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The Meizu 16s offers flagship features at a mid-range price

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Smartphones have gotten more expensive over the last few years even though there have only been a handful of recent innovations that really changed the way you interact with the phone. It’s maybe no surprise then that there is suddenly a lot more interest in mid-range, sub-$500 phones again. In the U.S., Google’s new Pixel 3a, with its superb camera, is bringing a lot of credibility to this segment. Outside the U.S., though, you can often get a flagship phone for less than $500 that makes none of the trade-offs typically associated with a mid-range phone. So when Meizu asked me to take a look at its new 16s flagship, which features (almost) everything you’d expect from a high-end Android phone, I couldn’t resist.

Meizu, of course, is essentially a total unknown in the U.S., even though it has a sizable global presence elsewhere. After a week with its latest flagship, which features Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 855 chip and under-screen fingerprint scanner, I’ve come away impressed by what the company delivers, especially given the price point. In the U.S. market, the $399 Pixel 3a may seem like a good deal, but that’s because a lot of brands like Meizu, Xiaomi, Huawei and others have been shut out.

It’s odd that this is now a differentiating feature, but the first thing you’ll notice when you get started is the notchless screen. The dual-sim 16s must have one of the smallest selfie cameras currently on the market, and the actual bezels, especially when compared to something like the Pixel 3a, are minimal. That trade-off works for me. I’ll take a tiny bezel over a notch any day. The 6.2-inch AMOLED screen, which is protected by Gorilla Glass, is crisp and bright, though maybe a bit more saturated than necessary.

The in-display fingerprint reader works just fine, though it’s a bit more finicky that the dedicated readers I’ve used in the past.

With its 855 chip and 6GB of RAM, it’s no surprise the phone feels snappy. To be honest, that’s true for every phone, though, even in the mid-range. Unless you are a gamer, it’s really hard to push any modern phone to its limits. The real test is how this speed holds up over time, and that’s not something we can judge right now.

The overall build quality is excellent, yet while the plastic back is very pretty, it’s also a) weird to see a plastic back to begin with and b) slippery enough to just glide over your desk and drop on the floor if it’s at even a slight angle.

Meizu’s Flyme skin does the job, and adds some useful features like a built-in screen recorder. I’m partial to Google’s Pixel launcher, and a Flyme feels a bit limited in comparison to that and other third-party launchers. There is no app drawer, for example, so all of your apps have to live on the home screen. Personally, I went to the Microsoft Launcher pretty quickly, since that’s closer to the ecosystem I live in anyway. Being able to do that is one of the advantages of Android, after all.

Meizu also offers a number of proprietary gesture controls that replace the standard Android buttons. These may or may not work for you, depending on how you feel about gesture-based interfaces.

I haven’t done any formal battery tests, but the battery easily lasted me through a day of regular usage.

These days, though, phones are really about the cameras. Meizu opted for Sony’s latest 48-megapixel sensor here for its main camera and a 20-megapixel sensor for its telephoto lens that provides up to 3x optical zoom. The camera features optical image stabilization, which, when combined with the software stabilization, makes it easier to take low-light pictures and record shake-free video (though 4K video does not feature Meizu’s anti-shake system).

While you can set the camera to actually produce a 48-megapixel image, the standard setting combines four pixels’ worth of light into a single pixel. That makes for a better image, though you do have the option to go for the full 48 megapixels if you really want to. The camera’s daytime performance is very good, though maybe not quite up to par with some other flagship phones. It really shines when the light dims, though. At night, the camera is highly competitive and Meizu knows that, so the company even added two distinct night modes: one for handheld shooting and one for when you set the phone down or use a tripod. There is also a pro mode with manual controls.

Otherwise, the camera app provides all the usual portrait mode features you’d expect today. The 2x zoom works great, but at 3x, everything starts feeling a bit artificial and slightly washed out. It’ll do in a pinch, but you’re better off getting closer to your subject.

In looking at these features, it’s worth remembering the phone’s price. You’re not making a lot of trade-offs at less than $500, and it’d be nice to see more phones of this caliber on sale in the U.S. Right now, it looks like the OnePlus 7 Pro at $669 is your best bet if you are in the U.S. and looking for a flagship phone without the flagship price.

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Comcast raising TV and Internet prices, including a big hike to hidden fees

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Enlarge / Comcast Xfinity cable television installation truck parked on a street in front of a suburban home, San Ramon, California, May 17, 2018. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Getty Images | Smith Collection | Gado

Comcast is raising prices for cable TV and Internet service on January 1, 2021, with price hikes coming both to standard monthly rates and to hidden fees that aren’t included in advertised prices.

TV customers are getting an especially raw deal, as Comcast is adding up to $4.50 a month to the “Broadcast TV” fee and $2 to the Regional Sports Network (RSN) fee. That’s an increase of up to $78 a year solely from two fees that aren’t included in advertised rates.

As in past years, even customers who still are on promotional pricing will not be spared from the Broadcast TV and RSN fee increases. “Customers on promotional pricing will not see that pricing change until the end of the promotion, but the RSN and Broadcast TV fees will increase because they’re not part of the promotional pricing,” a Comcast spokesperson told Ars.

