Tech review: Apple HomePod review – Siri lets down best sounding smart speaker

It’s the wifi speaker to beat in terms of audio but being locked in to Apple services is frustrating and its voice assistant is lacking.


After much anticipation, and speculation that Apple has missed the boat and handed victory to Amazon’s champion Echo, the HomePod smart speaker is finally here. But is it actually any good? And why exactly does it cost four times as much as an Echo?

The HomePod is a voice-controlled speaker that listens out for its wakeword “Hey, Siri” and then starts streaming what you say to Apple to interpret your commands and play whatever it is you wish. The fabric-covered cylinder stands an iPhone X-and-a-bit tall (172mm) with a diameter of an iPhone X (142mm), weighing 2.5kg (14.4 times the iPhone X).

It’s quite a lot bigger than Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home, and bigger still than the Sonos One, but it’s also the least assuming. Available in black or white, it has a small gloss touch-sensitive disc on top with light-up plus and minus buttons and a hidden centre display that flashes colour when Siri is listening for you. The rest of the visible surface is wrapped in mesh fabric, with a hidden rubber foot on the bottom.

It looks at home on a book shelf, the top of an AV unit or on the kitchen table, but also doesn’t stand out, until you start playing music.

Hey, Siri

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Siri’s spot on the top of the HomePod shows it’s listening, but it is still some way behind Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Photo: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The HomePod may technically be a smart speaker, but really it’s all about the music and less about the utility of a voice assistant. That’s partly because Apple’s Siri is some way behind Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, both in form and function.

Siri is the only smart assistant that offers a choice of male or female voices, which is a nice change, but is an odd mix of well prepared set pieces of personality intermixed with clumsy text-to-speech smashes the illusion of being anything other than a dumb robot. But you don’t have to take my word for it – Siri is the same on the HomePod as it is on an iPhone.

On the HomePod Siri can set one timer, but not multiple or named timers like Alexa and the rest can; it can control some smart home devices as long as they’re hooked up to Apple’s HomeKit system; it can answer some relatively limited questions and do the usual unit conversions and calculations. You can also set it up so that Siri can send text messages, create notes and reminders, using the iPhone and account of the person who set up the HomePod when it is on the same wifi network. But that means anyone with access to the speaker could send messages pretending to be its owner – there is no multi-user support at all.

Siri is also meant to be able to send messages through WhatsApp and a handful of others, but I couldn’t get it to work – Siri kept saying “WhatsApp couldn’t find” my contact, despite me holding a text conversation using WhatsApp on my phone just fine. Finally, the HomePod can also acts as a giant speakerphone for calls made by an iPhone, which works surprisingly well, but the speaker made a very loud buzzing noise for five seconds at the end of a call and I couldn’t figure out why.

Siri can hear you on the HomePod as well as Alexa on an Echo, even over music and noise such as a cooker hood going full blast. Sometimes it heard me even when I thought it didn’t, because the screen on top is difficult to see from distance, prompting Siri to follow up with an “uh huh?” when I remained silent. I often found that Siri was too loud, though, booming out of the HomePod when quietly listening to music. Its volume is linked to that of the music, but at 20% volume or less Siri was too loud and there was no way to make it quieter.

Playing Christina Milian instead of Arctic Monkeys

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The HomePod’s rubber foot comes with a familiar logo. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

Siri’s natural language interpretation still lags behind the competition too, particularly Google’s Assistant. Generally Siri is right about 70% of the time, with some amusing accidents when requesting music, such as asking for AM by Arctic Monkeys and getting AM to PM by Christina Milian or, more bafflingly, getting Eye of the Tiger when asking for “Fauna – Original Mix”.

I asked for “Glaciers by Blue Sky Black Death” and got Glass by Incubus, while it took three goes to get Siri to play Euphoric Tape II by the same band, forcing me to listen to snippets of random songs in the process. Once it finally managed to play Euphoric Tape II, it then refused to play either Euphoric Tape I or Euphoric Tape III, always defaulting to the second of the group’s three albums.

Siri normally got there in the end after multiple attempts, but it was certainly frustrating. You can control the HomePod with the Music app on an iOS device, which I resorted to for all but generic requests for genre, playlists or artists, but confusingly there are two ways to send music to the HomePod in the same app.

