Dealmaster: Sonos feels the HomePod heat, offers two Sonos Ones for $349

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Audio device maker Sonos this week announced a deal in which it will offer two of its Sonos One smart speakers for $ 349. The offer, a $ 49 discount, went live at various retailers on Friday. It will remain in effect for “a limited time,” according to the company.

The deal appears designed to fend off any traction that Apple might gain with its much-anticipated HomePod speaker, which launched on Friday for the same $ 349 price tag. Apple has advertised the HomePod as a small Internet-connected home speaker focused on audio quality, a market category where Sonos has been strong in recent years. Like the Sonos One, Google Home, and Amazon Echo, the HomePod will also connect to a voice assistant—in this case, Siri—to answer questions, send messages, and play music, among other tasks.

That said, the HomePod is launching with a few significant caveats: It won’t be able to pair with a second HomePod and stream multi-room audio, its voice commands do not support any music streaming service besides Apple Music, and Siri is generally seen as inferior to Alexa and Google Assistant for this class of device. It’s also relatively expensive.

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Walmart joins, well most of its competitors, in selling e-books

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Most Walmart stores have modest book sections, but now the company plans to expand that with digital books. Walmart announced that it’s teamed up with Japan’s Rakuten to sell e-books, audiobooks, and Rakuten’s Kobo e-readers later this year.

“We have long been a destination for entertainment including digital content—whether movies through VUDU or the digital game cards we sell in our stores,” Walmart’s statement said. “E-books and audiobooks are a great addition to our assortment. Working with Rakuten Kobo enables us to quickly and efficiently launch a full e-book and audiobook catalog on Walmart.com to provide our customers with additional choices alongside our assortment of physical books.”

Kobo e-readers and compatible e-books are mostly popular outside the US in countries including Canada, the UK, France, Italy, and Australia. Walmart will be Kobo’s “exclusive” US partner, meaning it will be the biggest retailer to sell Kobo e-readers in the country, along with access to its library of over six million e-books.

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Apple’s iBooks to become “Books” in forthcoming reading app redesign

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Apple is reportedly tweaking its e-book offering to better take on Amazon, the current leader of the digital book market. According to a Bloomberg report, Apple will release a revamped version of the iBooks app for iOS, which will be dubbed “Books,” that will have an interface more like the iOS 11 App Store, a Reading Now tab, and a separate section for audiobooks. There’s no official date for the debut of the new app, but it’s reportedly slated to be released in the coming months.

Limited details are known about the app, which is in testing right now. Bloomberg’s report describes it having a “simpler interface” that emphasizes books the user is currently reading. There’s also a new digital book store within the app that’s said to be similarly designed to Apple’s current App Store, which received a drastic redesign in iOS 11. That could mean that Apple plans to make discovering new books through the Books app easier, possibly with categorical tabs and book cover art throughout the digital store. Apple recently moved its audiobook offerings from the Music app to the iBooks app, but having a dedicated tab for audiobooks will make them more easily accessible for customers.

Apple has also reportedly hired a lead executive from Audible, the Amazon-owned audiobook platform, to help reinvigorate its e-book efforts. The iBooks app remains one of the few Apple programs that hasn’t received a significant update in years. That is likely due in part to a 2013 ruling by the U.S. Department of Justice covering fixed pricing for e-books in Apple’s iBooks store. Apple was fined $ 450 million.

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The Google Assistant can now read you audiobooks from Google Play

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It’s surprising to realize that the Google Play Store hasn’t sold audiobooks until now. Google announced that its online store, which is the go-to for most people when it comes to Android apps, will now sell audiobooks that users can access on Android, iOS, and the web. The audiobooks section of the Play store is currently available in 45 countries and in nine languages. In addition to listening to books without a subscription, some users can call upon the Google Assistant to read books to them.

Much like Apple’s audiobooks in its online store, titles in the Google Play Store are available for purchase with no subscription necessary. Amazon’s audiobook service Audible also sells one-off audiobooks, but the company strongly encourages customers to sign up for its monthly subscription service. For the launch, Google slashed prices of some popular titles—Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is just $ 6.99 for now, down from $ 22.50, and Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is $ 8.99, down from $ 25.99—and the company is offering 50 percent off your first audiobook purchase. Google’s original audiobook prices seem a bit lower than Audible’s, but it’s unclear if Google will consistently undercut Amazon’s and Apple’s audiobook prices in the future.

Those with an Android device or a Google Home can ask the Google Assistant to read books to them. “Ok Google, read my book…” followed by the title will prompt the Assistant to play the audiobook from your library. Since Google has a stop timer feature for its audiobooks, users can tell the Assistant when to stop the audiobook (“Ok Google, stop playing in 30 minutes.”) and ask basic questions about the title (“Ok Google, who is the author?”). The only downside is that this Google Assistant integration is only available on Android and Google Home right now, but it will come to Android Auto in the US sometime soon.

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Apple’s Siri-equipped HomePod comes to your home on February 9

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Apple announced this morning that the wait for its HomePod smart speaker is nearly over. HomePod will be available starting February 9, with preorders beginning Friday, January 26. The home speaker that houses the company’s virtual assistant Siri will initially be sold in the US, UK, and Australia, and will be available in France and Germany this spring.

The company first announced HomePod at last year’s WWDC with the hopes of releasing it in December for $ 349, ahead of the holiday season. However, that deadline came and went and those who wanted an Apple version of Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home were left waiting.

