Move over notch, the hole-punch smartphone camera is coming

First it was the notch, now the hole-punch has emerged as the latest tech for concealing selfie cameras whilst keeping our smartphones as free of bezel as possible to maximize the screen space.

This week, Samsung and Huawei both unveiled new phones that dispense with the iconic ‘notch’ — pioneered by Apple but popularized by everyone — in favor of positioning the front-facing camera in a small “Infinity-O” hole located on the top left side of the screen.

Dubbed hole-punch, the approach is part of Samsung’s new Galaxy A8s and Huawei’s View 20, which were unveiled hours apart on Tuesday. Huawei was first by just hours, although Samsung has been pretty public with its intention to explore a number notch alternatives including the hole-punch, which makes sense given that it has persistently mocked Apple for the feature.

The Samsung Galaxy S8a will debut in China with a hole-punch spot for the camera [Image via Samsung]

Don’t expect to see any hole-punches just yet though.

The Samsung A8s is just for China right now while the View 20 isn’t being fully unveiled until December 26 in China and, for global audiences, January 22 in Paris. We also don’t have a price for either, but they do represent a new trend that could become widely-adopted across phones from other OEMs in 2019.

That’s certainly Samsung’s plan. The Korea firm is rolling the hole-punch out on the A8s, but it has plans to expand its adoption into other devices and series. The A8s itself is pretty mid-range, but that makes it an ideal candidate to test the potential appeal of a more subtle selfie camera since Samsung’s market share has fallen in China where local rivals have pushed it hard. It starts there, but it could yet be adopted in higher-end devices with global availability.

As the View 20, Huawei has also been pretty global with its ambitions, except in the U.S. where it hasn’t managed to strike a carrier deal despite reports that it has been close before. The current crisis with its CFO — the daughter of the company’s founder who was arrested during a trip to Canada — is another stark reminder that Huawei’s business is unlikely to ever get a break in the U.S. market: so except the View 20 to be a model for Europe and Asia.

Huawei previewed its View 20 with a punch-hole selfie camera lens this week [Image via Huawei]

Samsung hasn’t said a tonne about the hole-punch design, but our sister publication Engadget — which attended the View 20’s early launch event in Hong Kong — said it was mounted below the display “like a diamond” to maintain the structure.

“This hole is not a traditional hole,” Huawei told Engadget.

Huawei will no doubt also talk up the fact that its hole is 4.5mm versus an apparent 6mm from Samsung.

Small details aside, one important upcoming trend from these new devices is the birth of the ‘mega’ megapixel smartphone camera.

The View 20 packs a whopping 48-megapixel lens for a rear camera which something that we’re going to see a lot more of in 2019. Xiaomi, for one, is preparing a January launch for a device that’ll have the 48-megapixels, according to a message on Sina Weibo from company co-founder Bin Lin. There’s no word on what camera enclosure that device will have, though.

Xiaomi teased an upcoming smartphone that’ll sport a 48-megapixel camera [Image via Bin Lin/Weibo]

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Google has acquired one of India’s most popular train tracking apps

Google is increasing its efforts in India after it snapped up the team behind popular transportation app ‘Where is my Train.’

The app claims 10 million registered users and, as the name suggests, it helps commuters track arrivals and departures as well as buying seats. That’s no small job given that India is estimated to operate some 14,000 trains on a daily basis across the country. The app is for Android, it works offline or with poor connectivity and supports eight languages. It is rivaled by VC-backed companies like RailYatri and iXigo.

There’s no official price for the deal, although India’s Economic Times is reporting that it is in the region of $30-$40 million. The site reported on Google’s interest back in August, when it wrote that other suitors included Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. A Google spokesperson confirmed the deal to TechCrunch, but declined to provide a price.

Sigmoid Labs, the company that develops the train app, was founded by four former TiVo executives in 2013. Economic Times reports that it has around 10 staff. It is unclear how much money it has raised to date.

The company told customers news of the acquisition on its website earlier today.

“We can think of no better place to help us achieve our mission, and we’re excited to join Google to help bring technology and information into more people’s hands,” its founders wrote.

Google said that the Where is my Train team would “continue to build on the current offering,” so it seems that the app won’t be shuttered, immediately at least.

The service’s significant userbase would suggest that Google might look to develop and expand its scope to perhaps touch on other areas. Ride-hailing apps, for example, have moved into adjacent spaces including entertainment, payments and food delivery to take advantage of their position as daily apps.

That’s all conjecture at this point. But it also stands to reason that Google could fold it into other apps, including Google Maps, although that certainly isn’t the plan at this point.

Screenshots of Where is my Train Android app from the Google Play Store

The deal falls under Google’s ‘Next Billion User’ division which is developing products and services to help increase internet adoption in emerging markets. To date that has focused strongly on India where Google has developed data-friendly ‘lite’ versions of popular apps like YouTube, and initiatives like public WiFi for India’s rail network that’s used by over eight million people.

That scope has also covered services, with Google looking at apps that provide information and utility to Indian consumers. Google launched an on-demand app and a mobile payment service last year, and this year it released a neighborhood Q&A service. The Where is my Train deal certainly fits that strategy and you’d imagine it’ll become a core part of Google’s consumer-facing product line in India.

The deal is also one of the most significant to date for a U.S-based tech firm in India. Facebook, Twitter, Google and even Yahoo have made acquisitions to build teams or acquire talent but Where is my Train seems significantly more strategic as a product.

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Neuron Mobility raises $3.7M to bring e-scooters to Southeast Asia’s cities

Despite the rise in electric scooters in the U.S., you’d be forgiven for thinking that Asia — the region where bike-sharing foreshadowed the rise of e-scooters — has been left off the party. But e-scooters have quietly been in the region for some time and now they are beginning to ramp up.

Singapore-based Neuron Mobility is one such riser, and the company announced today that it has raised a SG$5 million ($3.7 million) seed round to explore overseas growth opportunities. The money comes from a collection of investors that include SeedPlus, 500 Startups, SEEDS Capital, ACE Capital, undisclosed angels and family offices.