The HomePod doesn’t support Bluetooth streaming and doesn’t have an analogue line-in, but does support Apple’s AirPlay. You can send audio from apps, including Spotify, that implement AirPlay but you lose any advanced audio control through Siri, limited to volume, pause and skip. Your iPhone or iPad needs to remain on and connected to the same wifi network too, as it is the conduit through which the audio flows.

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To send music to the HomePod from the Music app on the iPhone you have to select AirPlay, tap on the bottom bubble, then slide the now playing pane down so you can select the music you want. Photo: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

With the Music app, however, you can also instruct the HomePod to go directly to iTunes or Apple Music to play tracks, which works more like Spotify Connect – your phone doesn’t have to be on all the time for it to continue playing. The trouble is the way you do that isn’t immediately obvious. You have to open the now playing dialogue, tap on the AirPlay button and then wait for the HomePod to show up as a separate bubble below the now playing bubble, which also lists the HomePod as an output but via AirPlay.

The biggest drawback of the HomePod is how locked down it is to Apple’s devices and services. You have to have an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad running iOS 11.2.5 to set it up. It will only play music natively from Apple Music, iTunes purchases or iTunes Match, meaning no radio other than Beats One, and it can only be controlled from an iOS 11.2.5 device. You can AirPlay audio to it from an Apple TV, a Mac or iTunes on a Windows PC, or from apps on an iOS device, including from Spotify or similar, but that’s no good to anyone with an Android device – an issue for any household that isn’t homogeneously Apple.

Expansive, beautiful sound

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The combination of seven tweeters and a woofer makes it a genuinely fantastic listening experience. Photo: Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images

While Siri may not be the quite up to scratch compared to its rivals, and getting non-Apple Music to it is more difficult, one thing Apple has nailed is the HomePod’s sound. The HomePod sounds genuinely fantastic for anything from hip-hop and EDM to rock and classical. There’s no adjusting the music to your taste – it’s Apple’s way or the high way – but the sound is deep without being overburdened with muddy bass, light without being shrill and with great separation, meaning you can pick out individual voices, instruments or notes easily. Nothing gets lost, while everything remains rich, full of energy and ambience. It even sounds brilliantly full range at volumes as low as 5%, which is something most competitors fail to do.

Apple says its combination of seven tweeters and a woofer, all controlled by its A8 processor, continually adapt to the position of the speaker in the room and the music it is playing. The result is a surprisingly wide and enveloping soundscape from a mono speaker that puts the competition to shame. It sounds just as good against a wall as it does in the middle of the kitchen table. But it’s worth noting that because the sound is less direct, it carries further in directions you might not want it to, which might annoy the neighbours.

Observations

  • The volume buttons on the top change the level by 5%, but voice requests for volume changes alter the level in 10% increments – you can specify a certain percentage, with decimals rounded up, so “volume level 12.5%” became 13%
  • HomePod works just fine with iTunes Match, including music you have uploaded that isn’t in the Apple Music library, meaning you don’t need an Apple Music subscription if all you want to listen to is your own music library
  • Setup is simple – place the unlocked iOS device with Bluetooth and wifi on near the HomePod, wait for the setup dialogue box to pop up and after a couple of taps it’s ready to go (although it failed at the wifi setup the first time I tried)
  • Siri was pretty loud out of the box, so make sure you don’t set it up at night or be ready with a finger on the volume down button
  • Apple’s promising an update for AirPlay 2 and stereo pairing of two HomePods together for later in the year through a software update
  • You can mute the always-listening mics, but there’s no visible indicator that Siri is no longer listening

Price

The Apple HomePod comes in two colours, white or space grey (black) for £319.

For comparison, the second-generation Amazon Echo costs £90, the Echo Plus costs £140, the Google Home costs £129 and the Alexa-integrated Sonos One costs £199.

Verdict

As a simple wireless speaker the HomePod sounds truly brilliant, knocking the socks off most of the competition, including systems costing more. But because it is locked down to Apple-only devices and services it might not be as easy to fit into your existing setup as competitors such as Sonos. Missing true Spotify support will be a deal killer for many, as will the inability to play radio stations and the lack of multi-user support.

