Yes, the rumors and leaks were true — Apple has a new battery case after a lengthy absence, and it appears to have learned a few lessons in the process. The Smart Battery Case for iPhone XS, XS Max and XR extends your handset’s battery to as much as 39 hours of talk time (on the XR), but avoids the ungainly lump from the iPhone 6/6s case that launched in 2015. Instead, there’s a more graceful (if still bulky) slope. It supports wireless charging, too, so you don’t have to plug in just because you want extra runtime.
Like the earlier model, the “Smart” portion comes mostly from its integration with iOS. As long as the case is plugged in, you’ll see its battery status on both your lock screen and in the Notification Center. You still have a Lightning port free for either wired charging (including fast charging if you have the right USB-C gear) or accessories like headphones.
The case is available in black and white hues and costs $129 regardless of whichever iPhone you use. While that’s not a trivial price, it might be justifiable if you need extra juice and want the perks that come with an official solution.
Ever since Mercedes-Benz unveiled the first A-Class destined for the US, there’s been one question on would-be drivers’ lips: just how accessible is this tech-savvy Merc, really? Now you know. The brand has revealed that the ‘entry’ 2019 sedan will start at $32,500 for the base A220, while the AWD-equipped A220 4MATIC variant will begin at $34,500. That’s not as inexpensive as it could be (Canadians pay the equivalent of $27,000 for a hatchback), but it’s still relatively accessible for the first US-bound car to run Mercedes’ smarter MBUX platform.
The centerpiece feature is, as you might be aware, standard voice control. Say “hey Mercedes” and you can tweak the temperature or adjust the radio without taking your hands off the wheel. If you don’t care to talk to your car, MBUX still provides a highly digital interface between the 7-inch screen-based instruments and a similarly-sized touchscreen for the infotainment system. We found it surprisingly intuitive in our hands-on last summer, and its behavior evolves with your habits.
You’ll also get an unusually wide repertoire of safety features. The core A-Class touts assists for braking, crosswinds and hill starts, while you can spring for more luxurious technologies like distance keeping cruise control (aka Distronic) and steering assistance. Yes, t he price is likely to climb quickly if you tick all the option checkboxes, but this beats having to buy a costlier Mercedes just to relax when you’re behind the wheel.
By the time our Skype call connects and Matt Smith says hello, it’s already January 15th at the Friend & Foe offices in Tokyo. After nearly five years of development and public promises, his studio’s first original game, Vane, is out across Europe and Asia. It’ll go live in the US in about six hours.
“[I’m] excited, really excited, exhausted, and kind of nervous as well,” Smith said. “I think those are the main three things, but it’s just — the thing is it’s kind of hard also to turn away from it. I’ve got other things I should probably turn my life back to, but there’s this draw to continually check Twitter, even though there’s nothing interesting, nothing we need to look at there, and we can probably afford to leave it alone for a couple of days and probably should just to recharge our batteries. So, I’m really nervous, and I really want to make sure everything goes well, so I’m sort of obsessively tracking things and checking things.”
Launch day is an anxious time for any independent developer, but Smith has an extra reason to sweat. Vane caught players’ attention early on in its development cycle, when it was announced in 2014 as a project from former AAA and The Last Guardian developers. Its initial trailer evoked the expansive, introspective atmosphere imbued in Fumito Ueda’s legendary Ico and Shadow of the Colossus games, and fans’ expectations were high.
However, the main creative force behind Vane, Rui Guerreiro, left Friend & Foe just six months after the game’s announcement. Guerreiro was one of two former Last Guardian developers on the team, and he was the person who conceived of and built the initial Vane prototype. He created it as more of an experiment than an actual game, but Friend & Foe put a dedicated team on the project and it transformed into a new beast altogether. In early 2015, Guerreiro left the studio to work on Mare, a VR project with his signature Ico-inspired visuals.
“Personally, I don’t think it’s that close to those games,” Smith said about Vane. “I think it shares a certain aesthetic and a certain sense of style, but not all the aesthetic or all the style. And the gameplay itself is kind of our own thing, for better or worse.”
The remaining Friend & Foe developers have been quietly working on Vane for the past four years. It’s an adventure game starring a child with the ability to transform into a bird — players traverse arid, abandoned lands and solve a series of puzzles to eventually discover the child’s destiny. It looks like a fantasy game, but it has a clear sci-fi bent.
“We were working until late last night finishing up a patch.”
Friend & Foe were purposefully vague in describing Vane before its launch. They wanted players to discover the game for themselves and find their own meaning in its journey. Now that Vane has been live for a few hours in the States, there’s already at least one complete walkthrough on YouTube and a handful of streams live on Twitch at any given time. Reviews are rolling in, and they sing a cohesive song — Vane is gorgeous, but its controls are clunky.
Smith didn’t know any of this when we talked. Launch day was still technically hours away and the possibilities for how it would play out were infinite. He was keeping busy.
“We were working until late last night finishing up a patch, and then there’s all the sort of PR stuff that the Surprise Attack guys [an indie games label] are helping out with,” Smith said. “You have to try to make sure codes are within everybody’s hands, and you have to make sure that you’ve prepared all of your social media and that everything you wanted to be ready is ready, and that’s a lot more than just a game a lot of the time.”
Launching a game nowadays is wildly different than just five years ago. Patches are no longer an expensive or multi-week approval process, and players generally expect updates after the game is live, usually on day one. This changes launch day — it’s no longer a moment to breathe for developers. It’s more like the game’s first global beta test, and players will expect any broken bits to be fixed quickly.
