Technology News | Time

‘We Have to Stay Vigilant.’ Sundar Pichai on Alphabet’s Role in Fighting Misinformation and Safeguarding Elections

With less than six weeks to go until the U.S. Presidential election, Alphabet CEO and 2020 TIME100 honoree Sundar Pichai has reiterated his company’s commitment to fighting online misinformation on its platforms, particularly YouTube.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Pichai told TIME Editor-at-Large and former Editor-in-Chief Nancy Gibbs in a wide-ranging TIME100 Talks interview that aired Sept. 23. “Misinformation can be dangerous. Online platforms can play a role in amplifying it. So the work we have done to understand what is either misinformation or low-quality content and make sure that doesn’t get recommended and shared has been the thrust of our efforts there.”

Following the 2016 election, both Alphabet (parent company to both YouTube and Google) and competitor Facebook came under fire for allowing a tide of fake news and misinformation related to the election to propagate on their platforms. Four years later, some are worried that a similar dynamic, exacerbated by continuing disinformation campaigns from outside the U.S., could impact the outcome of the upcoming election.

“There’s a lot more awareness, I think, so the scale of our efforts are significantly larger,” Pichai said, explaining that the company has more than 30 teams working on the issue, and that the internet giant has been in consultation with the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies. “We are all putting in a lot of effort, but we have to stay vigilant because the stakes are high in a democracy through an election cycle.”

“It’s where most of our effort is going into, particularly on YouTube,” Pichai said. “In fact, that’s been the single-highest focus for the team for the past three years now.”

Pichai noted that there is a certain amount of complexity surrounding the issue of misinformation from the perspective of an internet platform.

“The difficulty comes when there are areas which are nuanced and people don’t agree on the balance between free speech and what is the wrong kind of speech to propagate,” Pichai said. “That’s been hard at scale. That’s not an excuse. The amount we invest in these areas have significantly scaled up. I think we are making a lot of progress.”

However, the CEO stressed that his company understands the gravity of its role in maintaining the integrity of an election under high-stakes and historic conditions.

“Holding free and safe elections is as foundational to the functioning of a democracy as it gets,” Pichai said. “As an information company we view it as one of the most important responsibilities we have.”

Source: Tech – TIME | 24 Sep 2020 | 6:26 am

Trump Blesses Oracle’s TikTok Deal, Delaying Potential U.S. Ban

Donald Trump gave his blessing to Oracle Corp.’s bid for the American operations of TikTok, putting the popular video-sharing app on course to escape a U.S. ban imposed as part of his pressure campaign against China.

“I approved the deal in concept,” Trump told reporters Saturday as he left the White House for a campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “If they get it done, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s OK too.”

The new company, which will be called TikTok Global, has agreed to funnel $5 billion in new tax dollars to the U.S. and set up a new education fund, which Trump said would satisfy his demand that the government receive a payment from the deal. “They’re going to be setting up a very large fund,” he said. “That’s their contribution that I’ve been asking for.”

Oracle plans to take a 12.5% stake in the new TikTok Global, while Walmart Inc. said it has tentatively agreed to buy 7.5% of the entity. Walmart’s Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon will serve on TikTok Global’s board of directors, the retailer said in a statement. Four of the five board seats will be filled by Americans, according to the statement.

TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance Ltd. is seeking a valuation of $60 billion for the app, according to a person familiar with the matter. Oracle and Walmart would pay a combined $12 billion for their stakes if they agree to that asking price. The final valuation had not been set as the parties worked out the equity structure and measures for data security, the person said. Terms are still in flux and the proposed valuation could still change.

The TikTok deal was forced by a pair of bans Trump issued in August over concerns that ByteDance posed a national security risk, thrusting the video-sharing app into the center of the president’s confrontation with Beijing.

Shortly after Trump signaled his approval, the Commerce Department on Saturday delayed by a week a ban that would have forced Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to pull the TikTok video app from their U.S. app stores on Sunday.

Trump is ramping up pressure on Chinese-owned apps in the weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential elections, citing national security concerns about the data U.S. citizens provide to them and the potential for Beijing to use them for spying. The president is trailing his opponent Joe Biden in polls and has sought to portray himself as tougher on Beijing than the Democrat.

TikTok said in a statement that it was “pleased that the proposal by TikTok, Oracle, and Walmart will resolve the security concerns of the U.S. administration and settle questions around TikTok’s future in the U.S.”

The company confirmed Oracle will host all its U.S. data and secure its computer systems. Oracle’s Generation 2 Cloud fully isolates running applications and responds to security threats autonomously, according to the statement, which eliminates the risk of foreign governments spying on American users or trying to influence them with disinformation.

“Oracle will quickly deploy, rapidly scale, and operate TikTok systems in the Oracle Cloud,” said Oracle CEO Safra Catz in a statement. “We are a 100% confident in our ability to deliver a highly secure environment to TikTok and ensure data privacy to TikTok’s American users.”

Oracle will get full access to review TikTok’s source code and updates to make sure there are no back doors used by the company’s Chinese parent to gather data or to spy on the video-sharing app’s 100 million American users, according to people familiar with the matter.

TikTok Global, together with Oracle, SIG, General Atlantic, Sequoia, Walmart and Coatue will create an educational initiative to develop and deliver an online video curriculum driven by artificial intelligence, according to the statement.

TikTok said it’s working with Walmart on a commercial partnership and said that it will take part in a TikTok Global financing round along with Oracle before an initial public offering in which the investors can take as much as a 20% cumulative stake in the company.

TikTok Global will likely be headquartered in Texas and will hire “at least” 25,000 people, Trump said. TikTok will need to hire thousands of content moderators, engineers, and marketing staff that were previously located in China and around the world. The company will also pay more than $5 billion in new tax dollars to the Treasury, according to the statement.

To sweeten the deal for Trump, TikTok promised to hire an additional 15,000 jobs, more than the 10,000 positions the company already pledged to fill earlier this year. It’s unclear if there’s a timeline to achieve that target, or guarantees that it will follow through. Facebook Inc., the largest U.S. social media company, employed about 45,000 people in 2019, while Twitter Inc. employed only 4,900, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Proponents of the deal told the Trump administration that the new company would be controlled by American investors by counting the passive stakes of existing shareholders in TikTok’s Chinese parent, people familiar with the matter said. Although ByteDance will have an 80% stake in the new company, existing U.S. investors hold a 40% stake in ByteDance. That tallies up to 53% ownership by U.S. companies and investors — although that doesn’t entail majority control or voter rights, the people said.