As a smart speaker, the HomePod is let down by Siri, which simply isn’t up to the standards set by rivals, but the fundamentals are there. The microphones work, so Siri can hear you, and responses are fast, just limited, meaning it could be fixed. Whether Apple is able to catch up to the capability and quality of Alexa and Google Assistant, remains to be seen. It certainly hasn’t managed to on the iPhone for the last couple of years.

So as it is now, the HomePod is an Apple-lover’s dream speaker; if you treat it more as a voice-controlled wireless music blaster than a Amazon Echo or Google Home competitor then you’ll love it.

But if you want the ability to play Spotify natively, to control more than just the limited number of HomeKit devices, or to simply deliver that advanced voice assistant experience, the HomePod isn’t there yet.

Pros: brilliant sound, can hear you very well, full production at low volumes, choice of male or female voice

Cons: Siri not up to scratch, no Bluetooth or analogue audio in, no native Spotify or radio, no Android or Windows support

SOURCE: The Guardian

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Tech review: Snapchat growing like Facebook, without the baggage

In today’s social media industry, you essentially have two options: Die young, or live long enough to turn into Facebook.

Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, appears to be headed down the latter path. After a disappointing earnings report last week, which sent the company’s stock tumbling by nearly 20 percent, Snap announced a sweeping strategy shift that contained more than a few hints of Facebook envy.

Tech review: Snapchat growing like Facebook, without the baggage

The app, which featured a minimalist design that appealed to teenagers while often perplexing their parents, will soon have a personalized feed that uses algorithms to show relevant stories to users, rather than making them sift through a reverse-chronological feed. Twitter made a similar change last year, also under pressure from Facebook.

Snap has also revamped its ad-buying process to be more like Facebook’s, with ads that can be purchased through an automated system. And it signaled last week that it wanted to expand its presence in the developing world, where Facebook is dominant. Only about 25 percent of Snapchat’s daily active users live outside North America and Europe, compared with more than 65 percent of Facebook’s users.

It’s hard to blame Snap, which declined to comment for this column, for going the Facebook route. Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, have been trying to copy Snapchat out of existence for years, and they might be succeeding.

Instagram Stories, a near-clone of Snapchat’s most distinctive feature, has reached 300 million daily active users, nearly twice as many as Snapchat. Facebook’s enormous profits have given lofty expectations to investors in other social media companies, and its more than two billion users have made everything else seem small by comparison.

But Snap’s pivot is more than a necessary business move. It’s an indictment of our current tech landscape, and a warning sign for other start-ups hoping to take on the largest internet companies on their own terms. If a wildly creative company with an app used by 178 million people every day can still be crushed by Facebook, how is anyone supposed to succeed?

Snap still has lots of things going for it. It remains popular among American teenagers, perhaps the most highly coveted marketing demographic in the world. Snapchat has more users in the United States who are 12 to 24 years old than either Facebook or Instagram, according to eMarketer. It has also been able to buck Silicon Valley trends and introduced some truly innovative ideas, like the concept that not all digital communication should be permanently archived. And while Snap is losing money, many of its losses stem from changes it has made in order to compete with Facebook.

Still, the fact that Snap’s future is uncertain should worry you, even if you’ve never used its products. A world in which every successful internet platform is expected to behave like Facebook is a more boring, less innovative world, with no companies to challenge Facebook’s vision of the future. It’s not a good sign that in order to survive as a competitor, Snap may have to abandon the qualities that made it different in the first place.

Part of Snapchat’s appeal when it first appeared six years ago was how different it was from other messaging apps and social networks. Its disappearing photos encouraged honest sharing with close friends, rather than showing off to a large audience of acquaintances. Snapchat’s Discover program was one of the first examples of a social network paying publishers to create original, high-quality content. And unlike Mark Zuckerberg, who once said privacy was an outdated concept, Mr. Spiegel believed in safeguarding users’ data, saying in a 2015 interview that “we care about not being creepy.”

Snapchat’s distinctive qualities also helped steer it clear of some problems that are now plaguing its rivals.

