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Project Ara’s story is all about wasted potential

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After rumors recently surfaced about the cancellation of Project Ara, we now have confirmation from Google that their highly ambitious modular phone will no longer reach the consumer market. Reasons were somewhat vague, but what we do know is that it’s being done to “streamline the company’s hardware efforts.”

It was only last May when we witnessed a revived desire from Google to push the product, complete with a cool trailer and announcement of a possible consumer launch next year. Progress before and after the unveiling was typically silent, and we’ve finally confirmed that it’s been an internal structure issue all along. Now, we think about what could have been a savior for the smartphone industry.

The beginning of the end

Imagine presenting a prototype of your company’s next big thing in front of a worldwide audience, only for it to freeze during bootup and fail to even reach the home screen. No, I’m not talking about an episode of Silicon Valley. That’s actually the nightmare Google experienced back in 2014 when it presented a “working” prototype of its first modular smartphone. Thinking about it now, the incident summarizes the current situation really well.

Project Ara (1)

In the most recent build of Project Ara, you had all the functions you’d expect from the modern-day smartphone you’re accustomed to, along with the ability to plug in your choice of modules to add greater functionality. Upgrades ranging from cameras to replaceable batteries stylishly fit into the main frame to create one unified pocket computer. If you think the process is as simple as playing with Lego blocks, you’re absolutely right.

An eternity in the tech world

What could this have meant for consumers had it become a commercial product? It would have been a possible game-changer in terms of phone upgrade cycles. With a smartphone having limitless module options to keep you busy, ordering that newly launched Samsung Galaxy or Apple iPhone wouldn’t be as tempting anymore.

However, it’s been a long two years since the initial reveal, and much has changed.

It’s important to take note that Project Ara was no longer a fully modular smartphone as of May 2016. The Google phone had its core components fixed into the main frame, meaning you couldn’t touch the processor, internal storage, RAM, and front display. This became a potential deal-breaker for enthusiasts wanting a PC-like handheld gadget they can fiddle around with on the go. The development led to disappointment from the community and the product’s eventual downfall, but it might have also been able to entice a more mainstream market wanting a simpler package.

Project Ara (2)

In exchange for the loss of complexity, the last build came with welcome refinements. Plug and play was possible with certain modules, wherein you could hot swap the unit while the phone was on and even share with other Ara users on the spot. If you wanted to get fancy, saying “Okay Google, eject the camera” commanded the phone to do as it’s told.

Google’s very own

Looking back, it’s easy to forget how big of a deal Project Ara was when it was first announced at Google I/O 2014. Modular phone schematics were tossed around brainstorming sessions prior to that, but it was only when Google unveiled a (partially) working prototype that this concept became closer to commercial reality. Still, the fact that it froze shortly after being turned on established how much of a pipe dream it was back then, and how it continues to be one now.

During Project Ara’s downtime, a couple of companies took a crack at modular designs in attempts to overshadow the hype Google built and lost. The Fairphone 2 was the first modular phone to officially hit the market, and the LG G5 garnered even bigger headlines as a totally revamped flagship device with modular Friends you could attach to its Magic Slot. Most recently, Lenovo launched the Moto Z series, which proves that even partial modularity is still alive and kicking.

And yet, the latest announcement from Google I/O 2016 was more than just about a potential date and a sweet new trailer for Project Ara. Google was finally going to release a smart device that’s truly theirs – free of any partnership from the likes of Huawei or HTC in their long-running Nexus program.

The company’s previous attempt at controlling the hardware process came when it acquired Motorola in 2012. Google then became a competitor for a long list of smartphone brands that rely on Android as their sole operating system. This didn’t fly well with major players such as LG and Samsung, who subsequently secured backups in WebOS and Tizen, respectively, in case Google would suddenly favor its own manufacturing process for the latest Android updates, ultimately discriminating against loyal associates.

It’s uncertain how Project Ara would have impacted the search giant’s relationship with hardware partners as an indirect competitor, since modular phones might create a category of their own some day.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves

Ironically, the highly customizable Project Ara proved that you didn’t have total control over the aesthetics and feel. While the dimensions and weight of the device vary depending on the components equipped, you’re going to end up with a bulky, blocky handset no matter what. LG saw through the weaknesses of a largely modular phone to produce the G5 we’re enjoying today. By allowing only partial modularity from the bottom end of its current flagship, the primary build remains largely intact, so there’s no need to worry about assembling a hideous product.