Founded in 2016, Neuron has offered electric scooters in Singapore since last year. That fleet is currently downsized, CEO Zachary Wang told TechCrunch in an interview, because the startup is awaiting new regulation from the Singapore government. He expects that to take another one or two months. At its peak, Wang said, Neuron was Singapore’s latest provider with around 1,000 e-scooters on the island nation, although the number is down to “a few hundred” right now.

Scooters from Neuron and other rivals have been impounded in Singapore in recent times because they have been parked in illegal areas. Singapore currently prohibits scooters from being left in public places, such as subway stations, but pre-defined adjacent spaces are OK. As such, Neuron charges users a $5 fee when they leave their ride in the wrong place. That’s detected by geo-fencing tech and the charge covers the cost of sending a staffer to move it, Wang explained.

Despite it forcing the startup to slim down its operations, Wang is supportive of the Singapore government’s moves. Admitting that on-demand bikes and scooters can pile up “like rubbish on the streets in many cities,” the Neuron CEO said that “multi-use of sidewalk pavements [from scooters and other services] is here to stay and regulation brings rights to operate, which is a good thing.”

[Left to right] Neuron Mobility founders Harry Yu and Zachary Wang started the Singapore-based company in 2016

While it is liaising with the Singapore government, Neuron is also taking its first steps overseas. That’s seen it deploy scooters in Thailand — capital Bangkok and northern city Chiang Mai — with an expansion to Malaysia set to happen before the end of this year.

It has trodden carefully, however. In Bangkok, Neuron is working with real estate giant Sansiri to offer last mile options around one of the developer’s main sites that includes retail, residential and education facilities in close proximity. In Chiang Mai, it is offering transportation in the old part of the city, which is popular with Chinese tourists and where bike-sharing services like Mobike are popular.

When pressed on safety, Wang said that keeping the focus on specific parts of the city is important. Indeed, Asia’s mega cities are frankly dangerous for even seasoned motorcycle or bike drivers, let alone part-time electric scooter riders, while a number of people in the U.S. have died following collisions with e-scooters. With that in mind, Neuron said it is also planning a “ride responsibility” campaign.

Looking beyond Malaysia, Wang said that Neuron aspires to be in other parts of Southeast Asia — which houses more than 650 million people — as well as cities that are comparable to Singapore, such as those in Australia. Those expansions, however, won’t happen until the startup raises another round of funding; that’s something that he anticipates could come in the first half of 2019, although Wang is coy on details at this point.

Speaking more broadly about the expansion of e-scooter startups like Bird and Lime, which have moved into Europe and most recently Asia, Wang — the Neuron CEO — stressed the importance of local players.

“The Southeast Asia game must be played by Southeast Asia players because the region is so fragmented,” he said. “Traditionally, it is very difficult to penetrate markets, so the hyper-local approach becomes all important.”

Beyond working with regulators, Wang said another example of its local approach is that it is developing its own bespoke scooters, rather than going with off-the-shelf products from the likes of Xiaomi -owned Ninebot, which is outfitting most U.S. startups. Neuron’s “next-gen” scooter will “come to market pretty soon,” he said.

Neuron has occupied a unique position since it has been around since before bike-sharing startups flooded Southeast Asia last year following the trend in China. Unlike Ofo, oBike and countless others who expanded and then fled Southeast Asian markets, Wang believes that e-scooters are more sustainable as a business because the unit economics are healthier.

“Our rides can be benchmarked against taxi rides,” he explained. While, more generally, e-scooters are “priced between public transportation and taxis” rather than being cheaper than both, as is the case for dockless cycles.

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Xiaomi's next phone could be the first with a 48-megapixel camera


Lin Bin

Earlier this year, both Sony and Samsung unveiled their own 48-megapixel smartphone sensors, thus breaking the 41-megapixel record previously set by Nokia. With the more recent Huawei Mate 20 Pro and P20 Pro maxing out at “just” 40 megapixels, it’s about time for someone else to restart the megapixel race, and who better than Huawei’s local rival, Xiaomi, to do so?

Earlier today, Xiaomi president Lin Bin took to Weibo — via his ceramic Mix 3 slider — to post a close-up photo of what appears to be a phone with a 48-megapixel camera plus dual LED flash. It’s unclear how many lenses there are here, but based on how the set is right next to a volume rocker, it’s safe to assume that this camera is positioned at the top left corner on the back of the phone.

Lin didn’t share much else, other than the fact that this phone will be launched in January, and that he has apparently “used it for a few weeks, not bad!” If all goes well, Xiaomi could very well end up having the world’s first smartphone with a 48-megapixel camera, and chances are it’ll feature either Sony’s IMX586 or Samsung’s ISOCELL Bright GM1 (or both).

While both sensors have a tiny 0.8 micron pixel pitch, they can leverage pixel binning algorithms to merge four pixels into one, in order to simulate the better light sensitivity of 1.6 micron pixels in dark environments (meanwhile, many flagship phones use 1.55 micron sensors). When there’s plenty of light, the 48-megapixel resolution offers smooth digital zoom with minimal loss in detail — you can do a 4x zoom and still get a native 12-megapixel crop, for instance. Likewise for electronic stabilization for video shooting.

Still, at the end of the day, it’s all about how well the smartphone brands tune their cameras, and frankly, this has not been Xiaomi’s strong point. Hopefully the company can surprise us all with this mysterious phone come January.

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Bright spots in the VR market

Virtual Reality is in a public relations slump. Two years ago the public’s expectations for virtual reality’s potential was at its peak. Many believed (and still continue to believe) that VR would transform the way we connect, interact, and communicate in our personal and professional lives.

Google Trends highlighting search trends related to Virtual Reality over time; the “note” refers to an improvement in Google’s data collection system that occurred in early 2016

It’s easy to understand why this excitement exists once you put on a head mounted display. While there are still a limited number of compelling experiences, after you test some of the early successes in the field, it’s hard not to extrapolate beyond the current state of affairs to a magnificent future where the utility of virtual reality technology is pervasive.