It appears that Snapchat, unlike Facebook, was never exploited by Russian propagandists to influence an election, and it has taken a responsible approach to preventing false information from appearing on its platform. (Snap’s vice president for content, Nick Bell, recently told Bloomberg Businessweek, “We only work with authoritative and credible media companies, and we unashamedly have a significant team of producers, creators and journalists.”) Snapchat has not been overrun by bots and neo-Nazis, as Twitter has. And unlike Google, Snap has not harvested its users’ data in order to chase them around the internet with spammy ads for diet pills and miracle teas.

Snapchat isn’t perfect by any means, and some of the company’s wounds have been self-inflicted. Snap has misled users about its data collection practices in the past, which led to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission. It spent millions of dollars developing Spectacles, a pair of sunglasses with a built-in Snapchat camera, that everyone talked about but few bought. (Last week, the company wrote off $40 million in losses on the project.) And nobody forced Mr. Spiegel to raise billions of dollars from investors who would demand Facebook-style growth.

Billy Gallagher, a former TechCrunch writer whose book on Snap’s corporate history, “How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars,” will come out next year, characterized the company’s recent changes as “death by a thousand paper cuts.” He told me that while investors might appreciate touches like an automated ad-buying system and a more intuitive app, Snapchat’s core users could feel betrayed.

“A social network acts against users’ interests when it needs to make money,” he said.

Snapchat, Mr. Gallagher writes, was never supposed to be just a photo-sharing app. It was the embodiment of Mr. Spiegel’s worldview about how the internet should work — temporary instead of permanent, private instead of public, candid instead of rehearsed. I asked Mr. Gallagher why Snap needed to compromise its values in pursuit of Facebook-style growth. Couldn’t it reject Wall Street’s demands, concentrate on making its existing users happy and be satisfied as a smaller and more focused company?

Mr. Gallagher said Snap’s employees, many of whom joined because they believed that the company would grow to enormous size, might bristle at any strategy that would hurt the value of their stock options. And he pointed out that Mr. Spiegel, a grandiose 27-year-old who reportedly keeps a portrait of Steve Jobs on a wall of his office, might not be satisfied with merely modest success.

“He has grand, sweeping visions of the future,” Mr. Gallagher said. “It would be very hard for him to eat a slice of humble pie and say: ‘We’re not going to be Facebook. We’re going to be a 150-million-user social network that plays in a well carved-out niche.’”

Last week, Mr. Spiegel pledged to keep Snap’s core values intact while expanding its business. But growth often comes at the expense of experimentation, and Snap’s decision to become more like Facebook is a worrisome sign for people who care about preserving the internet’s quirky heterogeneity. Snapchat’s users were once offered something genuinely different, but it may be time for them to expect more of the same.


SOURCE: The Bloomgist/NYSE/New York Times

This new Whatsapp features will surely excite you

There’s a new WhatsApp feature that should save you embarrassments – you know… when you send a chat message and it, one way or another, gets to the wrong person.

WhatsApp 2

The “Unsend” feature is working, a new report says.

Unsend – which is also being called “Recall”, “Revoke” and “Delete for Everyone” – lets you delete a message you’ve already sent to a contact.

According to WABetaInfo, users would soon get the feature.

The Unsend function is expected to work on all types of messages, including text, images, videos, GIFs and documents.

However, you won’t be able to unsend messages that have already been read or messages that were sent more than five minutes ago.

WhatsApp is working to bring Unsend to both iOS and Android devices.

Nokia ‘regrets’ Health Mate fitness-tracking app backlash

Nokia says it is “regrettable” that problems with its Health Mate fitness-tracking app have frustrated users, BBC Tech. reports.

Nokia 'regrets' Health Mate fitness-tracking app backlash

Nokia Health Mate has a minimalistic feel. Photo: BBC/NOKIA

Nokia took over health tech firm Withings in 2016 and recently replaced the Withings Health Mate app with a Nokia-branded version.

Health Mate has been downloaded more than one million times from app stores.

But many users have left one-star reviews, saying the new app removed popular features from the Withings version and had technical issues

The company said an update would “integrate missing features”.

Before being taken over by Nokia, Withings made internet-connected health products such as weighing scales and air quality monitors, which provided data for the Health Mate app.

“Nokia took over and totally trashed the Withings app in one swoop,” one user, Tony, said

“The first release of the app was so full of bugs it was incredible. Their new app is appalling and everyone wants the old one back, which we loved.