Without the upcoming increase, the Broadcast TV fee currently ranges from $7.90 to $14.95 depending on the market, the spokesperson said. The RSN fee maxes out at $8.75 a month in most of Comcast’s territory, but Comcast said this fee is $14.45 for Chicago-area customers with access to the Sinclair-owned Marquee Sports Network that airs Chicago Cubs games. The RSN fee is not charged in some markets that don’t have RSNs.

Six Internet-only packages that cost $53 to $113 a month will all rise $3 a month, and the price for professional installations or in-home service visits is rising from $70 to $100. Comcast revealed price increases in a notice that has been shared on Reddit:

List of Comcast price increases taking effect in Chicago on January 1, 2021.

List of Comcast price increases taking effect in Chicago on January 1, 2021.

While the above price-increase notice is for Chicago only, a Comcast spokesperson confirmed to Ars that price hikes will be nationwide. The Chicago price-change list doesn’t include the Regional Sports Network fee “because their RSN fee increased on October 1, 2020 with the addition of the Marquee Sports Network. The RSN Fee will increase by $2 in all other markets effective January 1, 2021,” Comcast told Ars.

“Other changes for 2021 include a Broadcast TV Fee increase of up to $4.50 depending on the market; $3 increase for Internet-only service; and up to to a $2.50 increase for TV boxes on the primary outlet, with a decrease of up to $2.45 for TV boxes on additional outlets,” the Comcast spokesperson added. The fee for a customer’s primary TV box is rising from $5 to $7.50, while the fee for additional boxes is being lowered from $9.95 to $7.50.

While the Chicago price list says the base price of the Choice TV package is rising from $25 to $30 a month, it’s not clear which TV packages will get price increases in other areas. Comcast told us that changes to base TV prices will vary by market.

Comcast charges a $30 monthly fee to upgrade from the 1.2TB plan to unlimited data, or $25 a month for customers who purchase xFi Complete, which includes unlimited data and rental of the Comcast gateway modem/router. The xFi Complete fee is only $20 in some markets, but Comcast told Ars it is raising the price in those markets to $25 to match what’s charged in the rest of the country.

Comcast blames programmers

Comcast defended the price increases with this statement:

Rising programming costs—most notably for broadcast TV and sports—continue to be the biggest factors driving price increases for all content distributors and their customers, not just Comcast. We’re continuing to work hard to manage these costs for our customers while investing in our network to provide the best, most reliable broadband service in the country and the flexibility to choose our industry-leading video platform with X1 or the highest quality streaming product with Flex, the only free streaming TV device with voice remote that’s included with broadband service.

But Comcast can’t solely blame other programmers for price hikes because Comcast itself owns NBCUniversal and thus determines the price of all NBCUniversal content, including the national channels and eight RSNs in major markets. Despite Comcast owning NBC, the cable company recently warned customers that they could lose NBC channels if Comcast is unable to reach a new carriage contract with… NBC. The absurd situation was summarized by TechDirt in an article aptly titled, “Comcast Tells Customers They May Lose Access To Comcast Channels If Comcast Can’t Agree With Comcast.”

On the broadband side, Comcast seems to be justifying price hikes based on the company’s investment in improving its network. But Comcast reduced capital spending on its cable division in 2019 and reduced cable-division capital spending again in the first nine months of 2020.

As we reported Monday, Comcast will also be enforcing the 1.2TB monthly data cap throughout its entire 39-state territory in 2021. Currently, Comcast enforces the cap in 27 states.

Comcast is the largest cable company and broadband provider in the US, followed by Charter, which has also raised prices on a regular basis. The companies do not compete against each other and each has a virtual monopoly over high-speed wired broadband in large portions of the US. Charter is raising prices on its Spectrum service in December. Charter is prohibited from imposing data caps until May 2023 thanks to a merger condition, but has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to drop the data-cap ban in May 2021 instead.

Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.

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SpaceX Starlink engineers take questions in Reddit AMA—here are highlights

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Enlarge / Starlink logo imposed on stylized image of the Earth.

SpaceX Starlink engineers answered questions in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Saturday, covering topics such as data caps (which they hope to never implement), when the public beta will expand to more users, and how the satellite-broadband service will expand and change in the future.

“Starlink is an extremely flexible system and will get better over time as we make the software smarter. Latency, bandwidth, and reliability can all be improved significantly,” the engineers wrote under the Reddit username “DishyMcFlatface,” which is also SpaceX’s nickname for the Starlink satellite dish.

Here are some highlights from the AMA.

No data caps “at this time”

When asked if users will ever face data caps, the Starlink team gave a vague answer: “At this time, the Starlink beta service does not have data caps.”

While that response covered the present but not the future, a subsequent comment from DishyMcFlatface gave a more detailed answer that suggests SpaceX is trying to avoid data caps:

So we really don’t want to implement restrictive data caps like people have encountered with satellite Internet in the past. Right now we’re still trying to figure a lot of stuff out—we might have to do something in the future to prevent abuse and just ensure that everyone else gets quality service.

Expanded beta in January—no bribes required

Starlink satellite dish and equipment in the Idaho panhandle's Coeur d'Alene National Forest.

