Mar 22

Google Launches Android Auto

To access Google’s Android-in-the-car experience, you’ll need a Pioneer dashboard unit.

If you’re an Android fan who has been waiting for the day that you’d be able to have a similar experience in your car that all your Apple-loving friends can get via the company’s CarPlay platform, your long wait is over. Google announced this that Android Auto has debuted on both smartphones and a few aftermarket dashboard units.

“Starting today, you can get #AndroidAuto in your car with your #Android 5.0+ phone and compatible Pioneer head units. … Stay tuned for more partners coming soon,” Google said in an Android Google+ post.

Android Auto is now available in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. You can check to see if you’re able to install it in your car at Pioneer’s Android Auto page.

To get Android Auto up and running, you’ll need two things. First, you’ll want to grab the official Android Auto companion application for your phone, which is a completely free download for Android users. It’s a completely worthless app unless you have something to pair it to, however; that’s where Pioneer comes into play. Right now, the manufacturer of aftermarket units for your car is the only Google partner who has released Android Auto-friendly devices, and there are three available for purchase today: The Pioneer AVIC-8100NEX, AVIC-7100NEX, and AVH4100NEX.

These units are pricey. The AVH-4100NEX is $700, the AVIC-7100NEX costs $1,200, and the AVIC-8100NEX will set you back $1,400.

The lowest-end version does away with any kind of Pioneer navigation system or GPS for driving around, which should be totally fine, given that you’re likely to just use Google Maps via your paired Android Auto-friendly smartphone instead. The AVIC-7100NEX, Pioneer’s mid-range unit, has a resistive touchscreen (as in, no multi-touch), whereas the AVH-4100NEX bumps that up to a capacitive touchscreen. The latter two devices have the full suite of nav features.

Android Auto, like Apple’s CarPlay, is designed to keep you from having to tap your tiny smartphone screen so much while you’re driving. Instead, a number of your phone’s feature are dumped on a more easy-to-access touchscreen unit within your car’s dashboard—navigation, music, and voice calls, as well as support for popular third-party apps like Spotify, NPR, and MLB.com, to name a few.

Android Auto also supports Google Now, which can give you predictive information like traffic on your commute route, estimated driving times, weather, upcoming appointments you might have, and more.

Unfortunately, those in the market for a brand-new car right now will find that there’s nothing out there that natively supports Android Auto just yet. Hyundai and Honda have both indicated that they’ll be offering Android Auto in various vehicles starting in 2015. And it’s reasonable to assume that other members of the Open Automotive Alliance will invariably follow suit at some point.

Feb 15

Samsung to nix bloatware in Galaxy S6 OS, report says

Samsung will remove many of its own programs in the upcoming version of its TouchWiz user interface, a new report claims.

The new version of Samsung’s TouchWiz will be stripped down to not include any Samsung-built applications, Sammobile is reporting, citing people who claim to have knowledge of the company’s plans. In their place, Samsung will bundle Microsoft apps, including OneNote, OneDrive, Office Mobile, and Skype, the blog’s sources say.

Samsung is putting the final touches on TouchWiz for the anticipated announcement of the Galaxy S6 flagship smartphone at its Unpacked event on March 1. TouchWiz is the company’s user interface that sits atop a standard build of Android. Most Android vendors have created their own user interfaces to differentiate their software experiences from that of other vendors. LG, Sony, and other major vendors, have their own user interfaces that they slap atop a standard Android build.

In years past, Samsung has bundled several of its own applications into TouchWiz — considered bloatware — including its health-related app S Health and its note-taking program S Note. Its S Voice personal assistant has also been among the bundled apps.

However, in an effort to improve the platform’s responsiveness, Samsung will remove all of those apps by default and make them available in its onboard application marketplace, Sammobile says. The programs will be available in the Galaxy Apps store for free.

Samsung’s Unpacked event will be crucial for the company. Last year, Samsung watched its mobile profits fall off a cliff as it faced increasing competition in key markets, like China. To fend off competitors, Samsung was forced to spend more on marketing.