However, many problems still exist. The all-in cost for state of the art headsets is still out of reach for the mass market. Most ‘high-quality’ virtual reality experiences still require users to be tethered to their desktops. The setup experience for mass market users is lathered in friction. When it comes down to it, the holistic VR experience is a non-starter for most people. We are effectively in what Gartner refers to as the “trough of disillusionment.”

Gartner’s hype cycle for “Human-Machine Interface” in 2018 places many related VR related fields (e.g., Mixed Reality, AR, HMDs, etc.) in the “Trough of Disillusionment”

Yet, the virtual reality market has continued its slow march to mass adoption, and there are tangible indicators that suggest we could be nearing an inflection point.

A shift towards sustainable hardware growth

What you do and do not consider a virtual reality display can dramatically impact your view on the state of the VR hardware industry. Head-mounted displays (HMDs) can be categorized in three different ways:

  • Screenless viewers — affordable devices that turn smartphones into a VR experience (e.g., Google Glass, Samsung Gear VR, etc.)
  • Standalone HMDs — devices that are not connected to a computer and can independently run content (e.g., Oculus Go, Lenovo Mirage Solo, etc.)
  • Tethered HMDs — devices that are connected to a desktop computer in order to run content (e.g., HTC Vive, Oculus Pro, etc.)

2018 has seen disappointing progress in aggregate headset growth. The overall market is forecasted to ship 8.9M headsets in 2018, up from an approximate aggregate shipment of ~8.3M in 2017, according to IDC. On the surface, those numbers hardly describe a market at its inflection point.

However, most of the decline in growth rate can be attributed to two factors. First, screenless viewers have seen a significant decline in shipments as device manufacturers have stopped shipping them alongside smartphones. In the second quarter of 2018, 409K screenless viewers were shipped compared to approximately 1M in the second quarter of 2017. Second, tethered VR headsets have also declined as manufacturers have slowed down the pricing discounts that acted as a steroid to sales growth in 2017.

Looking at the market for standalone HMDs, however, reveals a more promising figure. Standalone VR headsets grew 417% due to the global availability of the Oculus Go and Xiaomi Mi VR. Over time, these headsets are going to be the driver of the VR market as they offer significant advantages compared to tethered headsets.

The shift from tethered to standalone VR headsets is significant. It represents a paradigm shift within the immersive ecosystem, where developers have a truly mobile platform that is powerful enough to enable compelling user experiences.

IDC forecasts for AR/VR headset market share by form factor, 2018–2022

A premium market segment

There are a few names that come to mind when thinking about products that are available for purchase in the VR market: Samsung, Facebook (Oculus), HTC, and Playstation. A plethora of new products from these marquee names —  and products from new companies entering the market —  are opening the category for a new customer segment.

For the past few years, the market effectively had two segments. The first was a “mass market” segment with notorious devices such as the Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear, which typically sold for under $100 and offered severely constrained experiences to consumers. The second segment was a “pro market” with a few notable devices, such as the HTC Vive, that required absurdly powerful computing rigs to operate, but offered consumers more compelling, immersive experiences.

It’s possible that this new emerging segment will dramatically open up the total addressable VR market. This “premium” market segment offers product alternatives that are somewhat more expensive than the mass market, but are significantly differentiated in the potential experiences that can be offered (and with much less friction than the “pro market”).

The Oculus Go, the Xiaomi Mi VR, and the Lenovo Solo are the most notable products in this segment. They are the fastest growing devices in this segment, and represent a new wave of products that will continue to roll out. This segment could be the tipping point for when we move from the early adopters to the early majority in the VR product adoption curve.

A number of other products have also been released throughout 2018 that fall into this category, such as Lenovo’s Mirage Solo and Xiaomi’s Mi VR. Even more so, Oculus recently announced that  they’ll be shipping a new headset called Quest this spring, which will sell for $399 and will be the most powerful example of a premium device to date. The all-in price range of ~$200–400 places these devices in a segment consumers are already conditioned to pay (think iPad’s, gaming consoles, etc.), and they offer differentiated experiences primarily attributed to the fact that they are standalone devices.

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The Black Shark looks like a gaming phone, runs like any other

Some of the most popular mobile games have player bases far exceeding those of big-name, AAA console titles. And where simple but addictive puzzlers like Candy Crush Saga used to be the pinnacle, we now have much more elaborate and engaging games like PUBG Mobile and Arena of Valor. Already this year, we’ve seen a resurgence of devices aimed specifically at the ‘mobile-gamers’ demographic. In Europe, there’s now one more: The Black Shark, which recently went on sale, starting at the introductory price of €469/£409 (roughly $525).

Gallery: Black Shark gaming phone | 25 Photos

The phone isn’t strictly new. It launched earlier this year in China, and there’s already a sequel of sorts available in the region. You probably won’t have heard of Black Shark, but it’s not so much an anonymous company as a Xiaomi side project that’s using the electronics-giant’s money and manufacturing resources. It’s a semi-startup focused exclusively on mobile gaming, but what exactly makes the Black Shark (yes, it’s a namesake device) a gaming phone as opposed to just, a phone?

The look

Black Shark gaming phone

The differentiation starts in the design. The back panel is an elaborate mix of plastics, curves and contours that are supposed to be ergonomically arranged for the best gaming experience. But you don’t notice this even slightly when you’re actually holding the thing, popping heads. It doesn’t feel any different to gaming on other phones without these intricacies. I’m much more inclined to believe the bumps are simply to make it look cooler than your average handset.

It’s all a bit tacky and tryhard in my opinion. Many PC accessories — like headphones and keyboards — have a similar design language: one that aims to capture the futuristic, custom PC-case aesthetic and translate it to lesser objects. The Black Shark logo on the back of the phone even lights up when you get a notification, call or enter the special Shark Space mode (more on that later). It’s not really customizable, though, in the sense that you can only tell it whether to light up or not when these triggers occur.

I get it. The green detailing and complexity is supposed to appeal to gamerz, but I’m sure there are plenty of people within that niche who would rather their phone didn’t broadcast “I’m a huge nerd” to everyone in the vicinity. And aside from the busy body, the Black Shark looks a bit dated compared with many devices. There’s a lot of plastic, after all, and the fingerprint reader sits below the display and there are a couple of obvious chunky bezels. In an era of notches and nigh edge-to-edge screens, the Black Shark looks behind the curve.

