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Apple AirPods (2019) review: A subtle, but meaningful upgrade Review

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I’m often asked what my favorite gadget or gadgets are, and for the past two years, without hesitation, my answer has been Apple’s AirPods and the Nintendo Switch.

Also: AirPower fail: The latest victim of Apple’s OCD

The AirPods took wireless earbuds and made them something I actually wanted to use and made it easy to do so. The Switch, well, I like to game when and where I can, so the portability combined with the ability to dock on a big screen TV has won me over.

For the past few months, however, the battery life on my original AirPods has been suffering. I’ve used them a lot since their release in 2016, and the small battery inside each earbud has suffered enough.

For months, rumors and speculation swirled that new AirPods were just around the corner. Keynotes came and went, without as much as a mention of a second-generation AirPods update. Then, the week before last month’s services event, Apple cleared out all hardware announcements. There were a new iPad Air and iPad mini, refreshed iMacs, and, finally, new AirPods.

For the past week, I’ve been using the 2019 version of the AirPods and they’re every bit as impressive. On paper, the changes are subtle, but in use, there’s a meaningful difference.

Design


Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

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If you didn’t know what to look for on the wireless charging case, telling the difference between first- and second-generation AirPods would be impossible.

Also: Coming to an Apple store near you: The harder sell

The wireless charging case has a different hinge, an indicator light on the outside of the case, and the pairing button has moved up just a touch.

Other than the new case, the new AirPods look like the old AirPods. I had hoped we would see AirPods in a matte black finish, but the bright white earbuds have become a cultural phenomenon and easily recognizable over the past two years.

The earbuds are still one size fits all, and in my testing, have the same fit as the first-generation AirPods. I’ve never had issues with AirPods falling out or becoming uncomfortable in normal use.

The wireless charging case is compatible with all Qi-enabled wireless charging pads, and charges at a speed of 5W. There’s also a Lightning port on the bottom of the case if you’re short on time and want to charge the case a bit faster. The case will fully charge via cable in about two hours, or wirelessly in about 3.5 hours.

The indicator light on the wireless charging case doesn’t stay on the entire time the case is charging. Instead, it turns on when you first place the case on a wireless charging pad and will turn green when the case is fully charged. It also lights up each time you open the case, turning green when the AirPods are charged or amber if the case and earbuds are running low.

To be clear, you don’t have to purchase the wireless charging case with the second-generation AirPods. The AirPods are still available for $159 with a standard charging case. If you want wireless charging, you’ll pay $199 for the upgraded case.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that first generation owners who want a wireless charging case don’t have to upgrade AirPods. You can purchase a standalone wireless charging case that works with all AirPods for $79.

Performance

The most notable difference between the first iteration of AirPods and the 2019 version is a new Apple H1 chip. The custom H1 chip replaces the W1 chip that’s found in the first-generation AirPods.

Also: Quitting the five tech giants: Could you abstain from Apple?

The H1 is designed specifically for headphones, and won’t make its way to other wearables, like the Apple Watch (as we saw with the W1, and later the W2 chip).

What does the H1 chip bring to the table? Double the talk time of three hours, faster connection speed for incoming calls and when switching between devices, and hands-free “Hey Siri” use.

Overall battery life is still five hours, with 15 minutes in the charging case adding three hours of listening time, or two hours of talk time.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve yet to completely drain the AirPods during my normal use in my office. I’ve pushed four hours of constant listening and had just under 20 percent battery left, putting the five-hour estimate within reach.

airpods-2019-case.jpg

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The new AirPods boast the same range, seamless pairing process that takes a couple of seconds (and syncs across all of your Apple devices), and auto-pause and auto-resume when removing/placing an AirPod from your ear.

Also: Apple TV+ paid service: The company’s latest big bet 

One feature I’ve found myself using, and actually enjoying, is hands-free Hey Siri. Instead of double-tapping on an AirPod to trigger Siri, you can now speak Hey Siri at any time, and as long as the device they are connected to has an active internet connection, it will trigger Siri. You can then interact with Siri as you normally would — ask for weather, directions, your messages to be read, control music playback, or adjust volume.

