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Google Working with Carriers and Phone Makers to Expand Assistant's Reach and Capabilities

Yesterday, 9:47 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Google today said the Google Assistant is prepared to grow in a number of significant ways. First, the voice-activated tool is picking up some new languages. Google says Assistant will speak Danish, Dutch, Hindi, Indonesian, Norwegian, Swedish, and Thai on Android phones and iPhones in the next few months, with more languages on the way. Google expects Assistant to understand as many as 30 languages by the end of the year. Further, Google Assistant will be able to understand multiple languages at a time, meaning people can speak both English and German to their Assistant without changing settings. This feature will first be available between English, French, and German, with other languages to follow. Google also noted that it is working more directly from carriers and phone makers to improve Assistant. For example, LG, Sony, and Xiaomi are all prepared to rollout device-specific commands and features based on Google Assistant. Moreover, carriers Sprint, Koodo, Telus, and Vodafone are developing integrations with Assistant. Between the phone makers and carriers, Google expects Assistant to support individual device features, customer service queries, and more. Last, Google Assistant is adding two new tools to help people manage their day. Routines let people issue one command and set off a chain of actions. For example, say "Hey Google, I’m home" and the Assistant on Google Home or phone can turn on the lights, share any home reminders, play your favorite music, and more. Location-based reminders have now expanded to Google Home speakers. People can tell Assistant on their speaker to set reminders for specific locations, such as to get milk when at the store, and the alert will popup when appropriate. Google expects to bring even more features to Assistant throughout the year.

Apple Seeds Third Public Beta of iOS 11.3

Wednesday, 1:23 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple today made iOS 11.3 Beta 3 available to those signed up to test pre-release versions of the platform. iOS 11.3 tweaks performance and includes the battery health meter for certain devices. The tool is meant to help people balance battery life and speed/performance of older iPhones. Other new features of iOS 11.3 include new animoji, new business chat functions in iMessages, and an update version of Apple’s ARKit augmented reality. Of note, the AirPlay 2 features that appeared in the second beta has been removed for the time being. Apple said the final version of iOS 11.3 will be available to all consumers this spring. Earlier this week, the company released iOS 11.2.6 to resolve several bugs. Apple also released tvOS 11.3 Beta 3 and macOS 10.13 Beta 3.

T-Mobile Rolls Out Another Deal for iPhones and Apple Watch

Wednesday, 11:20 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

T-Mobile has a new promotion targeting Apple products. First, T-Mobile is offering a $200 rebate to those who purchase an iPhone X, 8, 8 Plus, 7, or 7 Plus. The rebate is being offered in addition to the value of a trade-in. People who trade a device in at T-Mobile stores will be given instant credit for the trade, though T-Mobile will accept trades sent via mail. Further, T-Mobile is offering a buy-one, get-one deal on iPhones. Customers who buy two iPhones and port-in or activate a new line of service on at least one device can receive the second device for free (via monthly bill credits). Customers will have to pay tax on purchases at the point of sale. People who cancel service will be responsible for paying the balance of any devices on their account. Last, T-Mobile is offering a deal on the Apple Watch 3. Those who buy one Apple Watch 3 can snag a second for half price ($215). These promotions kick off on February 23 and will be available for a limited time.

Facebook Makes It Easy to Add People to Video Calls

Wednesday, 8:20 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Facebook today improved the video call tool in Facebook Messenger by making it a snap to add more people to the conversation. As it works today, creating group video calls requires people to initiate the call as such from the onset. With the new update, people who have an in-progress call with one person can simply add others without interrupting the existing call. A new button makes it easy to find and add other Messenger contacts. Facebook says this new feature is rolling out to its Facebook Messenger app for Android and iOS devices worldwide.

