iPhone 6 “Air” Concept Imagines A Return To The Glass Back Design

A new take on the yet-to-be-announced iPhone 6 from an independent designer provides a look at what we might expect from a thinner, larger-screened, next-generation device. This latest one is the most recent in a spate of design takes by Martin Hajek on potential future Apple products and is commissioned by French blog NWE based on recently leaked sketches, which may or may not be authentic. However close this is to what we actually see in September when the next iPhone is likely unveiled, it’s a fun look at what might come next.

iPhone-6-CBAs you can see, this design embraces the glass back Apple did away with on the iPhone 5 in favor of an aluminum enclosure. The edges are matte metal, however, and the key feature here is the nearly edge-to-edge display and the ultra-thin design. It’s sort of like a cross between the new iPad mini with Retina display, and the iPhone 4/4S.

iPhone-6-CWI can’t help but lust after that larger screen, and luckily it’s looking more and more like a bigger display is a lock for the next version of Apple iPhone. The thickness here is a little more than I can credibly believe for this generation of hardware, but this is a concept, after all, so a little artistic license is to be expected. Apple has managed to shave depth off of every version so far, too, so there’s precedent for believing it may be able to do it again.

Spotify Goes Over To The Dark Side With A New Makeover

Spotify Goes Over To The Dark Side With A New Makeover

Spotify has just released a serious redesign for its web, desktop, and iPhone apps that will come to other mobile platforms soon. It brings a simple, darker, dramatic look to the streaming music service. Spotify also added contextual playlists and began shifting users from starring songs to saving a library of any and everything they like to hear.

The new look is based around a dark background, with a new typography as well. Media is front-and-center in the new layout, with big cover art across Discovery pages, as well as rounded out icons for artist pages.

The redesign will reach Android and other operating systems soon, and is meant to highlight content above all else. The team first looked at the redesign with major over-arching principles, namely that content be highlighted, and that the Spotify brand stand out as authentic and simple.

“We want your friend, peeking over your shoulder, to recognize Spotify open on your computer,” said director of product development Michelle Kadir. “And that means making sure the brand has a clear identity in the world, and looks and feels the same across any platform.”

After building out prototypes with this vision in mind, the team went through numerous phases of research including in-person interviews with users, large-scale surveys, and even pushing a beta version of the redesign to a small group of users. All signs pointed to a darker background, “where the content can come forward and everything else can slip away,” said Kadir.

“We like to use the metaphor of a movie theater, but it’s true with any type of art,” she said. “The best way to make the art pop is to put it against a dark background.”

The team also introduced a couple new features alongside the redesign, including new tools for Your Music, as well as Browsing options. Now, when browsing, you will be able to click “save” next to any album, artist, or song and have that content saved under your account. This way you can go back and add it to a playlist later, rather than building something on the spot.

Your Music could help Spotify solve one of its biggest problems: not knowing what to play. Until now, Spotify was focused around a search experience. Each time you opened it you had to think of a specific song, album, artist, or playlist to listen to, or  fire up its radio. This decision making was exhausting, and there was no easy way to browse all the music you liked. For those with less music knowledge it was potentially a big hurdle to frequent use.

Now Spotify functions more like the familiar iTunes interface, where you have a home base of all your favorite jams. Except instead of keeping a copy of the actual sound files, it’s a cloud-based collection. This is a big step up from the Starred playlist, which was just a rearrangable list of songs that couldn’t be sorted. You can dump whole artist catalogs, albums, or friends’ playlists into Your Music, and then sort it all any way you want.

Spotify has also added new browsing functionality, with featured playlists. These are served up to the user based on the time of day and your location, not unlike what Songza does with Concierge, to deliver something that will fit your mood or activity.

Overall,  the redesign and Your Music feature make Spotify feel simultaneously more stylishly modern while more familiar and functional.

Spotify has been making big moves this year. It raised a $250 million round in November, and is rumored to be mulling an IPO for later this year. To lure in more users, the company launched a freemium product for tablets, a free internet radio service on mobile, and has even knocked 50 percent off of the price for college students.

Most recently, Spotify acquired music intelligence backend The Echo Nest, which was powering recommendations and personalization for many of Spotify’s competitors. The purchase could accelerate Spotify’s platform plans, including SDKs that let users auth into third-party apps so they can bring their legal music licenses with them.

Now equipped with a fresh look, improved functionality, growth mechanics, and a budding app ecosystem, Spotify may have what it takes to take on the independents like Pandora, and platform-owning music juggernauts like Apple’s iTunes and Google Play Music.

The Improbable Rise Of Roku

In 10 years, when we look back and think about which companies fundamentally changed the way viewers get their TV shows delivered to them, will Roku be a part of the conversation? Based on what the company has done to date, and where it’s going, it seems likely.