Our recent unboxing and hands-on review of the G5 and its add-ons showcased how much promise there is in upgrading your handset before committing to a completely different phone the following year or two. Lenovo followed shortly after with the Moto Z and its growing lineup, but it’s too early to gauge its success.

lg-g5-mwc-20160328-02

We’ve been wanting these possibilities for a while now. Smartphone technology in general has stagnated in the past years, with every manufacturer heavily focusing on simply improving on the touchscreen-optimized formula Apple established nearly a decade ago with the original iPhone. If your current smartphone already has a high-resolution display, fast-acting camera, accurate fingerprint scanner, and either a glass or metal physique, there isn’t much more you can ask for outside the realm of modularity. Well, probably better battery life, but we’ll never be satisfied with that, right?

Speaking of batteries, with news of entire Samsung Galaxy Note 7 units being recalled because of a single part, swappable components might be the solution to new-age manufacturing woes.

Or maybe, we simply aren’t ready yet for the complexity of a fully modular smartphone. Consumers have finally moved past DIY solutions for PCs in exchange for the simplicity of owning a razor-thin notebook or all-in-one laptop with as much, if not more, power. Complicating the everyday smartphone could just as easily backfire, and discriminate against users who aren’t that tech-savvy.

It’s not just about the modules anymore

Going back to Google I/O 2014, one of the presenters posed this question: Why choose a phone for its camera, when you could choose a camera for your phone? Project Ara’s vision remained the same until its demise, but we now have a more daunting question to ask: Since we’ve already reached the pinnacle of touchscreen-smartphone convenience, when will we be ready to embrace a more complex form factor?

Project Ara’s Twitter account once wondered if fans were still around after one of its long hiatuses. We, the consumers, haven’t left yet, and taking a look at the official website shows how the developers themselves haven’t let go of the project either.

Image Credit: Maurizio Pesce

Automotive

The Best Car Tech of CES 2018

Exciting times ahead!

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We recently wrapped up CES 2018 (see our top picks) and even though the trade show originally revolved around consumer electronics, a big chunk of what was introduced was directed towards connected cities with a focus on making driving a lot smarter.

The idea of self-driving cars surely isn’t new and has been around for quite some time now. It’s basically the concept of what the future is like in addition to flying cars. At this year’s CES, brands who participated made us realize that this “future” isn’t too far away.

Here are some of the most promising cars and car technology that we’re excited to see in the near future.

Assistance

Multiple brands showed off their new toys left and right. There’s the announcement of Amazon’s Alexa coming to cars for voice assistance and content consumption. Toyota will be the next to adapt voice assistance in addition to BMW, Ford, and Hyundai. Meanwhile, Waze has also been integrated into select infotainment systems.

Nissan, on the other hand, is taking the user-machine a step further by introducing the brain-to-vehicle (B2V) technology. It basically uses a system that could read your brain patterns and signals to better prepare for what you’re about to do next while driving.

Platforms

In terms of services, Ford is slightly stepping out of the shadow of car-making and plans to be the new platform for autonomous vehicles. It has partnered with Lyft, Domino’s Pizza, and Postmates to create an operating system which small to large businesses can use for their unique services.

Speaking of unique services, Toyota unveiled its e-Palette concept vehicle which has all the potential to go big in the future of mobility. It’s envisioned as a self-driving vehicle running on Toyota’s tech and platform that other brands can use for food deliveries, as a moving boutique, or even a mobile hotel that you can rent.

As far as ride-sharing goes, expect it to join the bandwagon as smart cities are developed. During the trade show, car tech company Aptiv was present and was hand-in-hand with Lyft as they demonstrated their self-driving cars to the participants of CES. The public could just hail a ride from the Las Vegas Convention Center using the app and enjoy the view of the Strip to their destination.

Additionally, NVIDIA has also added Uber and Volkswagen to their growing roster of brands that will run on the company’s self-driving computer platform.

Cars

Apart from the new platforms, there were cars — quite a lot, actually. From concept to actual models on display, we got a peek at these vehicles that probably want to take on Tesla.