TikTok Global, which will be an independent company, will hold an initial public offering in less than 12 months and the stock will be listed on a U.S. exchange, according to the statement. After going public, U.S. ownership of TikTok Global will increase and continue to grow over time, it added.

While the Chinese government must now sign off on the transaction for it to go forward, as of earlier this week, ByteDance was growing increasingly confident that the proposal would pass muster with Chinese regulators, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg.

Early reaction from Chinese state media appeared positive. “This scheme is still unfair, but it avoids the worst result, that TikTok is shut down or sold to a U.S. company completely,” wrote Hu Xijin, the influential editor in chief of China’s state-owned Global Times.

Under the terms of the agreement reached early in the week, ByteDance would retain a majority of TikTok’s assets and control over the algorithm, with Oracle and other U.S. investors taking minority stakes.

Larry Ellison, co-founder and executive chairman of Oracle Corp., speaks during the Oracle OpenWorld 2018 conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. Ellison announced a series of updates injecting more automation and intelligence into Oracle’s data cloud applications.

Trump seemed to contradict that on Saturday. “It will have nothing to do with China, it’ll be totally secure, that’ll be part of the deal,” he said. “All of the control is Walmart and Oracle, two great American companies.”

Trump spoke with Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison and Walmart’s McMillon on Friday, telling them he still expected the U.S. government to receive a cash payment as part of the transaction, according to people familiar with the matter. They agreed to the educational donation as a way to satisfy Trump’s demand, one of the people said. ByteDance first heard about the $5 billion education fund from news reports, a company spokeswoman said.

The deal came together last weekend, the result of high-level negotiations between ByteDance, Oracle and top Trump administration officials after ByteDance rejected a bid from Microsoft Corp. and Walmart to buy the U.S. TikTok service outright.

Beijing has signaled it would greenlight a deal as long as ByteDance doesn’t have to transfer the artificial intelligence algorithms that drive TikTok’s service, Bloomberg has reported.

The Treasury Department said the deal is subject to a security agreement that requires approval by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or Cfius. The term sheet that’s been negotiated between Cfius and the companies will now have to be formalized in a document that details the mechanics for implementing the terms of the deal.

That document would likely include requirements related to the establishment of the new company, arrangements governing its relationship with ByteDance, whether an IPO is part of the deal, whether ByteDance will have to divest its entire stake in the IPO and what would happen if for some reason the IPO doesn’t occur, said Aimen Mir, a lawyer at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and a former deputy assistant secretary for investment security at Treasury.

In a video posted on TikTok with the caption #WeAreTikTok and we are here to stay, interim head of TikTok Vanessa Pappas thanked users for “sticking by us,” she said. “We’re here for the long run.” In the comments below, users said they were happy that the ongoing drama around the ban would subside. “This on and off situation is working on my nerves,” said @iamdavante, who has 4.1 million followers on the video app.

—With assistance from David McLaughlin, Nick Wadhams and Saleha Mohsin.

Source: Tech – TIME | 21 Sep 2020 | 2:22 am

Can Celebrity Activism Campaigns on Social Media Actually Make a Difference? Here’s What an Expert Thinks

The world of social media was a little quieter than usual on Wednesday: Celebrities ranging from Kim Kardashian West to Mark Ruffalo “froze” their Instagram accounts for 24 hours, to protest hate speech and misinformation being spread on Facebook, Instagram’s parent company.

“I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation,” wrote Kardashian West, who has 188 million Instagram followers, in a tweet on Tuesday, before encouraging her fans to join her.

I love that I can connect directly with you through Instagram and Facebook, but I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation – created by groups to sow division and split America apart pic.twitter.com/XkxzABn7qw

— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) September 15, 2020

The day-long freeze, during which the celebrities ceased to share photos or posts on either platform, was organized by Stop Hate for Profit, a coalition of nine civil rights groups that are asking Facebook to make policy changes to address online harassment and conspiracy theories that spread place on the platform. By Wednesday night, according to Stop Hate for Profit, the Instagram freeze was seen by over 1 billion people. (A Facebook spokesperson told the New York Times on Tuesday that it had no comment about the situation.)

But while the boycott temporarily reshaped the Instagram feeds of the celebrities’ collective millions of followers, it was also met with criticism. The critiques paralleled similar concerns about two other major social-media activism campaigns in recent months: #BlackoutTuesday, for which Instagram users posted black squares to show support for Black Lives Matter, and #ChallengeAccepted, a campaign that involved users posting black-and-white selfies in a declaration of women’s empowerment.

For all three, a central question dogged the hashtags: what could short-term social-media action actually do to create long-term change?

In fact, argues Tia C.M. Tyree, professor and interim Associate Dean of Howard University’s Cathy Hughes School of Communications, social media-activism can have a “major impact”—if it’s done right.

“Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement, people are taking to social media to voice their opinions and really call attention to some of the issues that have been problematic in U.S. society in past years and now,” Tyree says. “They’re able to get exposure in a different light because social media is so prevalent and pervasive in today’s world.”

According to Tyree, however, that power can only be realized if the campaign also exists offline. Despite the criticism, she thinks Stop Hate for Profit has the potential to be a good example of how an online campaign can go beyond a symbolic gesture. The Instagram freeze is part of a week of action organized by the coalition, which includes clear objectives like educating people about election disinformation and asking people to register to vote.

“These campaigns give everyday people a chance to do something larger than themselves, but there has to be online and offline goals and objectives,” Tyree says. “To offer up the idea that we’re not going to utilize a platform for a day is not a goal—it’s a tactic that should be used as an overall part of a bigger campaign to evoke larger change.”

The backing of an campaign like Stop Hate for Profit is not in fact necessary to make an impact, Tyree says, but it helps to have an established set of goals and ideas to back up the posts. She points to the way the hashtag #MeToo went viral when used in a tweet by Alyssa Milano. While Milano’s tweet brought the phrase to the mainstream, the movement gained momentum because the phrase’s creator Tarana Burke had long been doing the work of empowering sexual abuse and harassment survivors.

Ultimately, however, while social media can raise money and awareness, it’s only one part of a larger puzzle—one that won’t be solved by any single campaign. Tyree stresses that while the 24-hour Instagram freeze was created to draw awareness to the hate speech and misinformation on Facebook, the bigger issue that needs to be addressed is the existence of the hate itself and the realities of the world that produced it.