Often times, I don’t have my iPhone in my pocket or nearby when I’m using my AirPods; I get up and walk around a lot. So using Hey Siri with my iPhone isn’t really possible. With the AirPods, however, I can still bark commands on Apple’s personal assistant and not have to worry about where my iPhone is.

Additionally, when using my Apple Watch with the AirPods, Hey Siri works. Instead of lifting my wrist to talk to Siri, I can talk and keep doing the task at hand without interruption.

Will I continue to use Hey Siri with the AirPods a month or two down the road? Most likely. Switching playlists and having messages read to me with a quick voice command is far too convenient for me.

Competition

When AirPods were first released, they were in a category of their own. There really wasn’t a product that came close to providing the same completely wireless experience. In the two years since their release, several companies have come out with products aimed at taking a slice of the market share from Apple. But it wasn’t until Samsung’s recently released Galaxy Buds that there was a true competitor that mimics the AirPods features, and in some ways improves upon them.

Also: Apple products you shouldn’t buy

Samsung’s Galaxy Buds are designed for use with Galaxy devices, much in the same way that the AirPods are designed to use with Apple devices. And while both products will work outside of each respective company’s ecosystem, they’re better inside the walled gardens.

Although, if you don’t care about fast pairing and features like auto-pause on iOS, the Galaxy Buds are slightly less expensive at $129.

Conclusion

airpods-2019-wireless-charger.jpg

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

When it comes down to it, there’s not a big difference between the first and second generation AirPods. Talk time, improved connection speed, and Hey Siri are the headlining features, and to some, they won’t mean all that much.

Also: Apple versus the privacy spiral: The business value of trust

To be honest, if you recently purchased AirPods and your battery life is still strong, there’s little incentive to upgrade. However, those who have had the original AirPods since launch and are seeing diminished battery life, or those who have never owned a pair and are ready to make the wireless jump, the new AirPods are worth every penny.

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Didi expands, inDriver monetizes to rival Uber, Bolt in Africa – TechCrunch

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The on-demand transport space in Africa has evolved since San Francisco-based ride-hailing firm Uber first set up operations in South Africa in 2013, setting the stage for its foray across the continent while radically transforming the entire taxi industry.

Almost a decade later, Africa’s taxi industry is now dominated by tens of local and international tech-led ride-on-demand platforms, with the latest additions being global giants Didi Chuxing from China and Russia’s inDriver.

Looking to edge out its competitors, Chinese behemoth Didi is currently expanding across the continent, stepping up competition for market leaders Uber and Estonia-based Bolt. Evidence shows it is preparing to enter Nigeria, having begun operations in South Africa in March and Egypt just last month when the company posted a job opening for a driver center manager in Lagos – the same role it first advertised for when entering South Africa and Egypt.

A key indicator of the company’s imminent expansion into Nigeria was hidden within the lines of the driver center manager’s responsibilities – “to collaborate with operations and Didi’s team to support the successful launch.”

Didi did not respond to multiple TechCrunch requests for comment about its expansion plans in Africa.

Screenshot of Didi’s app in Nigeria

Didi is one of the biggest ride-hailing services in the world. However, unlike global competitors Uber and Bolt, which years ago saw Africa as a key market in their quest for global dominance, the Chinese firm held off the continent until now.

Founded in 2012, Didi has around 600 million users across 17 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Russia. The company also has over 15 million annual active drivers.

In addition to launching other mobility platforms, Didi now owns minority stakes in other global platforms — the United States’ Lyft and Uber, Indonesia’s Grab, Egypt’s Careem and India’s Ola. It also fully acquired Brazil’s 99.

As Didi starts its incursion into Africa, Russia’s inDriver is firming up its presence across the same markets, where it recently started taking commissions from drivers.

