are simply looking for one that will just get the job done. That said, Google’s got some pretty stiff competition at the Pixel 5’s price point — and there are plenty of Android devices that can do even more.

There are certainly some upgrades in addition to the above worth pointing out, however. Fittingly, the biggest and most important of all is probably the least exciting. The Pixel 4 was actually a pretty solid device hampered by one really big issue: an abysmal battery life. The 2,800mAh capacity was a pretty massive millstone around the device’s neck. That, thankfully, has been addressed here in a big way.

Google’s bumped things up to 4,080mAh. That’s also a pretty sizable bump over the 4a and 4a 5G, which sport 3,885mAh and 2,130mAh, respectively. That extra life is extra important, given the addition of both Battery Share and 5G. For the sake of disclosure, I should mention that I still live in an area with basically no 5G (three cheers for working from home), so your mileage will vary based on coverage. But using LTE, I was able to get about a day and a half of use out of the handset, besting the stated “all-day battery).

This is helped along by a (relatively) compact display. Gone are the days of the XL (though, confusingly, the 4a 5G does have a larger screen with a bit lower pixel density). The flagship is only available in a six-inch, 2,340 x 1,080 size. It’s larger than the Pixel 4’s 5.7 inches, but at a lower pixel density (432 versus 444 ppl). The 90Hz refresh rate remains. Compared to all of the phones I’ve been testing lately, the Pixel 5 feels downright compact. It’s a refreshing change to be able to use the device with one hand.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The camera is probably the aspect of the handset where the opposing hardware-first and software-first approaches are the most at conflict with one another. Google was fairly convinced it could do everything it wanted with a single lens early on, but eventually begrudgingly gave in to a two-camera setup. The hardware is pretty similar to last year’s model, but the 16-megapixel 2x optical telephoto has been replaced by a 16-megapixel ultra-wide. Whether that represent progress is largely up to your own personal preference. Frankly, I’d prefer a little more non-distorted zooming.

Google, of course, is building on a solid foundation. I really loved the Pixel 4’s photos. The things Google’s imaging team has been able to do with relative hardware constraints is really impressive, and while you’re lacking the scope of a premium Samsung device or high-end iPhone, casual photo snappers are going to be really happy with the shots they get on the Pixel 5.

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Night Sight has been improved and now turns on when the phone’s light sensor detects a dark scene. My morning walks have gotten decidedly darker in recent weeks as the season has changed, and the phone automatically enters the mode for those pre-dawn shots (COVID-19 has made me an early riser, I don’t know what to tell you). The feature has also been added to portrait mode for better focused shots.

The Pixel’s Portrait Mode remains one of the favorites — though it’s still imperfect, running into issues with things like hair or complex geometries. It really doesn’t know what to do with a fence much of the time, for instance. The good news is that Google’s packed a lot of editing options into the software here — particularly for Portrait Mode.

You can really go crazy in terms of bokeh levels and placement and portrait lighting, a relatively subtle effect that lends the appearance of changing a light source. Changing the effects can sometimes be a bit laggy, likely owing to the lower-end processing power. All said, it’s a good and well-rounded photo experience, but as usual, I would really love to see what Google’s imaging team would be able to do if the company ever gives it a some real high-end photography hardware to play around with. Wishful thinking for whatever the Pixel 6 becomes, I suppose.

In the end, the two biggest reasons to recommend upgrading from the Pixel 4 are 5G and bigger battery. The latter is certainly a big selling point this time out. The former really depends on what coverage is like in your area. The 5G has improved quite a bit of late, but there are still swaths of the U.S. — and the world — that will be defaulting to LTE on this device. Also note that the $200 cheaper 4a 5G also offers improvements in both respects over last year’s model.

Still, $700 is a pretty reasonable price point for a well-rounded — if unexciting — phone like the Pixel 5. And Google’s got other things working in its favor, as well — pure Android and the promise of guaranteed updates. If you’re looking for something with a bit more flash, however, there are plenty of options in the Android world.

