Google IO’s keynote was fantastic

Yesterday, I watched the Google IO 2016 Keynote presentation and I actually felt giddie: it was fascinating, albeit a little scary, to see how a company with that amount of resources and focus can make such large advancements towards a more technological society.  Of all of the things they covered, a few things stood out for me.

Virtual Reality (VR)
VR is something that will probably be big. There are too many big companies pushing it and the experience is too immersive not to become a big thing. Exactly what role it will play in our lives is still to be determined, as so far only the Early Adopters are playing with it and they are by no means an accurate indicator of what the majority of people will do with it. That being said, Google is leading the pack here by integrating VR into their main OS, Android, and by pushing it on YouTube. Moreover, they are sharing spec sheets of what a Smartphone, headset and remote should have in order to work properly with Virtual Reality, or at least Google’s version (called Daydream).

Google Assistant
This is the next step of Google Search/Now. We can already talk to Google, but this is Google trying to make the service more conversational as well as context aware. In order to do that, they are linking up all of their efforts in modelling the world, natural language processing and machine learning. I am sure that the first steps will be slow, but this shows promise. Furthermore, Google Assistant appears to be a building block that can later on be found in many other products and services.


Google Home
One of those is Google Home. Goolge Home will be your home hub where the Google Assistant is basically the main actor. It will allow you to make queries, get things done, control your smart home and play media. The video they shared of the product is fascinating. It is incredible to see that we are already so close.


Allo
Messaging is an important platform for the near future. Google has tried with Google Talk in the past, more recently with Hangouts, and its next bet is Allo. Frankly, this will be an uphill battle for Google as it’s competing with some very big incumbents, particularly Facebook and Apple. That being said, Google is trying some new things here, amongst which is the inclusion of the Google Bot, which in reality seems to be the Google Assistant. You can include it in chats so that it can help get things done.


Machine Learning
Although there was no direct product announcement, machine learning is everywhere in Google’s services. The advancements they are making are incredible. And the scary thing is, it looks like progress will only become faster. The final words from Pichai were great. They are on such a mission to advance in these things and the world could be a better place for it.  

Are we ready for our machine overlords?
While I am excited about these products and services, they are all slightly scary. In order for them to really useful to me, I need to share personal things about me with Google. In fact, the benefits I, as a user, reap are directly proportional to the information I give Google. And this, in a nut shell, is the biggest challenge Google will face: making people overcome their fear of sharing with them. Getting and maintaining that trust.

I think Google can do it, though. I have written in the past about how I erase my Google history every month, but at the same time I am saving all my Photos with Google and wouldn’t want it any other way, because of the benefits it offers me. It’s all a trade-off. For me it was Google Photos and for someone else it could well be Google Assistant, but eventually we all need to make a decision: do we want the benefits enough so as to trust Google with our information? I think it is only a matter of time.  

Furthermore, we have to trust in Google’s self interest as well. Google does not directly make money on me, e.g. storing my photos with them. The transaction is indirect: they need to know as much as possible about me, so that they can earn the most presenting me with ads. As a result, I trust, to a healthy extend, that they will do everything in their power to not endanger the trust I have put into relationship.

I, for one, will get Google Home as soon as it is released, and I will be happy to try out Google Assistant and Allo as soon as it ships. It’s a bit scary, though, and I hope Google will not fail my trust.

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LG G4 – An “Oldie” But A Very Goody

I have an LG G4 for trial for a while, and even though the G5 has just been released, I was still interested in reviewing the G4. Mainly because I have little experience with LG smartphones – outside the Nexus 4 and 5 – and I always feel they are undervalued. For instance, right now, the LG G4 seems to me to be the best value-for-money smartphone one can buy. In this review I’ll be looking at it from that angle and in the process will compare it to my recent experiences with the Moto X Style, Nexus 6P and iPhone 6S Plus.

Hardware

Design and build quality

The G4 is a very interesting phone when it comes to this aspect. The design is not impressive. This is due to the materials used, to a large extend. In a world of glass and aluminium, the plastic finish of the G4 is somewhat disappointing. I realise that the G4 has the option of a leather back plate and I am pretty sure this will improve its looks, but I have not been able to try that.

Where its pure esthetic design is slightly disappointing, the ergonomics of the design are great. It has a curved back that is really pleasant to hold. Generally speaking it is sufficiently grippy and fits really nicely in the hand. The most pleasant phone I have held in the last year, I can confidently say.

The LG G4 is a large screened phone, but they have done a great job of keeping the dimensions of the phone as reduced as possible. This naturally helps with the ergonomics.

Having the LG G4 in one pocket and the Nexus 6P in the other, I can’t stress enough how much nicer using the LG G4 felt for me. 

Buttons and hardware controls

One of the things that LG introduced a few years back is placing the power and volume buttons on the back of the phone. Coming from the Nexus 6P, I already look for something on the back (which is where the Nexus 6P has its finger print reader), so the switch was not completely foreign. That being said, I am not enamoured with the set-up. A double tap to wake the phone makes it workable, though, in terms of turning the phone on. Still, I don’t really like the volume buttons on the back. The G5 will have the volume buttons on the side and a fingerprint scanner on the back. This lay-out makes more sense in my opinion (although I still slightly prefer Samsung and Apple’s configuration of a fingerprint scanner on the front of the phone).