Unlike other taxi-hailing apps that have a unilateral billing structure, inDriver allows riders to negotiate trip charges with drivers, making it popular among taxi users.

Taxi drivers in Kenya’s capital Nairobi using inDriver, which rolled out its services in Africa in 2018, have over the last few days received notifications from the company confirming the introduction of a 9.52% commission for every trip made. The commission is lower than Didi’s 13%, although both are much lower than Uber’s 25% and Bolt’s 20%.

InDriver inferred that it was introducing the charges due to the increased demand of the service, but it was keen to keep the commission lower than those of its competitors. The app was launched about three years ago across multiple markets in Africa including South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, Morocco and Botswana with the promise of a commission-free first year. The company is just now introducing commissions in some of these markets, although the deductions are already in effect in Nigeria and South Africa.

In a notification sent to drivers in Kenya, inDriver said that it “became a noticeable event in the passenger rides market in Nairobi. Many people use it daily and their number is increasing. This extensive work requires significant costs. To cover these costs, we introduce payments for each order in the amount of 9.52%. To keep inDriver still profitable for both passengers and drivers, the amount of payments is lower than in other services, where payments can range from 15% to 30% of each order.”

The new update comes as the company plans to grow in different markets, having already diversified into the courier business.

The company launched its delivery business in April last year, at the height of the pandemic, to tap the demand for parcel delivery services. Courier services enlisted on the app include auto, foot and moto, and are available in over 16 countries. The company is now introducing freight services in different markets around the world.

Founded in 2013 by Arsen Tomsky, inDriver is currently available in 34 countries and recently crossed the 100-million download mark. 

As it joins Didi to step up competition in Africa, market pioneers Uber and Bolt are expanding their service range in cities across the continent.

Currently, Uber is rolling out Pool Chance, a feature that lets riders headed in the same direction share the cost of the journey, in Kenya, with plans to offer the low-cost service in Ghana and Nigeria. The company says that the rollout of budget services is part of its plan to attract price-sensitive users.

Across the continent, Uber has over the last few months expanded into new regions and introduced new products as part of its strategy to retain existing customers and attract new ones amid growing competition. Earlier this month, the firm entered two additional cities in Nigeria — Ibadan and Port Harcourt — bringing into the regions a service that is already available in three other cities. 

Frans Hiemstra, general manager for Uber Sub-Saharan Africa

In South Africa, Uber is now available in 40 cities, serving 80% of the urban population, with premium services Uber Comfort, UberX and UberBlack and budget service UberGo. It recently expanded into 21 new cities and added a feature last August that allows the booking of trips a month in advance.

The company plans to continue investments into African cities through collaborations with national and local authorities.

“We know that we face significant competition across local transportation modes in Africa. These are vibrant and competitive with many viable alternatives, including ridesharing, personal cars and public transportation—which consumers can and do choose between,” Frans Hiemstra, the general manager for Uber Sub-Saharan Africa, told TechCrunch.

We believe competition makes us better, which improves the service for our riders and earners alike,” he said.

Uber is still king in terms of combined market share in Africa; it claims to have about 150,000 drivers in its eight markets across the continent, while Bolt comes in second.

Bolt has been aggressively expanding its services in Africa. The firm is planning to roll out electric taxi options in South Africa four months after introducing e-bike food delivery services in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Bolt also launched its food delivery service in Nigeria last month.

Like Uber, Bolt sees myriad opportunities in the continent. 

“We see that there is room for several players across the continent. The infrastructure and experience we have built up with our ride-hailing business give us a good platform to expand and diversify our services,” said Bolt’s regional director for Africa and Middle East, Paddy Partridge.

For new players like Didi, it will be an entry to a market that dealt with drivers and partners demanding better working terms.

In Nigeria and Kenya, both Uber and Bolt faced a series of protests earlier this year as their drivers expressed displeasure with the ride-hailing companies’ decision to increase their commissions, despite burdening users with price surges. However, no notable changes have been made from either of the two companies in line with the demands of drivers.

