Saturday, 19 April 2014

3D shopping and more: 5 features that an Amazon phone might offer

A report this week in The Wall Street Journal that Amazon is planning to release a smartphone has prompted industry analysts and technology blogs to muse about what the device might offer.
Amazon hasn't confirmed that it has plans for a smartphone. Introducing such a device would be tough in a crowded market dominated by Apple and Samsung. Even so, innovations like the Kindle Fire and Prime membership program demonstrate that the online retailing giant has a knack for using its massive size and marketing budget to capitalize on gaps in the marketplace.
Some unconfirmed reports say the phone could have a 3D interface and multiple front-facing cameras.
Here's a look at five features technology experts believe Amazon might include on its smartphone.
1. 3D shopping
A 3D interface doesn't require special glasses could have a lot of uses. For example, when you're shopping online, you could pull up a 3D image of sneakers or a jacket and see all of the features easier, suggests Bill Menezes, principal research analyst at Gartner. Another possibility: you could scan your living room to make a 3D rendering. Then, when you're out furniture shopping, take a picture and digitally insert the product into the rendering to see if it fits.
"You could see 'Oh that's how that purple couch looks in the bedroom, I think I'll buy it,' and you avoid buyer's remorse," says Ramon Llamas, research manager of research firm IDC's mobile phones team.
2. Enhanced games
Amazon is rapidly expanding into the gaming arena with its Amazon Game Studio and video game offerings on its new streaming device, Amazon Fire TV.
"A phone could be a way to help them potentially push more on the game front," says CRT Capital analyst Neil Doshi.
The phone's purported 3D interface could be a way to offer a more robust gaming experience.
3. Seamless grocery shopping
Amazon has been testing a Wi-Fi wand called Amazon Dash that simplifies barcode scanning. Such capabilities could be included in the Amazon phone to improve on current barcode scanning apps. Combine that with Amazon's same-day grocery service Amazon Fresh, currently in testing in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and grocery shopping could be drastically simplified. Rather than dragging a shopping cart through aisles -or even scrolling through a list of products online- a quick wave of the phone in your pantry could have all your groceries at your doorstep within hours.
"It's an opportunity to continue to tie users into the Amazon ecosystem," Doshi says.
4. Free streaming video
IDC's Llamas suggests one of the phone's selling points could be a free ad-supported version of Amazon's current instant Video service, which is included in the $99-per-year Prime membership. The hypothetical service could be viewed on the phone, a Kindle or on Amazon's Fire TV but not elsewhere like Xbox or Roku, he says, which could be a selling point for the phone.
5. Competitive pricing
Menezes at Gartner speculates that the phone could be offered on different price tiers. One tier could be a one-time payment for the phone that offers Amazon's apps and services but a limited number of other features. A higher price tier could feature a monthly bill and a phone with more bells and whistles.
It's difficult to be competitive on price in the cutthroat phone market. But as Amazon has shown with its tablets, the company is willing to deliver high-quality hardware at a loss in order to undercut competitors like Apple and put its devices in the hands of people who will use them to buy Amazon's goods and services.

How to reduce the number of ads in Gmail

Google updated its terms of service this week to clarify the manner in which software automatically scans and analyzes the content of your emails so the company can deliver what it calls "tailored advertising," in addition to ferreting out spam and malware. When you signed up for your Gmail account, you consented to such things.
If you've been using Gmail for any length of time, however, then you've likely learned to ignore the ads it displays above, below, to the side, or directly inside your inbox. Perhaps with Google's terms of service in the news this week, you've given new thought to the ads you see in Gmail. There is no way to stop some of the ads from appearing, but if you dig around in settings, you can opt out of targeted ads. And you can eliminate one ad that sits at the top of every message you read when using accessing Gmail via a desktop or laptop.
Perhaps you don't like the targeted ads because they are a constant reminder of Google's ever-vigilant scanning of your personal correspondence. Or perhaps you just find targeted ads harder to ignore than ads that aren't tailored to you and your interests. Whatever your reason, you can opt out of what Google refers to as "interest-based ads" and receive contextual ads that may be based on the message you are currently reading but not on the content of your inbox on the whole as well as your Google search history and other account information.
Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET
To opt out, head to Google's Ad Settings page. Scroll down to the "Opt-out settings" area and click the "Opt out" link for "Opt out of interest-based ads on Google."
Next, let's get rid of the narrow banner text ad that sits above every Gmail message you open. You've probably blocked it out, but there is an easy way to eliminate it altogether. Click on the gear icon in the upper-right corner and choose Settings. Then click on the Web Clips tab and uncheck the box for "Show my web clips above the Inbox."
Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET
Now, as the informative post on WonderHowTo explains, you can also remove any ads that appear as messages in the Promotions tab of your Gmail inbox, but to do so, you have to delete the Promotions tab. In my case, I don't see such ads in my Promotion tab, and deleting it would unleash a wave of messages to my primary inbox that I'd rather keep quarantined in the Promotions tab. If you'd like to get rid of the Promotions tab, go to the Inbox tab in settings and you'll be able to uncheck a box for the Promotions tab.
Alternatively, Chrome users can use the Gmelius extension, which lets you customize what elements show up on Gmail and where.