The gamepad

Black Shark gaming phone

If there’s one practical reason for the relatively thick bezel above the screen: It’s so the included gamepad attachment doesn’t obscure any of it. This Joy-Con-esque peripheral is another unique selling point of the Black Shark, and the pitch is that you get the best of both worlds: a thumbstick on the left for movement and a touchscreen on the right for precision aiming. The claim is legit, too. It’s more adapted to shooters than anything else, and I have been absolutely shredding other PUBG Mobile players using the attachment.

That’s not so much because of the thumbstick — though it’s definitely preferable to moving around using the touchscreen as it’s a more tactile input device. Instead, it’s mainly due to the trigger buttons, which allow you to use a forefinger that would typically be out of action. By binding aiming and firing to the two buttons, I can strafe, quick-scope and fire without having to take my right thumb off aiming duties. This is something a pure mobile player simply can’t do, and it introduces such a competitive advantage that it basically feels like cheating.

It’s still not ideal for PUBG. There are so many things you need to prod at on-screen, like equipping meds or managing your backpack inventory, that often you have to awkwardly reach over the controller to get at the left side of the touchscreen. And when you jump into a vehicle, the UI changes and your bindings aren’t in the right place anymore. There’s a handy little overlay you can bring up at any time to change the position of the thumbstick and button inputs on the fly, but that’s something you’re not going to want to do when you’re attempting to flee a firefight by jumping into a buggy. There are plenty of games that have either simpler or static control schemes, of course, and your preferences are saved for individual titles so you don’t have to constantly rebind.

Black Shark gaming phone

While the gamepad definitely makes you a stronger competitor in shooters, that’s one of the only good things about it. For starters, you have to snap an ugly plastic frame on to the Black Shark, and only then will the controller fit snugly against the device. The gamepad itself just feels a bit cheap, too, as it’s made of light, flimsy plastic. The thumbstick is really short, not very grippy and it sits a bit lower than your thumb naturally rests. It’s just not very comfortable to use for any period of time, particularly with my spindly fingers.

It’s a recipe for hand cramps, but it’s unlikely you’ll get to that point because the internal battery only lasts about two hours in total. It connects via Bluetooth rather than plugging directly into the phone, giving you yet another thing to charge on a regular basis. Where the Black Shark has fast-charging, though, you really have to wait for the gamepad to refuel. I made the mistake of plugging it into the wall for half an hour, clipping it back on and jumping into a PUBG game, only for it to die within a few minutes. Also, when it’s totally dead, it doesn’t seem to suck enough power to allow you to play and charge at the same time.

Software

Black Shark gaming phone

The Black Shark runs more or less stock Android 8.1.0 Oreo with a couple of minor customizations woven in. The big one is Shark Space mode, which actually has its own physical toggle on the side of the phone. Flip this switch and you’ll enter a landscape-specific UI that you manually add games into. It’s basically a stripped-down launcher, and booting it up also clears the device’s RAM and turns on ‘do not disturb,’ so a call from Mom won’t interrupt your session.

The physical toggle seems like overkill, but I guess it makes sense in the context of the phone: Press here to game. There is a slightly annoying quirk to this mode in that if you accidentally hit the recent apps Android softkey next to the fingerprint reader, it freaks out and turns into an empty screen when you find your way back to it. (There’s both your standard back and recents shortcuts either side of the fingerprint reader, though you can’t see them, nor can they be disabled.)

The only other gaming-oriented tweak is called Game Dock, which is like an extra quick-settings menu you bring down by swiping across the fingerprint reader. The reader is quite small, mind, and it registers my contact as a tap just as often as it does a swipe. There are a couple of useful things in here such as the button that lets you change the gamepad bindings, the do-not-disturb toggle, WiFi settings and an eye-care mode that strips blue light from the display.

Go deeper and you’ll find other settings for switching on/off the dedicated imaging chip, maximum performance mode and a faux HDR mode (the Black Shark doesn’t have a native HDR display) that made shadows a bit too dark for me on PUBG. There are also a couple of touchscreen settings I decided not to play around with because I have no idea what I’d be changing. The description under the Stability slider, for example, reads: “Reduce the stability makes it easier to identify subtle sliding movement, and it is more suitable for casual skill button clicks when improves it.” Your guess is as good as mine.

Hardware

Black Shark
Processor Octa-core Snapdragon 845
RAM / storage 6GB / 64GB or 8GB / 128GB
Display 55.99-inch LCD
Display resolution 1,080 x 2,160 (18:9)
Rear camera Dual 20MP + 12MP, f/1.75 lenses
Front-facing camera 20MP, f/2.2 lens
OS Android 8.1.0 Oreo
Battery 4,000mAh
Charging USB-C (quick-charging)
Dimensions 161.6 x 75.4 x 9.3mm (6.4 x 3.0 x 0.4 inches)
Weight 190g (6.7 ounces)
Fingerprint sensor Yes
Waterproofing No
NFC No
Headphone jack No

Looking at some of the key specs, there’s no reason the Black Shark shouldn’t be a great phone to game on. It has one of the best processors around — an octa-core Snapdragon 845 with Adreno 630 GPU — paired with either 6GB or 8GB of RAM depending on the configuration (my unit has 8GB, for the record). But there are several other features that Black Shark says make its phone more suited to the task than others.

One of these is liquid cooling, which is a feature of other handsets like the Galaxy Note 9 and Pocophone F1. Don’t think of it as a mess of pipes and pumps, like you might picture snaking around a liquid-cooled PC. Instead, it’s a small, closed system filled with a tiny amount of water that rests against the chipset. The idea is the water draws heat away from the processor and turns into vapor. It then travels to a cooler part of the system, condenses, and the process repeats.