Snapchat Works In Giphy Support, Debuts Tabs

Tuesday, 1:55 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Snapchat is pushing an update to its mobile app that adds several new features, including support for Giphy stickers and Tabs. With Giphy on board, Snapchat users can add GIF stickers to their snaps by tapping the sticker button. The GIF stickers can be placed anywhere on the photo or video, as well as resized and pinned in place. The Tabs tool is meant to help people keep tabs on their preferred stories. The Tabs section is built into the Friends and Discover pages. It lets people sift through the active stories and group chats shared by their friends. Giphy support is available in the latest version of Snapchat for Android and iOS, while the Tabs tool is rolling in phases over the next few weeks.

Apple Releases Third Developer Beta of iOS 11.3

Tuesday, 1:23 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple today made a new beta version of iOS 11.3 available to developers. iOS 11.3 Beta 3 tweaks performance and includes the battery health meter for certain devices. The tool is meant to help people balance battery life and speed/performance of older iPhones. The public version of iOS 11.3 will likely be released later this week. Apple said the final version of iOS 11.3 will be available to all consumers this spring. Earlier this week, the company released iOS 11.2.6 to resolve several bugs.

Nuance Puts Swipe+Dragon In the App Graveyard

Tuesday, 9:10 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Nuance says its Swype+Dragon application for Android and iOS has reached end of development. "Nuance will no longer be updating the Swype+Dragon keyboard for Android. We’re sorry to leave the direct-to-consumer keyboard business, but this change is necessary to allow us to concentrate on developing our AI solutions for sale directly to businesses," confirmed Nuance to XDA Developers. Swype was an early leader in the swiping-keyboard space. It started as an independent app, but was later acquired by Nuance. Nuance continued to develop the app and eventually integrated the swiping keyboard with its own Dragon voice dictation technology. The space is competitive, however, and Google's own GBoard application has garnered quick adoption on many Android devices. Swype+Dragon is still available from the Play Store for the time being, but it will no longer receive updates.

iOS 11.2.6 Fixes Character-Based Messaging Bug

Monday, 4:20 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple today released iOS 11.2.6 to resolve several bugs. Primarily, the minor update tackles an issue where using certain characters could cause apps such as iMessage and WhatsApp to crash. The update also patches a problem where some third-party apps could fail to connect to external accessories. The iOS 11.2.6 is free to download over the air.

Apple Prepping Fix for Message Bug that Crashes iPhones

Feb 16, 2018, 8:21 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple says it has a patch in the works that will counter a bug causing iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, and even Macs to crash. The bug occurs when people receive a message with certain Indian language characters in apps including iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. According to The Verge, Apple will push the patch "soon." This means the bug will be fixed through a minor update (iOS 11.2.x) rather than the larger iOS 11.3 update expected later this spring. Apple also plans to issue patches for macOS and watchOS to resolve the issue on those devices.

Apple Puts Its Foot Down, Will Require Apps Support iPhone X

Feb 15, 2018, 4:48 PM   by Eric M. Zeman   updated Feb 15, 2018, 4:55 PM

Apple today told developers that soon all new apps submitted to the iTunes App Store must support the screen of the latest iPhone. "Starting April 2018, all new iOS apps submitted to the App Store must be built with the iOS 11 SDK, included in Xcode 9 or later," said Apple in an email to developers. "All new apps for iPhone, including universal apps, must support the Super Retina display of iPhone X." The iPhone X display swaps the 16:9 aspect ratio found on the iPhone 6, 7, and 8 for a 2:1 aspect ratio with a notch at the top. It also boosts the resolution beyond full HD. Apps that haven't yet been updated for the iPhone X often have black bars at the top and bottom, which look unsightly. Developers can find the iOS 11 SDK on Apple's developer web site.

Google Maps for iOS Gains One-Tap Access to Commute Info

Feb 15, 2018, 12:47 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Google today updated Google Maps for iOS devices with new real-time tools to make finding information on the go even quicker. iPhone owners can now swipe up when using Google Maps to open three tabs: explore, driving, and transit. These tabs contain information about nearby restaurants, real-time traffic conditions, and train/bus schedules. These features have been available to Google Maps for Android since last year. Google Maps for iOS is free to download from the iTunes App Store.

