MWC: BlackBerry KEYone Is Solid Mid-Range Smartphone Priced Too High

Subject: Mobile | March 1, 2017 - 02:26 PM |
Tagged: Snapdragon 625, opinion, MWC, keyone, enterprise, Cortex A53, blackberry, Android 7.1, Android

February is quite the busy month with GDC, MWC, and a flurry of technology announcements coming out all around the same time! One of the more surprising announcements from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona came from BlackBerry in the form of a new mid-range smartphone it is calling the KEYone. The KEYone is an Android 7.1 smartphone actually built by TCL with an aluminum frame, "soft touch" plastic back, curved edges, and (in traditional CrackBerry fashion) a full physical QWERTY keyboard!

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The black and silver candy bar style KEYone (previously known as "Mercury") measures 5.78" x 2.85" x 0.37" and weighs 0.39 pounds. The left, right, and bottom edges are rounded and the top edge is flat. There are two bottom firing stereo speakers surrounding a USB Type-C port (Type-C 1.0 with USB OTG), a headphone jack up top, and volume, power, and convenience key buttons on the right side. The front of the device, which BlackBerry has designed to be comfortable using one handed, features a 4.5" 1620 x 1080 LCD touchscreen (434 PPI) protected by Gorilla Glass 4, a front facing camera with LED flash, and a large physical keyboard with straight rows of keys that have a traditional BlackBerry feel. The keyboard, in addition to having physical buttons, supports touch gestures such as swiping, and the spacebar has a fingerprint reader that early hands on reports indicate works rather well for quickly unlocking the phone. Further, every physical key can be programmed as a hot key to open any application with a long press (B for browser, E for email, ect).

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On the camera front, BlackBerry is using the same sensor found in the Google Pixel which is a Sony IMX378. There is a 12MP f/2.0 rear camera with dual LED flash and phase detect auto focus on the back as well as a front facing 8MP camera. Both cameras can record 1080p30 video as well as support HDR and software features like face detection. Android Central reports that the camera software is rather good (it even has a pro mode) and the camera is snappy at taking photos.

Internally, BlackBerry has opted to go with squarely mid-range hardware which is disappointing but not the end of the world. Specifically, the KEYone is powered by a Snapdragon 625 (MSM8953) with eight ARM Cortex A53 cores clocked at 2GHz and an Adreno 506 GPU paired with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. Wireless support includes dual band 802.11ac, FM, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS, NFC, and GSM/HSPA/LTE cellular radios. The smartphone uses a 3,505 mAh battery that is not user removable but at least supports Quick Charge 3.0 which can reportedly charge the battery to 50% in 36 minutes. Storage can be expanded via MicroSD cards. The smartphone is running Android 7.1.1 with some BlackBerry UI tweaks but is otherwise fairly stock. Under the hood however BlackBerry has hardened the OS and includes its DTEK security sftware along with promising monthly updates.

Not bad right? Looking at the specifications and reading/watching the various hands-on reports coming out it is really looking like BlackBerry (finally) has a decent piece of hardware for enterprise customers, niche markets (lawyers, healthcare, ect), and customers craving a physical keyboard in a modern phone. At first glance the BlackBerry KEYone hits all the key marks to a competitive Android smartphone... except for its $549 price tag. The KEYone is expected to launch in April.

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No scroll ball? Blasphemy! (hehe)

Unfortunately, that $549 price is not a typo, and is what kills it even for a CrackBerry addict like myself. After some reflection and discussion with our intrepid smartphone guru Sebastian, I feel as though BlackBerry would have a competitive smartphone on its hands at $399, but at $549 even business IT departments are going to balk much less consumers (especially as many businesses embrace the BYOD culture or have grown accustomed to pricing out and giving everyone whatever basic Android or iPhone they can fit into the budget).