PopSockets is working on MagSafe-compatible iPhone accessories

PopSockets will support Apple’s MagSafe technology, TechCrunch has confirmed — meaning you’ll soon be able to pop on and off these ubiquitous iPhone accessories without worrying about the sticker on the back losing its adhesiveness over time and needing a rinse.

MagSafe, Apple’s charging brand, is now the company’s new system for iPhone wireless charging and easy-to-attach accessories, introduced today at Apple’s iPhone event.

Thanks to the new array of magnets positioned around the wireless charging coil, the iPhone will be better aligned when connected with Apple’s MagSafe Charger and MagSafe Duo Charger — designed for wirelessly charging the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 plus Apple Watch, respectively.

But the system also enables a range of MagSafe accessories that work with iPhone 12.

Apple is introducing its own accessories, with new silicone, leather and clear cases that easily snap on the back of the iPhone 12 models, as well as an attachable iPhone wallet. The company also said on Tuesday that consumers should expect a range of MagSafe accessories from third-party manufacturers.

I’ll admit, my mind was on PopSockets for some reason before the Apple event. Which is why when MagSafe was introduced, my first thought was oh, PopSockets! 

I’m probably not alone.

The company has sold more than 165 million PopSockets Grips since launching in 2014, and has since expanded its grippy-things-on-the-back-of-your-phone product line to include all sorts of variations — like PopSockets with mirrors or lip gloss, tiny versions, PopSockets with wallets, Otter + PopSockets phone cases and even PopSockets that match your nails. (Oh, and they’ve got face masks to match your PopSockets now, too.)

PopSockets Grips can be removed a number of times, but they can lose their stickiness over time. The company says the solution is to give the little dongle a rinse and let it air dry for about 10 minutes, then stick it back on the iPhone and let it set for a couple of hours.

This can be a bit of a tedious process, which is why the company introduced PopSockets Grips with interchangeable covers, aka PopTops.

However, a line of MagSafe-compatible PopSockets line would mean you wouldn’t have to worry about the product’s stickiness wearing off. As a result, users might be induced to buy more of these iPhone dongles — perhaps even accumulating a collection they can swap out at will, to match their outfits or mood.

It also means that users could forgo having to use a case with their iPhone — as iPhone 11 owners currently have to — in order to take advantage of PopSockets Grips.

Conversely, it could open PopSockets to more competition in the accessories market, as companies won’t have to out-engineer the Grips and their patent-protected technology. Instead, rivals could simply expand their existing product lines with MagSafe-compatible items for an upcharge and increase their revenues.

PopSockets says it has MagSafe products in development, but isn’t announcing details at this time.

Note: Image does not show MagSafe-compatible products. 

What to expect from Apple’s ‘Hi Speed’ iPhone event

For starters, iPhones, of course. That one was easy. The company skipped out on new mobile devices during its recent Apple Watch event, owing to COVID-19-related delays. And, of course, the fact that the events are all pre-taped and virtual now means companies can more easily split them up in ways that were harder to justify when people were expected to fly in from all over the world.

That doesn’t mean we won’t be getting more than just a phone (or, more like multiple phones). While Apple’s been more inclined to host more, smaller events, there’s a decent chance this is going to be the last major event the company hosts before the holidays. That means it’s going to want to get a lot of bang for its buck this time out.

The iPhone 12 is expected to be the centerpiece, of course. The headline feature will almost certainly be 5G. Apple’s been a little behind the curve on that front versus its Android competitors (Samsung, for instance, has several devices with next-gen wireless), though another knock-on effect from the pandemic has been a slower than expected adoption of the tech. So in some ways, Apple’s really right on time here. In the U.S., the company is said to offer both the mmWave and sub-6Ghz 5G technologies. Availability may vary depending on the needs of a given market.

Rumors point to a bunch of different models. After all, gone are the days a company like Apple could just offer up a big premium device and be done with it. Sales for high-end devices were already drying up well before the virus came along to bring smartphone sales to a screeching halt there for a bit. People were already tired of paying in excess of $1,000 for new phones when the ones they already had still did the job perfectly fine.

