Android hardware finally gets Apple-level polish

Andy Rubin, the man behind Android, is back with a new phone company called Essential and it's announced the first piece of hardware it'll release: a gorgeous phone with an edge-to-edge display, high-end camera, titanium + ceramic body and best of all, stock Android.

There are some interesting innovations here, too, with a magnetic 360-degree camera, and a magnetic charging base that charges in just a few minutes. I'm not so sure about the front-facing camera cutting into the screen, but it might not be so bad in person.

It is fantastic to see a company sweating the details in the Android hardware world, and this is a phone that could skim the top off Apple's high-end fans who are disappointed in where the company's been headed. 

When I saw the announcement, I immediately wondered who the market was for this device, then read this WIRED article on Andy Rubin and my suspicions about high-end Apple fans was confirmed:

He wants Essential to think like a high-end watchmaker, not a commodity gadget builder. (Granted, everyone says this, even the commodity gadget builders.) From the start, Essential’s designers and engineers met with countless manufacturers in search of the most interesting technology and materials, especially stuff no one could produce at scale. “We’re not for everybody,” Keats says. “You know it’s going to be a little exclusive.

It's hard to ignore that many feel Apple has stagnated, particularly when you see phones like the Galaxy S8 on the market with innovations that make the iPhone look 'old.'

This is my favorite part of the Essential announcement, by the way:

Just because we played a part in making it doesn’t mean you should be forced to advertise that fact to everyone in your life. Now you know why we don't have any logos on the phone. 

I'm already incredibly close to switching to Android, and a phone like this could push me over the edge (the Pixel was already close). Sadly, it doesn't ship until the end of summer and doesn't even have a firm date yet, so time will tell.

Essential apps for switching from Mac to Windows

If you're making the jump from Mac to Windows like I did, you're probably missing some of your favorite apps. Here's a selection of my favorite Windows apps.

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Microsoft gives Windows a gorgeous new design

At Microsoft's annual BUILD developer event, it unveiled a new "design system" for Windows 10 – a framework for both the platform itself, and developers – called Fluent.

It looks like a refined, pared-back version of Metro, that the company announced years ago but never followed through with, as well as an interesting evolution of how I imagine macOS could look if Apple put any semblance of an effort in.

As with Microsoft's previous track-record on design systems, we'll see if this is actually fully implemented, but according to the company it'll be available in "Fall 2017" which isn't that far off. 

What's most interesting about Fluent is it's a language with considerations across interactions; it's made for the desktop, touch interfaces, augmented/virtual reality and ink, to provide a consistent experience regardless of the way you're interacting.

Microsoft's design game is catching up with Apple, and the company's pace is impressive. Between this modern, sleek interface and Microsoft's attractive new Surface Laptop, the company has a promising year ahead.

Amazon Echo's killer new app: the video intercom for your home

Today, Amazon announced a new Echo product — its fifth one, by the way — featuring a screen:

“Echo Show brings you everything you love about Alexa, and now she can show you things. Watch video flash briefings and YouTube, see music lyrics, security cameras, photos, weather forecasts, to-do and shopping lists, and more. All hands-free—just ask,” Amazon notes in its blurb on its product page. You can use the device for video calls and it looks like it will also integrate and enhance skills that you already use on the existing Echo, for example you can now see music lyrics for Amazon Music. It also has Dolby-powered speakers and eight microphones, and lets you use existing Alexa skills that do not have a video component."

Yes, your friendly home speaker just got a screen, but it's a smart play. One of the biggest issues with Amazon Echo, Google Home and even Siri is that people simply don't know what to ask it half of the time, so don't even try.

By adding a screen, Amazon's built an interesting all-in-one device for using natural language with, but making it far more approachable. It becomes the dashboard for your  home that just works, and you can just speak to it naturally like it's another person in your home.

Yes, it is gaudy, and the design looks like something out of the past, but I can also see the Echo Show appealing to a particular demographic: my parents.

