• will.i.am's first smartwatch winds down

    Unlike the about-to-ship Apple Watch, the PULS has been around since October. Sort of.

    That's when musician/entrepeneur/occasional trademark collector will.i.am unveiled this $399 "smart cuff" at Salesforce.com's Dreamforce conference in San Francisco . And then an invite-only preview program began: You could make your case for getting a chance to buy one by testifying about your "leader," "trailblazer," "cultural tastemaker," "dreamer," "creator" or "fashionista" status. puls2

    I came across a review unit after sitting down with will.i.am during the International CES trade show and wore it on and off during the months after. I can't say I'll miss this device when I return it, but wearing it was certainly an enlightening experience.

    First off, the PULS isn't a smart watch as we've gotten to know it. Unlike the Apple Watch, Android Wear watches and such earlier wearables as Samsung's Galaxy Gear, this Android-descended device is a phone with its own AT&T bill—but not its own browser or app store.

    (I'd make a Dick Tracy comparison, but I don't think I've read one of those strips outside of illustrations in wearable-tech stories.)

    Having a phone in your watch turns out to be less than practical unless all your calls involve extroverts who will appreciate being overheard by passerby—the PULS only works as a speakerphone, just like the Apple Watch when it acts as an extension of your iPhone.

    You can pair the PULS with a Bluetooth headset, if you don't mind the bonus social stigma. pule3

    Having to incorporate the guts of a smartphone also makes the PULS an exceptionally chunky contraption, from 3/8th of an inch thick on its screen side to 5/16th of an inch at the other end. It barely fit under the cuff of a dress shirt and was then difficult to tug out to view.

    The PULS exhibited woeful battery life: Its talk time of 5 hours and 42 minutes was one of the worst I've seen, even though its screen had automatically shut off for most of that time. (Like the Apple Watch, this spends most of its time not displaying the time.)

    At CES, i.am said he had to charge his own far more often: two to three times a day. But because I rarely used the loaner unit to make phone calls, I was able to get through a full day before I had to click a proprietary alligator-clamp charger around the band.

    The PULS's self-contained design also leaves you no way to enter text but your voice or its dauntingly dainty onscreen keyboard. Before you ask: As ridiculous as using a Bluetooth keyboard might seem, I tried that anyway but couldn't get the watch to pair with a Motorola unit.

    Voice input can work reasonably well, although my first attempt at composing the winter-weather tweet "I like glazed donuts. I do not like glazed sidewalks" came out as "I like late donuts I do not likely sidewalks."

    The keyboard wasn't as awful as I expected when I had to type words in the dictionary; as its setup routine showed, it was smart enough to read "Udlll" as "Hello." But for e-mail addresses and passwords… ugh. It was an ordeal I don't need to revisit again, ever.

    The PULS can sync to a variety of online accounts; I set up my loaner unit with Gmail and Google calendar and contacts, plus Twitter and Instagram, but could not get Facebook to sync.

    It also ships with music and maps apps. The latter only offers driving directions, which is a huge missed opportunity—a smartwatch is great for getting walking and biking directions on the go.

    And you have a virtual assistant, "aNeedA." She was good at looking up bits of data via Wolfram Alpha but could not set a timer, thwarting my hope of using this device as a cooking co-pilot.

    So what did I like? The simple, calming interface of the PULS. You swipe up or down to go from one app to the next; as each one appears, its outline of an icon drops its own shadow, a visual effect i.am said was meant to evoke a sundial.

    There's no need to worry about whether you need to swipe left or right versus up or down, as is the case in Android Wear. The only part of the UI that requires learning is the nifty gesture through which you can jump from an individual app back to the home list of apps, the notifications list or aNeedA; swipe in from the right, then trace a path to any of those three icons.

    You may be more likely to see that interface on somebody else's wearable, courtesy of the recently-announced deal with Gucci to develop a smartwatch. And what about getting the PULS itself out of that closed preview program? An answer came from a PR rep on Wednesday: "We just completed the three month program and will be applying our findings to create the next generation of the PULS device to bring to market later this year."

    That may limit the signature accomplishment of the PULS to this: not getting confused for another smartwatch. pulscharger

  • The new Nexus lineup is weak

    If you've sunk enough of your time into Android, the appearance of a new lineup of Nexus devices from Google can be both a yearly ritual and a source of exasperation.

    Historically, Nexus devices have represented Android done right. They ship without the bloatware that manufacturers and carriers spackle onto Google's operating system. They get software updates almost immediately instead of months later, or never.

    And because Nexus phones come unlocked, free to use on any compatible service, they also feel like something that belongs to you, rather than a chain to the carrier that really owns it.

    But in the nearly five years since the Nexus One's debut, the Nexus lineup has shifted sizes, shapes and prices in a way that starts to look like extended A/B testing program. And the latest crop—the Nexus 6 phone, Nexus 9 tablet, and Nexus Player media streamer—is weaker than usual.

    Nexus 6 : This phone dwarfs its ancestors—2010's Nexus One andNexus S, 2011's Galaxy Nexus, 2012's Nexus 4 (note:my own phone) and last year's Nexus 5. The Motorola-built Nexus 6 sports a 5.96-inch, Quad HD display that packs in far more pixels than any human retina can discern, yet loses much of that resolution to oversized icons and text that's too large by default.

    More important, the Nexus 6 makes one-handed use a clumsy, fumbling routine—so much that it has me wondering what I found so awful about the first Galaxy Note.