Apple’s announcement doesn’t detail anything we didn’t already know about HomePod. The cylindrical speaker is powered by Apple’s A8 chip and uses an array of six microphones to pick up your calls of “Hey, Siri” from across the room, even with music playing. It also uses real-time acoustic modeling, audio beam-forming, and echo cancellation to create a rich sound experience, and its spacial awareness feature lets it automatically adjust to produce the best sound for its location in your home.

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Everything you need to know about Apple’s GymKit, now out in the US

Enlarge / Apple Watch Series 2. (credit: Valentina Palladino)

While the Apple Watch is seen by many as the ultimate wearable fitness tool, it’s somewhat out of place in the gym. The native Workout app has a number of exercise profiles to choose from, including activities that can only be done in the gym. But, in many ways, the Watch is best suited for outdoor activities.

But with the introduction of GymKit, Apple hopes to make the in-gym cardio experience better. Apple’s system to connect the Apple Watch to compatible gym equipment started rolling out across the globe earlier this fall, and it just hit the US this week. Below is everything you need to know about GymKit as an Apple Watch user, how you can use it, and what it means for your workouts in the future.

What is GymKit?

Apple announced GymKit at this year’s WWDC in June as part of the watchOS 4 update. GymKit is a protocol that allows Apple Watches to use NFC and Bluetooth to connect to various pieces of gym equipment. This allows the wearable and the machine to share information so you can glean more information when working out with the Apple Watch.

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Apple to give Finisar $390 million to increase TrueDepth camera tech production

Enlarge / The Messages app has been augmented with a number of features that use the front-facing, 3D camera—including animojis.

Today, Apple announced a big investment in the technology manufacturing company Finisar. The iPhone maker will give Finisar $ 390 million, a portion of its $ 1 billion Advanced Manufacturing Fund, to help “support innovation and job creation by American manufacturers.” According to Apple’s statement, the investment will allow Finisar to build a new 700,000 square foot plant in Texas, hire 500 workers, and make more vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs). These lasers are a component in Apple’s TrueDepth cameras, now being used in the iPhone X for features including FaceID and Animoji.

“VCSELs power some of the most sophisticated technology we’ve ever developed and we’re thrilled to partner with Finisar over the next several years to push the boundaries of VCSEL technology and the applications they enable,” Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, said in a statement.

Apple’s Advanced Manufacturing Fund is meant to create new manufacturing jobs and opportunities in the US. All of the VCSELs that Apple will purchase from Finisar will be made in the Texas plant. In addition to the TrueDepth camera lasers, Finisar also produces proximity sensors for Apple’s AirPods.

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Google brings a Chrome… installer… to the Microsoft Store [Updated]

Enlarge / The app, in all its glory.

In an effort to further diminish Edge’s role as “the browser you use to install Chrome,” Google has published a Chrome installer application to the Microsoft Store. Install that app, and it’ll download and install Chrome for you.

Chrome itself is not a Store app. While Microsoft has developed a system, “Centennial,” for packaging existing Windows applications and distributing them through the Store—a convenient capability, as it provides centralized upgrading and clean uninstallation—Google is not using that for Chrome. The Chrome that gets installed is the regular version of Chrome that you’d get if you downloaded it directly from Google.

For most Windows users, the distinction doesn’t matter a great deal. While we’d like more apps to be available through the Store—if for no other reason than to get the simplified updating and uninstallation—virtually every Windows user already runs a number of non-Store applications anyway. The exception is Microsoft’s locked-down Windows 10 S. Windows 10 S can only install and run Store apps. As such, 10 S can’t make use of this Chrome installer; while the installer itself can be, uh, installed, it’s not able to install the non-Store version of Chrome.

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Days after iPhone battery fiasco, lawsuits against Apple begin to mount

Enlarge / An iPhone 6’s battery, courtesy of iFixit. (credit: iFixit)

Since news broke that Apple deliberately slows down the processor speed of iPhones as they age, the company has now been sued three times in various federal courts nationwide.

These proposed class-action lawsuits allege largely the same thing: that over time certain iPhones exhibited lower performance and that Apple fraudulently concealed this fact from owners. If those customers went to an Apple Store to investigate, they were encouraged to simply buy a new iPhone.

“Had Plaintiffs been informed by Apple or its technical/customer service support staff that a battery replacement would have improved the performance of the above devices, they would have opted to replace the batteries instead of purchasing new phones,” one of the lawsuits, Abdulla et al v. Apple, which was filed Thursday in federal court in Chicago, alleges.

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The iPhone X’s Face ID can’t approve family purchases, and no one knows why

Enlarge / Dots, dots everywhere! (credit: Apple)

iPhone X owners have found that Face ID isn’t available as an authentication method for the “Ask to Buy” feature, which allows parents to approve their kids’ iOS purchases and downloads. Instead, the parent (or any other “family organizer,” as Apple terms it) must enter their entire Apple account password to approve each individual purchase attempt.

Users are frustrated because equivalent functionality was available on Touch ID devices, and that functionality has been lost in the transition to the iPhone X. Face ID can be used as an authentication method for other purchases, just like Touch ID before it—but Touch ID also worked for “Ask to Buy,” and Face ID doesn’t.

Apple has touted Face ID’s ability to replace Touch ID in interactions for which Touch ID was previously used. In fact, we found when reviewing the iPhone X that third-party apps using Touch ID automatically used Face ID instead on that device, with no action needed from Apple. It was a slick, seamless transition, so it’s all the more surprising that it doesn’t work for an iOS feature offered by Apple itself. Apple’s documentation of the feature makes no mention of either Touch ID or Face ID.

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