Didi’s operations elsewhere have not been without drama. Before it went public on the NYSE this year – nine years after operating as a privately held startup and raising $25 billion from investors – the Alibaba, SoftBank and Apple-backed company faced scrutiny from the Chinese government and regulators. It was accused of employing anti-competitive practices and pricing and misusing users’ personal information.  

Didi’s fallout with China is just one of the many struggles it dealt with this year. Trying to compensate for the troubles at home, the firm looked to enter the U.K. market, but the move was met with concerns from the British Parliament that China could harvest data from Brits using Didi’s service. However, it seems its entry into African markets has been smooth — and could explain why it wants to keep its operations quiet: to avoid scrutiny.

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Twitter Blue introduces ‘Labs’ to give users early access to new features – TechCrunch

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Twitter is rolling out a new feature called ‘Labs’ for Twitter Blue, its premium subscription service. Labs will give Twitter Blue subscribers early access to features that Twitter is testing as a part of that bundle, which is currently only available in Canada and Australia.

Now, Labs subscribers now have the ability to upload videos that are up to 10-minutes long from their desktop. Standard users currently only have the option to upload videos that are up to 2 minutes and 20 seconds long. Additionally, iOS users can now swipe to pin their favorite conversations to the top of their direct message inbox.

Twitter says features that are released via Labs may eventually roll out to the rest of Twitter, become a static feature of Twitter Blue, or be scrapped altogether based on feedback it hears from subscribers.

“Labs also provides an opportunity for other internal product teams to submit features, get early quantitative and qualitative data, and then later release to a wider audience. What’s featured in Labs will change as we develop new features,” the company said in a statement.

Twitter had said last month it planned to be more experimental as it released new products, noting that it would share its progress publicly along the way and scrap ideas that didn’t work — as it recently did with Fleets.

“We believe that if we’re not winding things down every once in a while, then we’re not taking big enough bets,” said Twitter Head of Consumer Product Kayvon Beykpour at the time.

In Canada and Australia, a Twitter Blue subscription currently costs $3.49 CAD or $4.49 AUD, respectively. The subscription gives Twitter users access to premium features, including tools to organize bookmarks and an “Undo Tweet” feature, which seems to be the closest thing Twitter will offer in relation to the long-requested “edit” button. Twitter Blue also comes with a reader mode feature.

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Hinge launches a new ‘Voice Prompts’ feature to give users a new way to interact – TechCrunch

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Hinge is rolling out a new ‘Voice Prompts’ feature to give its users a new way to connect with their matches. Voice Prompts will allow users to answer a prompt through a 30-second voice recording. The new feature is rolling out globally starting today.

Hinge says the new feature allows people to give others a glimpse into their personality and perhaps hint at what a first date would be like. The feature will prompt users to discuss a certain topic or share a specific fun story. For instance, the prompts may ask users to discuss their biggest date fail or share a random fact that they love.

The company says 65 percent of its users say they believe hearing someone’s voice would help them determine interest in a match, as 75 percent of users said it’s difficult to feel connected with a match when their conversation is limited to just text and photos.

Hinge also plans to launch a new ‘Voice Notes’ feature later this fall. Voice Notes will make it possible for users to have a conversation that captures their personality while messaging each other. Hinge says both Voice Notes and Voice Prompts will allow people to better showcase who they are at different points in their dating journey.

Additionally, Hinge is updating its algorithm to help non-binary users better represent themselves while connecting with others on the app. To do this, Hinge will offer a “non-binary” gender category to ensure that their gender is acknowledged.

It’s worth noting that Hinge isn’t the only dating app to add voice features, as audio options are becoming more popular in the space. For instance, Bumble and Happn both have voice note features. Additionally, a new app called String lets users only communicate through voice notes. It’s clear that dating apps are looking to leverage the convenience of voice notes to retain and garner more users, as the feature takes away the awkwardness of a phone call but takes the conversation a step further than texts.

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