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keeping it simple – TechCrunch

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I’m going to be totally honest with you. I don’t really understand Google’s phone strategy right now. And for what it’s worth, I’m not really sure Google does either. I wrote about it here, but I’ll save you from having to read an additional 800 words on top of all these. The short version is that Google has three phones on the market, and there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of distinction between them.

The Pixel is a portrait of a hardware division in transition. That applies to a number of aspects, from strategy to the fact that the company recently saw a minor executive exodus. It’s pretty clear the future of Google’s mobile hardware division is going to look quite different from its present — but 2020’s three phones are most likely a holdover from the old guard.

What you’re looking at here is the Pixel 5. It’s Google’s flagship. A device that sports — among other things — more or less the same mid-range Qualcomm processor as the 4a announced earlier this year. It distinguishes itself from that budget handset, however, with the inclusion of 5G. But then here comes the 4a 5G to further muddy the waters.

There are some key distinctions that separate the 5 and 4a 5G, which were announced at the same event. The 5’s got a more solid body, crafted from 100% recycled aluminum to the cheaper unit’s polycarbonate. It also has waterproofing and reverse wireless charging, a fun feature we’ve seen on Samsung devices for a few generations now. Beyond that, however, we run into something that’s been a defining issue since the line’s inception. If you choose not to use hardware to define your devices, it becomes difficult to differentiate your devices’ hardware.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Since the very beginning of the Pixel line, the company has insisted that it will rely on software advances to push the products forward. It’s a nice sentiment after years of feature arms races between the likes of Apple and Samsung. But that means when it comes time to introduce new devices, the results can be fairly lackluster. That certainly applies to the Pixel 5.

From a hardware perspective, it’s not a particularly exciting phone. That’s probably fine for many. Smartphones have, after all, become more commodity than luxury item, and plenty of users are simply looking for one that will just get the job done. That said, Google’s got some pretty stiff competition at the Pixel 5’s price point — and there are plenty of Android devices that can do even more.

There are certainly some upgrades in addition to the above worth pointing out, however. Fittingly, the biggest and most important of all is probably the least exciting. The Pixel 4 was actually a pretty solid device hampered by one really big issue: an abysmal battery life. The 2,800mAh capacity was a pretty massive millstone around the device’s neck. That, thankfully, has been addressed here in a big way.

Google’s bumped things up to 4,080mAh. That’s also a pretty sizable bump over the 4a and 4a 5G, which sport 3,885mAh and 2,130mAh, respectively. That extra life is extra important, given the addition of both Battery Share and 5G. For the sake of disclosure, I should mention that I still live in an area with basically no 5G (three cheers for working from home), so your mileage will vary based on coverage. But using LTE, I was able to get about a day and a half of use out of the handset, besting the stated “all-day battery).

This is helped along by a (relatively) compact display. Gone are the days of the XL (though, confusingly, the 4a 5G does have a larger screen with a bit lower pixel density). The flagship is only available in a six-inch, 2,340 x 1,080 size. It’s larger than the Pixel 4’s 5.7 inches, but at a lower pixel density (432 versus 444 ppl). The 90Hz refresh rate remains. Compared to all of the phones I’ve been testing lately, the Pixel 5 feels downright compact. It’s a refreshing change to be able to use the device with one hand.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The camera is probably the aspect of the handset where the opposing hardware-first and software-first approaches are the most at conflict with one another. Google was fairly convinced it could do everything it wanted with a single lens early on, but eventually begrudgingly gave in to a two-camera setup. The hardware is pretty similar to last year’s model, but the 16-megapixel 2x optical telephoto has been replaced by a 16-megapixel ultra-wide. Whether that represent progress is largely up to your own personal preference. Frankly, I’d prefer a little more non-distorted zooming.

Google, of course, is building on a solid foundation. I really loved the Pixel 4’s photos. The things Google’s imaging team has been able to do with relative hardware constraints is really impressive, and while you’re lacking the scope of a premium Samsung device or high-end iPhone, casual photo snappers are going to be really happy with the shots they get on the Pixel 5.

