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AirPods 2: five ways to make Apple's wireless buds better

Hi again.

James Martin/CNET

A Bloomberg report suggests a new version of Apple’s wireless AirPods could be released this year, incorporating better wireless tech, improved water resistance, and improved Siri access. I’ve worn AirPods almost nonstop since they’ve been released, and they’ve become my instant, go-to earbuds for everyday use. But they could still use improvement.

Here’s what’s at the top of my list. More remote controls: I don’t know if I need to be instantly accessing Siri more often, unless it’s easy and not annoying to do. But I definitely want more remote features.

AirPods can be double-tapped to play, pause, skip tracks or summon Siri, but you can only assign one function to each AirPod for a maximum of two functions at a time. I want expanded controls, and also a way to adjust volume. Physical buttons would be nice for Bluetooth use with non-Apple products, but odds of that are slim.

I’d settle for the basic controls that HomePod has.

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Wireless charging: Apple has already confirmed that its proprietary wireless charging tech coming in 2018, AirPower, will work with AirPods via a new charge case. Charging AirPods via Lightning is easy enough, but it would be great to drop the case down and top it off on a charge mat, too. Will next-gen AirPods be the first to debut wireless charging, or will a case be sold separately for first-gen users, too?

The charge case for AirPods is already one of its best features: wireless charging would push it over the top.

Better device-swapping and wireless reliability: Apple’s second-gen W2 wireless chip could help AirPods gain longer range and maybe higher fidelity, but it’s also the little things that bug me on a daily basis. Sometimes AirPods don’t connect to my Apple Watch. Sometimes the swap between watch and iPhone doesn’t happen.

Sometimes I’ll get music drop-outs and stuttering while walking through NYC’s electromagnetic jungle. Generally, they’re great: in certain moments they’re not.

More fit options, improved design: AirPods fit me really well. For others, they don’t.

There should be a fit kit of different earpieces, or better in-ear options for all use cases so they don’t fall out. I’ve never had AirPods fall out randomly, but maybe a new design could allow for extra add-on tips. Third-party options exist but don’t always work well with the charge case. Also: AirPods jut out of my ears.

I’ve never looked great in them. Could those long handles be reduced a bit? I mean, I’ve gotten used to how I look in them a year and a half later, but a little bit of redesign couldn’t hurt.

New colors. This is easy: make more color options than white. Black. Green.

Blue. Pink. Go crazy.

Maybe let people have one color in each ear.

Have a bin full of color shades, and you could pick two to make your own?

But seriously: while there are ways to third-party customize beyond plain white, a few more official shades would be great.

BlackBerry and Nokia still struggling to make a comeback

Last February, the once-great Nokia and BlackBerry brands each hoped to stage a triumphant return at the world’s largest phone show. A year on, we’re still waiting for a knockout device that will put either one back in the international spotlight in a meaningful way. Despite the brands launching 8 Android phones between them in the past year, it’s clear neither one has turned the tide.

Neither company can expect to return to their pre-2010 heights, before the phone world accelerated its path to its current iPhone/Android duopoly. But if their respective comebacks fall flat, it means fewer choices for consumers in an era increasingly dominated by Apple and Samsung handsets. Fewer than 6 million Nokia phones shipped in the past year, IHS Markit analyst Wayne Lam told CNET.

BlackBerry could have shipped as many as 170,000 units in the fourth quarter, according to Neil Shah, an analyst at Counterpoint Research. In contrast, Apple sold 77.3 million iPhones in a single quarter. BlackBerry declined to share sales figures and HMD Global, which licenses Nokia’s name, didn’t respond to multiple requests to comment on this story.

Low sales figures are to be expected for these revivalists, even a year in. Comebacks in the phone world don’t happen overnight; they occur over years of steady investment and marketing work. “[With] Nokia and Blackberry, there’s an expectation that they will take the world by storm in just a few months and dominate the market once again,” said Francois Maheiu, BlackBerry’s chief commercial officer. “The world knows there are two mega players right now, Apple and Samsung… it takes time.”

