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5 features I’d love to see come to every smartphone in 2019

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Over the course of any given year, I have the benefit of using a lot of smartphones. Most of the time, my memories of using a particular phone blurs into one black, rectangular blob of glass and metal.

Also: Phones and more: The best of everything mobile in 2018

But sometimes there are features that stand out. As I reflect back on the year and look forward to 2019, it’s clear to me there are five features I would love to see come to every smartphone in the near future.

In-display fingerprint reader


(Image: CNET)

After using the OnePlus 6T’s fingerprint reader, it’s evident having a physical location, commonly on the back of a phone, is no longer the best option for smartphone makers.

Also: In-screen fingerprint sensors coming to 100 million phones CNET

Using a series of sensors and lights, the OnePlus 6T’s fingerprint sensor is located just below the display and is capable of reading a fingerprint through the display.

The benefit I appreciate the most about a fingerprint sensor under the display is that I’m already touching and interacting with the screen when I need to unlock the phone, so it eliminates the extra step of finding the sensor on the back of the phone — as routine as that has become.

With the OnePlus 6T, I pick up the phone, wake the screen, leaving my finger on the display, and continue using the phone.

I think I like this unlock method as much as I like Face ID, if not a little bit more.

With Qualcomm’s newly announced Snapdragon 855 SoC, which includes the components for OEMs to implement in-display fingerprint sensors in next year’s crop of smartphones, we will presumably see an uptick in phones with this technology.

Call Screen

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(Screenshot: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

The sheer number of scam and spam calls we receive on our phones is staggering. Even with the help of third-party apps or carrier services, I answer a robocall telling me there’s an issue with my non-existent credit card at least once a week.

Also: Pixel 3 Call Screen and Now Playing are my favorite features CNET

Google’s Pixel Call Screen feature — and its subsequent update that added transcripts — means you don’t have to actually talk to someone who is trying to upsell you on internet service or ask you to take a political survey.

Google’s Call Screen feature, at a minimum, should be released to more Android phones through the Google Phone app.

Night Sight

Google’s Night Sight feature isn’t a gimmick, but a truly useful feature. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a photo of a special moment ruined by a dark environment.

Low light photography is a task that nearly all smartphones struggle with, and the fact that Google has figured out the magic blend of AI and machine learning to make low light photos something you look forward to taking isn’t a small feat.

Also: Google’s Night Sight camera mode is pretty darn impressive

Every smartphone manufacturer should have teams dedicated to figuring out how Google pulled off Night Sight and implementing it in their respective products.

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A physical mute switch

Apple uses one, as does OnePlus, and it’s seriously underrated. A physical mute switch provides the benefit of being able to quickly feel if a phone is on silent, or sounds are active, without the need to wake the phone. It’s easy enough to move while your phone is in your pocket as you walk into the movies or a meeting, and move back as you walk out.

Also: OnePlus 6T review: Outstanding reception, solid battery life

Most Android phones require the phone to be awake, unlocked, and press the volume buttons multiple times — or using a tile in the quick settings dropdown — both methods, however, take longer are more interaction than simply moving a switch on the side of a phone.

Shortcuts-like app

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Siri gets better in iOS 12 by allowing you to create and run shortcuts for tasks that you might want to do at certain times of the day, as a result of an event, or when at a certain location.

Apple’s Shortcuts app is one iOS feature I simply can’t live without on a daily basis. Sure, iMessage is fantastic. FaceTime, often times, magical when I’m traveling.

Also: Best iOS 12 features: What’s new and what’s still missing

But Shortcuts and the workflows that it holds within ensures I keep an iOS device of some sort on me at all times. On Tuesday, I shared a handful of shortcuts I use on a regular basis with CNET’s Scott Stein, and afterward, I realized just how much I rely on Shortcuts to efficiently handle repetitive work tasks.

For example, the Combine Screenshots shortcut is something I use nearly every single day and saves me countless minutes by combining several screenshots into one image with a few taps on my iPhone or iPad’s screen. Without it, I would have to import the screenshots to my Mac, open a program like Pixelmator or Photoshop, create a canvas, and then space out the images and export the end result.

I have searched for and tried many similar Android apps, only to find poorly designed apps lacking the same overall capabilities.