“Social media is a reflection of society,” she says. “We also have to put the mirror to ourselves and understand that this is really a reflection of who we are as a society.”

Source: Tech – TIME | 18 Sep 2020 | 8:44 am

The 6 Most Interesting Things Apple Just Announced

Apple on Tuesday unveiled two new Apple Watches, a fitness subscription service, updates to its iPad lineup and more. It was the second pandemic-era virtual event for the company, and executives made multiple references to the outbreak and the need to stay healthy in “these difficult times,” as CEO Tim Cook put it.

Here’s a look at the six most interesting things Apple announced.

The Apple Watch Series 6

Apple Inc.

The $399 Apple Watch Series 6 improves on what’s already the best smartwatch around, including a feature that can potentially help people detect illnesses like influenza (or COVID-19) earlier.

That capability is powered by the Series 6’s new blood oxygen sensor, which uses a series of photodiodes and infrared LEDs to measure your oxygen saturation—the amount of oxygen in your blood cells—as you breathe. Apple is also teaming up with two research organizations to study how blood oxygen levels can be used to predict or help manage certain heart conditions.

Other external changes for the Series 6 include new blue and red offerings, an always-on altimeter that detects changes in altitude and barometric pressure, and an improved display that’s more than twice as bright as that of the Series 5.

The Apple Watch Series 6 also features a new S6 processor and the company’s U1 ultra wideband chip. Together, they make the Series 6 faster and enable new upcoming features, including an option to use the Apple Watch to unlock certain models of cars.

Still, with no change in the company’s claimed “18-hour battery life,” using the Series 6 for more than a day without charging remains an elusive desire.

Buy now: The Apple Watch Series 6

The Apple Watch SE

While the Apple Watch Series 6 is the company’s new flagship wearable, Apple also introduced a cheaper Apple Watch SE. The $279 SE lacks the blood oxygen sensor in the Series 6, and uses the last generation’s S5 processor, but features the same sensors—like the always-on altimeter—and the same improved display as the Series 6.

Apple is also continuing to sell the Apple Watch Series 3 for $199, giving consumers a pretty healthy lineup of price points for jumping into wearables.

Buy now: The Apple Watch SE

Fitness+, a workout streaming service

A more surprising announcement: Apple Fitness+, a workout streaming service designed to be used with the Apple Watch.

Fitness+ will feature high-quality workout videos like those you might find from companies like Peloton. Fitness metrics will be displayed and highlighted on screen during workouts when a trainer calls them out, and you’ll see a summary of your session at the end. There are 10 workout options to choose from, including yoga, cycling, strength, and rowing. It’s machine-agnostic, meaning you don’t need any particular equipment—aside from the Apple Watch.

Apple plans to add a new set of videos each week, all varying in terms of intensity, time, and exercise type. Each session includes a workout playlist you can import into Apple Music. Fitness+ starts at $9.99 per month or $79.99 per year. It will also be included in Apple’s new Apple One plan.

Apple One

When you count them up, Apple already offers five services to paying subscribers, not including the newest Apple Fitness+ service debuting later this year. Apple One is the company’s attempt at unifying them into one plan—a less confusing ordeal for anyone trying to manage all their subscriptions. (Apple One doesn’t include AppleCare, the company’s technical support service. It also excludes the $25-per-year iTunes Match service, which lets users upload their own songs into their iCloud music library, allowing them to listen to those songs on up to 10 devices.)

Apple One’s bundled services are available in three different packages. The Individual plan includes Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and 50GB of iCloud storage for $14.95 per month. The Family plan, which supports up to six family members, includes Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and 200GB of iCloud storage for $19.95 per month. The Premier plan, which also supports up to six family members, includes all of Apple’s services—Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, Apple News+, and Apple Fitness+ (when it launches)—along with 2TB of iCloud storage, and is available for $29.95 per month.

Compared to subscribing to each service individually, the Individual plan will save users $6 per month, while the Family and Premier plans will save subscribers $8 and $25 per month, respectively. While the trio of options is definitely great for those already using Apple services and looking to save a little cash, the inability to customize any of the plans is disappointing.

A faster entry-level iPad

The updated eighth-generation iPad doesn’t do much to change course from its predecessor. It retains the same looks, Lightning port, and lack of support for the newer Apple Pencil, but gains a faster A12 Bionic processor that makes it twice as quick in the graphics department. Available Friday, the iPad will retail for $329, but schools can buy them for $299.

Buy now: New Apple iPad (8th Generation)

Finally, a modern iPad Air

Apple showed off an updated iPad Air—with pretty familiar looks. Its design, nearly identical to the previous iPad Pro, ditches both the curved edges and Lightning port in favor of the much-desired USB-C port, along with support for the newest version of the Apple Pencil, as well as a smart connector on the back that works with the trackpad-equipped Magic Keyboard originally made for the iPad Pro. It’s available in five colors, including pastel-shaded pink, blue, and green.

Despite the lack of support for FaceID, there’s also an integrated TouchID sensor in the iPad Air’s power button, giving users a security measure while ditching the familiar home button.

The iPad Air also features Apple’s latest A14 Bionic processor. It brings improved performance that makes it 40% faster than the previous model. Despite its resemblance in both features and design to the iPad Pro, the new iPad Air will start at a comparatively reasonable $599, and launch next month.

Source: Tech – TIME | 16 Sep 2020 | 8:46 am

Sid Meier Is Here to Remind You That Life Is Full of Interesting Decisions

It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy time to have fun in the United States right now. COVID-19 has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, and will likely claim many more before the outbreak finally wanes. Wildfires in California and elsewhere in the west are burning out of control, destroying entire towns and leaving cities like San Francisco enshrouded in a terrifying deep orange fog, a preview of what life may be like as our climate deteriorates. Law enforcement continues to shoot and beat Black Americans, despite a greater national awareness of police brutality.

But, for those of us with the luxury to find the time to enjoy ourselves right now, it may be wise to try. Play brings well-documented psychological benefits, and any mental boost could help us better deal with all the trauma of this moment. But how? Many Americans have turned to video games as a safe means of pandemic-era escapism; gaming is up nearly 50% over the last few months, per Nielsen.

“A great way to find fun and escape is to play games,” says longtime games creator Sid Meier. “In fact, there are games about politics, firefighters, and even pandemics. Play the game and you may gain a better understanding of the situation. Stress often comes from fear of the unknown or incomplete knowledge. When life gives you lemons, play the lemonade stand game!”