Both BlackBerry and Nokia phones are expected to update in the coming months, hoping to kick up momentum once again. The Nokia brand has its announcement this week at Mobile World Congress 2018 and BlackBerry is expected to unveil its next phone later in March, according to analysts. The hopefuls will need much more than a flashy presentation or booth space to wrest attention from the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus, which Samsung will unveil on February 25.

For BlackBerry and Nokia devices to stand a chance against the Samsung leviathan, they’ll need to show top-tier phones with hardware and software good enough to compete.

Nokia hopes a meh 2017 leads to an ‘awesome’ breakout in 2018

A year ago, it looked like Nokia phones would fulfill their fans’ biggest wish: to run on Android software. But even six releases in, the handsets aren’t doing much other than laying a stable budget base. After years of smartphone hot potato, they have a lot of catching up to do.

The original Nokia phones first switched hands to Microsoft, which bought the rights in 2013, and replaced Nokia’s proprietary software (primarily Symbian with a dash of MeeGo) with Windows OS. Three years later, Microsoft bumped its license to a new company, HMD Global, which uses Android. With so many Android phones available, Nokia phones today rely on hardware and competitive pricing to stand out.

However, HMD Global’s 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and higher-end Nokia 8, failed to generate as much buzz as the 3310, a revamped flip phone that doesn’t even have Wi-Fi, apps or a touchscreen.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

On the flip phone side, Nokia “may be in for a slight revival especially on the backs of the new 4G feature phone trend that is sweeping global markets such as India and other cost sensitive global markets,” said Lam. We’re not exactly sure what HMD Global has planned for Nokia in 2018, apart from something “awesome,” according to a tweet from Juho Sarvikas, the product lead of HMD Global, which operates out of Nokia’s spiritual homeland of Finland. But the fact that HMD Global is hosting a press event, when few brands want to compete with Samsung, shows a commitment to further build the Nokia name in 2018.

Most buyers throughout the world pick new phones through their carrier. Nokia could differentiate its hardware by offering a feature other phonemakers don’t, perhaps a return to the 41-megapixel “Pureview” camera from 2012. But its best chance of success is to get on as many global carriers as possible.

“The big question for HMD/Nokia is whether their success can continue without moving into the US, which is a tough market and one where the Nokia brand will not help much,” said Carlonia Milanesi, an alayst with Creative Strategies. “Nokia will not be able substantially to grow further without gaining share in China and the US.”

BlackBerry: Staying alive, but only just

Where Nokia phones spread out over the entry-level and midrange, the new BlackBerry wanted to punch in with a single high-end device, the KeyOne. Licensed by China’s TCL Communication, which also markets Alcatel phones, the KeyOne returned to the legacy brand’s core characteristics of a physical keyboard and enhanced security that caters to corporate IT policies. Late in the year, the keyboard-equipped KeyOne was joined by the all-screen BlackBerry Motion.

And in January, the company introduced a new KeyOne color and direct US sales for the BlackBerry Motion, which had previously only sold in Canada. While we don’t expect to see new BlackBerry phones until after this month’s biggest mobile trade show, TCL’s investment indicates that it’s business as usual.

Josh Miller/CNET

BlackBerry phones have more carrier visibility than Nokia handsets in the key US market, with a presence in AT&T and Sprint. Globally, Orange, Vodafone and Singtel are wins.

That was all part of TCL’s two-pronged plan. “Number one for us was to make BlackBerry available all over the world again,” BlackBerry’s Maheiu said, adding that the KeyOne is sold in more than 50 countries. The second approach is to court security-conscious businesses to offer BlackBerry phones as an option for employees, alongside Apple and Samsung devices.

“BlackBerry will be the third choice for the employee,” said Maheiu. To this end, BlackBerry has seeded over 1,000 businesses with its phones for testing in-house, in the hopes that at the end of the trial, companies embrace the KeyOne and Motion. Over 30 percent of those corporations would bring the phones on board by the end of December 2017, the phonemaker said, and it expects that figure to rise to over 50 percent by end of March.

Not everyone agrees with the brand’s chances. “Sadly, I think they overestimated the size of the QWERTY market as well as how difficult it is to get into the enterprise market,” said analyst Milanesi. While BlackBerry’s visibility is still a blip on the global map, its strategy to build through carriers and corporations could forge some humble inroads, so long as its phones can offer the same features as other top handsets for the same price or less.