That’s because no company has done more to define what we can expect from streaming video hardware than Roku — and the company did it all while competing against much larger companies that also wanted a piece of the pie.

More Than A Survivor

Consider this: Since launching its first “Roku Netflix player” in 2008, the company has had to compete against similar hardware devices from Apple and Google (and Amazon is on its way). Not only has Roku survived that onslaught, but it’s thrived.

 

An early version of Roku's streaming box

An early version of Roku’s streaming box

“Every year a new version of the Apple TV came out and every year our sales have grown,” Roku CEO Anthony Wood said at the Code/Media Conference in Santa Monica last week. The day that the $99 Apple TV launched in 2010, sales actually doubled. Last fall, after Google’s Chromecast went on sale, Wood said its sales grew 60 percent.

 

But sales only tell part of the story. More than any other streaming video box or dongle, it’s Roku that viewers turn to when they want to watch Netflix or Amazon Prime, according to CEO Anthony Wood. Today, people watch more streaming hours of Netflix on Roku than any other platform.

The same is true for Amazon’s video apps — which is why, when the online retail giant announces its own streaming media device next month, things could get complicated. Amazon, of course, would prefer to have its users watching Prime videos on its own device, where it would collect all the revenue from sales of on-demand titles.

Amazon is also a distribution channel for Roku boxes, although Wood said today about 65 percent of its sales happen in brick-and-mortar retail locations. And, of course, it gets a cut of on-demand sales that happen through the Amazon channel on its devices.

All The Content On All The Devices

Roku has one thing going for it that the others don’t, however: It’s singularly focused on streaming video hardware and software. The company is home to 250 employees, and all of them are just working on products to working on hardware and software for delivering streaming video.

Another thing that Roku has going for it is that it’s agnostic, both to the channels that are built for its platform and the devices that it will run on.

While it launched with just the Netflix channel in 2008, it quickly made its box available to other streaming video partners and now has more than 1,000 channels or apps to choose from. Netflix is still its largest streaming partner by far, but it’s seeing increased pick up in the long tail of third-party video apps.

More and more, it’s become home to a growing number of apps from traditional cable programmers like HBO, ESPN and Disney.

Roku’s Next Act

roku hisenseIf Roku’s first act was simply getting its Netflix streaming box out in the wild and its second act included its efforts to attract more and more quality content to the platform, it’s the third act, in which Roku moves beyond its own hardware, that might be most defining for the company.

The company has struck partnerships to become the operating system for connected TV manufacturers like Hisense and TCL. For a growing number of companies, which want to provide streaming video and but don’t have the resources to build their own OS, Roku provides a solution that they can license to quickly add a wide range of content.

“Most companies that make connected TVs, other than Samsung, don’t have what it takes and will end up licensing our software,” Wood said at the Code Media event.

It remains to be seen whether Roku succeeds in that endeavor, where others — like Google — have failed. But with a critical mass of content companies already on board, and a growing number of device manufacturers planning Roku-powered TVs this year, the company seems well-positioned to capitalize on that opportunity.

Meet The Reversible USB Cable, Coming This Summer

efore Apple’s Lightning cable, I never even dreamed of a life where input/output cables could be reversible. Now, however, it’s hard to go back to standard and micro USB, because I got so lazy. Soon enough, however, USB is getting a new reversible standard called “Type-C” which is around the size of microUSB, and which replaces USB 3 cables entirely, on both sides.

We now have our first look at this tech, from Foxconn via some pre-production artist renderings (courtesy of The Verge). Don’t be surprised to see something that looks a lot like Lightning – if you’re building a reversible I/O standard, it’s going to look pretty much like the most efficient design to come before, which is Apple’s. It looks like the main connects might be inside the cable end, however, instead of on the outside, as they are with Lightning.

usb-port-type-c

This new standard is supposed to be finalized in July, which means hardware that uses it could start to ship as soon as this summer. Anytime a cable standard changes, adoption is bound to be slow, but the extreme convenience of this new design will hopefully speed things along with PC, smartphone and accessory OEMs.

How Amazon Fire TV Stacks Up To Apple TV, Chromecast And Roku

 

 

Amazon has just announced its streaming TV media device, the Fire TV, and that means it now faces off against other tech giants and incumbents in yet another category. So how does the Amazon TK compare to the likes of the Apple TV, Google’s Chromecast and Roku’s lineup of streaming set-top boxes and new HDMI stick? Here’s a basic rundown.