While similarly specced Snapdragon 625 smartphones are going for around $300, (e.g. Asus ZenPhone 3 at $265.98), there is some precedent for higher priced MSM8953-based smartphones such as the $449 Moto Z Play. There is some inherent cost in integrating a physical keyboard and BlackBerry has also hardened the Android 7.1.1 OS which I can see them charging a premium for and that business customers (or anyone that does a lot of writing on the go) that values security can appreciate. It seems like BlackBerry (and hardware partner TCL) has finally learned how to compete on the hardware design front in this modern Android-dominated market, and now they must learn how to compete on price especially as more and more Americans are buying unlocked and off-contract smartphones! I think the KEYone is a refreshing bit of hardware to come out of BlackBerry (I was not a fan of the Priv design) and I would like to see it do well and give the major players (Apple, Samsung, LG, Asus, Huawei, ect) some healthy competition with the twist of its focus on better security but in order for that to happen I think the BlackBerry KEYone needs to be a bit cheaper.

What are your thoughts on the KEYone and the return of the physical keyboard? Am I onto something or simply off my Moto Rokr on this?

Source: BlackBerry
Manufacturer: PC Perspective

Living Long and Prospering

The open fork of AMD’s Mantle, the Vulkan API, was released exactly a year ago with, as we reported, a hard launch. This meant public, but not main-branch drivers for developers, a few public SDKs, a proof-of-concept patch for The Talos Principle, and, of course, the ratified specification. This sets up the API to find success right out of the gate, and we can now look back over the year since.

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Thor's hammer, or a tempest in a teapot?

The elephant in the room is DOOM. This game has successfully integrated the API and it uses many of its more interesting features, like asynchronous compute. Because the API is designed in a sort-of “make a command, drop it on a list” paradigm, the driver is able to select commands based on priority and available resources. AMD’s products got a significant performance boost, relative to OpenGL, catapulting their Fury X GPU up to the enthusiast level that its theoretical performance suggested.

Mobile developers have been picking up the API, too. Google, who is known for banishing OpenCL from their Nexus line and challenging OpenGL ES with their Android Extension Pack (later integrated into OpenGL ES with version 3.2), has strongly backed Vulkan. The API was integrated as a core feature of Android 7.0.

On the engine and middleware side of things, Vulkan is currently “ready for shipping games” as of Unreal Engine 4.14. It is also included in Unity 5.6 Beta, which is expected for full release in March. Frameworks for emulators are also integrating Vulkan, often just to say they did, but sometimes to emulate the quirks of these system’s offbeat graphics co-processors. Many other engines, from Source 2 to Torque 3D, have also announced or added Vulkan support.

Finally, for the API itself, The Khronos Group announced (pg 22 from SIGGRAPH 2016) areas that they are actively working on. The top feature is “better” multi-GPU support. While Vulkan, like OpenCL, allows developers to enumerate all graphics devices and target them, individually, with work, it doesn’t have certain mechanisms, like being able to directly ingest output from one GPU into another. They haven’t announced a timeline for this.

Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: Huawei

Introduction and Specifications

The Mate 9 is the current version of Huawei’s signature 6-inch smartphone, building on last year’s iteration with the company’s new Kirin 960 SoC (featuring ARM's next-generation Bifrost GPU architecture), improved industrial design, and exclusive Leica-branded dual camera system.

Mate9_Main.jpg

In the ultra-competitive smartphone world there is little room at the top, and most companies are simply looking for a share of the market. Apple and Samsung have occupied the top two spots for some time, with HTC, LG, Motorola, and others, far behind. But the new #3 emerged not from the usual suspects, but from a name many of us in the USA had not heard of until recently; and it is the manufacturer of the Mate 9. And comparing this new handset to the preceding Mate 8 (which we looked at this past August), it is a significant improvement in most respects.

With this phone Huawei has really come into their own with their signature phone design, and 2016 was a very good product year with the company’s smartphone offerings. The P9 handset launched early in 2016, offering not only solid specs and impressive industrial design, but a unique camera that was far more than a gimmick. Huawei’s partnership with Leica has resulted in a dual-camera system that operates differently than systems found on phones such as the iPhone 7 Plus, and the results are very impressive. The Mate 9 is an extension of that P9 design, adapted for their larger Mate smartphone series.

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Continue reading our review of the Huawei Mate 9!