Previous and related coverage:

The 10 best smartphones of 2018

All significant smartphone launches have now passed and as we approach the end of the year, the ten best shake out after more extended usage of each. All ten phones are excellent and certain aspects make each a possible contender for the top spot.

Top 12 Raspberry Pi alternatives (Best of 2018)

Here is a selection of single board computers for homebrew projects and automation, with prices starting at only $5.

Best tech gadgets of 2018

Time to take a tour of what I consider to be the best tech gadgets of 2018. There are some that you’ll no doubt expect to find in this list, and others that will probably come as a surprise. All have been personally tested for quality, performance, and durability.



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Clubhouse gives musicians a new high quality audio mode – TechCrunch

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Clubhouse added a new “music mode” this week, doubling down its commitment to centering social audio in all its permutations. The new music mode will give musicians who play live on the social network their own special set of tools to optimize sound quality and will hit iOS first before rolling out to Android.

Clubhouse didn’t get too into the audiophile weeds with the announcement, but the company said the new feature would allow users to “broadcast with high quality and great stereo sound” — prerequisites for a rich listening experience. The company says that music mode will also make it possible to hook pro-level audio equipment like mixing boards and mics into Clubhouse.

Image Credits: Clubhouse

In late August, Clubhouse made another investment in audio quality with spatial audio, a feature that gives listeners a sense that different speakers in one of its group audio rooms are speaking from different physical locations — an effect more akin to how we’d perceive a real-life social interaction.

To turn on music mode as a speaker, tap the three dots in the upper right corner and choose “audio quality” then select “music.” Clubhouse’s replayable clips will also support the higher quality audio in their recordings. Beyond music mode, Clubhouse is moving its search bar to the top of the feed, and users can now wave at each other through the search bar on iOS.

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Core might be the Vegas of the metaverse – TechCrunch

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A self-described “endless arcade,” Core feels like a 90s cyberpunk fever dream come to life. Half playable game library, half no-code game creator, all neon lights, the new platform is a surprisingly well-realized vision of this metaverse thing everyone sure seems to be talking about lately.

Billing itself as your “portal to the multiverse,” Core is primed to test the age-old proposition If you build it, they will come. Giant companies like Roblox and Facebook might have huge established platforms, but Core has laid some very compelling groundwork for creators and players alike.

Logging in, players are transported to Core’s central hub, a fitting cross between a theme park, a high-tech mall and a casino, with entertainment and shopping a few gravitationally unburdened strides away in every direction. Giant neon signs beckon, enticing players to hop into myriad user-generated virtual worlds. Swapping out clothing and in-game gear or inviting a friend to jump in with you takes only a few clicks and just cruising around and people watching is plenty interesting.

If Core looks a lot like Fortnite, that’s not a coincidence. Core, made by Manticore Games, runs on Fortnite-maker Epic’s Unreal engine. And those ties are even deeper: Epic led a $15 million round of investment in the company last year and the platform is exclusively available through the Epic Games Store for PC. In March, Manticore raised $100 million more from a grab bag of major investors and took its creator platform live.

Core might not be a household name yet, but it’s already nailed one of the challenges that any metaverse aspirant has to crack. In my time playing around with Core, the experience of getting from one place to another was often so seamless I wound up in the wrong place by accident. Chalk this up to user error, but instantly being transported — to a Deadmau5 show, to an overgrown dystopian wasteland, to a isometric pirate game — after walking through various portals was one of the more seamless online multiplayer experiences I’ve had more than a decade of those games.

Core looks great. That’s one strike against Roblox, one of the most successful companies building out a vision for the metaverse. Much like Fortnite, Core’s graphics are cartoony but not too cartoony. Roblox’s under-13 crowd is aging up — a factor that company is actively planning around — and those not-so-young players will be looking for a new virtual home. Any aspiring edgelord would be able to take themselves plenty seriously with Core’s wide selection of custom outfits and avatars. Or you could be a kitty.

Deadmau5, metaverse resident

Most of Core’s content is UGC, a.k.a. user-generated content, a new-ish name for an era-defining online phenomenon (don’t blame yourself if the acronym evokes mixed martial arts). But Manticore also has plenty of room to partner up with musicians and brands for elaborate themed in-game experiences.