Microsoft's New Photos Companion App Acts Like AirDrop, But for Windows PCs

Feb 15, 2018, 9:57 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Microsoft's garage team has released a new application that lets Android and iOS users easily transfer photos from their phone to their Windows 10 PC. Photos Companion works in coordination with the Microsoft Photos app on Windows 10 PCs. As long as the iPhone or Android device is on the same network as the PC, users can transfer photos and videos directly from the phone to the computer over WiFi. The app makes use of a QR code in Microsoft Photos on the PC that users scan with the Photos Companion app to initiate the transfer. Photos Companion is free to download from the Google Play Store and the iTunes App Store.

Facebook's Messenger Kids App Lands On Android Devices

Feb 14, 2018, 2:09 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Facebook's messaging application for children, announced late last year, is now available for Android devices via the Google Play Store. Messenger Kids is a mobile app that gives kids under the age of 13 the power to communicate via text and video with approved family members and friends. The app works on smartphones and tablets, but is controlled through the parent's Facebook account. Messenger Kids was first made available to the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, and later Amazon devices. The app is free to download and use.

YouTube TV Gains More Channels, But Price Goes Up

Feb 14, 2018, 9:25 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Subscribers to Google's YouTube TV service now have access to more content in more places for more dollars per month. The live TV and video service is adding a number of Turner-owned stations to its lineup, including Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, CNN, HLN, TBS, TNT, truTV, and Turner Classic Movies. Sports content from NBA TV and MLB Network will follow soon. The service launched with content from 50 channels. There are still glaring omission, particularly with respect to content for children, such as Nickelodeon. Google didn't say what the full new channel lineup is. YouTube TV has expanded is geographical reach to the top 100 markets around the country. Some of the most recent additions include Burlington, Champaign, Charleston, Columbia, Dayton, El Paso, Harlingen, Honolulu, Lexington, Mobile, Petersburg, Plattsburgh, Richmond, Scranton, Springfield, Syracuse, Wichita, and Wilkes-Barre. These content and market expansions come at a cost. Google plans to raise the price from $35 per month to $40 per month beginning March 15. Customers who sign up before then will be grandfathered in at the lower price. YouTube TV is available on Android and iOS phones and tablets, as well as the Apple TV and Roku players. Subscribers have access to live television, six sub-accounts, and unlimited DVR recordings.

Verizon to Start Locking Its Phones Again to Fight Thieves

Feb 12, 2018, 8:26 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Verizon Wireless plans to lock its handsets in order to cut down on theft. Verizon claims its unlocked phones are a big target, often stolen when in transit to Verizon stores or to consumers. Unlocked phones, particularly Apple iPhones, are easier to sell on the black market because they can be used virtually anywhere. Verizon's devices will be locked when first flashed with the operating system and will remain locked until the point of purchase. When consumers buy the phone, a software update will unlock the device. Later this spring, however, Verizon will keep phones locked to its network for an unknown period of time — even after activation. This move will prevent people from signing up for service with fake identities and then absconding with the device. "We're taking steps to combat this theft and reduce fraud," said Tami Erwin, executive vice president of wireless operations for Verizon, in a statement provided to CNET. "These steps will make our phones exponentially less desirable to criminals." Verizon claims consumers won't really be impacted by the change in policy. The company says it will unlock phones upon request after the initial locked period expires, even if the phone is not yet fully paid for. It will also continue to allow customers to bring their own unlocked handsets to its network. Verizon didn't say how soon the policy change will go into effect. Verizon has sold unlocked devices since it launched 4G LTE. AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile all require people to pay the balance of their phone and wait 14 to 60 days before they'll agree to unlock it.

VLC Video Player Adds Chromecast, HDR, 360-Degree Video

Feb 10, 2018, 11:10 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

VideoLAN this week updated its open-source VLC media player with a significant number of new features. VLC version 3.0 adds support for Chromecast, which lets people push video from their handset to any device that can receive casted content. Other additions include support for 360-degree video and 3D sound playback, HDMI passthrough, HDR quality video, a handful of new codes, and much more. VLC 3.0 is available for a variety of mobile and desktop platforms, including Android and iOS. The app is free to download from the Google Play Store and the iTunes App Store.