ZTE Axon 7 Receives OTA Nougat Update

Subject: Mobile | February 8, 2017 - 07:26 PM |
Tagged: zte, axon 7, google, nougat, Android, android 7.0

Well that was quick. About two weeks ago, we reported on ZTE Mobile Deutschland’s Facebook post that said Android 7.0 would miss January, but arrive some time in Q1. For North America, that apparently means the second week of February, because my device was just notified, about an hour ago, that A2017UV1.1.0B15 was available for over-the-air update. It just finished installing.

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In my case, I needed to hold the on button a few times to get the phone to boot into the second stage of installation, but ZTE mentions it in the pre-install notes, so that’s good. Then, when the phone moved on to the new lock screen, my fingerprint reader didn’t work until after I typed in the lock screen password. I’m not sure why the phone didn’t accept the fingerprint reader until after I successfully logged in, especially since it used the fingerprints on file from Android 6.0, I didn’t need to set it up again, but it’s a small inconvenience. Just don’t perform the update if you can’t access your password manager and you don’t remember the unlock code off the top of your head.

While I don’t have a Daydream VR headset, I’ll probably pick one up soon and give it a test. The Daydream app is installed on the device, though, so you can finally enjoy Android-based VR content if you pick one up.

If your phone hasn’t alerted you yet, find your unlock password and check for updates in the settings app.

Source: ZTE

ZTE Axon 7 Nougat Update Needs More Time

Subject: Mobile | January 27, 2017 - 05:12 PM |
Tagged: zte, axon 7, nougat, Android

The German offices of ZTE Mobile have announced (via their Facebook page) that the Android 7.0 update will be coming later in this quarter, which would be before the end of March. In November, this branch announced that the update would be coming in January. This update is supposed to bring Daydream to the handset, as this was one of the big promises that ZTE made about the device before it launched. They are not confident with it in its current state, though.

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Our readers were asking about my opinion of the device, since I published a “Just Delivered” post about it four months ago. I said that I would wait until the Nougat release, which I was, at the time, expecting in October or November, because I had a feeling that ZTE envisioned the phone with that OS version. Since then, bugs have come and gone, most of which were relatively benign, like messing up whitespace in the lock screen’s current date. Personally, I started getting a bug where my camera would occasionally fail to focus, instead humming and blurring like it’s focusing in and out tens or hundreds of times per second until you close the app using the camera. (It started happening, off and on, just after the last service update, although it could just be a coincidental hardware issue with my unit. I’m waiting until I see it in Nougat to call customer support.)

Either way, it’s probably a good thing that ZTE is taking their time with this one. I’m guessing this update is when those who adopted the Axon 7 will begin to solidify judgments about the company as a higher-end phone vendor going forward.

Cyanogen Shuts Down

Subject: Mobile | December 26, 2016 - 02:39 PM |
Tagged: cyanogen, Android

Seemingly out of nowhere, Cyanogen, an alternative distribution of Android, begun laying off its employees last month, shutting down their Seattle office with the option to relocate to Palo Alto. At the same time, the founder, Steve Kondik, left the company. Then, on the last business day before Christmas Eve, they announced that “all services and Cyanogen-supported nightly builds will be discontinued no later than 12/31/16”.

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At this point, I don’t really know what’s left of the company, which makes me wonder, if anyone did relocate from Washington State to California, whether they will still have a job there. The project will continue on as an independent, open-source operating system, called Lineage OS. As far as I can tell, the company doesn’t actually do anything else, so I can’t really see what they would restructure into. I'm guessing it's just done.

Source: Cyanogen

A different sort of Flash, Alcatel's rebranded OneTouch phablet

Subject: Mobile | December 15, 2016 - 01:38 PM |
Tagged: alcatel, flash plus 2, smartphone, phablet, Android, marshmallow

We don't see many Alcatel phones, so why not take a peek at their newest model, the Flash 2 Plus.  At 5.5" it is big enough to be in that strange breed called phablets, with a 1080p screen it is perhaps not the most impressive example of its species.  Inside you will find the     MediaTek Helio P10 SoC, with an eight core ARM big.LITTLE consisting of four Cortex-A53 @ 1.8GHz and four more Cortex-A53 at 1GHz, an ARM Mali-T860 MP2 GPU and either 2GB or 3GB of LP-DDR3 depending on the model you chose.  It is certainly not the top performing phablet on the market, but it is also not the most expensive, about $140 Euros or in the neighbourhood of $200US if you find it over here.  You can read more about it at TechARP.

