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Google’s new voice recognition system works instantly and offline (if you have a Pixel) – TechCrunch

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Voice recognition is a standard part of the smartphone package these days, and a corresponding part is the delay while you wait for Siri, Alexa or Google to return your query, either correctly interpreted or horribly mangled. Google’s latest speech recognition works entirely offline, eliminating that delay altogether — though of course mangling is still an option.

The delay occurs because your voice, or some data derived from it anyway, has to travel from your phone to the servers of whoever operates the service, where it is analyzed and sent back a short time later. This can take anywhere from a handful of milliseconds to multiple entire seconds (what a nightmare!), or longer if your packets get lost in the ether.

Why not just do the voice recognition on the device? There’s nothing these companies would like more, but turning voice into text on the order of milliseconds takes quite a bit of computing power. It’s not just about hearing a sound and writing a word — understanding what someone is saying word by word involves a whole lot of context about language and intention.

Your phone could do it, for sure, but it wouldn’t be much faster than sending it off to the cloud, and it would eat up your battery. But steady advancements in the field have made it plausible to do so, and Google’s latest product makes it available to anyone with a Pixel.

Google’s work on the topic, documented in a paper here, built on previous advances to create a model small and efficient enough to fit on a phone (it’s 80 megabytes, if you’re curious), but capable of hearing and transcribing speech as you say it. No need to wait until you’ve finished a sentence to think whether you meant “their” or “there” — it figures it out on the fly.

So what’s the catch? Well, it only works in Gboard, Google’s keyboard app, and it only works on Pixels, and it only works in American English. So in a way this is just kind of a stress test for the real thing.

“Given the trends in the industry, with the convergence of specialized hardware and algorithmic improvements, we are hopeful that the techniques presented here can soon be adopted in more languages and across broader domains of application,” writes Google, as if it is the trends that need to do the hard work of localization.

Making speech recognition more responsive, and to have it work offline, is a nice development. But it’s sort of funny considering hardly any of Google’s other products work offline. Are you going to dictate into a shared document while you’re offline? Write an email? Ask for a conversion between liters and cups? You’re going to need a connection for that! Of course this will also be better on slow and spotty connections, but you have to admit it’s a little ironic.

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iOS 15.5 and macOS 12.4 bring updates to Podcasts, digital payments, and more

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Enlarge / Apple’s Studio Display received a firmware update today to improve its webcam performance.

Andrew Cunningham

Apple released new software updates for all of its platforms on Tuesday. That includes the following:

  • iOS 15.5 for iPhones and the iPod touch
  • iPadOS 15.5 for iPads
  • macOS 12.4 for Macs
  • watchOS 8.6 for the Apple Watch
  • tvOS 15.5 for the Apple TV
  • HomePod Software 15.5 for HomePods
  • Studio Display Firmware 15.5 for the Studio Display
  • Swift Playgrounds 4.1 for iPad and Mac

These are almost certainly the last updates before the company’s annual developer conference, which is scheduled to kick off on June 6. Among other things, Apple will announce iOS and iPadOS 16, macOS 13, and watchOS 9 at the conference, but those updates won’t arrive until later this year.

iOS 15.5

Today’s iOS update offers just enough new user-facing features to earn that 15.x label instead of 15.x.x, which is usually reserved for bug fixes and the like.

All told, though, it’s a small update. The built-in Podcasts app gets “a new setting to limit episodes stored on your Mac and automatically delete older ones.”

And 15.5 allows the iPhone to be used as a point-of-sale device without any additional hardware, as reported in February.

Previously, vendors like farmer’s market stalls and home repair services used iPhones with attached add-on hardware from companies like Stripe to receive payments.

Now the iPhone doesn’t need those attachments; Stripe works just fine with an iPhone fresh out of the box.

Additionally, iOS 15.5 brings safety features in the Messages app meant to prevent children from being exposed to inappropriate content in the following new countries:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • New Zealand
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

macOS 12.4

On the macOS side, Apple names just two user-facing changes in its release notes. It adds support for Studio Display Firmware Update 15.5 (which claims to improve webcam performance on Apple’s new monitor), and the built-in Podcasts app gets the same new feature that iOS did.

However, macOS 12.4 includes more than 50 security updates under the hood, according to Apple’s support documentation.

watchOS 8.6

watchOS 8.6 is a relatively minor update. It expands some of the Watch’s health features—namely irregular heart rhythm detection and the ECG—to Apple Watch users in Mexico.

Other updates

Studio Display Firmware 15.5 attempts to address some user complaints about the monitor’s webcam quality. Apple hasn’t shared any details about what’s in the HomePod firmware update or tvOS 15.5.

There’s also Swift Playgrounds 4.1 for Mac and iPad. It’s not an OS update, but it landed around the same time. It allows users to use Playgrounds to build apps with SwiftUI on the Mac, and it deepens App Store Connect integration for publishing apps, among other things.

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Google backtracks on legacy GSuite account shutdown, won’t take user emails

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Enlarge / An artist’s rendering of Google’s current reputation.

Google finally launched a solution for people with “legacy” GSuite Google accounts. After initially threatening to shut down free GSuite accounts if users didn’t start paying for the service, Google has completely backed off. Once users jump through some sign-up hoops, Google will allow their ~16-year-old accounts to continue functioning. You’ll even get to keep your email address.