Starlink satellite dish and equipment in the Idaho panhandle’s Coeur d’Alene National Forest.

Many people who haven’t been able to get the Starlink beta are eagerly awaiting updates on availability, and the AMA provided an answer. SpaceX is “steadily increasing network access over time to bring in as many people as possible,” the Starlink team wrote. “Notably, we’re planning to move from a limited beta to a wider beta in late January, should give more users an opportunity to participate.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave a similar update on Twitter a few weeks ago when a user asked when the beta will come to Florida. “Lower-latitude states need more satellites in position, so probably January,” Musk wrote at the time.

As before, people hoping to get Starlink can enter their email and service address on the Starlink website and hope to hear back. Bribes apparently won’t help. When one Reddit user asked, “How are beta users chosen and what’s a good bribe amount?” the Starlink team answered, “No bribes necessary, our goal is serve everyone eventually.”

More engineers needed

The Starlink team told Reddit users several times that SpaceX is looking for more engineers. In the answer about when the beta will expand, DishyMcFlatface wrote, “If you really want to help drive that, the best thing you can do is send great software engineers over to Starlink to help make it happen.”

Over a dozen jobs in Starlink production design, product design, and software are available, and links to the job posts can be found in this DishyMcFlatface comment. “We are super excited about the initial response and future potential of Starlink, but we still have a ton to learn,” the Starlink team wrote. “If you know any great people who can help us with that, please have them email their resume to starlink@spacex.com.”

Will Starlink work away from home?

A few weeks ago, we wrote about a Starlink beta user who took the satellite dish and a portable power supply to a national forest in Idaho, where he was able to get fast Internet service. But that doesn’t mean you can take the dish just anywhere, as SpaceX currently only promises that it will work at each beta user’s service address.

One Reddit user who lives and works on a boat docked in South Florida wanted to know if Starlink will provide service on the open seas. “A mobile system that gives me reliable connectivity will truly set me free to roam the coastal US, Bahamas, and eventually beyond,” the user wrote.

Starlink answered:

Right now, we can only deliver service at the address you sign up with on starlink.com. You might get lucky if you try to use Starlink in nearby locations, but service quality may be worse.

Mobility options—including moving your Starlink to different service addresses (or places that don’t even have addresses!)—is coming once we are able to increase our coverage by launching more satellites & rolling out new software.

SpaceX recently asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to test Starlink user terminals “on seagoing platforms” and on private jets.

Storms and extreme temperatures

A Reddit user asked if the satellite dish will work in heavy wind, such as when mounted “on the tail of a flatbed trailer flying down the interstate into a collapsing thunderstorm.” The SpaceX team said that is not a recommended use, and that the “dish is not designed for tropical storms, tornadoes, etc.”

One Reddit user who lives in Canada asked if the dish will work in temperatures as low as 45° below zero Celsius (that’s 49° below in Fahrenheit). Starlink engineers responded that the dish is certified to operate from 30° below zero to 40° above zero on the Celsius scale (that’s 22° below zero up to 104°F). SpaceX has performed “testing down to these cold temperatures with no issues.”

Starlink satellite dishes “have self-heating capabilities to deal with a variety of weather conditions,” the team also said. In the coming weeks and months, they plan to deploy software updates that will “upgrade our snow melting ability.”

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OneWeb emerges from bankruptcy, plans global satellite broadband by 2022

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Enlarge / Illustration of a OneWeb satellite.

OneWeb has emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy under new ownership and says it will begin launching more broadband satellites next month. Similar to SpaceX Starlink, OneWeb is building a network of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites that can provide high-speed broadband with much lower latencies than traditional geostationary satellites.

After a launch in December, “launches will continue throughout 2021 and 2022 and OneWeb is now on track to begin commercial connectivity services to the UK and the Arctic region in late 2021 and will expand to delivering global services in 2022,” OneWeb said in an announcement Friday.

In March this year, OneWeb filed for bankruptcy and reportedly laid off most of its staff. In July, OneWeb agreed to sell the business to a consortium including the UK government and Bharti Global Limited for $1 billion. In the Friday announcement, OneWeb said it has secured “all relevant regulatory approvals” needed to exit bankruptcy.

“Together with our UK Government partner, we recognised that OneWeb has valuable global spectrum with priority rights, and we benefit from $3.3 billion invested to date and from the satellites already in orbit, securing our usage rights,” Bharti founder and Chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal said.

Launch scheduled for December 17

OneWeb previously launched 74 satellites into low-Earth orbits and said it plans a launch of 36 more satellites on December 17, 2020. The Friday announcement also said OneWeb plans “a constellation of 650 LEO satellites,” but that could be just the beginning. OneWeb in August secured US approval for 1,280 satellites in medium-Earth orbits, bringing its total authorization to 2,000 satellites.

OneWeb will be playing catchup against SpaceX, which has launched about 800 satellites, has permission to launch nearly 12,000, and is already providing Internet service to US customers in a beta. SpaceX and OneWeb are both seeking US permission to launch tens of thousands of additional satellites.

There’s also competition from Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which has US approval to launch 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites and a $10 billion investment plan.

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