“They’ve decimated our investment in quite expensive Withings products.”

A set of smart scales currently retails in the UK for £90 ($116 in the US), direct from Nokia.

Nokia 'regrets' Health Mate fitness-tracking app backlash

Negative reviews on app stores claim a number of issues, including:

  • Difficulty syncing products with the new app
  • Bugs in the app making it difficult to use
  • A new “modern” theme that makes the app less user friendly
  • The removal of features present in the previous Withings app

“[The] previous app from Withings had long-term charts and much more,” wrote one reviewer called Pander.

“This version is a huge degradation in functionality. This is not why I bought this smart scale.”

Nokia told the BBC the Withings Health Mate app had been replaced as part of a transition of Withings products “to the Nokia brand”.

“Regrettably, a few users faced bugs and syncing issues, others were frustrated to find some features from the previous version were not included,” it said.

“We released an update which corrects many of the issues. Very soon we will have another update to integrate the few missing features.

“We will not be satisfied until the final issues have been addressed to deliver the quality user experience consumers have come to expect from Nokia products.”

Understanding the real innovation behind the powerful iPhone

When the iPhone emerged in 2007, it came with all the promise and pomp of a major Steve Jobs announcement, highlighting its user interface and slick design as key selling points. We know now that the iPhone transformed the mobile phone business, the internet economy and, in many ways, society as a whole. But technically speaking, the iPhone was not very innovative.

Its software and the interface idea were based on the iPod, which was already reinventing the digital music industry. Touchscreens had appeared on earlier phone and tablet models, including Apple’s own Newton. And top-line Nokia phones had more memory, better cameras and faster mobile connectivity. What made the iPhone transformative was the shift in concept underpinning the entire iPhone project: Its designers did not create a telephone with some extra features, but rather a full-fledged hand-held computer that could also make calls and browse the internet.

As a scholar of management, design and innovation, I find it hard to predict what the next truly revolutionary technological development will be. In the 10 years since the launch of the iPhone, so much about modern life, commerce and culture has changed. In part that’s because the iPhone, and the smartphone boom it spurred, created a portable personal technology infrastructure that’s almost infinitely expandable. The iPhone changed the game not because of its initial technology and cool user interface but rather as a result of its creators’ imagination and courage.

Inventing mobile apps

As the iPhone took shape, its designers found themselves torn between making a phone or a computer. Engineers and marketing executives alike worried the new device would kill the iPod market that had driven Apple’s corporate resurgence for five years. Nokia, the biggest player in the cellphone market at the time, had similar technologies and prototypes, and also feared outcompeting its own successful mobile phone product lines that used a simpler and more old-fashioned software platform than that on which iPhone was built.

Apple took the leap, however, by installing a fully capable computer operating system on the iPhone, along with a few small application programs. Some were phone-related, including a program that handled making and receiving calls, as well as a new way to display voicemail messages, and a system that kept different contacts’ text messages separate. Others were more computer-like, including an email app and a web browser. Of course, the music-playing features from the iPod were included too, linking the phone with the emerging Apple music ecosystem.

Initially, that was about it for apps. But skilled computer engineers and hackers knew they were holding a palm-sized computer, and set to work writing their own software and getting it running on their iPhones. That was the dawn of the now-ubiquitous app. Within a year, these apps were so popular, and their potential so significant, that Apple’s second version of the iPhone operating system made it easy (and legal) for users to install apps on their phones.

 

Shifting priorities

The prospect of making a fully functional hand-held computer changed how users and manufacturers alike thought about mobile phones. For Apple and every other phone company, software became much more important than hardware. What apps a phone could run, and how quickly, mattered much more than whether it had a slightly better camera or could hold a few more photos; whether it flipped open, slid open or was a bar-style; or whether it had a large keyboard or a small one. The iPhone’s keyboard was on-screen and software-generated, making a function that had required dedicated hardware into one running on generic hardware and dedicated software.

At the time of the iPhone launch, Nokia offered about 200 different phone styles to meet all the different needs of its hundreds of millions of customers. There was just one iPhone model at the start, and in the ensuing decade there have been only 14 major styles – though today they come in different colors, not just white and black as the original did. This is the power of software functionality and related simplicity.