The saga so far, if you haven’t been following, is that Google has a custom-domain user account service, currently called “Google Workspace” and previously called “G Suite” and “Google Apps.” The service is mostly a normal Google account that lets you use an email that ends in your custom domain name rather than “@gmail.com.” Today this service is aimed at businesses and costs money each month, but that was not always the case. From 2006 to 2012, custom domain Google accounts were free and were even pitched at families as a geeky way to have an online Google identity.

In January, some bean counter at Google apparently noticed this tiny group of longtime users was technically getting a paid service for free and decided this was unacceptable. Google posted an announcement in January declaring these people “Legacy GSuite users” and basically told them, ‘Pay up or lose your account.’ These users signed up for a free Google service and stored data on it for as long as 16 years, and there were no indications it would ever be charged. Google held this decade-plus of user data hostage, telling users to start paying business rates for Workspace or face an account shutdown.

A week later, after the inevitable public outcry, Google relented somewhat and said it would vaguely, eventually provide “an option for you to move your non-Google Workspace paid content and most of your data to a no-cost option.” Being told you’ll be able to keep “most of your data” that you’ve been accumulating for 16 years is a rather alarming statement. Google’s one bit of specifics in January was that “this new option won’t include premium features like custom email,” so you’d have to stop hosting your email with Google, and you’d presumably have to go through some wild Google account conversion process. It then let these users anxiously flap in the wind, with no further details, for six months.

How to save your free GSuite account

In May, Google finally told these users what would happen to their accounts. The new support page says, “For individuals and families using your account for non-commercial purposes, you can continue using the G Suite legacy free edition and opt out of the transition to Google Workspace.” The link for that is here or in your GSuite admin panel. You’ll need to confirm that your GSuite account is for personal use, and not business use, because businesses are still expected to pay for Workspace. If you already bent to Google’s will and started paying for Workspace because of the January announcement, Google says you should contact support.

That bottom
Enlarge / That bottom “Personal use” button is what you want.

Lee Hutchinson

The biggest news from this latest announcement is that Google has decided against taking people’s custom email away. A second support page says, “You can continue using your custom domain with Gmail, retain access to no-cost Google services such as Google Drive and Google Meet, and keep your purchases and data.” It now sounds like there will be no changes to your account, provided you click through the “self-transition” screen before the deadline.

The deadline to opt out of an account shutdown, which has changed several times now, is June 27, 2022. If you don’t complete this opt out by June 27, you will be automatically billed for Workspace. If you don’t have a card on file and don’t opt out, your account will be suspended on August 1 and shut down.

The automatic enrollment and billing, without explicit user consent, is one of the wilder parts of this story. If you don’t closely follow the tech news scene, there’s a good chance you won’t know this is coming, and you will either suddenly be billed without your consent or find that your Google account has suddenly stopped working.

For a company whose key business pillar is convincing users to store vast amounts of data, playing games like this is a bizarre decision. At least it came to a reasonable conclusion.

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Testing shows AMD’s FSR 2.0 can even help lowly Intel integrated GPUs

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Intel

There are two things to like about version 2.0 of AMD’s FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) upscaling tech, which finally began appearing in actual games late last week. The most important is that the quality of the upscaled image is dramatically better than in FSR version 1.0. The second is that FSR 2.0 is compatible with all kinds of GPUs, including not just AMD’s but older GeForce GPUs that aren’t compatible with Nvidia’s proprietary deep learning super sampling (DLSS).

New testing from Tom’s Hardware has also revealed another unlikely beneficiary: Intel’s recent integrated GPUs. Using an Iris Xe laptop GPU in a Core i7-1165G7, FSR 2.0 was able to bump the average frame rates in a 720p version of Deathloop by around 16%, nudging it from just under 30 fps to just over 30 fps and helping to offset the low resolution with its built-in anti-aliasing. Not bad for a nearly two-year-old laptop GPU playing a demanding modern game.

There are caveats, some of which apply to all upscaling technologies and some that are specific to Intel’s GPUs. FSR 2.0 and DLSS are generally good enough to let you bump up your resolution or quality settings a bit while maintaining a playable frame rate. They can also make borderline-unplayable games playable, and they can help you squeeze a little more life out of your current GPU if you don’t want (or can’t afford) to spring for an upgrade.

But upscaling also isn’t magical—the integrated GPU in a 10th-generation Intel Ice Lake CPU got nowhere near playable frame rates in Deathloop without FSR 2.0, and the low-double-digit performance improvement from FSR didn’t get it over that 30 fps line. Both Intel GPUs also showed lots of graphical corruption in most of the test runs, though this was inconsistent and could be fixed in future driver updates.

Wider, manufacturer-agnostic hardware compatibility could eventually help AMD accomplish with FSR what it did with FreeSync adaptive sync technology a few years ago. Nvidia’s G-Sync was technically superior, but it required more expensive monitors with an additional hardware module installed, and it only worked with Nvidia GPUs. FreeSync wasn’t as good initially, but it piggybacked on standard DisplayPort features that made it easier and cheaper to implement. A few years later, Nvidia enabled FreeSync support in its drivers, and today, FreeSync is by far the more prevalent of the two technologies.

Game developers could choose to support FSR 2.0 over Nvidia’s DLSS for the same reason: It provides good-enough results that cover a much broader range of GPU hardware from multiple manufacturers. AMD isn’t alone in trying to define a more widely compatible standard for high-quality upscaling, though—Intel’s upcoming XeSS standard can also be used with Intel, Nvidia, or AMD GPUs. DLSS support is also fairly entrenched, with relatively wide support across a long list of modern games.

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