He’s an authority on the subject, having created or helped to create some of gaming’s most iconic titles, from the much-beloved Civilization series (“Civ” for short) to Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon. Meier, who’s been making games since the early 1980s, is seen as a father of the industry, a beloved figure among many gamers but especially among people who make games.

Meier’s new book, Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games, takes readers through his career game-by-game, from his early days creating military flight simulators for platforms like the Atari through his more recent work on efforts like creating a version of Civ for mobile devices. The end result is a story that reminds readers that success is rarely a straight line but instead a squiggly course with plenty of blind turns and potholes along the way—a game in and of itself, as he sees it. “We are surrounded by decisions, and therefore games, in everything we do,” he writes.

Meier’s book is a delightful read for gamers of a certain age, as his career is a walk down memory lane for those of us who grew up loading games via MS-DOS command prompt. But it will be particularly enlightening for game creators, who will find plenty of wise counsel here—like stripping out whatever isn’t bringing players joy, a kind of Marie Kondo-ing for game design.

Another motif: the idea of creative restraint. After all, Meier and his teams were cramming games onto computers with all the space and processing power of today’s microwave ovens—in fact, your microwave probably has more RAM. Today’s PlayStation 4s and Xbox Ones are supercomputers in relative terms, creating an ever-present temptation for game designers to focus on graphics and performance rather than gameplay and fun. But in Meier’s view, the horsepower of modern consoles, gaming PCs and even smartphones has made gaming more accessible to a wider audience.

MicroProseA screenshot from the original Civilization, released in 1991.

“When we were making games like Civilization or Pirates, we were asking a lot of the player in terms of their imagination and being willing to suspend their disbelief and spend this time with the game,” he says. “It asks a lot of the player to believe that this square thing on the screen is a tank unit, or you’re sailing across the Caribbean, because we couldn’t represent those graphically very well. Now as the technology has evolved, we can add more of those pieces, so it becomes easier to believe, it becomes easier to suspend your disbelief, it becomes more realistic, your imagination doesn’t have to work quite as hard, and you can get engaged in the game more easily. That’s broadened the audience, the accessibility for games. It used to be only geeks and nerds playing games, now the whole word is playing games.”

I read Meier’s book and spoke with him after (finally!) finishing Red Dead Redemption II, a game that utterly blew me away in terms of storytelling, acting and sheer beauty, but which ends with a punch to the gut that I’m still emotionally recovering from even weeks later. The Last of Us II has likewise caught flack for being grim beyond the point of enjoyability. So I asked Meier, a guy who’s obsessed with fun: why do some of today’s games want to make me so sad?

“It’s part of the expansion of our audience, of our industry, of the kind of things that we can now do,” he says. “Back in the day, you went to games to get a certain kind of experience, and if you wanted a different experience, you would go to a movie or something like that. Now, people are spending more time playing games, so they’re looking for this variety of experience.”

Firaxis Games. A screenshot from Civilization VI, released in 2016.

Our conversation also came as the games industry is going through a come-to-Jesus moment on its darker elements, from developer overwork (“crunch time,” in the biz) to sexual harassment. What’s Meier, who has the longest possible view on the modern gaming industry, make of this reckoning?

“I can only speak for our company (Firaxis Games, owned by Take-Two Interactive) … but we’ve always tried to provide what we think is a family-oriented environment and care about our people beyond more than just the time they invest working at the office. But it is a passion-driven industry. We’re aware of the issues with crunch time, et cetera, and diversity, I think we’re all growing and learning in those regards as we become more aware.

“In terms of crunch time, it becomes a management issue. We’re sensitive to that, currently we’re giving our folks recovery days in terms of the pandemic and the issues that are going along with that, there are a lot of things we’re trying to do specifically for this time. I’d like to think specifically in terms of our company we’re sensitive to that, but I think you’re right in that it is an issue. I’m not sure it’s a new issue, in fact I think awareness has really grown about those issues, but perhaps the solutions haven’t kept up with that.”

Finally, now that I’m done with Red Dead, I’m looking for something new to play. Who better to ask for a game recommendation than Sid Meier?

Overland, that’s one that I’ve spent a lot of time with,” he says. “And the other one…you’re going down this river, it’s a kind of survival game, really atmospheric…Flame in the Flood.

Source: Tech – TIME | 12 Sep 2020 | 6:33 am

Microsoft’s Double-Screened Surface Duo Smartphone Is Exciting, But I’m Waiting for Next Year’s Model

Are two screens better than one? Microsoft seems to think so, as evidenced by its long-anticipated Surface Duo, a double-screened Android smartphone that closes and unfolds like a spiral notebook. The concept’s intriguing, but the Duo makes compromises compared to the latest high-end folding smartphones, like the recently launched Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2. So is it worth the relatively steep $1,300 price tag?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been craving the Surface Duo—or something like it—since Microsoft teased the concept over a decade prior with its two-screened Courier tablet. The idea, while revolutionary, was pretty straightforward: instead of a tablet with a single screen, just attach two identical touch screens together, letting you take notes on one side while browsing the web on the other, for example. This idea, conceived before the advent of foldable devices (of mixed quality) like the rebooted Motorola Razr, still has a certain appeal, and the Surface Duo brings that concept back with a vengeance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do a great job at much else.

The device itself is downright futuristic. The grey smartphone, covered in identical panes of glass on each side, feels like it belongs in a science-fiction movie. Its flat on all sides, save for its hinged “spine,” where the displays end with rounded edges. On its side are volume and power buttons, along with a thin fingerprint sensor embedded in one of the screen’s borders. Your thumb rests there naturally when you try to open the Duo, making it a seamless transition from off to on. Upon opening, you’re greeted with two huge 5.6-inch AMOLED screens with a pretty impressive 1800 x 1350 resolution (that’s better than 1080p). The AMOLED technology makes colors pop, while keeping the device as thin as a single-screened smartphone.

That hinge is cool, sturdy, and folds all the way around so you can use the Duo as a phone with a single screen. But if you’re looking for a single, seamless screen on which you can enjoy videos and games, look elsewhere. While the two screens are plenty fun to look at, turning them into a single display to watch some Netflix is an ultimately disappointing experience due to the thin yet ever-present gap between them. Apps and text isn’t split between the screens; both are treated as a single display, the gap a vertical sliver obscuring whatever lies beneath.