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BlackBerry could also gain momentum by jumping early on the foldable smartphone trend. We’ve already seen one device with the ZTE Axon M, and Samsung has vowed to release its first foldable phone in 2018.

“I think if BlackBerry are design savvy, they can add to the overall conversation around how these devices look and operate,” IHS Markit analyst Lam said.

It’s too soon to say if BlackBerry phones will move quickly on the foldable concept.

Regardless, TCL shows a confident face.

“BlackBerry handsets are here to stay,” said Maheiu.

Cat S61 hands-on review

If you don’t remember the Cat S60 phone, it was the world’s first smartphone with a thermal imaging camera on the back. It’s not something most of us would normally use, but the phone turned out to be incredible well-received by tradesmen in industries as varied as plumbers and security guards to vets. This is the Cat S61, the S60’s sequel, and Cat Phone-makers Bullitt Group have listened to the prime customers using or interested in the S60, and integrated three of the most desirable new features into the latest, even more capable device.

Improved thermal sensor

The thermal imaging camera, made by experts Flir, is still present, and while the Lepton sensor is the same as on the S60, the software has been reworked and updated.

It’s more user-friendly, but more crucially, the thermal image resolution has increased. The S60’s old VGA image has been replaced by an HD picture, and the difference is dramatic. Now, the display shows considerably more heat spots, with more clarity, making at-a-glance temperature assessment easier and quicker.

Additionally, the temperature range has improved as well, starting at -20 degrees centigrade (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) and rising to 400 degrees (752 degrees Fahrenheit), up from 100 degrees centigrade on the S60, making it more versatile. Wondering what you’d use a thermal imaging camera for? The S61 is helpful for car mechanics, where engine operating temperatures are often much higher than 120 degrees.

Vets, especially those that work with horses, have used the camera to identify internal swellings when horseshoes have been incorrectly fitted. The camera’s ability to see hotspots up to 30 meters away has helped security guards out too, as they use the phone to scan areas where their guard dog is barking, without the need to use a flashlight. Greater temperatures and more visual clarity will only increase the device’s usefulness.

More sensors

The first brand new addition to the phone is an air quality sensor.

It’s a Volatile Organic Compound sensor (VOC), picking up a range of contaminants and designed for indoor use. It’s tailored for people working with potentially hazardous materials that affect the air in a room, including solvents, cleaning products, paint, or glue. The sensor provides real-time reports and adapts as you move around.

The data is presented in clear, color-coded graphs. Additionally, it shows humidity and temperature data in case you need it. Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Joining the thermal imaging camera and air quality sensor is a laser distance measure. It’s built into the rear of the phone, and is effective up to 10 meters. It doesn’t just measure straight lines, it can also plot 2D shapes like walls.

For example, the laser can measure out a wall space to help estimate the amount of tiles needed to cover it. We didn’t see it working on the prototype of the S61.

Same rugged body

All this is encased in a hard-wearing Cat Phone body, with its IP68 water-resistant rating, and a rugged exterior that goes through extensive tests. For example, Bullitt claims the device withstands drops from up to 1.8 meters in height on to a variety of hard surfaces.

The screen measures 5.2-inches and has a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel resolution, is covered in Gorilla Glass 5, and there are three hardware Android buttons under it. The phone’s thick and heavy, which is a consequence of a 4,500mAh battery inside, but it does help improve grip especially if you’re wearing gloves. Also, the aluminum die-cast body is designed to meet MIL-STD-810G military toughness standards, and the screen works even if it’s wet.

The phone itself doesn’t have remarkable specifications, but it does everything you’d want. Android 8.0 Oreo is kept relatively clutter free, with the only changes instantly obvious coming from extra tools for the thermal camera, and a toolkit-style recommended apps section. Bullitt confirmed it will release an update for this year’s Android P version in the future.

The phone itself doesn’t have remarkable specifications, but it does everything you’d want with a 16-megapixel camera on the rear, and an 8-megapixel camera on the front. Inside is a Snapdragon 630 processor, 4GB RAM, and 64GB storage space. This gives the S61 an acceptable level of performance, and it slid through menus smoothly enough; but response times for apps was slow.

We used a prototype phone, so it’s unfair to judge performance without further testing on a final unit.