There are supposedly four sizes arriving. There will be higher-end devices at 6.1 and 6.7 inches, and more budget-minded devices at 6.1 and 5.4 inches. It’s a pretty broad price range, from $699 for the “mini” to $1,099 and up for the Pro Max (sandwiched between are the $799 iPhone 12 and $999 Pro). Along with its recently expanded Watch line, Apple’s all about choice this time out.

Reportedly, however, the company will be bringing OLED tech to all of the models, marking a pretty big change from the days of LCD-sporting budget models. The new models are expected to get a welcome redesign, reportedly returning to something more in line with the iPhone 5. The rounded edges are expected to be dropped in favor of a flatter design, akin to what you get on the iPad Pro.

Other interesting potential additions include the return of the company’s dearly departed MagSafe life for a pair of wireless charging pads that will hopefully finally lay to rest any memory of the failed AirPower experiment. Available for one or two devices, the new pads will reportedly leverage magnets built into the phones to snap them in place.

Music has always been a cornerstone for the company, and it’s long overdue for some updates to audio products. This time out, we may finally get the long-awaited AirPods Studio, an over-ear addition to its line of headphones. The models are set to come in two variations, the largest variation being build materials. A smaller version of its smart speaker could be on the way, as well. The HomePod has long been cost-prohibitive for many, so a mini version could finally make it a bit more accessible.

Another long-rumored addition — AirTags — could finally arrive, as well. Apple’s product-tracking Tile competitor has been in the cards for some time now, but has repeatedly been delayed. That may still be the case — and same goes for a refresh to Apple TV. With the company’s subscription service about to celebrate its year anniversary, it could really use some updated hardware. New Macs with Apple-built chips could be on the table, as well, though the company is reportedly planning one more 2020 event for that big launch.

The event kicks off tomorrow at 10AM PT/1PM ET. We’ll be watching along with you, bringing you the news as it breaks.

Apple brings Health Records to iPhone in the UK and Canada

Apple has added support for the Health Records feature of its Health app on iPhones in two new markets – the UK and Canada. The electronic medical records feature originally debuted in the U.S. in 2018, and the company says that it’s now supported by over 500 institutions across that country. At its debut in its two new markets, it’ll be supported by three hospitals in Canada and two in the UK, but obviously the plan is to expand support to more over time.

Apple’s EHR feature was created with its commitment to user privacy in mind. In practice, that means that any information transferred between a user’s iPhone and their healthcare provider is encrypted, and the data is transmitted directly, with no intermediary sever storage. Also, Apple Health Records data on a user’s device is fully encrypted and locally stored, unlock able only via a user’s individual passcode, as well as Touch ID or Face ID for devices that support those.

Health Records on iPhone requires institutional support, but can provide a high degree of individual ownership of health data, as well as a means of making sure that data is portable and can follow a patient to integrate with a variety of care facilities and providers. Many efforts have been made to unify and standardize EHR systems in different parts of the world, but few have gained widespread support. Apple’s has the advantage of working broadly with devices that make up roughly half the mobile representation in markets where it’s available, and a user-friendly, clear and concise design.

Apple will announce the next iPhone on October 13

Apple just sent out invites for its upcoming hardware event, all but confirming the arrival of the next iPhone. The event is scheduled nearly a month to the day after the its last big event, which gave us the Apple Watch Series 6 and two new iPads.

A new iPhone was conspicuously absent from the proceedings — not an entirely unexpected turn of events, of course. CEO Tim Cook confirmed earlier this year that there would be a delay the arrival of the company’s new flagship, owing to COVID-19 hardware supply chain issues.

Apple invite

Image Credits: Apple /

The iPhone 12 is set to finally deliver 5G connectivity to Apple’s product line, coupled with a new design, chip and a push to OLED for all entries in the line. There are expected to be three new models in all, ranging from 5.4 to 6.4 inches. The company will, no doubt, also be using the occasion to release additional hardware. Audio seems like a pretty obvious addition — perhaps we’ll finally be seeing the company’s long-awaited over-ear headphones, the AirPods Studio.