This week, DJ and EDM festival perennial Deadmau5 launched his own, a sprawling, colorful series of experiences described as a “permanent residency in the metaverse.” Core is mostly home to user-made games, but it’s also a natural fit for entertainment and even education — the team noted that some users started hosting game development classes.

Unlike recent shows in other virtual worlds like Lil Nas X in Roblox or Ariana Grande in Fortnite, the Deadmau5-themed content will stay live after it debuts for anyone to explore. The team at Manticore likened this to how performers like Penn and Teller camp out in Las Vegas for ongoing shows, and the metaphor is very appropriate. But unlike Vegas, performers can be in two places at once: Deadmau5 also announced he’d participate in a music festival hosted on the Ethereum-based virtual platform Decentraland this week.

I watched the show with Deadmau5, né Joel Zimmerman, for an early sneak preview. He wore one of his signature giant animal helmets (I think a cat?) and cyborg angel wings, while I opted for an understated black hoodie, the little black dress of the metaverse.

“I think what drew me to it was the modularity of it all and how it gives more tools to creators,” Zimmerman told me, hopping around wildly in Core while reclining IRL in a gaming chair emblazoned with the Deadmau5 mouse.

Like we’ve come to expect from virtual concerts, the interactive performance is well-stocked with melting psychedelic visuals, mini games and a menacing Chain Chomp-esque mouse with turntable ears. Zimmerman and Core co-founders Frederic Descamps and Jordan Maynard who also ran around the show with me had seen it at least 10 times, but everyone still seemed to genuinely be having fun.

At some point I either fell into lava or got smashed on a conveyer belt by a massive metal fist while a Deadmau5-themed villain loomed nearby. “I think it’s the only interactive concert you can die in,” Maynard said. The show was visually a lot of fun, creatively interactive and ultimately a lot like concerts in Fortnite, which sets a high bar for this stuff.

The elaborate virtual experience, called Oberhasli, also showcases some unique worlds created by fans with no prior game dev experience, from an eerie jungle ruin to a spooky world full of floating space debris. The Core Deadmau5 performance kicks off on Friday at 3 PM PT. It’ll replay over the weekend and be available on demand afterward, for anyone else who’d like to be smashed into an EDM pancake.

Core for creators

Later on our call, held on Discord, the Core tour devolved into everyone running through a secret gate behind a destructible wall and world-hopping wildly through game genres, each remarkably polished for something that doesn’t require any code or game development experience. Moving from one game world to another took seconds even with a terrible wifi connection, including the time I ran through something that looked like World of Warcraft’s dark portal and wound up sailing an isometric pirate ship.

The WoW nod is probably not a coincidence. Descamps waxed nostalgic about the heyday of WoW machinima, narrative movies built through captured gameplay, like only a serious longtime player could. Descamps and Maynard also previously worked on Rift, another fantasy MMO that still commands a loyal following a decade on. (Maynard was employee number seven.) Everyone is raving about the metaverse these days, but surprisingly few companies in the space trace their roots back to the seamless virtual gaming worlds that have brought people together for years.

Core screenshot gameplay

Image Credits: Manticore

To underline how easy it is to make stuff in Core, Maynard quick-built a first-person shooter for us to play, a drag-and-drop process that took maybe two minutes of dipping into Core’s huge library of original in-game assets that were created using its system. Grab a handful of 3D objects and pick a game mode from the template choices (battle royale, racing or dungeon crawler?) and you’re most of the way to a polished-looking playable game built in Core’s modular sandbox. Setting your game in a chilly snowscape or a barren desert is also as simple as dragging and dropping, lending the environments an expansive feel.

Gameplay aside, out of the box Core games look light years better than the UGC you’d run across in Roblox, though that platform’s users have never seemed to mind. The breadth of visual styles and game genres is also mind-boggling for anyone who’s bounced out of samey UGC on other platforms.

Core users who create content have a pretty good swath of monetization options, which Manticore calls “perks.” That includes offering in-game cosmetic items, but also charging for premium games, selling Fortnite-like battle passes or implementing a subscription model. The revenue split is 50/50, which looks generous next to the 25% that Roblox passes on to creators. And in Core, like in other modular game-making platforms, everyone is a creator — no development experience needed.