According to Black Shark, it’s 20-fold more efficient than traditional cooling methods (leading to an 8°C lower core temperature) and increases CPU runtime by 70 percent. In my experience, this doesn’t actually make the phone feel any cooler. It still warms up during long gaming sessions just like every other handset. Another feature is the X-type Smart Antenna, which is designed for strong, long-range connectivity, but at least where WiFi is concerned, the Black Shark doesn’t have more bars than other phones I’ve compared it to in the weak spots of my flat.

The biggest piece of this special hardware proposition is undoubtedly the dedicated image processing chip with Pixelworks’ MEMC (motion estimation, motion compensation) technology. This is supposed to do many things: Make blacks deeper and colors more vibrant/accurate, as well as “correct dropped frames, jitters and blur” for more stable frame rates in games. I’ve switched this chip on and off in-game, as well as taking screenshots to compare side-by-side, but I can’t see any difference in color reproduction. Nor have I noticed with the naked eye it having any impact on performance.

The problem with all this is that you kind of have to take the manufacturer’s word that it’s improving gameplay. And in the case of the Black Shark, that these features are making small gains on top of the already powerful Snapdragon 845 chip. So, to really dig into whether this phone is actually better to game on than others, I spent hours playing NBA 2K19 and PUBG on three different devices. To record real-time data on the actual frames per second (fps) I was getting during my playtime, I used GameBench, a tool that runs in the background and does just that.

NBA 2K19

Black Shark gaming phone

Black Shark Google Pixel 3 XL Huawei Mate 20 Pro
Chipset Snapdragon 845 Snapdragon 845 Kirin 980
Median fps 54 54 61
Max fps 60 60 62
Min fps 46 43 55
fps variance (±) 1.57 1.49 0.50
Average mA consumption 995 893 433
Settings: Cloth simulation and depth of field off, all other settings high. 50% screen brightness.

NBA 2K19 plays very smoothly on all the phones I tested, though the Mate 20 Pro was the clear winner with the highest average fps, most-stable frame rate and lowest power consumption. While the Pixel 3 XL hit the lowest low of 43 fps, it was slightly more consistent than the Black Shark, as shown by a lower average fps variance. The Black Shark also consumed the most power during the session, resulting in a roughly four-hour total play time based on its 4,000mAh battery capacity. The estimated Pixel 3 XL total play time was about five minutes less on account of its smaller, 3,430mAh battery. Bear in mind, both use the same Snapdragon 845 chip.

On the Black Shark and Pixel 3 XL, the frame rate of NBA 2K19 would consistently drop when all players were on-screen, crowded around the basket. I didn’t notice any split-second freezes on either device, more just a smooth dip in frame rate. The numbers can potentially have an impact on gameplay, though. NBA 2K19 revolves a lot around shot timing, so there’s always the chance a dip or generally inconsistent frame rate can mess up your three-pointer when you’re relying on visual cues to time ball release.

PUBG Mobile

Black Shark gaming phone

In contrast to NBA 2K19, PUBG is one of those games that goes from running dreamily to completely stalling for a brief moment. It’s not frequent, but it did happen during my play sessions on all three handsets. If you’re caught in the wrong situation, like in a gun battle or driving a vehicle through dense terrain, these hiccups can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Black Shark Google Pixel 3 XL Huawei Mate 20 Pro
Chipset Snapdragon 845 Snapdragon 845 Kirin 980
Median fps 39 39 39
Max fps 41 41 41
Min fps 36 36 37
fps variance (±) 0.42 0.51 0.67
Average mA consumption 860 902 671
Settings: HD graphics, Ultra frame rate (up to 40 fps), anti-aliasing enabled, auto-adjust settings disabled. Arcade mode. 30% screen brightness.

Playing in arcade mode with no vehicles and less-varied terrain, and with the frame rate effectively capped at 40 fps, there’s little to separate the three phones. By a slim margin, the Black Shark did show the most stable frame rate, and it was more efficient than the Pixel 3 XL. This latter observation is possibly because, while the Mate 20 Pro and Black Shark were set at 30 percent brightness for this session — the Black Shark has a seriously bright screen –, I had to bump the Pixel 3 XL up to 50 percent to make the game playable, even in a dimly lit room.

Black Shark Google Pixel 3 XL Huawei Mate 20 Pro
Chipset Snapdragon 845 Snapdragon 845 Kirin 980
Median fps 58 58 59
Max fps 60 60 61
Min fps 25 50 52
fps variance (±) 1.59 1.11 1.13
Average mA consumption 1045 907 768
Settings: Smooth graphics, Extreme frame rate (up to 60 fps), anti-aliasing enabled, auto-adjust settings disabled. Normal game. 50% screen brightness.

After changing the graphics settings to increase the maximum frame rate to 60, the Black Shark took a bit of a dive performance-wise. Frame rate fluctuated the most on the Black Shark, power consumption increased and, at a couple of points, stutters took the lowest frame rate to 25. A drop in performance across the board was expected, as these sessions were done in the classic game mode, and I made a point of driving different vehicles through open spaces, urban areas and through forests for the sake of stress testing. Across both PUBG and NBA 2K19, the Mate 20 Pro maintained frame rates within the highest range, arguably making it the best phone of the three for gaming (though it doesn’t have its own special gamepad peripheral).

Mainly, the numbers show that the same chipset doesn’t equal the same performance. To labor the point, crowdsourced data from GameBench shows the Pocophone F1, which also has water-cooling and a Snapdragon 845 chipset, is more inconsistent than both the Black Shark and Pixel 3 XL (in PUBG on the same settings) with an fps variance of ±2.06.

Imaging chip on Imaging chip + max performance on Everything off
Median fps 58 58 59
Max fps 60 60 60
Min fps 25 43 41
fps variance (±) 1.59 1.52 1.27
Average mA consumption 1045 1028 1028
Settings: Smooth graphics, Extreme frame rate (up to 60 fps), anti-aliasing enabled, auto-adjust settings disabled. Normal game. 50% screen brightness.

Using the same game settings as above, I also tested the differences between having the Black Shark’s imaging chip enabled, having the imaging chip and max-performance mode enabled and disabling everything. From my personal experience and the numbers, it seems there are no hugely significant differences. If anything, having everything disabled seems to produce the most stable results.

So yeah, what is a gaming phone exactly?