Snapchat Users Can Now Create Their Own Lenses and Filters

Feb 8, 2018, 5:14 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Snapchat today made it possible for people to create their very own lenses and filters that can be used in pre-defined areas. Custom filters, for example, can be created by people holding events, such as weddings or birthday parties. They design the filter, create an area on the map in which the filter is available, and anyone who attends the event will be able to use the filter while on site. People can create custom lenses in much the same way. Geographic areas can be as small as 20,000 square feet or as large as 5 million square feet. The price of the filters/lenses starts at $10 and increases based on the size of the area to which they are being offered. Snapchat doesn't expect individuals to use the new custom filters or lenses everyday; rather, it expects organizers and brands will use them to call attention to specific events. The tools are available on the web and via the iOS Snapchat app.

Apple Releases iOS 11.3 Public Beta 2

Feb 7, 2018, 1:09 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple today made iOS 11.3 Beta 2 available to public testers. This build tweaks performance and adds Apple's promised battery health meter. The tool is meant to help people balance battery life and speed/performance of older iPhones. The new feature is a response to news that Apple slows down the performance of older iPhones to account for the degradation of lithium ion batteries. Apple said the final version of iOS 11.3 will be available to all consumers this spring.

Apple Weighing Refunds for Those Who Paid Full Price for iPhone Battery Replacements

Feb 6, 2018, 3:23 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple might give some customers a refund. The company is mulling whether or not it should offer cash back to those who paid full price to replace the battery of their older iPhone. Until December 2017, Apple charged $79 to replace iPhone batteries. The company admitted late last year that it slowed down some older iPhones in order to prevent random shutdowns. Replacing the battery of said older iPhones mitigates the speed/performance issue. Apple has since dropped the price of replacing batteries by $50, from $79 to $29. The company may offer $50 refunds to people who coughed up the full $79 price. The information was revealed in a letter Apple sent to Sen. John Thune, who requested more details about Apple's actions concerning the iPhone slowdown kerfuffle. "Apple has promised the committee some follow-up information, including an answer about additional steps it may take to address customers who purchased a new battery at full price," indicated Thune. Apple says it is seeing strong demand for replacement batteries at its retail stores. The company is also offering a software tool to customers, which will arrive in iOS 11.3 later this year, to help balance speed and battery life.

Apple Drops Second iOS 11.3 Beta with Battery Health Meter

Feb 6, 2018, 1:54 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple today made several new beta builds of its various operating systems available to developers. Chief among them is iOS 11.3 Beta 2. This second developer build tweaks performance and adds Apple's promised battery health meter. The tool is meant to help people balance battery life and speed/performance of older iPhones. The new feature is a response to news that Apple slows down the performance of older iPhones to account for the degradation of lithium ion batteries. Apple also updated tvOS 11.3 to Beta 2. Public versions of these betas will likely be released later this week. Apple said the final version of iOS 11.3 will be available to all consumers this spring.

Apple Selling Refurbished iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus at Discount

Feb 2, 2018, 8:32 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple has added refurbished units of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus to its online store. Refurbished iPhones are given a new battery, a new outer shell, and are certified by Apple. They carry the same one-year factory warranty available to new iPhones, and can be protected via AppleCare. Savings varies between $50 and $70 off the cost of a comparable new iPhone 7. For example, the refurbished iPhone 7 (32 GB) costs $499 while a new one costs $549. iPhone 7 Plus buyers will save between $70 and $80 if they select a refurbished unit rather than a new one. The refurbished units are only available online. They are sold unlocked and SIM free.

Intragram Adds 'Type Mode' to Stories

Feb 1, 2018, 12:25 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Instagram today expanded the feature set of its mobile app with a new text-focused way to create posts. The Type mode in stories let's people post just text with no underlying photo or video. The tool supports changeable background colors and fonts, and allows users to highlight words or phrases. Like other content added to the stories section, typed posts within stories will disappear after 24 hours. Type mode is available in the latest version of Instagram's app for Android and iOS devices. The change coincides with new advertising behaviors. Instagram today also gave brands more options to cram advertisements into the app. Specifically, brands can now create multi-part stories that require multiple taps to skip past when scrolling through stories. Users can expect to see the expanded advertising format appear in Instagram stories in the coming weeks.