Price and availability

Given what makes the Cat S61 special, it’s clear the phone is designed with specific use cases in mind. Anyone looking at a Samsung Galaxy S9 likely won’t be considering a Cat S61, but if you have considered a Galaxy S8 Active, then the Cat S61 may be a great alternative.

Cat S61 Compared To

Sadly, you’re going to have to pay a premium for all this tech — the Cat S61 will cost 800 British pounds or about £1,117 when it goes on sale in the next few months. There are no plans yet to bring the phone into the U.S.

Still, when you add up the individual costs of a tough phone, a thermal imaging camera, an air quality sensor, and a laser distance measure, the Cat S61’s may just be worth the high cost.

Ex-Google engineer's lawsuit says liberal views got him fired

Another fired Google employee is suing the company.

Claudia Cruz/CNET

Google has another lawsuit related to diversity on its hands. The search giant is being sued for discrimination, harassment, retaliation and wrongful termination by a fired engineer named Tim Chevalier. The complaint was filed Wednesday in San Francisco County Superior Court.

The lawsuit was reported earlier by Gizmodo. The suit comes on the heels of a suit filed last month by James Damore, a Google engineer who was fired after circulating a now infamous 33,000-word memo about diversity at the company. The lawsuit claimed Google discriminates against white men and conservatives.

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, Chevalier, who is disabled and transgender, said Google fired him because of posts related to diversity he made on Google’s internal messaging forums, as well as its Google+ social network. The lawsuit says Chevalier posted content on the forums that pushed back against online bullying directed toward people of color and those in the LGBT community. One post in question criticized Damore’s memo, calling it “misogynistic.”

“It is a cruel irony that Google attempted to justify firing me by claiming that my social networking posts showed bias against my harassers,” Chevalier said in a statement. “The anti-discrimination laws are meant to protect marginalized and underrepresented groups — not those who attack them.” The suit comes as Google grapples with controversies regarding diversity, race and gender. Damore’s memo, which became public last August, argued that a gender gap exists not because of sexism, but partly because of “biological” differences between men and women.

Shortly after the memo began to make national headlines, he was fired by Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Last week, the US National Labor Relations Board said Google didn’t break the law when it fired Damore. The agency said Google fired the computer engineer not for expressing dissenting views or criticism, but over “unprotected discriminatory statements” in his memo.

Wednesday’s lawsuit is another window into the internal of workings of Google’s culture. “An important part of our culture is lively debate,” a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. “But like any workplace, that doesn’t mean anything goes. All employees acknowledge our code of conduct and other workplace policies, under which promoting harmful stereotypes based on race or gender is prohibited.

“This is a very standard expectation that most employers have of their employees. The overwhelming majority of our employees communicate in a way that is consistent with our policies. But when an employee does not, it is something we must take seriously.

We always make our decision without any regard to the employee’s political views.” Chevalier worked at Google from December 2015 to November 2017 as a site reliability engineer. The lawsuit seeks damages for seeks damages for lost wages, emotional distress and punitive damages.

Solving for XX: The industry seeks to overcome outdated ideas about “women in tech.”

Special Reports: All of CNET’s most in-depth features in one easy spot.

The best Fitbit for any activity or sport

Fitbits are amazingly helpful tools for setting fitness goals and tracking your progress — you can exercise all day but if you don’t have metrics to tell you how you did, it’s hard to stay motivated. Being able to track how far you’ve gone, how many calories you’ve burned, what your average heart rate is, and other useful fitness stats helps you stay excited and keeps you on track. Furthermore, it ensures greater accuracy when creating training plans for yourself.

With that said, each type of activity requires different metrics. If you’re a runner, for example, you’re going to want something with an accurate GPS and the ability to track miles ran and heart rate. By contrast, swimmers require a fully waterproof wearable capable of accurately tracking laps in a pool.

There are so many Fitbit models out there that it can be daunting to compare every feature and make a decision. To help, we’ve compiled a list of the best Fitbits for runners, swimmers, cyclers, triathletes, and weightlifters.