The lack of a fingerprint scanner on the G4 is a real shame. However, I forgive the phone for that, given the great price and the otherwise fantastic hardware. Interestingly, I could not forgive the Moto X Style that suffers also from a lack of a fingerprint scanner (as it does not have the great hardware that this G4 has to compensate the lack of the scanner).

Screen

The screen on this phone is absolutely gorgeous. The resolution (which is QHD), the brightness, automatic brightness adjustment, contrast and viewing angles are all top notch. In reality, it puts the Nexus 6P screen to shame. Well done, LG. Not much more to say, but given that the screen is the main aspect of the phone that the user interacts with, it is necessary to nail it, and LG did so.

Speakers

Something LG did not nail is the speaker. It is a tinny, lowish volume speaker. I did not like it, and they have to do better. Personally, I use the phone speaker daily for listening to podcasts, audiobooks and music as well as view videos. The poor performance takes away from those experiences.
 

Connectivity

As with all modern phones, it had no problems establishing and keeping the necessary connections with the WIFI router, mobile phone network and bluetooth accessories.

Performance

The G4 comes with a Snapdragon 808 chip paired with 3GB of RAM. This is the same set-up as the Moto X Style. I find it to offer a sufficiently smooth experience. It is not a multitasking powerhouse, such as the Nexus 6P, but I found that animations and operations were reasonably smooth for an Android phone. Not top of the line, perhaps, but certainly a good experience. 

Camera

The camera is another stand-out feature on the G4. It has all the right specs: high resolution sensor, optical image stabilisation, and wide aperture. In addition, LG has shown to have created very good image processing algorithms, making the best use possible of the information gathered by the sensor.

The camera is joy to use. The camera is quick to launch, focuses reasonably quickly and allows you to review the picture quickly in the Gallery app. Moreover, the camera app is easy to use, while offering full manual control for those that want it. 

I can’t say enough positive things about this. It is up there with the best in the market, such as Samsung and Apple. 

Software

As with most manufacturers, LG has its own skin on Android. The only skin I have found acceptable in the past was the HTC UI on the HTC One M8. All the rest of the skins are just not very good. I am afraid that LG’s version of Android is also not great. It is mostly different for the sake of being different, and sometimes even breaks things.

One of the examples of what seems to be broken is the expandable notifications. That only works when the phone wants to. Not cool.

In turn, the addition that I personally did like was all the toggles on the notification tray, for things like airplane mode, bluetooth, wifi, torch, etc. Samsung has something very similar, and I find that works nicely. 

In any case, I quickly installed SwiftKey for the keyboard, Google Calendar for the calendar, Google Now Launcher for the home screen, Nine for email, MX Player Pro for videos, and Solid Explorer for the file manager. After that, it mostly worked just like any other Android phone. I just wonder why LG spends any time/resources on developing alternatives that are not any better than the Google-supplied apps. I realise this stems from a period where this seemed like a good idea, but I don’t think it is worth more money from the point of view of the consumer.

The phone I trialled ran Android 5.0.1. Supposedly, LG has already Marshmallow available, but I am afraid this was not available for my testing. Still, LG was pretty quickly out of the door with the 6.0 update and that is laudable. 

Price and value-for-money

Right now, the LG G4 costs 370 euros on Amazon in Spain. For that amount of money you get a great smartphone that only really lacks a finger print scanner and a quality speaker. In terms of price only the OnePlus 2 comes close, but I don’t feel that it offers the same quality.

I will certainly be recommending this phone to people that are looking to spend around 350 euros on a smartphone. I think it is the best you can buy with that budget in mind. And my experience with this phone, also makes me very curious about the LG G5.

AMP by Google is revolutionary

I currently use a Google Nexus 6P. This is one of the best smartphones out there, but the web experience is still somewhat lacklustre. Some sites work well, but I dread opening a page from, for instance, The Verge on my phone.

Google has been working on an iniciative that should significantly speed up the mobile web, called Google AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages). I have just experienced this on Nuzzel when visiting an article from the Verge and the experience was revolutionary, from a user point of view.

What is Nuzzel? 

Nuzzel is an easy way to see news from your friends. You can use Nuzzel to discover the best news stories shared by your friends on Facebook and Twitter without being overwhelmed or missing anything. Nuzzel is an app that supports Google AMP, for those news sources that also support it. One of those news sources is the infamous The Verge, which is a notoriously heavy site, particularly for Android smartphones.

Well, when I hit a link in Nuzzel to an article from The Verge it took a mere 2 seconds to fully load, compared to 10 seconds when loading it on Chrome for Android. Moreover, the scrolling experience in Nuzzel was great whereas the article in Chrome would stutter immensely.

What is Google AMP? 

Google AMP, however, is not limited to Nuzzel. Any mobile app can include it, and Twitter announced that it will support AMP at launch. The Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project is an open source initiative that embodies the vision that publishers can create mobile optimized content once and have it load instantly everywhere.