Black Shark gaming phone

The Black Shark is a perfectly fine phone to game on. Even some of the things I don’t particularly like about it, such as the overly eccentric design and unergonomic controller, appear to have been addressed by the company in the second-generation device now available in China — the gamepad has more buttons this time around, too (cue Nintendo’s legal team), making it even more useful in games like PUBG.

The core specs alone make the Black Shark a viable gaming device, and I can live with a momentary nosedive in frame rate while I’m screaming through a wooded area in a buggy. The point of getting numbers involved is primarily to show that you can play games on any phone, especially one with a high-end chipset. And if you really want to use a controller, there are plenty of Bluetooth pads you can buy if you don’t have an Xbox One or PS4 controller lying around. Traditional controllers don’t give you the flexibility of using the touchscreen in tandem, and official support is spotty across individual games. There’s almost always a way, however, thanks to apps that let you mimic touchscreen inputs with buttons and thumbsticks.

One thing the Black Shark definitely has going for it is price. There are no rumblings of official US availability right now, but in the UK, the 6GB RAM/64GB storage model is just £409 (soon to be £439 after introductory pricing). That’s cheaper than the OnePlus 6T, which starts at £499, but still way more expensive than Xiaomi’s Pocophone F1, which can be found on Amazon for £305 right now. There are plenty of more expensive phones with a Snapdragon 845 chip, of course, including the £869 Pixel 3 XL I compared the Black Shark against.

Other recently released phones designed specifically for gamers are significantly more expensive, too. The Razer Phone 2, its headline feature being a 120Hz display that’s supposed to reduce input lag, is £780 ($800 in the US). The crazy ASUS ROG phone has pressure-sensitive triggers, an overclocked Snapdragon 845 and plenty of other gamey features and accessories. That device will start at a hefty £800 in the UK after the pre-order promotion ends, or $900 in the US, where it’s already on sale.

The main niggle I have with the Black Shark is that, in my experience, water-cooling and the dedicated imaging chip have no demonstrable, positive effect on performance or efficiency. That’s where we, as consumers, have to be wary. Mobile gaming is big, and growing, and companies are actively pursuing the mobile gamer as a target audience. It’s important to know, then, where the capabilities of hardware ends, and the power of marketing takes over.

Disclaimer: GameBench provided temporary access to its software for performance testing in this article. A former Engadget employee works with the company; this has not impacted our coverage.

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Xiaomi gobbles up selfie phone brand Meitu as revenue jumps 49%

Xiaomi is diversifying into a new range of phones as the Chinese smartphone maker announced impressive growth with its latest financials.

The company announced it will take over selfie app maker Meitu’s smartphone business to go after new demographics, particularly women, while it lodged impressive 49 percent revenue growth in Q3.

Xiaomi posted a net profit of 2.481 billion RMB ($357 million) for the quarter on total sales of 50.846 billion RMB ($7.3 billion). The bulk of that income came from smartphones sales — 35 billion RMB, $5 billion — as Xiaomi surpassed its annual target of 100 million shipments with two months of the year still to go. The majority of those phones are sold in China, but the company said that international revenue overall was up by 113 percent year-on-year.

The company has ventured into Europe this year, with its most recent launch in the UK this month, but now it is taking aim at a more diverse set of customers in the Chinese market through this tie-in with Meitu. Best known for its ‘beautification’ selfie apps, Meitu also sells smartphones that tap its selfie brand with optimized cameras and advanced editing features.

Now Xiaomi is taking over that business through a partnership that will see Meitu paid 10 percent of the profits for all devices sold, with a minimum guaranteed fee of $10 million per year. For other smart products, its cut increases to 15 percent.

Meitu is hardly a mainstream phone brand. Its first device launched in 2013 and it has sold 3.5 million units to date. Recently, the company cut back on its hardware — it has launched just one device this year compared to five last year — while the average sell price of its devices has fallen, causing it to forecast a net loss of up to 1.2 billion RMB (or $173 million) up from just 197 million RMB last year. Shifting the heavy-lifting to Xiaomi makes a lot of sense — despite its total cut of sales dropping to just 10 percent, Xiaomi has impressive reach and a sales platform that already features third-party hardware.

Back to Xiaomi, these results are its first ‘true’ financials since the company went public through a Hong Kong IPO back in July. It posted a $2.1 billion profit in the previous quarter but a large chunk of spending and revenue was down to the listing.

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Xiaomi takes over Meitu’s struggling selfie-focused phone business


Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chinese selfie app and smartphone company Meitu announced it has entered into a strategic partnership with Xiaomi. Going forward, Meitu will license its brand, technologies and hardware to China-based Xiaomi, and for upcoming smartphones, Xiaomi will handle design, research, development, production, business operation, sales and marketing while Meitu will deal with image-related algorithms and technologies. Meitu said its mission has been “to inspire more people to express their beauty,” and its board of directors has determined that a partnership with Xiaomi will aid in carrying out that mission.

Meitu noted in its announcement that it’s likely to experience a much larger loss than it did last year. This year, it’s projected to record a net loss between RMB 950 million and RMB 1,200 million, or between $137 million and $173 million, compared to the $28 million loss it logged last year. It attributed part of that loss to the fact that it only released one smartphone this year as opposed to the five it launched the year before.

This agreement, therefore, makes sense for the struggling Meitu. “With such strategic partnership, we can focus our efforts in developing the next-generation image processing technologies, while leveraging our partner’s economy of scale in research and development, supply chain management and new retail efforts,” the company said. And as for Xiaomi, which just announced a net profit after a rather substantial loss last year, it has been working on expanding into new markets. This partnership with Meitu will give Xiaomi the opportunity to try out new technologies with a sub-brand as it continues to push into Europe and elsewhere.

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In venture capital, it’s still the age of the unicorn

This month marks the 5-year anniversary of Aileen Lee’s landmark article, “Welcome To The Unicorn Club”.

At the time, the piece defined a new breed of startup — the $1 billion privately held company. When Lee did her first count, there were 39 “unicorns”; an improbable, but not impossible number.. Today, the once-scarce unicorn has become a global herd with 376 companies on the roster and counting.