What's hot? Google Trends now tells your inbox

Google introduces email subscriptions for Google Trends, which could kneecap the similar Google Alerts service.Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET
Are you a space fan, but you had no idea that Space X was launching a rocket today? The new subscription feature in Google Trends that debuted on Friday can help you stay on top of the latest news and Internet fads.
The subscribe feature works for any search topic, as well as the what's trending-style Hot Searches, ormonthly top chart for the US. But instead of getting deluged with updates, you can adjust how often your subscriptions arrive. For Hot Searchers, those frequency rates are "as-it-happens," once a day, or once a week. Monthly charts are emailed when there's a new one posted. Search topic subscriptions can be limited to a specific country and can be set to arrive once a week or once a month.
Google did not directly address the question of whether they're killing off Google Alerts, but for now it appears that Alerts will remain separate but active alongside Google Trends subscriptions. Google representative Roya Soleimani explained the differences between the two similar services.The new subscription service sounds similar to Google Alerts, a notification service introduced in 2007 that emails you when certain terms or phrases appear on the Web. It's been rumored that Google Alerts could be shut down in the near future,TechCrunch reported. However, Google just did a major overhaul of the look of Google Alerts emails in January. Killing off the service so soon after a redesign would be unusual.
"Google Trends notifications tell you about what people are searching for, whereas Google Alerts tell you about new content published to the web," she said. "We expect people may choose to subscribe to both Google Alerts for web content and Google Trends for web searches, and we look forward to getting feedback about how they enjoy the new Trends feature."

Get the most out of the Galaxy S5's camera

If you're like most people, including myself, you probably take tons of pictures with your smartphone. From trips out with our friends, to our lunch, to selfies, our handsets have become our main tool for snapping photos and capturing our lives.
And while its new camera tricks are nifty and useful, some of them aren't so intuitive to use. To help you get off on the right foot, I'll walk you through some basic steps to get the most out of the GS5's camera.Mobile manufacturers know this as well, and in a bid to keep their top-tier devices competitive, they pack tons of editing features into their cameraphones. Samsung's latest flagship, the Galaxy S5, is no exception.

1. Check your defaults

Everyone has different tastes and styles when it comes to what they want out of a photo, and Samsung's default options may not be what you like. So be sure to check your default settings and tailor them to your preferences. Even if you don't consider yourself to be a serious photographer, it's good to dig into them anyway, so you know exactly what you're getting.
To access these settings, tap the little gear icon in the corner that appears on the camera's viewfinder. Then, scroll though the menu and tap the settings you want to turn on or off or adjust.
The GS5 camera settings, with the shortcut dash on the farthest left.Lynn La/CNET
For settings you anticipate changing frequently, you can keep shortcuts directly accessible on the viewfinder's dash. Just long-tap any of these settings and drag them to the dash. HDR and Selective Focus are already listed as shortcuts, but you can swap them out. You can have up to three settings, so make them count.
Some settings that Samsung turns off by default that you should note are recording Ultra HD video, and video stabilization. You might not want them on by default either, but keep this in mind.

