Posts tagged iPhone

Blur Wars: Google’s Camera App vs. The iPhone 5S And A Real Camera

You know when a photo has that fuzzy background thing going on and the subject is sharp while the rest looks all dreamy? That technique, usually achieved by setting a camera’s controls to a wide aperture—the smaller the f-stop number, the bigger the aperture—remains one of the easiest shortcuts to a photo that makes people go ooh.

Not one to stand by tradition, Google just released a camera app for Android that does exactly the same thing—except you can adjust the focus and that dreamy blur effect after you take the picture.


Can Free Software Mimic Expensive Hardware? 

The feature is called “Lens Blur,” and it’s built into the new Google Camera app, available in the Play store for Android. Android’s impressive in-house photo software (though not always superior optics) have been more robust than those in iOS for a while, likely thanks to Google’s 2012 acquisition of the excellent photo app Snapseed.

Lens Blur pulls off a qualitatively similar trick to the one that earned the Lytro light field camera so much buzz when it debuted. (Now Lytro is back with an even crazier light field camera, the $1599 Illum, available for pre-order now.) Lytro builds dedicated hardware that allows focus and depth of field to be adjusted after the fact, by letting a camera take in more data (the “light field” idea, detailed at thesis length here).

Unlike the custom Lytro hardware, Android’s new camera app Lens Blur feature pulls it all off through depth mapping, which renders the results less than optimal if you treat it like a 2D Instagram pic. More from Google’s Research Blog on the brains behind the blur:

Lens Blur replaces the need for a large optical system with algorithms that simulate a larger lens and aperture. Instead of capturing a single photo, you move the camera in an upward sweep to capture a whole series of frames. From these photos, Lens Blur uses computer vision algorithms to create a 3D model of the world, estimating the depth (distance) to every point in the scene.

Here’s an example — on the left is a raw input photo, in the middle is a “depth map” where darker things are close and lighter things are far away, and on the right is the result blurred by distance:

Playing Around With Lens Blur

For the sake of comparison, we took a few comparison shots using the new Google Camera app, an iPhone 5S and a Sony RX100 II. The comparison isn’t about image quality, which of course differs wildly between very dissimilar shooters.

Instead we’re looking at how (and if) a few different categories of device pull off that dreamy shallow depth of field effect—the blurred points known as “bokeh” in this style of shot. As any photographer knows, not all bokeh are created equal—the quality of the effect varies quite a lot among devices and lenses. Most of all, we just wanted to see what makes Google’s new trick tick.

The shots below are both taken with a Nexus 4 using Lens Blur. Note how things get a little dicey when the depth isn’t as simple as single foreground object vs. distant background. 

Lens Blur vs. Other Cameras

iPhone 5S

iPhone 5S

Sony RX100 II

Sony RX100 II

Lens Blur on Google's Camera App

Lens Blur on Google's Camera App

While the iPhone 5S’s f/2.2 lens didn’t feel like doing much in the way of blur, the Sony RX100 II humored our test at f/1.8 in aperture priority mode. Google’s Lens Blur did a nice enough job blurring the background, but it didn’t like the angled depth of that tiny jaguar much.

iPhone 5S

iPhone 5S

Sony RX100 II

Sony RX100 II

Lens Blur on Google's Camera App

Lens Blur on Google's Camera App

Again, the iPhone 5S didn’t really give us a shallow depth of field—super close macro shots are where it really shows off—but Lens Blur did a pretty nice job here.

iPhone 5S

iPhone 5S

Sony RX100 II

Sony RX100 II

Lens Blur on Google's Camera App

Lens Blur on Google's Camera App

Lens Blur did not like the concave depth of this little bowl. Its effect is obviously the most successful when the depth mapping is a little less mind-bending. 

All told, Google’s new camera app is pretty cool, taking the selective focus feature so readily abused by Instagram users and ramping it up a few notches. It doesn’t work for every kind of shot—but when it does, it’s awfully dreamy, isn’t it?