Derived from Bytes on Wheels, BYTON wants to blur the line between digital and automotive with their electric intelligent SUV concept. The new-gen smart device communicates with users and pedestrians via lights and patterns on its grille and recognizes the driver and passengers by face.

Kia was also present with its very own Niro electric crossover. This concept is basically an electric version of the Niro Hybrid but gets a new grille design. Like BYTON, it is now an interactive panel with a built-in Active Pedestrian Warning System, but what makes this something to look forward to is its range. It can go as far 383km (238 miles) before needing to charge again — beating what the Tesla Model 3 can offer.

Car designer Henrik Fisker gave another shot at making vehicles; this time in the form of the EMotion luxury sedan. The vehicle is a level 4 autonomous car and is equipped with the world’s first Butterfly Doors. Fisker also wants to set standards for other EVs so they made the vehicle last up to 644km (400 miles) on the road.

Meanwhile, Hyundai is continuing its push to go green and introduced the NEXO fuel cell electric vehicle. It has a more efficient engine, is a lot quieter, and maintenance is kept to a minimum. Although the best thing about it is that it emits nothing but water vapor. Features-wise, it has autonomous driving, self-parking, self-retrieval — the whole shebang.

In-vehicle Networking

Software updates are an important aspect of vehicles relying on digital systems. Tesla has somehow established its system already but for other car brands, updating hundreds, even thousands of vehicles across a country, is still not an easy task.

Hyundai and Cisco addressed this and aims to overhaul the process of in-vehicle networking. With the use of Ethernet connectivity and the Automotive Linux platform, they promise to be able to roll out updates remotely and it’s as simple as pushing a button.

 

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CES 2018

GadgetMatch Awards: Best of CES 2018

And the winners are…

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Every year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, we get a glimpse of the best technology of today and tomorrow.

At 2018’s show, there was no shortage of excellent consumers products and innovations. These are our favorites!

Here are the recipients of GadgetMatch’s Best of CES 2018 Awards.

 

Best Consumer Laptop: Acer Swift 7 (2018)

How do you make the world’s thinnest laptop even thinner? Just ask Acer. The new Swift 7 is a refined version of an already superb laptop, making it the most attractive consumer notebook you can buy today.

 

Best Convertible Laptop: Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

Designed with content creators in mind, the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 is a spectacular computing machine and possibly the most complete 2-in-1 you can buy today. We love its 4K near-borderless InfinityEdge display, new high power graphics chip, and MagLev keyboard!

 

Best Business Laptop: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Lenovo continues to stand atop the business laptop segment with their legendary ThinkPad line. The Thinkpad X1 Carbon in particular is a glorious machine that combines traditional precision with technologies of the future. This year’s model comes with an HDR display and Dolby Vision making it very much a machine for play as it is for work. We love Lenovo’s offering of three different flavors: clamshell, 2-in-1, and convertible tablet models.

 

Best Television: LG AI OLED TV with ThinQ

There were a lot of eye-catching televisions, but none were as impressive as LG’s AI OLED TV with ThinQ. LG’s OLED TVs are among the best in the world and now with deep Google Assistant and Alexa integration, you’ll feel like you’re watching with your best friend inside your living room.

 

Best Smart Vehicle: Byton Concept Car

Artificial intelligence was the thread that tied many CES 2018 announcements together, and no car maker pulled the technology off better than Byton. The Byton smart intuitive concept car takes AI integration to another level with some of the best tech we’ve ever seen in the modern automotive industry. Everything about this concept car screams the future: unlocking doors with your eyes, a spacious screen filled cabin, and autonomous driving.

 

Best Smartphone: Honor View 10

Huawei continues to make rivals shiver with the unveiling of the Honor View 10. This midrange smartphone offers the same artificial intelligence-backed Kirin 970 processor found on Huawei’s top-of-the-line Mate 10 Pro which also made its US debut at CES this week. We’re excited about the promise of AI on phones at this price point. Thanks to AI, the View 10 will also have the same smart camera that can detect subjects and scenes for the best shot every time. In its price segment, there’s nothing quite like the Honor View 10. It’s a beast!

 

Best Home Product: LG InstaView ThinQ Refrigerator

This isn’t your typical refrigerator. LG’s new InstaView refrigerator is one of several new appliances in their artificial intelligence-capable ThinQ lines. Not only can you knock on its 29-inch transparent display to see what’s inside, this fridge can now intelligently communicate with other household devices. We love how it suggests recipes and sends the exact settings to your ovens. With the LG InstaView refrigerator, the kitchen gets a whole lot smarter.