Apple's iPhone Slowdown Kerfuffle Raises Flags at DOJ, SEC

Jan 30, 2018, 1:54 PM   by Eric M. Zeman   updated Jan 30, 2018, 2:56 PM

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission have launched investigations into Apple's treatment of older iPhones, according to a report. Apple admitted in December that it uses software to reduce the performance of select iPhones in order to compensate for aging lithium-ion batteries. iPhone owners have long complained that their devices slow down over time. Apple contends that it limits performance in order to prevent older iPhones from randomly shutting down as their batteries deliver uneven power under duress. At issue is how Apple communicated this behavior to its users. The company did not disclose that it slowed down older iPhones until last month, despite engaging in the behavior for years. The government agencies likely believe Apple should have been more upfront about the practice. Apple said it will allow those who own older iPhones to score replacement batteries at lower costs ($29 instead of $79). Replacing the battery mitigates the performance issue. Apple did not immediately comment on word of the government agencies' investigations.

Immersion and Apple Come to Terms Over Touch Patents

Jan 29, 2018, 12:41 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Immersion Corporation today said it has reached an accord with Apple concerning touch feedback patents. Immersion sued Apple in 2016 over the iPhone's use of touch and haptic technology. Later, the U.S. International Trade Commission agreed to weigh the case. Immersion now says it has entered into settlement and license agreements with Apple. The terms are confidential.

Twitter Says It Has Improved the Way It Crops Images

Jan 26, 2018, 8:42 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Photos that appear on Twitter should begin to look better over the coming weeks. The company says it has changed the algorithms it uses to automatically crop images and the results are much improved. Before this week, the company used a face-detection method to determine which portion of the image to show in users' feeds. Twitter eventually came to realize not all images contain faces, and even when they did the face-detection method sometimes focused on the wrong face or region of the photo. Moving forward, the company is employing a new method in determining how to crop photos. It is focusing on salient image regions, which are areas of high-contrast that contain objects such as people or animals that human eyes often seek first when viewing pictures. Scanning image saliency is often slow, so Twitter created several new techniques, called knowledge distillation and pruning, to speed up the process. The result, says Twitter, is a system that can scan photos for saliency in real-time as users post them. Photos with better cropping will appear on Twitter.com, as well as on the Android and iOS Twitter apps.

Apple Release iOS 11.3 Public Beta 1

Jan 25, 2018, 1:21 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple today made iOS 11.3 Beta One available to public beta testers. iOS 11.3 adds a host of significant new features to iPhones and iPads, including control over the battery, new animoji, business chat, health records, Apple Music videos, and improved augmented reality. Apple released iOS 11.2.5 to the general public earlier this week. Apple typically tests five to six betas, distributed every other week, before finalizing iOS releases. iOS 11.3 isn’t expected to reach most users until later this spring.

FitBit Says Pebble Owners Will Get Service Through June 30

Jan 24, 2018, 4:35 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

FitBit today extended the life cycle of the Pebble smartwatch by six months. In December 2016, when FitBit acquired certain assets from Pebble, it said it would support Pebble smartwatches through the end of 2017. Today, the company said it would give Pebble smartwatch owners another six months, keeping most services up and running through June 30, 2018. After June 20, the Pebble app store, the Pebble forum, voice recognition features, SMS and email replies, and timeline pins from third-party apps will all cease to work. Other hardware functions will remain intact. Pebble said the Pebble mobile app will remain functional with Android 8.1 Oreo and 11.x, respectively, but warned that future updates to Android and iOS may break any remaining Pebble Watch functions. Despite the reprieve, FitBit is asking Pebble Watch owners and developers alike to move on and adopt the FitBit Ionic smartwatch. FitBit is offering owners of the Pebble Watch a $50 discount off the purchase of an Ionic watch.