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"Love the original Flash 2 smartphone? The Flash Plus 2 offers even more value for money with a renewed focus on delivering mobigraphy – the ultimate mobile photographic experience. Let’s take a look!"

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Source: TechARP

Tesla stores your Owner Authentication token in plain text ... which leads to a bad Ashton Kutcher movie

Subject: General Tech | November 25, 2016 - 12:52 PM |
Tagged: Android, Malware, hack, tesla, security

You might expect better from Tesla and Elon Musk but apparently you would be dissappointed as the OAuth token in your cars mobile app is stored in plain text.  The token is used to control your Tesla and is generated when you enter in your username and password.  It is good for 90 days, after which it requires you to log in again so a new token can be created.  Unfortunately, since that token is stored as plain text, someone who gains access to your Android phone can use that token to open your cars doors, start the engine and drive away.  Getting an Android user to install a malicious app which would allow someone to take over their device has proven depressingly easy.  Comments on Slashdot suggest it is unreasonable to blame Tesla for security issues in your devices OS, which is hard to argue; on the other hand it is impossible for Telsa to defend choosing to store your OAuth in plain text.

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"By leveraging security flaws in the Tesla Android app, an attacker can steal Tesla cars. The only hard part is tricking Tesla owners into installing an Android app on their phones, which isn't that difficult according to a demo video from Norwegian firm Promon. This malicious app can use many of the freely available Android rooting exploits to take over the user's phone, steal the OAuth token from the Tesla app and the user's login credentials."

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Source: Slashdot

Nexus has been Pixel-ated by Motorola ... Google it!

Subject: Mobile | October 20, 2016 - 05:45 PM |
Tagged: pixel, pixel xl, google, Android, Snapdragon 821, nougat

Ah, the tech industry; blink and suddenly familiar things disappear and yet you are also simultaneously overcome with a sense of deja vu.  Former Motorola President Rick Osterloh now heads a team at Google which is the combination of Nexus, Pixel Chromebooks, Chromecast, OnHub, ATAP, and Google Glass and this team have just released two new Google phones.  The 5" 1920x1080 Pixel and the 5.5" 2560x1440 Pixel XL have arrived on the market, priced to compete with Apple's new lineup, though still far less expensive than the Chromebooks which bore the same name up until recently.  The phones run Android 7.1 Nougat on a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 and are manufactured by HTC.  Ars Technica considers them to now be the best Android phones on the market and yet somehow bland; read their full review to see if you agree.

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"Welcome to the age of Google Hardware. Apparently tired of letting third-party Android OEMs serve as the stewards of Android handsets, Google has become a hardware company. (Again)."

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Source: Ars Technica

Not everyone will be allowed to make fruit preserves; an interview with Blackberry

Subject: General Tech | October 6, 2016 - 12:36 PM |
Tagged: blackberry, Android, licensing

The Register sat down with Alex Thurber, a BlackBerry senior VP, to discuss the companies plans to license their particular flavour of Android to other phone manufacturers. Thurbur has worked at Cisco, McAfee after Intel's purchase of the company as well as a firewall company called WatchGuard so he has had some experience with locking down kit.  We will still see two more BlackBerry devices before they finally stop selling hardware but you should expect to see other brands running Blackberry licensed versions of Android soon.  They will have NIAP (National Information Assurance Partnership) certification, the same certification that Samsung's KNOX and LG's GATE qualify for.  Drop by for deeper look into what they discussed.

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"BlackBerry says it won’t license its brand and security hardened Android “to any Tom Dick and Harry” as it tries to maintain the value of its brand."

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Source: The Register