“As a creator, you kind of need some closure.”
“It’s certainly not what I’m necessarily used to, and I’m not sure that it’s necessarily a good thing,” Smith said. “I think, as a creator, you kind of need some closure. It’s really nice when you get this period where you have to stop and let things take their course. It’s just that, right now, it’s really easy to try to continue to hold onto this game and continue to try to steer it exactly where we want it to go. And really at this point, it should be having a life of its own.”
The constant and immediate feedback loop from social media — players presenting problems, gushing about certain aspects or asking for updates — is helpful, but it can also be all-consuming, Smith said. The availability of developers and patches has shifted what it means to launch a game.
“When a patch costs a lot of money and we had to go through a lengthy approval process, you would make sure that all your ducks are in a row before submitting a patch, maybe do a lot of testing on it,” Smith said. “You would be really, really careful. There’s a temptation to be less careful now that you can just roll out another patch in response to something that users are encountering.”
Vane is available on PlayStation 4 right now, and people are already playing (and beating) it. It’s not designed to be a particularly tough or rigorous game, but it is meant to help players — and developers — slow down, just a little bit.
“One of the big things we wanted to back away from is this constant engagement that games offer players, and just present the world as it is instead of stressing so much about, is the player engaged right now? Are their eyes looking at the right place on the screen?” Smith said. “One of the reasons we made the game the way it is is that we wanted to strip some of that stuff away and let the game world be really close to the player, instead of being viewed through this prism of a UI or of a set of tutorial instructions or various hints that guide you.”
Sensors play a crucial role in the Internet of Things, but there’s one glaring limitation: they need a battery or some other conspicuous power source to run. Soon, however, they might only have to pluck energy from the air. Wiliot has shown off a Bluetooth sensor tag that gathers energy from ambient radio frequencies, whether it’s Bluetooth, cellular or WiFi. All the ARM-based chip needs is a basic antenna printed on paper or plastic — after that, it can transmit info like weight and temperature without any kind of battery involved.
The battery-free approach could lead to sticker-like tags on products where they weren’t always an option before. Clothing could warn you when you’re about to ruin your white clothing in the wash, while packaging could track products from their origins to your door. And since there’s only minimal gear involved, the tags shouldn’t add much to the cost.
The tags aren’t poised to arrive until 2020. They’ll have some help getting there, though. Wiliot just finished a round of funding that includes help from investment arms at Amazon and Samsung. Tech giants want the tech to succeed, and you might just see these tags in widespread use soon after they’re ready.
Sony has boosted its mid-range APS-C lineup with the launch of the 24-megapixel A6400 mirrorless camera. It looks much the same as its predecessor, the A5100, but has much-improved specs and should be especially ideal for vloggers, thanks to 4K 30fps video and a flip-up touch screen. The A6400 is also getting a bunch of features from its full-frame A7 III and A9 siblings, like 425-point contrast- and phase-detect autofocus with the “world’s fastest” .02 second AF speed, along with real-time subject tracking and eye AF.
The A6400 packs an all-new 24.2-megapixel Exmor APS-C sensor and next-gen BIONZ X image processor. It can handle high-speed continuous shooting at up to 11 fps with the mechanical shutter or 8 fps in silent shooting mode, both with continuous autofocus and auto-exposure tracking (you can capture up to 116 JPG frames or 46 RAW before the buffer fills up). That bests other recent APS-C cameras, most notably Fujifilm’s pricier X-T3. As for low-light performance, you can shoot at up to 32,000 ISO or 102,400 expanded with less noise, Sony notes.
Sony’s eye AF is the most popular feature on the A7 III series, and the A6400 takes that even farther. The advanced “real-time eye AF” deploys artificial intelligence to automatically detect a subjects’ eyes in real-time, improving focus accuracy, speed and tracking. The feature is now enabled by default (unless you shut it off), letting you either automatically or manually choose which eye to track. Real-time subject tracking, meanwhile, crunches depth, color, pattern and other spatial info to quickly and accurately follow your subject.
The A6400 can capture 4K at the sensor’s full resolution, then oversample to deliver pin-sharp 4K footage, much as the A6500 does. You can also shoot 1080p at up to 120 fps. Sony promises that movie focusing is fast and stable thanks tot he hybrid AF tech, and the display, which completely flips around for vloggers, supports touch focus. There’s a hybrid-log gamma feature to maximize image quality, along with a microphone port (but no headphone jack, unfortunately).
The new model lacks in-body stabilization and packs a relatively low-resolution XGA OLED (2.4 million dot) viewfinder, unfortunately. However, it’s priced at just $900, well below its existing A6500 and the X-T3, so the feature set is pretty solid for a mid-range mirrorless camera.
Along with the A6400, Sony also announced that it’s bringing its advanced AI-powered eye- and subject-tracking features to its high-end full-frame A9, A7R and A7 III models. Those models will also get animal eye AF tracking, to help you take your cat (or lion) shots to the next level.
The A6400 name and specs suggests that the camera will slot between the A6300 and A6500, making it Sony’s second-best APS-C mirrorless camera, numerically speaking. However, the A6500 is overdue to be replaced, so the speculation is that it will superceded by a newer model, possibly the A7000. If that’s accurate, we should see that in the coming months. The A6400 arrives in February 2019 for $900 (body only), or $1,350 with the 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 kits lens — for more, check Sony’s product page here.