Header image by Cee Webster; sample images by Taylor Hatmaker for ReadWrite

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SearchCap: Google SEO Myths & Yahoo Default Search On iPhone

Below is what happened in search today, as reported on Search Engine Land and from other places across the web. From Search Engine Land: Why Yahoo’s Not Going To Steal The Search Default For iPhone Away From Google Apparently, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer wants to be the default search for…

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Why Yahoo’s Not Going To Steal The Search Default For iPhone Away From Google

Apparently Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer wants to be the default search for Apple’s Safari browser on iPhone and iPad and has been preparing to make a solid pitch. Well, we all want things we can’t have, and I’d be incredibly surprised if Yahoo got its wish here. Kara Swisher over at…

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The 8 GB iPhone 5C Is Still Not The Budget iPhone You Are Looking For

Apple knows that the battle is on for control of smartphones in emerging markets. Apple also knows that its current price structure is not conducive to winning that battle. So today, Apple quietly released a new model of the iPhone 5C with 8 gigabytes of internal storage, according to reports.

Apple is also pushing prices down on its tablets, bringing back the fourth-generation iPad with 16 GB of internal storage for $399. The fourth-generation iPad will replace the iPad 2 as Apple’s lowest price 9.7-inch tablet.

The 8 GB iPhone 5C is as of right now only available through Apple’s European websites and carriers like O2, according to 9to5Mac. The price is currently listed on Apple’s United Kingdom website as £429 ($712) while O2 lists the 8GB iPhone 5C as £409 ($678) without a contract. Both of those prices are more than a consumer would pay in the United States for a 16 GB iPhone 5C, which retails for $550 off-contract with the 16 GB iPhone 5S selling for $650.

Considering those prices, Apple may be responding more to consumer preference for iPhones with less storage than any particular need to lower prices to compete in emerging markets like India, Southeast Asia, Middle East or China. Apple’s strategy in emerging markets has long been to push older models of iPhones, such as the iPhone 4, which is available is widely available in India. 

As for the fourth-generation iPad, Apple discontinued it when it released the iPad Air in the fall of 2013 while continuing to push the iPad 2 as its most affordable option. The iPad 2 was the only iOS product that Apple still sold in the U.S. that had the old 30-pin connector that was replaced with Lightning charger when the iPhone 5 was released. At $399, the fourth-generation iPad now matches the price of the iPad Mini with Retina Display.

Price: The Point Of Contention

Nobody really doubts that Apple makes high-quality smartphones and tablets. The iPhone is well reviewed every year and is always competitive with other top smartphones from rivals like HTC, Motorola, LG and Nokia. What consumers and investors around the world wring their hands about when it comes to Apple is price.

Apple loves its margins and does not believe it needs to play in the commodity smartphone business to remain a highly profitable and successful company. The iPhone 5C is “unapologetically plastic” as Apple’s lead designer Sir Jony Ive said when it was released. It is also unapologetically $550 and more. That is $200 more than what Google sells the Nexus 5 for and well above the $179 starting price for quality but budget-level devices like the Moto G from Motorola. The brand new Nokia X starts at €79 ($109) and is shipping across the globe (but not the United States). These are quality new smartphones designed specifically to sell in high-growth markets. Apple does not have a new smartphone that can compete with these entries on price and the new 8 GB iPhone 5C does not appear to be the answer.

The iPhone 5C has not been a hit for Apple. It was marked as too expensive and not feature-rich enough to justify its price vis-a-vis the iPhone 5S, which starts at $650 off-contract. In its last quarterly earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook admitted that the company was surprised on the sales ratio between the iPhone 5C and the iPhone 5S which led to an overstock of the cheaper version and a shortage of the more expensive. Apple can push further down market with less storage in the iPhone 5C, but without drastically coming down in price, it will continue to struggle to meet the volume of its rivals which have all focused in 2014 on budget smartphones in emerging markets.

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Bing Updates iPhone App With New Search Widget, Bookmarks Manager & Shake Feature

Within a week of releasing three new Windows phone apps, Bing announced a series of updates for its iPhone app, including a search widget to help with navigation, new image tiles, and a shake feature to see what stories are trending. According to the announcement, the new Bing iPhone app search…

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Apple Deletes Blockchain, The Last Remaining Bitcoin Wallet For iPhone

Apple agitated Bitcoin devotees late Wednesday after it deleted Blockchain, the last remaining Bitcoin wallet for iPhone, from its iOS App Store. 

According to Blockchain CEO Nicolas Cary, the app was dropped with little to no explanation from Apple. Cary told Wired he received an email stating Blockchain was “removed from the App Store due to an unresolved issue.” 