First iOS 11.3 Beta Available to Developers

Jan 24, 2018, 1:29 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple today made iOS 11.3 Beta One available to registered developers. iOS 11.3 adds a host of significant new features to iPhones and iPads, including control over the battery, new animoji, business chat, health records, Apple Music videos, and improved augmented reality. Apple released iOS 11.2.5 to the general public earlier this week. Apple typically tests five to six betas, distributed every other week, before finalizing iOS releases. iOS 11.3 isn’t expected to reach most users until later this spring.

Apple Says iOS 11.3 to Add Battery Tool, More Animoji, Better AR

Jan 24, 2018, 9:11 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple today previewed iOS 11.3, a system update that will give iPhone owners with a significant number of new tools and features. First up, iOS 11.3 provides iPhone users with more control over their handset's battery performance. As promised, people will be able to asses the health of their iPhone's battery, for example, to see whether or not it needs to be replaced. The tool will also allow people to turn off Apple's power management function that is used to prevent battery shutdowns at the expense of speed. iOS 11.3 introduces four new animoji: a bear, lion, dragon, and skull, making for a total of 16. These will only be available to the iPhone X. Apple has updated its augmented reality developer tool, ARKit, to version 1.5. This gives developers even more power to create AR content. iOS 11.3 will improve augmented reality for iPhones by expanding the ability to map surfaces to include horizontal and vertical surfaces. This means AR apps will be able to place virtual objects on walls and doors, in addition to floors and tables. Apple says the iPhone's camera is now able to offer 50% greater resolution when shooting AR, and can take advantage of auto-focus for sharper results. iOS 11.3 adds a new tool to iMessage that will allow iPhone owners to chat with select businesses. Some early adopters include Discover, Hilton, Lowe’s, and Wells Fargo. Through this new business chat feature, people will be able to converse with service representatives, schedule appointments, and make purchases via Apple Pay. Apple didn't say if this tool is powered by bots. iOS 11.3 adds a new Health Records feature that will let health providers share patient health data in an easy-to-digest format. Patients will be able to collect their health records from their various institutions and view them in a single place on the iPhone. The health records support notifications for lab results, medications, conditions, and more. Apple says this data is encrypted and password-protected. Other features headed to iOS 11.3 include the addition of music videos to Apple Music, more video content within Apple News, software authentication for HomeKit devices, and support for Advanced Mobile Location so more accurate location data is made available to emergency services during 911 calls. Apple says iOS 11.3 will be available to developers later today, with the broad rollout expected later the spring.

EU Socks Qualcomm with $1.23B Fine over Apple Baseband Deal

Jan 24, 2018, 8:15 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

The European Union has levied a fine of $1.23 billion against Qualcomm, alleging the chipmaking used its influence to score lucrative chip deals with Apple between 2011 and 2016. The EU says Qualcomm gave Apple massive discounts on baseband chips, the components that allow smartphones and tablets to speak to cell towers, so that Apple would not use components from competing firms. The five-year stretch during which Apple used only Qualcomm radios led to the latter's rise as the dominant supplier in the industry, when it achieved 90% marketshare. EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager claims Qualcomm "illegally shut out rivals from the market. In particular it has made a difference because we are talking about the one of the biggest and most important customers in this market," said Vestager, noting that smaller firms looked up to Apple and its business choices. Evidence suggests Apple considered opting for chips from firms other than Qualcomm and yet it didn't because it would have been financially detrimental to do so. Once the deal expired in 2016 and Apple began using baseband chips from other suppliers (in the case of the iPhone, Intel), competition in the space began to turn around. The EU sees the $1.23 billion fine as a deterrent to convince other firms to avoid similar behavior. Qualcomm denied the charges and filed an appeal.

iOS 11.2.5 Released with HomePod Support

Jan 23, 2018, 3:09 PM   by Eric M. Zeman   updated Jan 23, 2018, 4:32 PM

Apple today made iOS 11.2.5 available to iPhones and iPads. The update primarily adds support for Apple's forthcoming HomePod speaker. It also makes it possible for iPhone and iPad owners to ask Siri to read the day's news. The news feature is initially only available in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. iOS 11.2.5 also fixes bugs and smoothes over performance. The update is free to download and install. Apple also released macOS 10.13.3, watchOS 4.2.2, tvOS 11.2.5, and macOS Server 5.5. The macOS update, in particular, patches significant security holes, while the others perform general bug fixes.