Best for running: Charge 2 (£150-180)

Featuring a fully interchangeable wristband with a sleek and unimposing design, the Charge 2 is one of Fitbit’s best trackers for anyone with an active lifestyle but particularly for runners. This stylish fitness band — which comes in six different color options — showcases PurePulse technology that precisely tracks your heart rate without requiring the use of a bulky chest strap.

Although it automatically tracks your activity throughout the day — steps, distance, calories, floors climbed, etc. — it has a specific Run tracking feature in its multi-sport mode. With this selected, the built-in GPS tracker activates automatically once you start running, tracking your route and delivering real-time information on heart rate, pace, distance, elevation, and split times right to your wrist. As a bonus, the device pauses on its own when you stop to take a break.

Buy it now from: Amazon Fitbit

Best for swimming: Ionic (£300)

Another one of Fitbit’s best all-around fitness trackers, the brand-new Ionic is water-resistant up to 50 meters. What this means is that it’s perfect for use in the pool, the ocean (yes, it can withstand the salt), the shower, or even a sudden rainstorm.

Featuring what’s called Swim Exercise mode, the Ionic displays laps in real-time as you swim, along with the duration of your pool time, stroke style, and the number of calories burned. Aside from its swim functionality, the device is loaded with other features. As the company’s first self-proclaimed smartwatch (the Fitbit Blaze had watch-like features but wasn’t a full-scale watch), it sends you smartphone alerts and notifications, plays personalized workouts directly on the screen, monitors sleep cycles, and coaches you through guided breathing sessions.

Like the Charge 2, it features SmartTrack which automatically detects what exercise you’re doing and switches into that mode to record stats. Read our review Buy it now from:

Amazon Fitbit

Best for biking: Alta HR (£150-180)

Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

As Fitbit’s slimmest fitness tracker, the Alta HR is a great option for cycling due entirely to its low profile and lack of bulk on your wrist. It’s built with the ability to recognize when you’re cycling without having to switch to a special mode, recording minutes cycled, distance, calories burned, heart rate, and fat burning time. Although it records your distance while biking, the Alta HR doesn’t have a GPS so if you want to see your route, you’ll need to bring along a smartphone to track it via the app.

Perhaps its best feature is the fact its battery lasts a whopping seven days (compared to five days for the Charge 2 and Ionic), meaning it’s ideal if you do any bike camping or multi-day bike touring. In addition to its cycling-specific features, the Alta HR has automatic sleep tracking, text and calendar alerts, motivational reminders, a customizable clock interface, and an interchangeable band that comes in 10 color options. Buy it now from:

Amazon Fitbit

Best for triathletes: Flex 2 (£60)

If budget isn’t a concern, the Ionic is your ultimate triathlon beast. However, many people forget about the Flex 2 — Fitbit’s other swim-proof fitness tracker. This basic band — although stripped of some of the bells and whistles of its fancier kin — performs many of the same functions at a much lower price.

It’s water-resistant (of course), making it the perfect triathlon companion and it accomplishes everything you need: Automatically recognizes running, biking, and swimming, tracks distance covered, calories burned, and total active minutes. The Flex 2 is also incredibly lightweight and slim, so it won’t feel overly cumbersome on race day — you can even wear it as a bangle or pendant. Plus, the slide-out device is easier to charge on your SB© USB port than dangling a bulky watch from your computer.

There are drawbacks, however, as it won’t record or log heart rate and if SmartTrack fails to recognize your activity, you have to adjust it using your phone. That said, if you’re just starting out for your first race- – or want to save some dough — the Flex 2 is an awesome budget option. Buy it now from:

Amazon Fitbit

Best for weightlifting: Blaze (£200)

Designed with a chic style and urban feel, the Blaze is a fantastic choice for gym rats. The watch-style device monitors heart rate without a chest strap, delivering astonishing accuracy across a diverse set of multi-sport modes. The heart rate tracking is consistent during weightlifting and you don’t have to pause and unpause between reps.

It even features a special Weights choice under Exercise, allowing you to accurately log time spent in the weight room. The device also connects to Fitstar workouts which delivers step-by-step instructions directly to the wristband’s display. After every workout, the Blaze delivers an on-screen summary which you can compare with the Fitbit app to track progress toward your goals.

Read our review

Buy it now from:

Amazon Fitbit

Editors’ Recommendations

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