Size can be an issue here, too—don’t even think about squeezing it in your pants pocket. While shorter than a flagship phone like the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G, it’s much wider, making it a cumbersome addition to unaccommodating jeans. For days I kept it in my back pocket, only to freak out when I began sitting down, only to realize this expensive piece of tech was moments from getting crushed. Now it lives in my backpack—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, the form factor of the Surface Duo has a good chance at changing the way I interact with smartphones in the first place. The phone’s book-like design makes me less likely to tap on the screen or hit a button to wake it up and idly browse. You’ve gotta actually open it up to waste time. I’m more intentional when I open it, choosing to read a book more often than read some tweets.

Microsoft

That being said, the Surface Duo isn’t for everyone. It’s pretty fickle. Some last-minute software updates alleviated a number of issues and slowdowns, but it remained a pretty buggy experience overall. Taps sometimes failed to register, while flipping the Duo to use it in single-display mode often means double-tapping on the correct screen to reorient the device, as it occasionally moves the app in use to the unused display.

Photographers won’t find much to love here. The Duo’s 11-megapixel camera is abysmal, frankly, but can shoot portrait mode shots to varying degrees of effectiveness. There’s also support for recording 4K video at 60 frames per second, though with an unappealing desaturated, blueish tint.

Microsoft’s own first-party apps, like Office, work as expected. While using OneNote on both screens, one serves as a sketchpad while the other acts as a menu for accessing notebooks and recently viewed pages. To-Do allows you to see your list of tasks on one screen, while the other displays details for each that you can easily edit.

In fact, productivity is the Duo’s strong suit. The ability to have two different apps on each screen, create app pairs that launch in tandem, drag and drop text or images from one app to another, all result in a perfect device for getting stuff done.

Some other apps also take advantage of the Duo’s unique design. Amazon Kindle’s app, for instance, treats each display like the page of a book. That got me reading on a smartphone way more often; I usually go for an e-reader instead. But even in the Kindle app I ran into bugs that would force me to drag the app into full screen mode every time I opened the Duo, or ruin the two-page interface by spreading a single page across both screens, the hinge obscuring line after line. Few apps promise support for such a rare form factor, and there’s no guarantee developers will flock to dual-screened devices.

The Surface Duo runs a pretty modified version of Android 10, while Microsoft has promised to support upgrades up to Android 12. If you’re deep in Apple’s iOS ecosystem, relying on apps like FaceTime and Messages or services like iCloud, switching to a new platform could seem daunting. But if the majority of your services are available on both iOS and Android, you might find the Duo compelling enough to consider.

Should you get the Surface Duo? Probably not—at least not yet. Its buggy software, dearth of double-screen app support and underwhelming camera will only frustrate people trying to do anything besides write emails and take notes. Video lovers can find other smartphones that provide better viewing experiences for the same cost. Gamers will find its lack of graphical acumen disappointing. There’s no wireless charging, NFC support for mobile payments, or any form of dust or water resistance. It doesn’t even have a headphone jack.

But Microsoft’s Surface Duo is still one of the most exciting gadgets I’ve used in a while. It makes me wish for a future where devices like this—gadgets that push the envelope in terms of design and possibilities—become the norm. Like the iPad when it debuted, the Duo suggests a wealth of potential. How will developers use the extra real estate to try out new ideas and experiment with that flexibility? What new games might be possible on a dual-screen device? Yes, the Duo is half-baked, a trend when it comes to Microsoft’s more experimental endeavors—like the gorgeous but underwhelming Surface Pro X. But it’s one of the few gadgets I’ve used lately that’s left me genuinely excited for next year’s model.

Source: Tech – TIME | 11 Sep 2020 | 7:07 am

Miss the Movie Theater? 7 Easy Ways to Upgrade Your Home Theater Setup

While some new big-budget films, like Disney’s Mulan, are premiering on streaming services, others, like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, are attempting to lure consumers back to theaters despite the risk of indoor transmission of COVID-19.

Movie fans who don’t want to take chances with their health might be feeling a bit frustrated they can’t enjoy a flick in the theaters, complete with extra-buttery popcorn and shuffling past other people’s kneecaps to get to your seat.

But fret not! The latest and greatest in home theater tech can help you get pretty close to replicating the movie theater experience at home—and without sitting through 30 minutes of previews or dealing with a bunch of people talking or texting through the movie. Here’s how to give your living room a movie-watching upgrade:

Turn off motion smoothing for your own sanity

Motion interpolation—or motion smoothing—essentially creates extra frames between each frame of a movie in an attempt to simulate more frames per second, and thus a smoother image. That “smoother image” has the unintended effect of giving whatever you’re watching the look of a soap opera (which is why it’s often called the “soap opera effect”).

If you talk to anyone familiar with film or TVs, you’ve probably heard them decry the seemingly ubiquitous inclusion of motion smoothing as the default setting on new TVs. Listen to their advice: If you love film, or at the very least want to watch movies like you’re in a theater, turn off motion smoothing, for everyone’s sake.

Calibrate your TV screen

You might not think there’s anything wrong with your TV when enjoying your favorite sitcom, news broadcast, or animated flick. But you might not be seeing everything you should be, especially with darker shows or movies—remember the dimly lit scenes in Game of Thrones? If you want to get the most out of your TV’s ability to handle dark lighting, bright colors, and proper contrast, you’ll need to recalibrate it.

Calibration involves adjusting various picture settings on your TV and media player to view a film as intended. While it might sound intimidating, it isn’t that complicated, as long as you’ve got yourself the proper tools. In this case, to properly calibrate your setup for films, you’ll need the assistance of a “benchmark” test disc, used to adjust settings for a movie watching experience that takes into account your setup instead of relying on your TV’s default settings.

The most popular consumer benchmark test disc comes from video decoding experts Spears & Munsil, which makes both HD and Ultra test discs. Another option is Disney’s WOW (World of Wonder) Test Disc, available as a DVD or Blu-Ray disc.

Get a proper Blu-Ray player

If you’ve got a console like a PlayStation 4, you can play DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, but that’s where it stops. For 4K content, you’ll need an Ultra HD Blu-Ray player, and Ultra HD Blu-Ray discs (sorry, the Blu-Ray player you got when they were cool five years ago won’t be much use in a 4K future).

Players range anywhere from $200 to nearly a grand, but you can find a pretty inexpensive and capable contender in Microsoft’s Xbox One X and (cheaper) Xbox One S consoles.

Embrace your bias (lighting)

A bias light—or backlight—is a simple but welcome addition to any TV setup, whether you’re watching films, playing games, or just late-night channel surfing. Bias lights go behind your TV, casting a dim light behind the screen.