 

Best Gaming Product: NVIDIA BFGD

Here’s something we never thought we would see: a 65-inch 4K 120Hz HDR display with G-Sync technology. It’s a mouthful, but that’s exactly what NVIDIA was able to assemble for its new Big Format Gaming Display (BFGD) format. We can’t wait to see this connected to our gaming setup!

 

Best Audio Product: Sony Xperia Ear

Even earphones are getting smarter! No device exemplified this more than Sony’s Xperia Ear with its intelligent features. These wireless fitness earbuds are noise-canceling and have Google Assistant built in. Combined with awesome sound and a snug fit, there weren’t any other earphones that we wanted more at CES 2018.

 

Best VR/AR Experience: Lenovo Mirage Solo with Daydream

Finally, a VR headset that doesn’t need a smartphone or messy cables to operate! The Lenovo Mirage Solo makes virtual reality so fun and easy — just like it’s supposed to be. We love how it’s designed for the most comfortable and secure fit, and how it’s World Sense positional tracking system ensures that what you feel in a scene matches your position in the physical space. You have to try them on to see what we mean!

 

Best Camera: Panasonic Lumix GH5S

Panasonic really went all out this time. The Lumix GH5S is designed for incredible low-light photography and cinematography. Not necessarily meant as a replacement to last year’s model – this new mirrorless camera is designed specifically with video content creators in mind! Of particular note is the camera’s flippable screen, and ability to shoot in Cinema 4K at 30 or 60 frames per second.

 

Best Wearable: Sgnl smart strap

With this smart strap, you can make phone calls using just your fingertips. How cool is that? The Sgnl smart strap can be attached to any smart watch allowing you to take smartphone calls by just touching your finger to your ears. And just like that, all your sci-fi calling dreams have come true!

 

Best Lifestyle Product: AirSelfie2

The AirSelfie2 brings together two of the most important tech trends in recent memory: drones and selfies. Forget selfie sticks, whip out the AirSelfie2, let it take off from the palm of your hand, and have it shoot selfies like no other. This next-generation pocket drone is on our must-have travel list of adventure companions and it should be on your list, too!

 

Best AI Product: Lenovo Smart Display

We’re not going to beat around the bush. Lenovo’s Smart Display is our favorite Google Assistant-powered device of CES 2018. If smart speakers aren’t enough for you, then you should definitely try the Smart Display of Lenovo. This device delivers the best of Google Assistant with a portable screen. It can do everything Google Home can and more: make video calls, ask for help with recipes in the kitchen, view maps with directions, and plan your day.

 

Best Robot: Sony Aibo

The Sony Aibo may as well win the award for cutest product of CES 2018, too! This robot dog can view things around it and obey your commands, just like a real dog. It has artificial intelligence built in, so it learns from interactions, meaning no two Aibos are the same. We love how it’s got OLED displays for eyes that convey a whole lot of different emotions. Now, who’s a good doggie?

 

Best Health Innovation: Eargo Max

The Eargo Max eliminates all the traditional hassles of hearing aids and provides a product like no other. What’s most special about these hearing aids are how they are both small and invisible. If you’ve seen how big traditional heading aids can be, you’ll understand how revolutionary of a product this is. The product comes with fluffy flexible fibers that ensure a comfortable fit in your ear canal, battery life of about 20 hours on a single charge, and a charging carrying case. Best of all, they just work!

 

Best Beauty Product: Foreo UFO Smart Mask

Foreo has one goal: to eliminate the need for facial masks and offer a better, smarter solution. The UFO Smart Mask can give you a spa-worthy facial treatment in just 90 seconds. We’d love to go into all high-tech magic, but are just too giddy about this completely awesome beauty tech, not to mention glowing from our recent skin treatment. Where has this been all our lives?

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Hands-On

ASUS ZenFone Max Plus Unboxing and Hands-On

Near-borderless with a large battery!

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It took a while, but we finally have ASUS’ first-ever near-borderless smartphone. And it’s not just a pretty face; it’s got a hefty battery and a pair of cameras at the back, too. Is there any more to the ZenFone Max Plus? Find out in our unboxing and hands-on video.

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