The Blockchain app, which was used by 120,000 global iPhone users that wanted to buy and sell Bitcoin over their phones, perhaps owed some of its popularity to the fact that it was the only remaining Bitcoin wallet allowed in the App Store. BitPak was dropped back in 2012 with a similar non-explanation from Apple. And this November, Apple ditched Coinbase, too. 

Bitcoin believers are taking the Blockchain news as evidence of Apple’s dislike of competition. CEO Tim Cook recently hinted that Apple was developing a new mobile payment system that could come out as soon as alongside the iPhone 6. For this reason, Apple might see Bitcoin as competition.

Or, as Blockchain put it in its response to Apple

These actions by Apple once again demonstrate the anti-competitive and capricious nature of the App Store policies that are clearly focused on preserving Apple’s monopoly on payments rather than based on any consideration of the needs and desires of their users.

According to Jerry Brito, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and director of its Technology Policy Program, it’s probably less about developing a monopoly and more about Apple’s historic aversion to risk with regards to apps in its App Store: 

I think they see the curation of the App Store as a value they add, and they tend to reject anything that’s remotely risky and that they think could make for a bad user experience. Remember when they got in trouble for rejecting Mark Fiore’s political cartoon app? I don’t think it has to do with Apple trying to eliminate competitors to its rumored forthcoming payments technology, but because they are not completely transparent about their decision making, you can’t blame people for thinking that’s the case.

Meanwhile, the Bitcoin community isn’t waiting for an explanation. Members of r/bitcoin are recording videos of themselves smashing their iPhones in hopes to replace them with a more Bitcoin-friendly Nexus 5. 

I reached out to Apple for comment on Wednesday. This story will be updated if the company has anything to add.

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Apple Earnings: The iPhone Suddenly Looks Mortal

At Apple, revenue is up, but profit is not; meanwhile, iPhone sales in the October-December quarter fell short of analyst expectations by four million units. Both setbacks could turn out to be temporary, but they certainly suggest that the job of being Apple is getting harder as competition and the cost of missteps—such as the less-than-buoyant iPhone 5C—take their toll.

Last October, Apple predicted its revenue to grow to between $55 and $58 billion, thanks to a new lineup of iDevices and the lucrative holiday season. The company landed squarely within its own estimates for its fiscal first quarter, which ended on December 31, bringing in $57.6 billion in revenues and a quarterly profit of $13.1 billion. In the same quarter a year ago, Apple’s revenues totaled $54.5 billion, yielding a quarterly profit of … $13.1 billion.

Where did that extra $3.1 billion in revenue go? A lot of it, apparently, got paid straight back to Apple’s component suppliers and manufacturing partners. The company’s cost of sales jumped by $2.3 billion over that period, leaving just under $800 million in additional gross profit (which Apple calls “gross margin) to fund increases in R&D and sales expenses and a shortfall in investment income.

Product, Product, Product

Sales of iPhone and iPad sales rose in the quarter, while sales of the iPod and the Mac have slowed. In the December quarter, Apple sold 51 million iPhones (across all models), up from 47.8 million in Q1 2013. The company moved 26 million iPads, up from 22.9 million in the same quarter last year. Mac sales are down to 4.1 million this quarter, from 5.2 in Q1 2013. Sales of the iPod are at 12.7 versus 15.4 million one year ago.

One interesting tidbit: Despite the fact that iPhone sales hit a record in the quarter, growth has cooled considerably. Unit sales of the phone rose just 6.7% over a year earlier. A year ago, by contrast, iPhone sales growth was 28% compared to the same quarter in 2011.

Looking Abroad

International sales accounted for 63% of Apple’s revenue in the quarter, up from 60% a year earlier. With smartphone and tablet saturation looming large in western markets, Apple turned toward securing major telecom deals in Asia to expand its footprint. Apple is counting on those new partnerships in the coming quarter:

China Mobile could hand Apple 700 million subscribers. That’s seven times more mobile customers than subscribe to Verizon, the largest mobile provider in the U.S. Beyond that, Apple just struck a deal with Japan’s NTT Docomo, Japan’s largest carrier, netting itself another pool of 60 million potential iPhone owners.

On the call, Cook noted that Apple has been selling the iPhone with China Mobile for only one week, and that last week set a record for iPhone activations in the country, where the iPhone is still only available in a handful of cities. He also cited the dollar’s multi-month low against the yen as a complication to sales in its new Japanese market.