But the proliferation of unicorns begs raises certain questions. Is this new breed of unicorn artificially created? Could these magical companies see their valuations slip and fall out of the herd? Does this indicate an irrational exuberance where investors are engaging in wish fulfilment and creating magic where none actually existed?

List of “unicorn” companies worth more than $1 billion as of the third quarter of 2018

There’s a new “unicorn” born every four days

The first change has been to the geographic composition and private company requirement of the list. The original qualification for the unicorn study was “U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors.” The unicorn definition has changed and here is the popular and wiki page definition we all use today: “A unicorn is a privately held startup company with a current valuation of US$1 billion or more.”

Beyond the expansion of the definition of terms to include a slew of companies from all over the globe, there’s been a concurrent expansion in the number of startup technology companies to achieve unicorn status. There is a tenfold increase in annual unicorn production.

Indeed, while the unicorn is still rare but not as rare as before. Five years ago, roughly ten unicorns were being created a year, but we are approaching one hundred new unicorns a year in 2018.

As of November 8, we have seen eighty one newly minted unicorns this year, which means we have one new unicorn every four days.

There are unicorn-sized rounds every day

These unicorns are also finding their horns thanks to the newly popularized phenomena of mega rounds which raise $100 million or more. These deals are ten times more common now, than they were only five years ago.   

Back in 2013, there were only about four mega rounds a month, but now there are forty mega rounds a month based on Crunchbase data. In fact, starting from 2015, public market IPO has for the first time no longer been the major funding source for unicorn size companies.

Unicorns have been raising money from both traditional venture capital but also more from the non-traditional venture capital such as SoftBank, sovereign wealth funds, private equity funds, and mutual funds.

Investors are chasing the value creation opportunity.   Most people probably did not realize that Amazon, Microsoft, Cisco, and Oracle all debuted on public markets for less than a $1 billion market cap (in fact only Microsoft topped $500 million), but today they together are worth more than $2 trillion dollars  

It means tremendous value was created after those companies came to the public market.  Today, investors are realizing the future giant’s value creation has been moved to the “pre-IPO” unicorn stage and investors don’t want to miss out.

To put things in perspective, investors globally deployed $13 billion in almost 20,000 seed & angel deals, and SoftBank was able to deploy the same $13 billion amount in just 2 deals (Uber and WeWork).  The SoftBank type of non-traditional venture world literally redefined “pre-IPO” and created a new category for venture capital investment.

Unicorns are staying private longer

That means the current herd of unicorns are choosing to stay private longer. Thanks to the expansion of shareholders private companies can rack up under the JOBS Act of 2012; the massive amount of funding available in the private market; and the desire of founders to work with investors who understand their reluctance to be beholden to public markets.

Elon Musk was thinking about taking Tesla private because he was concerned about optimizing for quarterly earning reports and having to deal with the overhead, distractions, and shorts in the public market.  Even though it did not happen in the end, it reflects the mentality of many entrepreneurs of the unicorn club. That said, most unicorn CEOs know the public market is still the destiny, as the pressure from investors to go IPO will kick in sooner or later, and investors expect more governance and financial transparency in the longer run.

Unicorns are breeding outside of the U.S. too

Finally, the current herd of unicorns now have a strong global presence, with Chinese companies leading the charge along with US unicorns. A recent Crunchbase graph indicated about 40% of unicorns are from China,, 40% from US, and the rest from other parts of the world.

Back in 2013, the “unicorn” is primarily a concept for US companies only, and there were only 3 unicorn size startups in China (Xiaomi, DJI, Vancl) anyways.  Another change in the unicorn landscape is that, China contributed predominantly consumer-oriented unicorns, while the US unicorns have always maintained a good balance between enterprise-oriented and consumer-oriented companies.  One of the stunning indications that China has thriving consumer-oriented unicorns is that China leads US in mobile payment volume by hundredfold.

The fundamentals of entrepreneurship remain the same

Despite the dramatic change of the capital market, a lot of the insights in Lee’s 5-year old blog are still very relevant to early stage entrepreneurs today.

For example, in her study, most unicorns had co-founders rather than a single founder, and many of the co-founders had a history of working together in the past.

This type of pattern continues to hold true for unicorns in the U.S. and in China. For instance, the co-founders of Meituan (a $50 billion market cap company on its IPO day in September 2018) went to school together and had co-founded a company before

There have been other changes. In the past three months alone, four new US enterprise-oriented unicorns have emerged by selling directly to developers instead of to the traditional IT or business buyers; three China enterprise-oriented SaaS companies were able to raise mega rounds.  These numbers were unheard of five years ago and show some interesting hints for entrepreneurs curious about how to breed their own unicorn.

The new normal is reshaping venture capital 

Once in a while, we see eye-catching headlines like “bubble is larger than it was in 2000.”   The reality is companies funded by venture capital increased by more than 100,000 in the past five years too. So the unicorn is still as rare as one in one thousand in the venture backed community.

What’s changing behind the increasing number of unicorns is the new normal for both investors and entrepreneurs. Mega rounds are the new normal; staying private longer is the new normal; and the global composition of the unicorn club is the new normal. 

Just look at the evidence in the venture industry itself. Sequoia Capital, the bellwether of venture capital, raised a whopping $8 billion global growth mega fund earlier this year under pressure from SoftBank and its $100 billion mega-fund. And Greylock Partners, known for its focus and success in leading early stage investment, recently led a unicorn round for the first time in its 53-year history.  

It’s proof that just as venture capitalists have created a new breed of startups, the new startups and their demands are reshaping venture capital to continue to support the the companies they’ve created.

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Xiaomi's UK launch is an important step in going global

In some parts of the world, Xiaomi is a household name. And in others, it’s almost unknown, discussed only in whispers amongst tech journalists and enthusiasts. The Chinese company launched its first smartphone seven years ago, and since then it’s grown into a sprawling electronics leviathan. It established itself in many countries during this time, but steered mostly clear of others. This week, however, Xiaomi formally set up shop in the UK. And by doing so, it took its next serious step towards the ultimate goal of world domination.