2. Make the HDR toggle your friend

You've probably seen HDR, or High Dynamic Range, mode before on several smartphones, but the GS5 now has the option to toggle real-time feedback of what your HDR image would look like before you take a picture.
HDR combines several shots taken at varying levels of exposures and composites it into one image. This can result in really striking, almost surreal, photos that have great contrast.
With HDR, both Donald and the buildings outside his window are appropriately exposed.Lynn La/CNET
Sometimes, though, it can also create unnatural images that you might not like, so be sure to check by tapping on and off the HDR icon, which is represented by a little Venn diagram-looking icon. Once you like what you see, click the shutter.

3. Get to know the different photo effects

Third, familiarize yourself with photo effects. You can access some directly from the camera, nestled in the settings menu. It's indicated by the magic wand icon and you can preview what the filters will look like in real time. There are a number of effects to choose from (oil paste, cartoon, tint, and so on), but if you know you'll never use some of these effects, scroll to the end of the menu. Then, tap on "manage effects" and uncheck the filters you wish to hide.
Clockwise from left: The original cabbage photo, then applying the Pop Art, Light Flare, and Impressionists photo effects.Lynn La/CNET
Other effects can be applied after you click the shutter, which are accessible through the photo manager. Just go to your gallery, tap on the icon that has a Polaroid next to a pencil, and additional options will appear. Here, you can see a small "enhance" button. If you tap on that, your picture will be automatically edited and tweaked.
Near this circle is the wand icon that I mentioned before. Tap on this to view more filters like Pop Art, Impressionists, and Light Flare (this effect adds two lens flares to your picture and turns it into a low-budget J.J. Abrams movie).

4. Have fun with selective focus

Selective focus is a new GS5 feature that lets you change the focal point of your picture. By manipulating the depth of field, you can make pictures look more professional and even dramatic. We've seen this before in other handsets, like the Nokia Lumia 1020 and the LG G Pro 2, and it works the same way here. Because you have to turn this option on before taking a photo, it's good to have an idea about this feature while you're shooting.
To turn it on, tap the icon with the two human heads in the camera viewfinder. For best results, stand at most 1.5 feet away from the closest object. The object itself should also be at least 4.5 feet away from the background.
Tap on the object you want in your foreground, and click the shutter. It'll take a few moments for the handset to process. Afterward, head to your gallery. To initiate selective focus, click on the heads icon again.
With selective focus, you can choose to sharpen only a nearby object, the background, or the entire image.Lynn La/CNET
Three options will emerge: Near, Far, and Pan focus. Near will bring your closest object into focus and blur out everything behind it. Far sharpens only the background, and Pan puts everything in focus. When you're finished, tap Done to save your changes.
Remember that while these are four basic things to keep in mind to get the most out of your camera, there are tons more editing features packed inside this device,. This should be enough to get you started, but if you have additional tips or questions, let me know in the reader comments below.

Six ways Apple can fix what's 'broken' about the iPhone

Designer Martin Hajek's renderings of possible iPhone 6 models.Martin Hajek
Apple will announce at least one new iPhone this year, perhaps as early as the WWDC in June. Based on the latest rumors and the natural evolution of the product, a larger screen is all but definite.
But what else? Except for the fingerprint sensor built into the iPhone 5S, Apple hasn't shown much in the way of actual innovation for the past couple years. Meanwhile, the latest smartphones from the likes of Google, HTC, Motorola, and Samsung have piled on cool features like hands-free Google Now, depth-sensing cameras, water-resistant cases, and kid modes.
That stuff is all well and good, and I'd like to think Apple will cook up at least a few surprises for the new iPhones. But unlike many users, I'm not itching for things like NFC, upgraded Wi-Fi, or even inductive charging (though I certainly wouldn't turn them down).
Rather, many of the improvements I'm hoping for can be handled with software, and perhaps even handed down to existing iPhone models. Because, let's face it, iOS is seriously lagging behind Androidin some key areas.
Here, then, are six ways Apple can fix what's "broken" about the iPhone.