Why use a bias light? For one, it puts less strain on your eyes, an obvious plus. It also helps your eyes better notice contrast on the screen, since your eyes are not struggling to compensate for a rectangle of brightness in a pitch-black room.

Some bias lights are simple LED strips that glow at whatever intensity you dial in. Others, like the higher-end Philips Hue Play, take into account what’s on the screen, adjusting brightness and color accordingly (or based on your picks).

Direct Internet connections rule

If you’re not into getting a library of discs or an expensive box to stick under your TV, then you’ll need to properly prepare your internet connection to get high-def movies to your TV as quickly as possible. Wireless streaming is great, but you’ll get a more stable connection and a higher image quality with a direct connection. That’s where the humble Ethernet cable comes in. Connect it to either your streaming media box or TV itself and you won’t have to worry about the limits of wireless data transmission.

Get a soundbar, any soundbar

Visual fidelity is important for the best viewing experience, but audio can make or break a film, especially if your home theater setup depends on your TV’s internal speakers. Most TVs have underpowered speakers that simply can’t handle the higher or lower frequency ranges essential to a theater-like experience. Instead of springing for a full-blown surround sound system, you can rectify the issue with a soundbar and subwoofer setup.

Rather than watching a blockbuster through speakers that make explosions sound like tinny bursts emanating from a turn of the century Victrola, a soundbar with a subwoofer can add a new dimension of audio quality and range that’ll make you feel like you’re actually in a theater (or as close as you can be). You can find soundbars with subwoofers priced anywhere from $200 to a grand, but anything is better than your TV’s built-in audio.

In addition, some soundbars can double as traditional speakers you can pair to your smartphone using Bluetooth, or control via voice assistant. High-end soundbars, with features like Dolby Atmos, can simulate a surround-sound setup without forcing you to install hardware or run speaker wires through your walls.

Become an annoying film buff with Letterboxd

So you’re ready to become a cinema aficionado, prepared to emerge from this quarantine with a cinematic knowledge so obscure you’re sure to be the life of any social distanced event. If you’ve already watched the most popular blockbusters of this decade, why not dip into the more esoteric films? With Letterboxd, a movie database with social networking elements (you can follow friends, make lists of films, and share the ones you’ve seen) you can keep track of all the cinematic masterpieces you’ve watched, all the flicks you want to watch, and all the films you’ve already seen.

Since most Letterboxd users already have an interest in cinema by virtue of being on the site in the first place, curated lists are often spot-on, reviews are thoughtfully crafted, and trolls are virtually nonexistent.

Source: Tech – TIME | 9 Sep 2020 | 2:44 am

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, a Nostalgia Trip With Plenty of Growth, Is Right at Home in 2020

When skateboarding video game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater arrived on the PlayStation in 1999, no one could have expected the cultural impact it would have or how much muscle memory it would ingrain into dedicated fans. It was an enormous hit with skaters and non-skaters alike, helping to usher in a more-mainstream acceptance of skateboarding culture, define a new video game genre and teach tens of thousands the words to Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.”

Twenty-one years after the release of the first game, publisher Activision and developer Vicarious Visions will release Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, a ground-up remaster of the first two games, on Sept. 4, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. And while it sticks very closely to its source, the new game feels like it belongs in 2020, with a greater focus on representation and a firm grounding in that angsty skate culture aesthetic. Tony Hawk himself couldn’t be more excited about the release.

“You don’t understand how many people ask me about [Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2],” Hawk told TIME. “That is a consistent request on social media, ‘Why don’t you remaster these games?’”

If you’ve never played a THPS game, they fit neatly into that “easy to learn, lifetime to master” category. And if you’re not sucked in by the sheer fun, the score chasing and incredible soundtracks will probably get you. As the 20th anniversary of the first game’s release approached, Hawk and Activision thought it was the right time to remake what had become a video game classic. And though they couldn’t foresee what 2020 would become, the game is a bright spot in a dark year.

As I pushed off into the fan-favorite Warehouse level, the first park from the series’ original game, I instantly remembered countless hours playing with friends, trying to set new high scores. The muscle memory snapped back and I began landing combo after combo like no time had passed at all. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 has crisp, updated visuals (that look great in HDR), adds in a variety of moves that showed up in later games and includes other features common in modern video games, like online multiplayer and a mode to build your own skatepark.

But the game feels just like you remember it, just like you want it to feel. It transports you back to those Halcyon days of 1999 when the only thing you had to worry about was making sure your friends passed you the controller when your turn came up and there was a never-ending supply of Dorito’s and Mountain Dew.

Activision

The THPS series has had a rough decade. Its initial success continued through the mid-2000’s, but when longtime developer Neversoft passed the baton to developer Robomodo, review scores fell fast. The past 10 years have seen disappointments like 2009’s Tony Hawk: Ride, which used a plastic skateboard as a controller, and 2015’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5, which has one of the lowest aggregated reviews scores of any game in the current console generation, according to Metacritic. The series went mostly dark after that, with only a free-to-play mobile game released in 2018 to show for the last five years.

Fixing THPS, it turns out, meant going back to what made the original games so much fun. Developer Vicarious Visions has succeeded in recreating the flow of mastering combos and playing in the skateparks. New additions also include an extensive list of challenges, costume unlocks and the ability to make your own skater. The game retains 22 of the artists from the original beloved soundtrack, including Dead Kennedys, Primus and Rage Against the Machine. And it includes songs from 37 newly added artists like A Tribe Called Quest, MXPX and Screaming Females.

The remaster isn’t just a breath of fresh air for the series, but also for the gaming world’s efforts towards inclusion. Hawk said it was important to bring representation in this year’s release that didn’t exist in the old games.

“In the original game I wanted the roster to represent all styles of skating, but skating didn’t have a very diverse lineup back then, those are just the facts,” Hawk said. ”As we evolved and as skating started to become more popular in different areas, then there were no more barriers like that.”

Hawk says it was important to him that the remaster include wider representation not only racially or socio-economically, but also through gender identity—and so Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 features the series’ first non-binary skater in Leo Baker.

It’s possible that original games helped inspire communities that are now featured in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2. Hawk said it was “probably the most surprising outcome” of the first game that it introduced so many people to skateboarding, even if they weren’t interested in skating themselves. He believes the game helped more people become fans of skateboarding and lessened any social stigma it carried.