First-Party Content

Amazon has a considerable leg up here; its Amazon Instant Video library is large and covers a wide range of different types of content from top-notch sources. The company just looked down exclusive rights to streaming Fox hit 24, for instance, and Amazon has invested in creating originals, too, with more to come for both videos and games. Plus, Amazon also offers access to its MP3 store and user libraries from there. The catch here is that for free access to Instant Video, you’ll need to be a prime subscriber, which carries a price tag of $99 per year.

overview_ui_screen

Apple TV offers probably the biggest catalog in terms of first-party content thanks to iTunes music, movie and TV content. These basically span the range of what you’d want to see or hear, and the libraries are available in more markets around the world than those of their competitors. But there’s a catch; while iTunes Radio offers access to free streaming music in a couple of places, in most you’ll have to purchase content piecemeal, meaning the price tag is going to be a lot higher than $99 per year to get access to the same depth of library as you have on Amazon.

Google offers Play Music and Play Movies to its users, including a streaming radio option, but the content library falls just short of Apple’s, and is more geographically restricted. Also, like with iTunes, there’s no all-you-can-eat video option.

Roku relies heavily on third-party sources for its content, which brings us to the next area of comparison.

Third-Party Services

This is an area of growing import for these devices, which arguably began life as a way to get users to invest more heavily in a specific ecosystem, but which have shifted into a way to get people access to their content wherever it is.

ready-to-cast

The Chromecast is fast-becoming the best way to do this, with third-party developers announcing support for the streaming stick frequently, and an advanced SDK promising more sophisticated integrations to come. But you’ll still need a host device to make this work, meaning a smartphone, tablet or desktop computer.

Apple TV also has strong support for third-party services – via AirPlay, its streaming protocol that allows you to beam content from your Mac or iOS device to your TV. Apple has increasingly been adding native apps to the Apple TV to bring third-party content to the platform, too, and while it’s slower than if there was an open SDK, those attempts are also picking up, and deepening the library of third-party services. Netflix has long been a key part of that offering, and it remains so even now.

Roku is all about third-parties, and it offers a sizeable Channel Store as well as built-in third-party apps to prove it. Netflix is a key player here, as is Amazon Instant Video, and in general Roku has an advantage here because it has no agenda in terms of promoting its own libraries or content stores. It’s more flexible than Apple when it comes to third-party partners, and less so than Google’s Chromecast, but with more curation and an experience that doesn’t require a separate host device.

Amazon paid a lot of lip service to third-party openness during its presentation today, and it has all the big services already signed on, with many more partnerships to come and what looks like a very developer-friendly platform. Roku has the lead for now, but Amazon’s Fire TV will probably catch up pretty fast.

Gaming

Another exciting emerging area for these devices is gaming. Chromecast looks like it will soon support some innovative game concepts with Android devices, but it’s early yet to tell. Roku has added games, including Angry Birds and many others, but most of these are fairly uninspired mobile ports, and isn’t made for gaming.

Apple TV supports gaming, but in a roundabout way. It does so by offering access to AirPlay for third-party devs who want to create gaming experiences that incorporate both the big screen and iOS devices. In practice, this has produced some interesting two screen games, but it has yet to reach maturity and really take off as a medium. Apple providing access to native gaming software on the platform itself would be a nice addition, and has been suggested by some rumors.

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Amazon looks to be going all-in on gaming with the Fire TV. It made it very easy to port titles, as mentioned, and it also offers its gaming controller accessory for $40. It has its own gaming development studio, and it has partners across the range of small-time indie devs to big, marquee studios. The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding of how fun these games are to play, but Amazon hasn’t just tacked this on as an afterthought, based on the nature of their announcement.

Size And Power Requirements

The Chromecast takes the cake here, as a small HDMI dongle that can use your TV’s USB port for power, if it has one, and requires no additional cables or power sources. Likewise, Roku’s new streaming stick offers the same basic design.

Apple TV and Roku’s other boxes have a more traditional power cable, and also take up a bit more space, requiring a cabled connection to the TV itself for HDMI hook-up. The Apple TV does offer an Ethernet port, though, as well as an optical audio line out.

Amazon’s set-top box is also a set-top box, not a dongle, but it’s extremely small, and offers Ethernet, USB, HDMI and optical audio connections, plus it supports a remote and has 8GB of built-in storage. The trade-offs in terms of size of device seem well worth it.

Ease Of Setup And Use

These devices are all fairly plug-and-play. Chromecast is easy in some ways, with its app-driven setup, but it requires you switching Wi-Fi networks and downloading an app, whereas the Apple TV just asks you to do a lot of virtual keyboard typing with a limited remote.

Amazon lists its process as plug-and-play, with three steps to get started. Instant playback with no loading time is another key advantage here, even if it’s just a small one.