1. Choice of keyboards

Gesture keyboards, like the Nuance Swype, are awesome.Nuance
My recent dalliance with Android taught me one thing: Apple's keyboard is terrible, at least compared with the likes of Google's gesture-powered keyboard (to say nothing of third-party equivalents like Nuance's Swype Keyboard).
In my experience, "drawing" a word was significantly faster and easier than tapping it out letter by letter. I can understand Apple not wanting to allow third-party keyboards, which goes against its unified-experience mentality, but there's no reason not to bake a gesture-keyboard option into the OS. Give users a choice, Apple!

2. More camera controls, not more megapixels

iOS doesn't offer much in the way of camera controls.Apple
Eight is enough -- by which I mean megapixels, the number packed into the iPhone 5, 5C, and 5S cameras. Those phones already take pretty good (some would say great) pictures, so an iPhone 6doesn't need more megapixels. (Indeed, as we've discussed before, when it comes to smartphones,more megapixels isn't always better.)
Instead, how about providing more shooting and editing controls? Save for toggling HDR mode and engaging AE/AF lock (by tapping and holding in a specific area), iOS offers almost no camera controls. You can't manually adjust exposure or white balance. You can't lock the aforementioned AE/AF separately from the focus. There are no scene modes to better accommodate things like low light and sports. Heck, how about a timer?
Apple could easily add such features to iOS 8. The hardware is fine; now fix the software.

3. Offline voice recognition

One of the great, underrated features of iOS is voice dictation: Wherever the keyboard appears, you can tap the little microphone icon, say your piece, and presto, it's magically transcribed into text. And let's not forget Siri, the Gal Friday who can recognize your instructions to "remind me to buy milk when I get to Kroger."
Just one problem: None of this works when you're offline. Even "local" commands like the aforementioned reminder require an Internet connection. Why? Android's voice-recognition system works just fine (and quite a bit faster) whether you're connected or not. This is silly. Android is totally schooling ya, iOS!

4. Extended biometrics

Touch ID would be even better if it worked with third-party apps and services.Apple
The fingerprint sensor built into the iPhone 5s will undoubtedly make its way into the iPhone 6 as well. It's a cool feature, especially for approving App Store purchases. But it doesn't go nearly far enough.
See, password security as we know it is flat-out broken. Look no further than the Heartbleed debacle for evidence, or last year's Target breach. Even if you use "secure" passwords or passphrases, a stolen database renders them fairly useless.
But imagine if you needed a fingerprint ID to, say, buy something from Amazon. Or sign into your Evernote account. Apple's Touch ID could facilitate all that and more, if only the company would allow other apps to leverage the technology. It would, I believe, usher in a new era of smartphone-powered security -- and give iPhones quite an edge over the competition.

5. Smarter use of power

Everyone says they want bigger batteries, but what they really want is longer battery life. Although the iPhone 6 will be physically larger, and therefore accommodate a bigger cell, the larger screen will consume more power -- so that might end up a wash.
Instead, Apple should focus more on power management, much the same way Windows does. Why not add more granular power controls into the OS? How about different power modes that reflect different activities? One for stuff that doesn't require a lot of processor muscle (email, music, etc.), another for stuff that does (such as gaming and video).
And couldn't the iPhone switch into an ultra-low-power mode at night? Track your usage habits to determine when to throttle up the processor and when to throttle back? It seems to me iOS could get a lot smarter about battery consumption, effectively squeezing more juice out of the same old battery.

6. Okay, one hardware wish

Apple should work with a company like Liquipel to make all iPhones waterproof.Liquipel
Lots of users are clamoring for more storage, near-field communication (NFC) capabilities, built-in infrared, and other such hardware amenities, but to me those are superfluous. My one hardware wish (besides a bigger screen) is a dunk-proof iPhone. I want Apple to partner with HzO or Liquipel and make every iPhone waterproof inside and out.
I've seen this in action at CES: Once coated with whatever space-age polymer these companies use, an iPhone can not only survive a drop in the toilet, a run through the washing machine, or a dip in the pool, but also keep functioning all the while. (Obviously the pool example is the only one that really matters.)
The aftermarket cost for such an application costs about $50, meaning Apple could probably do it large-scale for much less. And I'd gladly pay an extra $10-20 for a fully waterproof phone. Wouldn't you?
Thus ends my unconventional iPhone 6 wish list. Hit the comments and let me know what you're hoping for in the next iPhone, if not the next iOS.