The heightened importance of software on a mobile phone shifted the industry’s economy as well. The money came now not just from selling devices and phone services, but also from marketing and selling apps and in-app advertisements. App developers must share revenue with the companies that control smartphones’ operating systems, providing serious earning power: Apple holds about 15 percent of the mobile phone market, but reaps 80 percent of global smartphone profits.

Whatever the next tech industry game-changer is, and whenever it arrives, it will likely have some connection to the smartphone and related infrastructure. Even today, exploring virtual reality requires only installing an app and connecting just a bit of additional hardware to an existing phone. Similarly, smartphone interfaces and cameras already monitor and control intelligent and automated homes. Even as devices are developed to operate all around us, and even in our clothes, many of them will be able to point to the iPhone as a conceptual ancestor and inspiration.

Tech review: the squeezable HTC phone with a stunning camera

Once the darling of the smartphone world, HTC has been struggling to gain traction in a market dominated by Samsung and Apple with its solid but bland devices. Now the U11 is here and it’s squeezable (no really), can the former smartphone leader turn it around?

Tech review: the squeezable HTC phone with a stunning camera

The HTC U11 is a big, bold and bright smartphone with a unusual, squeezable feature that’s more than a gimmick. Photo: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The U11 is the new top of the line for HTC, replacing last year’s all-metal HTC 10 with the company’s new shiny metallic glass design.

Subtle the U11 is not. It’s back is a highly polished metal sitting behind a fingerprint-magnet slab of glass. It’s certainly eye-catching and will appeal to those looking for a little bit of bling.

The front of the device is rather bland, just a black slate of glass with a small indentation for a fingerprint scanner at the bottom. Compared to the svelte new bezel-free design of smartphones from the likes of Samsung, LG and Essential, the U11 looks decidedly old and chunky.

The screen is super crisp, with good colours, blacks and brightness, but it’s an LCD and not quite up to the rich, vibrancy and colour depth of the top of the range AMOLED screens seen in other high-end rivals such as the Galaxy S8.

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The back is a highly polished piece of metal behind glass. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

HTC’s build quality is legendary and the U11 does not disappoint. It is rock solid with no give or flex in the body. It is covered in glass, though, which doesn’t bode quite as well for drops or falls. The phone is water resistant to IP67 standards, so it will survive a trip down the toilet but swimming or dips below a metre of water are out.

The rounded back of U11 makes the phone 9.1mm thick at its peak, which is relatively chunky for a smartphone in 2017 – most, including the Galaxy S8, are around 7-8mm thick. It feels nice in the hand but the large bezels on the sides and top and bottom make the U11 pretty bulky.

The sides don’t look unusual, but the bottom half of each hides a secret pressure sensitive strip that you can squeeze to do certain things. More on that particular whizz-bang feature, later.

Tech review: the squeezable HTC phone with a stunning camera

he fingerprint scanner on the front is fast and effective, but difficult to reach when holding the phone in an orientation where you can reach the top of the screen. Photo: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The fingerprint sensor is a thin oval shape on the front which works well, reliably unlocking the device almost instantaneously. You might be disappointed there’s no headphone socket, but active noise cancelling headphones are included in the box, as is a USB-C to headphone socket adapter. It’ll be annoying if you don’t use the bundled headphones or wireless ones.

Specifications

  • Screen: 5.5in quad HD LCD (590ppi)
  • Processor: Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
  • RAM: 4GB of RAM
  • Storage: 64GB + microSD card
  • Operating system: Android 7.1.1 with HTC Sense
  • Camera: 12MP rear camera with OIS, 16MP front-facing camera
  • Connectivity: LTE, Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth 4.2 and GPS
  • Dimensions: 154 x 76 x 9.1mm
  • Weight: 168g

Hardware

Tech review: the squeezable HTC phone with a stunning camera

The USB-C slot and the down-firing speaker in the bottom. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The U11 is one of the first smartphones available with Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 835 processor, which claims to be both faster and more efficient for longer battery life.

The Samsung Galaxy S8 also uses the 835 in the US, but not in Europe.