Instagram Users Can Now Slap GIFs On Top of Their Stories

Jan 23, 2018, 11:30 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Instagram today announced several new features heading to its mobile app that will improve the experience of sharing stories. To start, users can now place GIFs on top of any photo or video shared via their stories. Instagram says hundreds of thousands of GIFs are available thanks to new integration with GIPHY. Further, Instagram users will soon be able to upload images and video of any shape or size to their story. As is it today, content shared via stories is limited to the portrait orientation. Support for GIFs is available in Instagram v29 for Android and iOS today. The improved support for new photo/video shapes within stories will arrive in a few weeks. Earlier this month, Instagram made it possible for users to share presence and/or status within the DM feature. People can see when their friends were last active in the app. This feature is turned on by default, meaning those who don’t want to share their activity with others will need to dive into the settings menu to deactivate the function.

Amazon’s Alexa App Adds Support for Voice Commands

Jan 19, 2018, 1:40 PM   by Eric M. Zeman   updated Jan 19, 2018, 1:52 PM

Amazon has updated its Alexa mobile app for Android devices with the ability to support voice requests. Until today, the app was merely a tool used to manage in-home, Alexa-powered devices such as the Echo and Echo Dot. Now, Android smartphone owners can issue voice commands to Alexa from their smartphone in order to access playlists or tap into Alexa’s various skills. The app does not support wake word functionality, which means people will need to open the app in order to make voice-based requests. The updated Alexa app with voice control is available from the Google Play Store and the Amazon App Store. An update for Alexa for iOS devices is still in the works. Phone makers HTC and Huawei have already taken steps to add Alexa to their devices, such as the U11 and Mate series handsets. This update brings Alexa voice functionality to devices without special hardware requirements. Alexa is free to download.

Xfinity Rolls Out BYOD Program for Select iPhones

Jan 18, 2018, 9:17 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Xfinity Mobile today said customers can now use their old iPhones on its service. The company introduced a bring-your-own-device program for select, unlocked iPhones. Xfinity Internet subscribers can bring their unlocked iPhone to an Xfinity Mobile store to have it activated on the mobile network. Xfinity says incompatible devices may be traded in for a gift card that can help defray the cost of upgrading to a new device. Xfinity Mobile, run by Comcast, will be able to accept BYOD phones from more manufacturers later this year. Xfinity offers two basic plan, by the gigabyte or unlimited. The former costs $12 per 1 GB of data, which is shared across all lines. The latter costs $45 per month per line for up to 20 GB of high-speed service. Xfinity Mobile does not charge per-line access fees. Taxes and fees are included in the pricing. Xfinity operates on Verizon's network, but offloads data traffic to Comcast-owned WiFi hotspots when they are available. Xfinity says it has 18 million such hotspots positioned around the country.

iOS Update to Let iPhone Owners Keep Phones Running Fast

Jan 18, 2018, 8:07 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple plans to give iPhone owners more control over their devices, particularly the battery and performance, says CEO Tim Cook. Speaking to ABCNews, Cook addressed the issue concerning older iPhone batteries. The company admitted late last year that it slows down the performance of some devices in order to prevent them from shutting down. End users often complain that their devices feel slow after updating the software. "At the heart of any decision we make is the user, and we felt it would be better to take something off of the performance to prevent [iPhones from restarting]. We deeply apologize for anybody who thinks we have some other kind of motivation," said Cook. Because the problem pertains to the battery, Apple reduced the cost of replacement batteries from $79 to $29. Putting a new battery in an old phone mitigates the issue. Apple plans to take things a step further. It will soon give people more insight into the health of their iPhone's battery. "We've listened to the feedback very carefully and in addition to giving everyone a very low price on a battery if they'd like to get a new battery, we're also going to, in a developer release that happens next month, give people the visibility of the health of their battery. It's very very transparent. This hasn't been done before. We will tell someone we're reducing your performance by some amount in order to not have an unexpected restart and, if you don't want it, you can turn it off." Cook didn't provide specifics as to how the battery tool will work. The company tests new features in developer betas ahead of releasing them to the general public. Apple did not say when the feature might reach all iPhones.