In the last few earnings calls with investors, Samsung has acknowledged its troubles and said that it plans to reduce the number of smartphones it offers this year by a third to focus more on its top performers. The company’s Galaxy S line is among its top performers, so the upcoming Galaxy S6 could play a crucial role in the company’s mobile success or failure.

According to Sammobile, Samsung believes that it can set itself apart from competitors through its software. In addition to nixing some of its own apps, the company will improve the platform’s default keyboard and add more themes to customize the operating system’s look and feel. All of the company’s apps will also be more colorful.

But it’s the addition of Microsoft apps to TouchWiz that might prove most surprising. Microsoft and Samsung have been locked in a patent royalty case that they settled earlier this week. Microsoft sued Samsung for royalties related to Android last year after attempting to resolve their issues out of court. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

The timing of the news that Microsoft may have found its way into TouchWiz is ironic, if nothing else, and could call into question whether bundling Microsoft software with the Samsung software was part of the agreement.

Jan 31

New aluminum air battery could blow past lithium-ion, runs on water

As battery technologies go, the world has a love-hate relationship with lithium-ion. On the one hand, breakthroughs in Li-ion designs and construction are responsible for the Tesla Model S, new installations, green energy research, and the modern smartphone. On the other hand, lithium-ion limitations are the reason why most EVs have a range of 40-60 miles, the Model S costs upwards of $80,000, and why your smartphone can’t last all day on a single charge. For all its promise and capability, lithium-ion has limited long-term utility — which is why a new announcement from Fuji Pigment is so interesting. The company is claiming that its new aluminum-air batteries can run for up to two weeks and be refilled with normal water.

How an aluminum-air battery works

First, some basics. The problem with battery technology isn’t whether or not we can build better batteries — as the chart below shows, we can build batteries that blow traditional lithium-ion out of the water. Keep in mind that the chart below is exponential, meaning that fuel cell technology has 10 times the energy density of a typical cobalt-Li ion battery.

The various “Metal-Air” batteries, including zinc-air, aluminum-air, and lithium-air, have some of the highest energy densities its possible to build. The difficulties with aluminum-air construction, in particular, has been rapid degradation of the anode and, in early models of Al-Air, the release of hydrogen gas.

Fuji Pigment’s new announcement makes repeated reference to the work of Ryohei Mori, and while the referenced papers aren’t available for free, the abstracts are online. The studies in question are all aimed at enhancing the performance of Al-air batteries while extending their useful lifetimes — typically, Al-air solutions begin to degrade immediately after the first charge cycle. According to Mori’s work, creating a secondary aluminum-air battery adjacent to the primary buffered the accumulation of byproducts that normally prevent the battery from working properly over the long term.

The “rechargability” of Al-air batteries requires some explanation. Al-air batteries are primary cells, which means they can’t be recharged via conventional means. As the aluminum anode is consumed by contact with oxygen, hydrated aluminum forms as a byproduct. That material can be recycled and used to create a new aluminum anode, which is why the batteries are referred to as rechargeable. Periodically, the aluminum anode will have to be replaced — it’s not clear how often the Fuji Pigment battery would need servicing of this sort.

Could Al-air be the next big thing?

New battery technologies and announcements are a dime a dozen, but there’s reason to think that a workable Al-air technology could deploy within the next 2-5 years. Multiple manufacturers are working on commercializing designs (Alcoa partnered with Phinergy in 2013 with plans for a 2017 debut), and aluminum is abundant and relatively cheap. Al-air batteries have actually been used in specialized military applications for years, which is important — it means there’s some pre-existing expertise and known characteristics that can be leveraged to create additional capacity.

That said, there are question, too. The hydrated aluminum oxide solution produced during the battery’s normal operation would need to be recycled in some fashion, it’s not clear that fresh water is as effective an aqueous solution as saltwater (meaning there might be specific need for one particular kind of solution). The final price is also unknown, though previous estimations had put the cost of an Al-air system at roughly $1.1 per kg of aluminum anode. This was not given in precise terms relative to the cost of gasoline (and the weight of the aluminum anode in these batteries is unknown), but the team that performed that analysis noted that proper recycling would put Al-air in the same cost range as conventional internal combustion engines.