As Xiaomi highlighted at its UK press conference, in less than a decade it’s grown from being an obscure startup to a company with yearly revenues of $15 billion. The success story isn’t particularly unique, though. Like Huawei, Vivo and Oppo, Xiaomi has ridden the wave that is the biggest smartphone market in the world: China. In a place where iPhones and Samsungs are prohibitively expensive for the majority of the population, local companies cashed in on the underserved millions. Cheap Android devices that were better than their prices would suggest skyrocketed these brands to mainstream status in double-quick time.

China remains the largest smartphone market in the world, but it was only a matter of time before a saturation point was reached; device shipments eventually shrunk in 2017 following nine years of consistent growth. Naturally, Xiaomi outgrew its homeland and began expanding to other territories, starting with Singapore in 2014. Soon after, it set its sight on India, and now the company dominates the second biggest smartphone market as the category leader. As it stands, Xiaomi is the fourth largest smartphone manufacturer in the world behind Samsung, Huawei and Apple.

CHINA-TELECOMMUNICATIONS-XIAOMI

Image: Nicolas Asfouri / AFP / Getty Images

Xiaomi didn’t just grow its reach, though. It may have all started with smartphones, but Xiaomi is now a complete consumer electronics brand. Alongside accessories like headphones, speakers, powerbanks and cables, Xiaomi makes laptops, tablets, smartwatches and fitness trackers, TVs, drones, cameras and all manner of smart home products including kettles and rice cookers. Even toys, clothing, luggage and homeware. Xiaomi also has a serious stake in Ninebot, owner of the Segway brand and maker of quirky transportation devices. It has its fingers in all the pies, in other words.

But smartphones are still core to its business, and Xiaomi now sells them across Asia and in several more developing markets worldwide, such as Mexico. The game has changed since the China smartphone boom, too. Up until fairly recently, Chinese companies have often taken cues from what’s working for established global players like Apple and Samsung, both in terms of handset design and feature set.

Now, though, the very same companies have picked up the experimental mantle. They’re the ones introducing features like in-display fingerprint readers and reverse wireless charging, and developing slider phones that hide the selfie cameras to allow for true, full-screen displays. They’re now making flagships that can compete on the world stage, and selling them at attractive prices even in markets where consumers are less price-sensitive. Xiaomi has even committed to making no more than 5 percent net profit on all hardware products.

Xiaomi Corp. Mi 8 Smartphones Go On Sale in Hong Kong Ahead of IPO

Image: Anthony Kwan / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Expansion hasn’t been without its speed bumps. In 2015, Xiaomi chose Brazil as its first international market outside of Asia. Less than a year later, it pulled out. At the beginning of 2017, Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun admitted that perhaps the company was moving too fast, favoring growth over stability. In late 2017, Xiaomi made its first in-roads into western Europe with a launch in Spain. It has a flagship store in Barcelona, and is already the number three smartphone brand in the country. More recently, Xiaomi’s set up shop in Italy and France, and as of this week, the UK.

Unlike Spain, where the smartphone market is fragmented enough that new players have ample opportunities, the UK is a tough nut to crack. Survey stats suggest nearly half of all Brits carry iPhones, more than a third have a Samsung in their pocket and well, other companies are sharing the scraps. Even Huawei, which has been chipping away at the UK for years now, has a negligible market share despite its phones being available on contracts through several carriers.

Xiaomi has a carrier partner of its own in Three, no doubt expedited by the network’s parent company, the Asian conglomerate CK Hutchison. It’s not tip-toeing into the UK, either: From its flagship £499 Mi 8 Pro down to its £99 Redmi 6A, £400 electric scooter and £27 Band 3 fitness tracker, the company is launching dozens of products spread across its own online store and third-party retailers. The plan is to expand the range as soon as possible, Xiaomi’s UK Sales Director Wilkin Lee told me, and reduce the lag time between launches in China and their UK debut.

There are a bunch of introductory offers to build hype around the brand, and next week the first authorized Mi Store opens in the Westfield shopping center in London’s Shepherd’s Bush (where Apple also has an outlet), which’ll help with exposure. Some reports have suggested the £1 smartphone flash sale that took place today was basically a ruse, which sounds like the worst possible way to build public trust. Xiaomi firmly denies the accusations, however, blaming extremely high demand on the immediate out-of-stock notice.

How Xiaomi will be received in the UK is an unknown, but the timing could be fortuitous. As smartphones from the dominant names have become more homogenized, eyes may well wander, whether that be because of Xiaomi’s products themselves, or the prices attached to them. The company’s flagship Mi 8 Pro, with dual cameras, big display with built-in fingerprint sensor, top-tier guts and a transparent (sort of) finish is selling for £499 here. That’s the same price as the similarly specced OnePlus 6T, and roughly £150 below the likes of the iPhone XR, Pixel 3 and Galaxy S9.

Either way, the bigger picture here is symbolic. Xiaomi has flourished in, and in some cases devoured developing markets. Now it’s all about breaking into territories where competition takes a slightly different form; where brand-building is arguably more important than aggressive pricing. In western Europe, that started with Spain, and peaks with the UK.

Xiaomi

Image: Xiaomi

“Europe is a key priority for us in our global expansion and the UK plays a pivotal role in this journey,” sales director Lee told me. “Even now we’ve launched in the UK, we believe we still have a lot to learn from our consumers and business partners.”

“Spain provided a test bed to understand better the Western European market,” he continued. “Each market is unique and we see the UK as a key foundation in the region.” The next stop for Xiaomi is, of course, North America. On December 8th, the company is holding a press conference in New York, but I’m told it won’t be anything formal. Xiaomi already sells its electric scooter, home security and action cameras, a media player and a few other products in the region. Next month’s event will be about introducing attendees to some of its other wares, but from what I’ve heard, it won’t mark an official entry into the smartphone space.

The US presents a unique challenge in that regard. The government has basically blacklisted Huawei from the country, and local carriers aren’t interested in selling the company’s devices. In a place where Chinese firms are treated with inherent suspicion, Xiaomi may fare no better.

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