The event kicks off virtually at 10AM PT. As ever, we’ll be bringing you the news live.

 

Google now has three mid-range Pixel phones

The Pixel has always been a mixed bag. The first-generation product was announced roughly this time four years ago, with Google finally offering a full-throated entry into the smartphone space after years of device partnerships.

Of course, by 2016, the market was already mature — particularly for Android phones. But while it was easy to write off those initial devices as Nexus-like references for future software updates, Google made it clear that it was taking the line seriously. It put any doubts to rest two years later, with its $1.1 billion acquisition of the design team from a struggling HTC.

But Google’s had struggles of its own. Slow Pixel 3 sales left the company in a tough spot, as the overall market took a hit. Google was able to correct the ship with the launch of the Pixel 3a, joining the likes of Apple and Samsung in offering budget versions of its smartphone flagship as consumers grew weary of premium prices.

It’s a strategy that makes sense. Two primary devices: a flagship and a budget model. Of course, the line has never been particularly clear for Google. For one thing, the company just doesn’t chase premium hardware in the same way that Apple, Samsung or Huawei does. Rather, it insists setting itself apart with its software — even for things like imaging. That often results in a less pronounced gap between devices. It also dulls the company’s edge with features that, more often than not, come to other Android devices.

But today’s hardware event blurred those lines more than ever. The dual-launch of the Pixel 5 and 4a 5G was arguably the most confusing element about a morning event with words “Launch Night” in its title.

Image Credits: Google

While pre-show rumors and leaks revealed a lot about the devices that ultimately proved true, they didn’t do much to distinguish the differences between the products. Turns out there’s an obvious reason: There really isn’t that much of a difference. If anything, the 4a 5G feels like a stepping stone toward the Pixel 5 — a device that would, perhaps, more fittingly have been named the Pixel 5a, if the company’s naming conventions worked that way.

We already knew that both devices were going to sport 5G. That seems to be Google taking advantage of Qualcomm’s aggressive push to bring the next-gen wireless technology to more budget devices. Really, the big driver here is that both devices utilize the same processors: Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G. It is, as I’m sure you’re aware, a mid-tier processor. It’s a step down from the 865 currently found in the majority of this year’s flagships.

Likely, the decision was a cost-cutting measure, but we’ve seen evidence from a number of manufacturers that it’s possible to produce an 865-sporting device priced in the middle six digits. Both devices also sport the same dual-camera set up on the rear and the same resolution screens — though the 4a 5G’s is actually bigger (albeit with a lower pixel density), at 6.2 inches to the 5’s 6.0.

There are some differences between the products to justify the $200 pricing gap. For starters, the 5 features a 100% recycled aluminum body, whereas the 4a 5G is polycarbonate. The cheaper phone lacks waterproofing and the reverse wireless charging found on the 5. It also sports a smaller battery, though both devices have been upgraded in that respect over the 4 and 4a. Battery life, after all, was the biggest complaint against the Pixel 4 — and either way you’re going to need more milliamp hours to handle the strains of 5G and, in the case of the 5, reverse charging.

So, are you clear on all of this? Me neither, to be honest. Google’s smartphone line now contains three devices. There’s a mid-tier handset, a slightly lower-mid-tier handset and an even lower-mid-tier handset. That’s three distinct devices with about a $300 price difference, all released within months of one another. It’s as if Google saw the 3a’s successes and decided “screw it, we’re making all of our products mid-range.” Affordability isn’t a bad thing, of course, but if you’re going to release three separate products over roughly a two-month span, you owe it to yourself and your fans to offer clearer value propositions.

Some of this is going to self-correct. For starters, it seems likely that the three devices will turn into two by this time next year. I don’t foresee the company keeping both an LTE and 5G model around in late-2021. There’s also the fact that the company has been undergoing a bit of an executive shakeup among the Pixel line — something that appears to point to a dramatic rethink of the line. It’s likely that the 4a, 4a 5G and 5 were already pretty far into development when Google started its executive shuffling.