What was even smarter, and buried in the release was the announcement of Amazon's very own iMessage and FaceTime competitor:

Introducing a new way to be together more with the people who matter most. Make hands-free video calls to friends and family who have an Echo Show or the Alexa App. When you’re busy making dinner, just ask Alexa to place a call from your Echo Show to anyone with a supported Echo device or the Alexa App. You can also enable a new feature called Drop In for the special cases when you want to connect with your closest friends and family. For example, you can drop in to let the family know it’s time for dinner, see the baby’s nursery, or check in with a close relative.

This is significant for a few reasons, but by combining a new video calling and messaging service with a dedicated device for video calls, Amazon might have a winner on its hands. 

The Verge wrote that the device is a natural evolution of the phone, simply because it's a zero-hassle, dedicated device for getting on a call with anyone:

FaceTime and similar services have their own limitations: they need a smartphone, tablet, or computer open and available and for the other party to answer the call. A video intercom that’s always on and ready for a call has no such limitations. My two-year-old can just run over to the intercom that’s always set up in the kitchen when she hears my voice without needing my wife to get her iPad and “set up a call with Daddy” as we’ve done in the past.

Amazon does look like it's throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks with Echo, but this messaging strategy might be a winning one. By replacing the home phone with a modern alternative, Amazon might have caught onto something that matters: simplicity, and a sense of presence. 

By offering a place in the home -- more than likely the kitchen -- where you can quickly and easily jump on a video call without tapping, swiping or messing around, Amazon is making it an intercom for the world, where people know they can reach you.

I'm not sure that Amazon can convince enough people to buy these things, particularly given the company's intense focus on the US and lack of much influence elsewhere. 

But, the Echo Show has a trump card: if it can get you to buy two (which is offered at a discount), then you're even more likely to gift it to someone else, who you're almost certain to be planning to video call using its new service.

Microsoft made a better MacBook because Apple couldn't

The MacBook Air is dead in the water, with Apple all-but-abandoning it, leaving the window wide open for competitors. Today, Microsoft claimed that with the Surface Laptop, an ultra-thin, ultra-powerful laptop that looks poised to take on Apple at its own game:

In all the years it's been making hardware, Microsoft has shied away from making a traditional clamshell laptop, at least in part because the company didn't want to upset its OEM partners by competing with them directly. But it has been edging closer to that territory with each new Surface Pro iteration and with the convertible Surface Book, and today Microsoft is formally announcing its first-ever plain-old, no-gimmicks clamshell notebook.

The Surface Laptop is an attractive, modern take on the MacBook Air that Microsoft has clearly put a lot of thought into. For $999, you get a computer that's far more powerful than Apple's $1,299 MacBook, with an Intel Core i5, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD.

That's upgradable all the way to a Core i7, with 16GB of RAM and 512GB SSD. With four gorgeous color options (blue, silver, maroon and gold), it's a gorgeous machine, at a time when it really seems like nobody's pushing in the laptop market.

When I watched the Microsoft reveal video I quite literally said "holy shit" out loud. Everything about this machine takes cues from Apple, but iterates on it. See for yourself:

Perhaps most interesting, the Surface Laptop has a touchscreen for that price, which is supposedly the "thinnest ever" on a laptop. Apple has maintained for years that touch on a laptop is ridiculous, but I'm not convinced that's true.

This machine is the perfect computer for college campuses. It looks good, it's light and it boasts a whopper 14+ hour battery life, which is unheard of. There are two typical Microsoft decisions with this thing that make no sense, however:

  • Surface Laptop runs a cut-down Windows 10 S, which can only run Windows Store apps. For $50 you get full Windows, but that's ridiculous.Weirdly, Microsoft is giving away the full version for free until the end of the year.
  • There's only a single USB-A port. Wha?At least you don't need dongles, I guess.

It's been a long time since I've been excited about computers at all. The 2016 MacBook Pro was a tiny iteration on the same old thing, but Microsoft is all-in on changing the game with its industrial design, which started with the Surface Studio late last year.

Most impressively, it seems to be listening to customers at the same time as building machines that look good. Gone are the days of clunky plastic, and weird design decisions — Microsoft is paying attention, and it's actually got a fighting chance against Apple. 


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