Currently an interesting set of publishers will support it at launch, including sites like BBC, The Economist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mashable, The Verge, and many more. 

After having had a taste of this, I am looking forward to a mobile future filled with Google AMP.

The internet of things will turn our machines against us

Talking about being a bit pessimistic! This article does have a point, though. Something I have been trying to say in my last few posts as well: the security of the Internet of Things should be extremely high on the agenda of the manufacturers. It is not a sexy feature, but instead a baseline feature. For some manufacturers, it could even be their main selling point.

The internet of things will turn our machines against us

How to “safely” opt into Google Now

We are living in a time where computers are starting to learn from us and anticipate our needs. On the one, hand that is very handy, but at the same time a bit frightening, because in order for a service to anticipate our needs, it needs to know a lot about us. One such service is Google Now. It’ll track your packages, remember where you parked your car, inform you of traffic on your daily commute, suggest places to visit and eat, suggest articles to read, will show the QR code of your tickets when you go to the airport, etc. Most of this information is actually quite useful. However, in order to opt into this, Google needs to track the following 4 things about you:

  1. Your search and browsing history
  2. Information from your devices
  3. Places you go
  4. Your voice searches and commands.

I am sure Google has its reasons for this, but the truth is that I would prefer Google not to know all these things about me. Although I am a person that has little to hide, I do not like the idea of one company having a history of all this information about me. I realise they will not abuse it, most likely, but there may be a data breach at some point or they are required to hand it over to some government agency. At the same time, I still like to enjoy the benefits. 

Well, one of the advantages of Google is that it does allow you pretty detailed control of what you share and you control the information that you have shared in the past (to a certain extend). So what I am doing is opting into the tracking of these four activities, but deleting the historic data each month. Which means that Google has at most one month of data on me, which I can live with.

In order to do that, you have to go to your Google Account and select the Activity Controls in the Personal Info & Privacy block. There you will be presented – one by one – with the different settings that you need to turn on in order for Google Now to work. Once you turn it on, you get a confirmation screen and there you confirm that you wish to turn it on. This is of course also the place where you can turn it off later (they call it pausing, but hey), if you would prefer that.

At the same time, here you can also manage the data you have so far shared with Google. In order to do that, you click MANAGE ACTIVITY. When you click that, you get presented with the history of data, generally speaking. At the top of the screen, select the overflow menu button (three dots) and select Delete Options. 

Then select Advanced and select All Time from the drop down menu. 

For Places you Go this is slightly different. For this Activity, you directly have a recycle bin in the bottom right of the map that you see after selecting Manage Activity. When you click that, you delete all location history.

I have been doing this for about 3 months, and I have not noticed that this makes Google Now any worse (or less accurate). Maybe in the future there may be some functionality which requires months of historic data, but for now it works fine with what it has on me.

The state of privacy in America: What we learned

The Tech sector sees as the next big things everything related to Smart: Smart Home, Digital Assistants, Internet of Things, the Cloud, etc. Although I would agree on their immense potential to make our lives more comfortable (and therefore become a big growth market for Consumer Electronics companies), there is one big condition: data privacy.

The linked article references a Pew Research piece regarding just this issue. One thing that is clear is that people currently do not feel that their data is safe, and that this will be important going forward when it comes to adoption of new products and services and the choice in which brand to trust. 

It should worry these companies to read the following: 

For instance, 54% of Americans consider it an acceptable trade-off to have surveillance cameras in the office in order to improve workplace security and help reduce thefts. But a scenario involving the use of a “smart thermostat” in people’s homes that might save energy costs in return for insight about people’s comings and goings was deemed “acceptable” by only 27% of adults. It was seen as “not acceptable” by 55%.

The article is an interesting read, and I don’t want to go into much more detail here, but right now Apple seems to have the best message. They stand for the privacy of the data of their customers and make that a corner stone in their marketing. Google, on the other hand, is going to have a much more difficult time convincing people.

The state of privacy in America: What we learned

Smart home – so close, but still so far

Today I listened to another episode of the 361 degrees podcast. The hosts of the podcast do their annual challenge and this season it is all about the smart home.

After smartphones and tablets, the next big potential market for consumer electronics companies is the smart home (as a subset of the Internet of Things).

It is still a pretty nascent market, though. The issue with the smart home is the fact that so far the market has not been able to vote on the dominant standard that will make all the different devices, sensors, apps and services talk to each other. Both Apple, Google and Samsung have their own standards (and a bit of hardware in some cases) and there are lots of startups that have attractive solutions (lights, cameras, sensors, locks, etc).

Personally, I have not really launched into the smart home market yet, and that is mainly because of my doubts and questions around interoperability of sensors/devices/services, reliability of the routines/programmes, security and ease of use. The episode I am linking to in this post illustrates these issues very well: https://soundcloud.com/361podcast/s11e06

Still, this is a market with a lot of potential and I recommend anyone that is interested in this to listen to the podcast episodes. I for one will start to try some stuff in the near future.

Smart home – so close, but still so far