Hopefully all of this will cause the company to rethink the Pixel line from the ground up and determine what Google can bring to the table that the competition can’t.

Pixel 5 and 4a 5g get the same, improved cameras with rear ultrawide lens, Night Sight portraits and more

Google made its newest smartphones official today, unveiling the much-leaked Pixel 4a 5g and Pixel 5. Both smartphones will get the same, improved cameras, despite a $200 price different between the models, which is great news for people who are specifically coming to Google for their excellent mobile camera tech. Here’s an overview of what google did with the new and improved Pixel cameras in terms of both hardware and software.

Ultrawide lens

The biggest new physical change to the new Pixel phones is the addition of a new ultrawide lens to the camera array on the back. This provides a new wide angle field of view that lets you capture a significantly larger perspective, which is great for large group shots and landscapes. This was one of the features that Apple added to the most recent iPhone that Google fans were looking for on their Pixel devices.

Here’s an example of the additional coverage you’re getting (roughly, since the first shot likely wasn’t actually filmed on Pixel):

[gallery ids="2054163,2054134"]

HDR+ with bracketing

The HDR+ feature of Google’s Pixel phones is also very popular with users, providing a way for people to get better lighting in their photos without having to worry about compositing images after the fact to adjust exposure in different parts of the scene. Google has upgraded its HDR+ feature by combining its own machine-learning powered techniques, stacked with traditional, much more old-school exposure bracketing for what the company says is a better final product.

Night Sight in portrait mode

Portrait mode has been popular since its introduction on smartphones, and has improved over time to allow people to get a more accurate depth effect with artificial background blur. Google added the ability to use portrait mode with its Night Sight feature with this generation of devices, meaning you can get that kind of depth effect even when you’re using Google’s software trickery to increase the illumination in a dark scene for clear, static-free results like the shot below.

Portrait Light

Another portrait mode feature is the addition of portrait light, which lets you apply a customizable lighting effect to do things like counteract deep shadows or washed out potions of the image. This works similar to Apple’s studio lighting effects in its own portrait mode in iOS, but it looks to be considerably more customizable, and potentially more powerful thanks to Google’s AI tech on the Pixel devices – though we’ll have to get them in for testing to know for sure.

New stabilization for video, including Cinematic Pan

Finally, there are three new stabilization modes for filming video on the new Pixels – Locked, Active and Cinematic Pan. These were built using tutorials on YouTube, Google said during its event, as well as by studying Hollywood cinematographers. Cinematic Pan looks like potentially the most fun for YouTubers, since it gives that silky smooth, slowed down effect (it’s half actual speed) that makes it look straight out of a film travelogue.

HMD is bringing a 5G smartphone and wireless earbuds to the US

Over the past four years or so, HMD has carved out a nice little niche for itself with its Nokia-branded handsets. The instant name recognition of a legacy brand was a nice little perch on which to gain some footing in an overcrowded market.

Pricing has long been a key to its appeal, as well, and that’s on display with the arrival of the company’s first 5G-enabled handset. The Nokia 8.5 5G runs $699 and goes up for pre-order today in the U.S. It will also be hitting Amazon in the coming weeks. It’s not cheap by the company’s standards, but it’s definitely among the more competitively priced 5G handsets around.

The phone is also set to make an appearance in the upcoming Bond film. It features four rear-facing cameras, including a 64-megapixel lens and a macro — an uncommon but increasingly popular alternative on the latest batch of smartphones. The screen is a massive 6.81 inches, and the device is — unsurprisingly — powered by Qualcomm’s mid-tier Snapdragon 765G.

Today’s announcement also finds Nokia bringing its fully wireless earbuds stateside. No specific time frame was given for the Power Earbuds, but they’ll be priced at a reasonable $99. There’s stiff competition in the market, these days — especially in the low end of the market — but the buds have been getting a pretty positive reaction for their price point, thanks to a comfortable design and a ridiculous 150 hours of battery courtesy of their massive charging case.