“Before that, the only people who cared about skating were skaters themselves,” he said. “I like to think that [Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater] helped people who were not clued in to the benefits of skating or the popularity of skating and helped them to understand that this could be a positive outlet for kids and communities to embrace.”

While Hawk believes the THPS games brought skateboarding to new people, real-life skaters who grew up with the series have helped change the sport along the way, he said.

“It made a new generation of kids believe [the games’ trick combos] are possible, and now they are,” Hawk said. “If you look at a skater like Shane O’Neill, who’s in the new game, if you look at the tricks he’s doing, they’re Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater combos that we didn’t think were possible back then.”

In 1999, the series might have introduced many new people to skating, but it also tapped into youth and counterculture malaise, which feels just at home in 2020 as it did 21 years ago. In particular, the series honored skate culture’s distrust of authority and has long dunked on the police. The very first game introduced the character “Officer Dick,” a cop stereotype complete with aviators, mustache and a beer belly who players can control in place of the professional skateboarders. He appeared in much of the series, and might show up in the new game, too.

Black Jack is the new Officer Dick! #TonyHawkProSkater #TonyHawk #THPS pic.twitter.com/rz4U2RTTRp

— CheezhOfficial® (@CheezhOfficial) August 15, 2020

To Hawk, skate culture embodies much of what has been seen over the summer as thousands of young people across the United States have demonstrated against police brutality and for racial equality. Just last week, Anthony Huber, a 26-year-old avid skateboarder, was shot and killed while protecting others from a gunman during protests in Kenosha, Wis. that came after police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back several times. Huber was holding his skateboard when he died.

“I think skaters have always taken pride in being different and not following the status quo. And so in terms of being effective or voicing for equality, then they fall right in line with that,” he said. “[Y]ou saw plenty of skateboards especially in the Black Lives Matter protests, because those are people that are not afraid to speak out.”

The Tony Hawk series was meant to embody those 1990s VHS skate tapes that my friends and I dubbed and passed around. The series, in turn, became its own version of those tapes for a new generation. It’s easy to be cynical about remastered games as an effort to tap into older gamers’ fond memories to make a quick buck. But Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 honors what the original games were, and what they helped create. And yes, there’s comforting nostalgia here. But it’s a return to form with plenty of growth along the way, resulting in something that’s perhaps even better than the original—and it reminds you that Less Than Jake exists, too. This year being what it has been, I might enjoy Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2 because it taps into that familiar, comfortable teenage soul of mine, always ready to blast Bad Religion while doing dangerous stuff. Or I might enjoy it on its own merits, as a solidly enticing game that plays great and has me planning the cosmetics I’ll unlock next. All I know is that I want to keep playing it.

Source: Tech – TIME | 4 Sep 2020 | 2:50 am

Smartphone Showdown: Samsung’s High-End Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G vs. Google’s Budget Pixel 4a

How much money are you willing to spend on a new smartphone in 2020? A few hundred bucks? A few thousand? A few weeks with two popular smartphones—the budget-friendly $349 Google Pixel 4a and the extravagant $1,299 Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G—tells a story one probably knows offhand is true: You don’t really need a thousand-dollar smartphone, but spending more confers some benefits to be sure.

The allure of a flagship smartphone like Samsung’s Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G is immediately apparent. Available in bronze, black, or white, it is indeed a real looker. Still, there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the Note20 Ultra compared to the company’s previous flagship smartphones, like the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Instead, it’s a refinement of Samsung’s efforts to outmatch competitors with raw power, better images, and even more use cases for its built-in S-Pen stylus.

But the Note20 makes the case for dropping a grand pretty quickly, starting with its gorgeous screen. A laundry list of high-end technology is crammed into the Note20 Ultra 5G’s 6.9-inch, Quad HD+ display with curved edges that give it a slender design compared to the last Note. There’s a hidden fingerprint sensor you’ll never notice until the icon pops up, a front-facing hole-punch camera that splits the difference between Apple’s annoying (but more capable) “notch” cut-out and a thick bezel outlining the screen.

It’s a good thing fanny packs are back in style, because the Note20 Ultra 5G is gigantic. While the term “phablet” has long been used to deride large smartphones stuck somewhere between a typical smartphone and a tablet, the Note20 Ultra 5G seems to be angling for a comeback. While it’s certainly big, its size allows for that stunning HDR+ screen, its (up to two) days of battery life, and processing power that makes games run without a hitch.

The camera bump on the rear of the Note20 is a true monster in terms of size and capabilities. Like the S20 Ultra, the Note20 Ultra has a trio of cameras on the rear, along with a laser autofocus sensor for improved portrait and night mode shots. Pictures are crisp, saturated, and really pop on the AMOLED screen. The camera almost mirrors the S20 Ultra’s capabilities, but eschews the 100x super zoom function for a more modest and usable 50x zoom. Its portrait mode shots are equally impressive, though all feature the telltale aura of software manipulation to achieve the high-end DSLR look. My favorite feature from the S20 Ultra is still here: Single Take, which records photos, videos, and looped GIFs all at once for up to 15 seconds, is an influencer’s dream come true.

Are you a gamer? Then sure, the huge screen (and its 120Hz refresh rate) might make this your perfect portable entertainment device, so long as you bring a controller. And Samsung’s partnership with Microsoft, which brings the Xbox’s Netflix-like Game Pass Ultimate service to the Note20, makes it an even more capable gaming machine.

But when you just need a phone, is the cheaper option just as good? The way we consume content has changed to the point where specs once integral to the decision of “which smartphone should I buy?” are now tertiary amenities obviated by advances in how the stuff we love gets delivered to us. While a huge storage capacity was great for downloading hit songs or recording videos of your family, you don’t need a huge amount of storage space any longer if your photos are stored in services like Google Photos. The same goes for streaming music and movies; why pay extra for space you don’t really need?

I can’t think of many who do. With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the country, and millions of Americans struggling economically, the last thing on many people’s minds is the purchase of a $1,300 phone for gaming and better selfies.

 

Shot on Pixel 4a and its single wide-angle lens.
The Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G’s three lenses create more saturated photos in daylight conditions.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t get a thousand-dollar phone. If you need three cameras, if you use your phone as a primary means of entertainment, if you actually do work using features like Samsung DeX or the Windows-friendly Your Phone feature, and if you’ve got the cash to burn, then go for it! The Note20 Ultra 5G is a workhorse, especially when paired with accessories like a monitor or mouse and keyboard. But frankly, I have no interest in spending over a grand on a smartphone with a single screen anymore, especially when the returns are so minor compared to prior generations. When it comes to getting the most bang for your buck, high-end smartphones may have been the answer in the past, when you only expected a single camera on the back. But now? Cheap phones are where it’s at.