Oh See, The 5C

In response to a question about its iPhone 5C model, Cook explained that Apple overestimated demand for the plastic iPhone in North American markets. Of course, we don’t have any solid numbers on sales of that device, but it’s obvious that Apple is disappointed with the 5C’s performance. Cook admitted that “the 5S got a significant amount more attention and a higher mix of sales” compared to what the company anticipated, and it sounds like the company is still trying to figure out what that means.

Last year was a relatively rocky one for Apple, which still makes it wildly successful when measured against anything other than the company’s own past success. And there are still shoes to drop.

Apple’s July-September quarter, for instance, only included 10 days of sales iPhone 5S and 5C sales—certainly not enough to properly judge the product launch’s relative success or failure. This October-December quarter may not be much of a harbinger either, as the company and its shareholders are eagerly awaiting a payoff from Apple’s expansion into Asian markets—a critical play that might be complicated by poor sales of its “entry-level” iPhone 5C elsewhere in the world.

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Apple’s iPhone To Reach China’s Biggest Carrier In 2014

Apple is bringing the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C to the largest cellular operator in China early next year.

Apple and China Mobile announced a partnership this weekend that brings Apple’s two newest smartphones to China’s largest network. The iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C will be available for pre-order starting on December 25th. Apple’s two flagship smartphones will hit China Mobile and Apple retail stores in the country on January 17, 2014. 

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Google Glass XE12: MyGlass For The IPhone And Official Support For That Wink Hack

For Google Glass owners, the holidays just came early. Google just released the update notes for December’s monthly build, XE12, and it’s a doozy. Not only will XE12 introduce that cool wink hack we saw months ago as an actual feature, but it brings the release of MyGlass for the iPhone at long last.

MyGlass: The Missing iOS App Is Found

Just days ago we were bemoaning the sorry state of Google Glass for iPhone users, a lo, the iOS MyGlass app is (almost) here at long last. Not one to hoard software in its own ecosystem, Google historically provides a nearly equal experience for its apps between its own Android operating system and Apple’s iOS. Given that precedent, we knew a Google Glass app was on the way for iOS—we just didn’t know when.

The barriers to parity between MyGlass on Android and iOS are many, but the new iPhone app will add support for one major feature conspicuously absent for iPhone users: turn by turn directions. From the release notes:

MyGlass for iOS is ready. MyGlass has almost all of the features of the Android app, but designed especially for Apple mobile devices. Set up Glass, get turn-by-turn directions, add new contacts, and turn on Glassware. 

While that’s excellent news for Glass Explorers who aren’t keen to cross over to an Android smartphone, it still won’t quite bring the two apps in line. Unfortunately, the XE12 notes make no mention of support for iMessages. That means without a workaround (we’d suggest rigging something up in IFTTT), iPhone users won’t be able to receive texts on Glass—a handy feature that’s supported by Android’s version of MyGlass. MyGlass for iOS will finally let Glass wearers toggle apps on and off from the iPhone, but unlike MyGlass for Android, it doesn’t appear to support screencasting. Bummer.

Lots Of New Updates

Screen lock in XE12

Screen lock in XE12

Beyond the big news of MyGlass for the iPhone, XE12 has plenty else going on. Building out Google Play on Glass a bit more, XE12 will add support for playlists and more options for tuning into artist radio stations. For Glass users concerned with security, XE12 adds a screen locking feature that looks to employ a programmable pattern, like Android. XE12 also introduces Glass apps for Hangouts and YouTube.

The Hangouts app lets Glass wearers send and receive chat messages, photos and calls with any of their Google Hangouts contacts. The much-requested YouTube glassware means that videos can be uploaded from Glass right to YouTube—a perfect pairing, considering the experiential nature of most Glass videos. 

Perhaps even more surprising than the MyGlass iPhone app, XE12 builds the “hidden” wink detection feature right into the official software, letting Glass photogs snap a photo with a literal wink. Google claims that winking to take a picture is faster than both the camera button and the voice command method. As a note, wink will only work for the newer version of Glass, so early explorers will need to swap in to put it to use.

For the icing on the cake, Google has added a few voice commands and finally, finally done away with the “Sent Through Glass” signature that gets stamped on the end of every outgoing text message. That one made us look like a Glasshole every time. 

As always, you can find the full release notes for XE12 on Google’s Glass developer portal. And keep an eye out for the MyGlass app in the iOS App Store “later this week.”

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