Fuji Pigment has stated that it intends to commercialize this technology as early as this year, which means we could see test demonstrations and proof of concepts by 2016. Whether auto manufacturers will jump for the technology remains to be seen — car companies tend to be conservative and Tesla has already thrown its weight behind the further use of lithium-ion technology.

Jan 22

Use WhatsApp in Your Web Browser

Good news for those you who use WhatsApp. The Facebook-owned chat app is now available in your Web browser.

WhatsApp announced the news Wednesday, confirming recent rumors that it was planning to soon introduce a Web client for in-browser chatting. “Our Web client is simply an extension of your phone: the Web browser mirrors conversations and messages from your mobile device — this means all of your messages still live on your phone,” WhatsApp founder Jan Koum wrote in a post on his Facebook page.

At this point, however, it only works with Android, BlackBerry, BlackBerry 10, and Windows Phone versions of the app. Koum said the company is not able to provide a Web client for iOS users at this time due to “Apple platform limitations.”

To connect WhatsApp to your Web browser, simply open web.whatsapp.com in Chrome. You’ll see a QR code — scan that inside of WhatsApp, and voila. Your phone will need to stay connected to the Internet for the Web client to work, Koum said. Also, ensure that you’re using the latest version of WhatsApp on your phone.

“We really hope you find Web client useful in your everyday lives,” Koum said.

Meanwhile, the new Web client comes after WhatsApp cracked down on third-party app WhatsApp Plus, and punished users who downloaded it. The company has cut off access to the unauthorized WhatsApp Plus app, which provided additional customization options for the SMS service. WhatsApp Plus users who tried to return to WhatsApp are now being locked out for 24 hours for breaking the rules.

Jan 22

Doubts Cast on Samsung Ditching Qualcomm in Galaxy S6

Qualcomm stock took a bit of a tumble Wednesday following a report from Bloomberg that Samsung plans to exclusively use its own chips in the next version of its best-selling Galaxy S smartphone.

The Bloomberg report cited unnamed sources as saying that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 “overheated during the [South] Korean company’s testing” of its next-gen Galaxy S smartphone. Samsung is expected to unveil the successor to the Galaxy S5 in the next several weeks, likely in early March at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Both Samsung and Qualcomm declined to comment on the rumor.

But some industry watchers cast doubt on the Bloomberg report, pointing out that Samsung has never used Qualcomm exclusively in its Galaxy S line of phones.

Samsung already uses its own Exynos processors to power smartphones it sells in several international markets, one observer noted. But in recent years, in the United States and some European markets, the South Korean tech giant has relied on Qualcomm’s combination of Snapdragon-branded application processors and modems.

Using Qualcomm parts makes particular sense in the U.S., where carriers pre-approve phones built on them, making it a lot easier to move new handsets through the carrier approval process.

The idea that Qualcomm’s flagship processor for smartphones is wonky sounded dubious to Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.

“Samsung has always used their own processors in their own smartphones, but they used Qualcomm in regions like North America and Europe,” Moorhead said. “I’m not buying into the ‘too hot’ argument. It sounds a bit like FUD to me as Qualcomm is the market share leader in smartphones. They know mobile and I don’t see them making a mistake like this. If there’s any semblance of truth to it, it’s more than likely a matter of power optimizations in firmware.”

Another source said that if Samsung really does opt not to use the Snapdragon 810 in U.S.-bound Galaxy S smartphones, it doesn’t necessarily mean those phones will be built on Exynos or another non-Qualcomm chipset. Samsung could simply opt to use the Snapdragon 805 instead.

Of course, it is possible Samsung plans to pair an Exynos chip with Qualcomm RF capabilities in the next-gen Galaxy S. Apple does something similar in its iPhones, which are powered by its own A-Series processors.

If Samsung opted to move away from Qualcomm entirely, Intel has greatly beefed up its LTE technology in the past year with its XMM 7260 LTE Modem—but that’s the sort of move that seems like it would already have loose tongues gossiping from Seoul to Santa Clara.