 

The Note20 Ultra 5G’s 50x zoom function is impressive, but is still too creepy for me to endorse.

Take the Pixel 4a, Google’s newest budget-friendly smartphone. Yes, it’s just $349, which means some corners are inevitably cut. But they’re corners I can live without, especially when everything about the device is more than good enough. The best part? It actually fits in your pocket.

On the Pixel 4a, you only get a single lens, so there’s no optical zoom or ultra-wide angle capabilities. But the photos benefit from everything Google’s done in the photography department, from its use of computer vision to its awesome night mode shots.

Other Pixel 4a features are more than sufficient for the average person, perhaps even desired when compared to the higher-end alternatives. The 5.8-inch OLED 1080p display is perfectly suited for watching YouTube and Netflix videos (though you won’t get those bright, saturated colors you might enjoy on an HDR-capable screen). One fun surprise? The inclusion of a headphone jack. One understandable omission? The lack of 5G connectivity, a feature set to arrive with Google’s anticipated Pixel 4a 5G (although it will reportedly use the slower of the 5G radio bands).

The 4a’s smooth, plastic back, relatively small size, and rear fingerprint sensor make it a great fit for one hand without feeling like you’re one misplaced finger away from dropping it. The camera on the Pixel 4a? It does the job, and does it spectacularly well. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to discern whether identical wide angle shots were taken on the 4a or the high-end Note20 Ultra 5G, a surprising development considering how integral the camera is to the Note20 Ultra 5G’s appeal. Frankly, the Pixel 4a’s biggest issue is the omission of wireless charging support, a preferred method by many (myself included) when it’s time to turn in for the evening.

So, which phone should you get? Well, aside from the mind-boggling price difference between the two, the choice is ultimately a personal one that speaks to your personality as much as it does your pocketbook. In the Note20 Ultra 5G is a powerhouse of a smartphone, skirting the edges of both size and substance to bring a trio of capable cameras, a much-improved note taking experience, and a killer screen for all that on-the-go video watching and game playing you’re (not) doing. But the Pixel 4a, cheap as it is, does wonders with what it’s got: a high-definition screen, a camera that rivals the thousand-dollar competition, a fingerprint sensor, and an understated, slim design that doesn’t feel flimsy, not by a long shot. But when push comes to shove, maybe pick the one that’ll actually fit in your pants—and your budget.

Source: Tech – TIME | 4 Sep 2020 | 2:36 am

Slowly Losing Your Mind in Lockdown? 5 Apps to Boost Your Mental Health

It should come as no surprise to learn being stuck inside for months on end with minimal human contact is not good for your well-being. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt any semblance of normalcy throughout the U.S. and elsewhere, many people are feeling the effects of reduced employment and other disruptions of daily life—compounded by more visible instances of targeted police brutality and racial discrimination.

If you’re stressed out, exhausted by the stream of bad news, or just fell off whatever good habits you had in 2019, here’s how you can use your mobile device to get back on track. With apps that make chores fun, simple meditation tools, or services to address your mental health issues, you can, maybe, better prepare yourself for whatever else this year has in store.

Get your sleep schedule back on track with Pzizz

Platform: iOS, Android

Pzizz

There’s a good chance you’ve got a lot on your mind right now—which means counting sheep might not cut it when it comes to getting to sleep, and staring at your phone while doomscrolling is almost certainly even worse. And while there are a handful of apps designed to track your sleep, getting one meant to help you get to bed is just as important.

Pzizz is a sleep app that uses audio cues based on sleep research to help you fall asleep. It uses a mixture of speech, music, and audio to get you relaxed and prime your body for some down time, be it for a few minutes or a whole night. You can adjust the mix as well, leaning toward a more talkative or musical sleep aid for the allotted time period. Subscribing to the premium version of the app nets you access to a wider variety of sounds and guided sleep experiences.

Gamify your routines with Habitica

Platform: iOS, Android, Web

Habitica

If you need a little motivation to get done what you need to get done on a daily basis, and don’t mind adding a little fantastical vibe to the mix, try out Habitica, a task management and to-do list service that gamifies the work you accomplish. You create an RPG-esque character, which “defeats enemies” and levels up whenever you confirm that you’ve accomplished on of your IRL tasks—whether those are daily activities, errands to run, or habits to build. You can play by yourself or team up with friends for a more social element (and to add accountability to the mix); in either case, you can obtain prizes and gear for your fictional avatar by checking off boxes on your to-do list.

Reflect for a moment with Enso

Platform: iOS

Enso

If you’re like me, and just want to practice sitting for a few minutes with no distractions, you should try out Enso. It’s a minimal but elegant iOS meditation app perfect for both beginning students or experienced practitioners. There are no voices to distract you, and no music to focus on or tolerate. Just set a timer, hit start, and wait until it runs out.

You can customize your session with multiple bells to signify prep time, sitting time, and intervals for those engaging in a more advanced meditation practice. Buying Enso’s $2.99 pro version will net you some much-needed features, like Apple Health integration, an in-app audio player for custom meditation tunes, and extra alert tones you can pick to ease yourself in and out of your sitting practice.

For some good bedtime white noise, use Dark Noise

Platform: iOS

Dark Noise

Trying to read a book or focus on some work while the outside world honks, shouts, and distracts is no fun. That’s why white noise is so useful, drowning out other sounds with a more predictable, familiar tone. That’s what Dark Noise is for.

The app features a wide array of sounds, from white, brown, pink, and grey noises, to heavy rains and waterfalls, crickets, wind chimes, and coffee shops. With such a selection, you’re sure to find a noise to keep you distracted, focused, or drowsy—whatever you need. And there’s a timer, so you can have the app shut down on its own after you finish work (or fall asleep).

Talk to someone with BetterHelp

Platform: iOS, Android, Web

Betterhelp

Everyone needs someone to talk to—especially now. With in-person therapy currently out of reach for many thanks to the coronavirus, those seeking mental-health treatment might want to consider BetterHelp. Using the app, you can speak to a licensed psychologist or counselor via text, phone, or video. With no insurance necessary, pricing ranges from $40 to $70 per month, and there are over 10,000 therapists and counselors—all with over three years of therapy experience—to choose from (you’ll take a quiz to see which one is the best fit for you).

Source: Tech – TIME | 1 Sep 2020 | 7:04 am







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