HTC’s recent smartphones have run very well optimised software and the U11 is no exception. It consistently flies along at a pace only Google’s Pixel devices have in recent memory. App launches, jumping between apps, camera launches, game loads, searches and phone unlocks using the fingerprint scanner are instant and do not get bogged down as you use the device.

Battery life was solid if not spectacular. The U11 lasted around 24 hours between charges without activating any power saving modes. That was while using it as my primary device, browsing and using apps for four hours with hundreds of push emails, 60 minutes of gaming, and listening to around five hours of music via Bluetooth headphones. Standby time was slightly disappointing, however, dropping just over 1% an hour while sitting dormant overnight with do not disturb activated.

The U11 is also fast to charge using Quick Charge 3.0 and a compatible charger, hitting 100% in just over an hour.

Software

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HTC’s Boost app tries to help keep the U11 running smoothly by clearing out memory and storage – just be careful what you delete with it. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

HTC fits its smartphones with a customised version of Android called Sense. The U11 comes with the latest version based on Android 7.1.1. Overall, Sense is a light touch on Android, with only a few small refinements and tweaks.

Most of these come in the form of optimisations, which make the U11 one of the snappiest smartphones around. The biggest addition is HTC’s new smart assistant called Sense Companion. Part of it is a duplication of Google Assistant, which is also available on the U11, with points of interest, restaurant and travel information when out and about.

The other part is the phone’s ability to learn from your habits and optimise its performance accordingly. It will remind you when it needs recharging and when junk and memory needs to be cleared out using Boost+, among other bits and pieces.

It takes a while to learn, and in the limited time I’ve had the U11, it failed to do anything particularly interesting. It, like many of the other manufacturer-developed smart assistants, seems to just do a poor job of duplicating Google Assistant and its feed. Given more time Sense Companion may prove more valuable as it learns.

It can be turned off or ignored, and some may find it more useful, particularly if you do not give Google access to your entire digital life.

Camera

Tech review: the squeezable HTC phone with a stunning camera

The U11’s 12-megapixel camera is cracking. It is capable of taking some really stunning photos with rich detail, deep colour and has very good low-light performance, which means it’s very difficult to take a bad photo with the U11. It’s right up there with Google Pixel as the best camera phone on the market.

There are also plenty of manual controls within the pro shooting mode, which can get as complicated or as simple as you’d like with sliders and custom presets plus optional RAW output. HTC’s camera app is one of the best on the market, missing only a golden-ratio grid.


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The 16-megapixel selfie camera is also very good, producing great shots even in difficult lighting conditions. There are three modes: selfie video, selfie panorama and selfie photo. All of them are pretty self explanatory and work well. You can smooth skin with a makeup mode, but I found the photos were already of softer focus than my personal preference, without any skin-smoothing modes active.

Squeeze-me

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Squeeze the sides to trigger Edge Sense and fire up your choice of action or app. The pressure required to trigger the feature can be increased or decreased based on the power of your grip. Photo: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

Most of the HTC U11 isn’t exactly unique. One thing that HTC has all to its own is Edge Sense – you simply squeeze the sides on the bottom half of the phone to activate features. The pressure sensitivity can be tuned to your liking in case you have a monster grip, and you can change what happens when you squeeze the phone.

By default a squeeze will launch the camera and, once up and running, trigger the shutter. Launching the camera with a squeeze is great, but squeezing to shoot ends up shaking the camera at the moment of capture.

If you go “advanced” you can set a short squeeze and a long squeeze to do different things. It sounds a little daft, but is a better way to launch the camera than a double tap of the power button, with far less accidental activation. Bravo for trying something new that isn’t just a gimmick.

Observations

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The shiny metal and glass back is certainly bold, but it’s also a fingerprint-magnet.

  • The U11’s speakers are more powerful and clearer than the majority of the competition
  • Both the front and the rear glass panels are fingerprint magnets
  • Bluetooth connectivity to wireless earbuds wasn’t the best, dropping out in places where a Galaxy S8 had no issues

Price

The HTC U11 costs £649 and is available in silver, black or blue, which makes it one of the cheaper top-end smartphones available, if not by much.

For comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S8 costs £689 with 64GB of storage, the Galaxy S8+ costs £779 with 64GB of storage, the Google Pixel XL costs £719 with 32GB of storage, Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus costs £719 with 32GB of storage, the LG G6 costs £649 with 32GB of storage, and the Huawei P10 Plus costs £649 with 128GB of storage.

Verdict

The HTC U11 is a great smartphone hidden in an old, bulky design. While rivals have moved on with tiny bezels and big screens squeezed into small phone bodies, HTC has stagnated.

It’s bright and bold on the back, but bland on the front. The large bezels make the phone pretty big for a device with a 5.5in screen and harder to use and fit in a pocket compared to rivals.

The high-shine and colour certainly stand out, which will appeal to some, and the U11 has a great camera and useful edge sense pressure-sensitive sides. It’s just a shame that the U11 feels like a smartphone designed for 2015 not 2017.

Tech review: the squeezable HTC phone with a stunning camera

The HTC U11 is all about the super-shiny back. Photo: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

Pros: squeezable sides, brilliant camera, microSD card slot, water resistant, bold colours, good screen, 24-hour battery, noise-cancelling earphones in the box

Cons: bulky, large bezels, dated design, no headphone socket

Tech review: Just like Snapchat, Instagram has rolled out face filters

Instagram has rolled out face filters, meaning you can now enhance your selfies by adding cartoon-style filters before sending them to your friends.

Tech review: Just like Snapchat, Instagram has rolled out face filters

It looks more like what you can do on Snapchat – and it was probably the biggest advantage it had over Instagram, until now.

Announcing the update, Instagram said: ‘From math equations swirling around your head to furry koala ears that move and twitch, you can transform into a variety of characters that make you smile or laugh.’

Promo images released today show people larking about with various filters including flower crowns and bunny ears.

Although, selfie lenses were’t invented by Snapchat, this move marks another example of Instagram copying its rival.

Snapchat launch new 3D filters for all users

Snapchat has launched new 3D lenses, allowing users to change the world around them in three dimensions.

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The new feature lets you interact with what you see on screen. You can write giant words that float about next to real objects – or plant a virtual rose in the ground.

The update is now live and it’s expected Snapchat will release new “experiences” daily.

It’s the latest in the battle for our attention from the social media giants.

Instagram and Facebook have recently added features similar to Snapchat Stories.

How to do it

When you are snapping with the rear-facing camera, just tap the camera screen to find the new lenses.

Swipe up and down the screen to move an object closer or further away.

Press and hold an object to pick it up and move it somewhere else.

Tap somewhere on screen (other than object) to place object in that new location in a real-world space.

On your first try, there are 3D hand animations that guide you on how to move an object, and how to load a new object.

To keep the experiences fresh, the 3D lenses will change over time, and offer different interactions.

TECH: Google adds search results ‘fact check’ flag

Google has added its fact check feature to search results globally, in a bid to help tackle the spread of “fake news”.

TECH: Google adds search results 'fact check' flag

The search giant will now highlight “authoritative sources” in search results, with a summary of claims that have been fact-checked.

Google says sites will be judged authoritative by an algorithm and the company will not be fact-checking news stories itself.

On Thursday, Facebook announced a campaign to help people spot fake news.

Google introduced its fact check feature on its News search site in October, but has now added it to its regular search results.

Publishers who have investigated a claim, for example a politician’s statements, will be displayed more prominently.

A summary of the fact-checked statements and whether they are judged to be true or false will also appear.

However, the feature will not affect the order of search results and will not label sites known to spread false information as untrustworthy.

Google acknowledged that different publishers may draw opposing conclusions about the validity of a news story or statement, but said the feature would help people understand the “degree of consensus” on a topic.


Analysis by Chris Foxx, technology reporter

Tackling the spread of false information is a big task for websites as large as Google and Facebook, given the volume of data involved.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been clear he does not want to employ humans to make judgements about whether websites are trustworthy.

Now Google is following his lead by placing its trust in its algorithms.

Of course, algorithms can be manipulated and algorithms can get it wrong. In March, Google was found to be offering up some far-fetched claims as “instant answers”.

Google also says it will display conflicting fact checks side-by-side when websites have drawn different conclusions.

That may leave people more confused than before – but perhaps, at least, it will encourage them to question what they read online.


SOURCE: The Bloomgist/BBC