Sprint's Direct Connect Plus PTT Service Is Now Live

Jan 16, 2018, 10:58 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Sprint recently launched its Direct Connect Plus push-to-talk service. Direct Connect Plus powers walkie-talkie style conversations with instant connections between users. The service relies on Kodiak's LTE network-based technology, rather than Sprint's discontinued iDEN network. It supports one-to-one and group conversations. Features include presence status, support for tablets, and corporate control over contacts and groups. Sprint's Direct Connect Plus service is available to most Android and iOS smartphones and tablets via mobile app for $5 per month. Several handsets in Sprint's line-up, including the Kyocera DuraXTP, DuraForce Pro, and DuraTR, include physical PTT buttons and native support for Direct Connect Plus. The service is aimed at business customers.

Facebook's Messenger Kids App Reaches Amazon Devices

Jan 12, 2018, 8:45 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Facebook's messaging application for children, announced late last year, is now available from the Amazon App Store. The application can be installed and used on Amazon's Fire tablets. Messenger Kids is a mobile app that gives kids under the age of 13 the power to communicate via text and video with approved family members and friends. The app works on smartphones and tablets, but is controlled through the parent's Facebook account. Messenger Kids was first made available to the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. The app has yet to reach Android devices, though it is expected to soon. The app is free to download and use from Amazon.

Senator Wants Answers from Apple Over iPhone Slow-Down

Jan 10, 2018, 1:56 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple has caught the ire of Sen. John Thune (R) who wants to know more about Apple's throttling of older iPhones. The company admitted last month that it sometimes slowed down older iPhones with aging batteries in order to prevent shutdowns. Apple insisted the strategy was meant to keep phones up and running, rather than allowing them to crash and reboot from overheated batteries. Others don't see it that way and the company has been the subject of harsh criticism. A number of lawsuits have been filed against Apple in the U.S. and other regions. In a letter sent to Apple CEO Tim Cook, Thune said, "The large volume of consumer criticism leveled against the company in light of its admission suggests that there should have been better transparency.” Thune serves as the chairman of a U.S. Senate committee overseeing business issues. He believes Apple should have been more upfront with consumers with respect to this business practice. In response to the issue, Apple dropped the price of replacing iPhone batteries from $79 to $29. Replacing batteries in older iPhones mitigates the need to slow down their performance. Apple has yet to publicly comment on Thune's request for more information.

Apple Plans to Add More Parental Controls for Protecting Kids

Jan 9, 2018, 1:09 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple this week said it will improve the tools parents can use to control how much time their children spend on iPhones and iPads. The move is a response to investor criticism that suggested screen time is highly damaging to kids. “We have new features and enhancements planned for the future, to add functionality and make these tools even more robust," said Apple in a statement provided to the Wall Street Journal. "We think deeply about how our products are used and the impact they have on users and the people around them. We take this responsibility very seriously and we are committed to meeting and exceeding our customers’ expectations, especially when it comes to protecting kids." Apple already provides a series of parental controls for iPhone and iPad use, such as moderating what content is accessible by children and what apps are downloaded. Apple did not specifically state what new features it plans to introduce.

iOS 11.2.2 Tackles iPhone and iPad Security

Jan 8, 2018, 2:01 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Apple today released iOS 11.2.2 in order to patch several significant security problems. Specifically, iOS 11.2.2 includes security improvements to Safari and WebKit to mitigate the effects of the Spectre vulnerability discovered earlier this month. Apple recommends all iPhone and iPad owners install the update as soon as possible. Apple issued a similar update to its macOS desktop software.

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