Night Sight has been improved and now turns on when the phone’s light sensor detects a dark scene. My morning walks have gotten decidedly darker in recent weeks as the season has changed, and the phone automatically enters the mode for those pre-dawn shots (COVID-19 has made me an early riser, I don’t know what to tell you). The feature has also been added to portrait mode for better focused shots.

The Pixel’s Portrait Mode remains one of the favorites — though it’s still imperfect, running into issues with things like hair or complex geometries. It really doesn’t know what to do with a fence much of the time, for instance. The good news is that Google’s packed a lot of editing options into the software here — particularly for Portrait Mode.

You can really go crazy in terms of bokeh levels and placement and portrait lighting, a relatively subtle effect that lends the appearance of changing a light source. Changing the effects can sometimes be a bit laggy, likely owing to the lower-end processing power. All said, it’s a good and well-rounded photo experience, but as usual, I would really love to see what Google’s imaging team would be able to do if the company ever gives it a some real high-end photography hardware to play around with. Wishful thinking for whatever the Pixel 6 becomes, I suppose.

In the end, the two biggest reasons to recommend upgrading from the Pixel 4 are 5G and bigger battery. The latter is certainly a big selling point this time out. The former really depends on what coverage is like in your area. The 5G has improved quite a bit of late, but there are still swaths of the U.S. — and the world — that will be defaulting to LTE on this device. Also note that the $200 cheaper 4a 5G also offers improvements in both respects over last year’s model.

Still, $700 is a pretty reasonable price point for a well-rounded — if unexciting — phone like the Pixel 5. And Google’s got other things working in its favor, as well — pure Android and the promise of guaranteed updates. If you’re looking for something with a bit more flash, however, there are plenty of options in the Android world.

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Mophie introduces a modular wireless charging module – TechCrunch

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Here’s a clever addition for Mophie, one of the longstanding battery case makers, which is now a part of the same smartphone accessory conglomerate as Zagg, Braven, iFrogz and InvisibleShield. The Juice Pack Connect is a modular take on the category, with a battery pack that slides on and off.

For $80 you get a 5,400mAh battery (that should get you plenty of additional charge time) and a ring stand that props the phone up. Mophie may offer additional models at some point, but right now, the biggest selling point is less about add-ons and more the fact that you can slip the battery off the device when not needed and still use the case.

Image Credits: Mophie

It’s not entirely dissimilar from the modular uniVERSE case OtterBox introduced a bunch of years ago, but the big advantage here is that the charging works via Qi, so you don’t have to plug it into the phone’s port.

It’s not cheap (Mophie isn’t, generally). And, no, it’s not a MagSafe accessory. Instead, the add-on attaches to your case (needs to be one thin enough to support the charging, mind) using adhesive. The upside is that it works with a much larger number of phones, including multiple generations of iPhones and wireless-capable handsets like Samsung Galaxies and Google Pixels.

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TCL announces a $400 5G handset – TechCrunch

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What’s most remarkable about the push for 5G is how quickly the prices came down on handsets sporting the next-gen wireless technology. The push toward affordable 5G devices is clearly as much an indicator as the current state of the smartphone space as anything — people just aren’t upgrading devices as quickly as the used to. And even more to the point, they’re reluctant to pay $1,000 when they do.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G has been a piece of that puzzle. And unsurprisingly, the mid-tier chip in found in TCL’s new $400 5G handset. Of course, TCL is positioning it as “under-$400” with that $399.99 price tag, which is technically correct — the best kind of correct.

It’s also not really right to say that the TCL 10 5G UW’s a”premium blend of performance, power, stylish design and 5G connectivity that until now has only been available on more expensive flagship smartphones.” Affordable 5G handsets isn’t an entirely new phenomenon — nor are affordable 5G handsets with decent specs and design. But even so, the price point is still notable at this stage in the 5G upgrade cycle — which, frankly, is why we’re writing about it here.

The price/5G combo is the main thing to like here, coming in at even less than, say, the OnePlus Nord, a recent high water mark in the 5G/price point combo. And there are a few other things that should appeal to potential buyers, as well, including a 4,500mAh battery coupled with reverse charging for other devices. There are three rear-facing cameras: a 48-megapixel main, an eight-megapixel ultra wide and a five-megapixel macro, the latter of of which is starting to appear on more phones.