Core is PC-only for now, but Manticore plans to bring it to other platforms, including iOS, starting next year. Game creation will likely stay limited to PC, but the idea is that anyone could play Core games anywhere, a platform agnostic vision that certainly boosted Fortnite early on and Roblox more recently.

“[Game development] is kind of like baking: a very precise formula, technical, can take weeks to iterate,” Descamps said. But in Core, the technical stuff gets out of the way and a process that would normally drag on can happen in minutes, leaving the rest of the time for experimentation and play.

“What if you put a portal gun into Mario Kart?” Maynard asked, and I’m fairly certain we could have found out right then.

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WhatsApp now lets users encrypt their chat backups in the cloud – TechCrunch

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WhatsApp is beginning to roll out a new feature that will provide its two billion users the option to encrypt their chat history backup in iCloud or Google Drive, patching a major loophole that has been exploited by governments to obtain and review private communication between individuals.

WhatsApp has long encrypted chats between users on its app. But users have had no means to protect the backup of those chats stored in the cloud. (For iPhone users, the chat history is stored in iCloud, and Android users rely on Google Drive.)

It has been widely reported that law enforcement agencies across the globe have been able to access the private communications between suspect individuals on WhatsApp by exploiting this loophole.

WhatsApp, which processes over 100 billion messages a day, is closing that weak link, and tells TechCrunch that it’s providing this new feature to users in every market where the app is operational. The feature is optional, the company said. (It’s not uncommon for companies to withhold privacy features for legal and regulatory reasons. Apple’s new encrypted browsing feature isn’t available to users in certain authoritarian regimes, such as China, Belarus, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uganda and the Philippines.)

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of Facebook, noted that WhatsApp is the first global messaging service at this scale to offer end-to-end encrypted messaging and backups. “Proud of the team for continuing to lead on security for your private conversations,” he wrote in a post on his Facebook page.

WhatsApp began testing the feature with a small group of users last month. The company devised a system to enable WhatsApp users on Android and iOS to lock their chat backups with encryption keys. WhatsApp says it will offer users two ways to encrypt their cloud backups.

Users on WhatsApp will see an option to generate a 64-digit encryption key to protect their chat backups in the cloud. Users can store the encryption key offline or in a password manager of their choice, or they can create a password that backs up their encryption key in a cloud-based “backup key vault” that WhatsApp has developed. The cloud-stored encryption key can’t be used without the user’s password, which isn’t known to WhatsApp.

“While end-to-end encrypted messages you send and receive are stored on your device, many people also want a way to back up their chats in case they lose their phone,” the company wrote in a blog post.

The feature can be accessible by navigating to Settings > Chats > Chat Backups > End-to-End Encrypted Backup (WhatsApp)

As we wrote last month, the move to introduce this additional layer of privacy is significant and one that can have far-reaching implications.

Thoughts, governments?

End-to-end encryption remains a thorny topic of discussion as governments across the globe continue to lobby for backdoors. Apple was pressured to not add encryption to iCloud Backups after the FBI complained, according to Reuters, and while Google has offered users the ability to encrypt their data stored in Google Drive, the company reportedly didn’t tell governments before it rolled out the feature.

India, WhatsApp’s biggest market by users, has introduced a new law that requires the company to devise a way to make “traceability” of questionable messages possible. WhatsApp has sued the Indian government over this new mandate, and said such a requirement effectively mandates “a new form of mass surveillance.”

The UK government — which isn’t exactly a fan of encryption — recently asked messaging apps to not use end-to-end encryption for kids’ accounts. Elsewhere in the world, Australia passed controversial laws three years ago that are designed to force tech companies to provide police and security agencies access to encrypted chats.

WhatsApp declined to discuss whether it had consulted about the new feature with lawmakers or government agencies.

Privacy-focused organizations including Electronic Frontier Foundation have lauded WhatsApp’s move.

“This privacy win from Facebook-owned WhatsApp is striking in its contrast to Apple, which has been under fire recently for its plans for on-device scanning of photos that minors send on Messages, as well as of every photo that any Apple user uploads to iCloud. While Apple has paused to consider more feedback on its plans, there’s still no sign that they will include fixing one of its longstanding privacy pitfalls: no effective encryption across iCloud backups,” the organization wrote.

“WhatsApp is raising the bar, and Apple and others should follow suit.”

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