It arrives October 29, and is, notably, a Verizon (TechCrunch’s parent company) exclusive here in the U.S., using the carrier’s mmWave technology.

 

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Linktree raises $10.7M for its lightweight, link-centric user profiles – TechCrunch

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Simple, link-centric user profiles might seem might not seem like a particularly ambitious idea, but it’s been big enough for Linktree.

The Melbourne startup says that 8 million users — whether they’re celebrities like Selena Gomez and Dua Lipa or brands like HBO and Red Bull — have created profiles on the platform, with those profiles receiving more than 1 billion visitors in September.

Plus, there are more than 28,000 new users signing up every month.

“This category didn’t exist when we started,” CEO Alex Zaccaria told me. “We created this category.”

Zaccaria said that he and his co-founders Anthony Zaccaria and Nick Humphreys created Linktree to solve a problem they were facing at their digital marketing agency Bolster. Instagram doesn’t allow users to include links in posts — all you get is a single link in your profile, prompting the constant “link in bio” reminder when someone wants to promote something.

Meanwhile, most of Bolster’s clients come from music and entertainment, where a single link can’t support what Zaccaria said is a “quite fragmented” business model. After all, an artist might want to point fans to their latest streaming album, upcoming concert dates, an online store for merchandise and more. A website could do the job in theory, but they can be clunky or slow on mobile, with users probably giving up before they finally reach the desired page.

Linktree founders Anthony Zaccaria, Alex Zaccaria and Nick Humphreys

So instead of constantly swapping out links in Instagram and other social media profiles, a Linktree user includes one evergreen link to their Linktree profile, which they can update as necessary. Selena Gomez, for example, links to her latest songs and videos, but also her Rare Beauty cosmetics brand, her official store and articles about her nonprofit work.

Zaccaria said that after launching the product in 2016, the team quickly discovered that “a lot more people had the same problem,” leading them to fully separate Linktree and Bolster two years ago. Since then, the company hasn’t raised any outside funding — until now, with a $10.7 million Series A led by Insight Partners and AirTree Ventures.

“We had the option to just continue to grow sustainably, but we wanted to pour some fuel on the fire,” Zaccaria said.

In fact, Linktree has already grown from 10 to 50 employees this year. And while the company started out by solving a problem for Instagram users, Zaccaria described it as evolving into a much broader platform that can “unify your entire digital ecosystem” and “democratize digital presence.” He said that while some customers continue to maintain “a giant, brand-immersive website,” for others, Linktree is completely replacing the idea of a standalone website.

Zaccaria added that Instagram only represents a small amount of Linktree’s current traffic, while nearly 25% of that traffic now comes from direct visitors.

Linktree activism

Image Credits: Linktree

Black Lives Matter has also been a big part of Linktree’s recent growth, with activists and other users who want to support the movement using their profiles to point visitors to websites where they can donate, learn more and get involved. In fact, Linktree even introduced a Black Lives Matter banner over the summer that anyone could add to their profile.

Linktree is free to use, but you have to pay $6 a month for Pro features like video links, link thumbnails and social media icons.

Zaccaria said that the new funding will allow the startup to add more “functionality and analytics.” He’s particularly eager to grow the data science and analytics team, though he emphasized that Linktree does not collect personally identifiable information or monetize visitor data in any way — he just wants to provide more data to Linktree users.

In a statement, Insight Managing Director Jeff Lieberman said:

As the internet becomes increasingly fragmented, brands, publishers, and influencers need a solution to streamline their content sharing and connect their social media followers to their entire online ecosystem, ultimately increasing brand awareness and revenue. Linktree has successfully created this new “microsite” category enabling companies to monetize the next generation of the internet economy via a single interactive hub. The impressive traction and growing number of customers Linktree has gained over the last few months demonstrates its proven market fit, and we could not be more excited to work with the Linktree team as they transition to the ScaleUp phase of growth.

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