    Here, for instance, are the gyrations I go through to search Twitter when holding the phone in my left hand: First, curl my fingers to twirl the phone up and to the left, so my thumb can reach the top-right corner; second, rotate it back down so that my thumb can traverse the keyboard; third, hope the phone doesn't slip free.


  • Pandora's "Music Genome Project" explores the cold hard facts of how we interact with music

    Among the algorithms that run our online lives, Pandora's Music Genome Project may not be as critical as Google's search equations, but the math behind the self-programming Web-radio service seems just as opaque.

    Some of that mystery is by design, but Pandora's been a little more public about how it gathers and grades the more than one million tracks in its collection. And over a long briefing at its Oakland offices and subsequent follow-ups over e-mail, it told me a few more details.

    First, humans grade the songs, not computers–and it's surprising how much effort is involved. Pandora's 25 or so music analysts have to assign either one-to-five rankings or more quantitative measures (say, beats per minute) for as many as 450 "genome units" per song.

    For example, vocals get graded on terms like "Smooth or Silky" (Tom Waits' "Come On Up to the House" earned a totally unsurprising 1), "Delivery Spoken-to-Sung" and "Child or Child-like." Music can be broken down by metrics such as "Melodicism Lo-to-Hi" (how easily could you play this back?) and "Melodic Articulation Clean-to-Dirty" (how precisely does the melody hit the beat?).

    Each of Pandora's analysts–many hired from the Bay Area scene via word-of-mouth–can handle four songs an hour, for about 10,000 songs graded a month.

    Is it possible to listen to music like a normal human being after you leave the office? "It's something I can turn on or off," said analyst Steve Hogan during my briefing in May. "It hasn't interfered with my ability to enjoy a piece of music."

    (In his spare time, he plays the organ at San Francisco Giants home games.)

    Secomd, they don't care about your location, or if you buy music through the service.

    I'd like to be able to request songs that come from artists near me–locavore listening!–but Pandora reflects its origins. It's a service that predates location-aware smartphones.

    "One of the themes that runs through [our listener feedback] is the ability to localize the music selections," said founder Tim Westergren. He allowed that the bigger potential might be at the other end of the system–letting musicians see where they're finding an audience. "Boy, what if you could allow a artist to log into Pandora and see a heat map of where their fans are and plot out a tour?"

    Musicians can make money more directly from an engaged Pandora listening by selling tracks through the service's click-through links. You might think that this transaction–the most direct fan support possible through the app–would weigh heavily in its calculations, but it's not factored in either.

    Apple's iTunes Radio makes for an interesting comparison, since it can start to customize music stations not based on one artist but on the content of a user's entire iTunes library.

    Finally, negative feedback is given more weight than positive feedback.

    Years ago, Pandora let its listeners' use of the thumbs-up button drive what what they'd hear. But as more of its usage has shifted to mobile devices, it's found that people "thumbs-up" less but hit the thumbs-down and skip buttons as much as ever.

    "We stopped chasing thumbs-up and started chasing total listening hours," said Eric Bieschke, head of Pandora's playlist engineering team. For a song to serve that goal, it had to rank highly in four areas–some of which seem to contradict each other.

    Prediction accuracy, in the sense of matching the right music to the right listener, seems to clash with the virtue of " surprisal" (Bieschke's term). And variety, taken to a sufficient degree, conflicts with relevance.

    And that's where Pandora lets me down most often. Heard over hours at a stretch–for instance, when I'm testing a smartphone's battery life–its talent pool can look a little shallow. Not just the same artists but the same albums crop up repeatedly; for instance, the Pandora station I modeled after my friend Eric Brace's band Last Train Home seems guaranteed to serve up Ryan Adams and the Cardinals' "Cold Roses" within the first two hours.

    In a 3,172-word post in 2010, University of Virginia music researcher Jason Kirby, pursuing a Ph.D. in music, poked at a similar hole in Pandora's output. "I find homogeneity of songs' tempo an issue," he wrote. "The Genome's platform, as it currently works, seems unable to deliver the ebbs and flows in tempo and musical texture which I enjoy in a good mix tape or college radio show."

    Alas, mixtapes are dead, and college radio can be heard nowhere near me.


  • Samsung Galaxy Gear is a timepiece with an agenda

    Is your life so complicated that you must strap a small machine to your wrist, learn a new interface, and wear this device during almost all waking hours to avoid missing appointments?

    Maybe not: Many of us stopped wearing watches years ago in favor of glancing at our phones.

    But Samsung's Galaxy Gear is no ordinary watch. This $299 device, unveiled early last month, functions as both external monitor and peripheral for its new Galaxy Note 3 Android smartphone–the only phone officially compatible with it, although Samsung plans to add Gear support to such recent Android models as its Galaxy Note II, Galaxy S III and Galaxy S 4.


  • The real Web TV: Chromecast, Apple or Roku?

    The people at Google charged with putting Web multimedia on TV haven't just spent the last few years getting kicked around the living room: The new Chromecast shows the company's learned something from the flops of Google TV and last year's abandoned Nexus Q.

    This $35 thumb-sized pod plays audio and video from apps on an Android or iOS phone or tablet, but its utility doesn't depend on the cooperation of potentially uncaring media companies: It can also play what's in any Chrome browser tab.

    That makes it an interesting alternative to two older, almost-as-cheap Web-media receivers: Apple's $99 Apple TV and Roku's $49.99-to-$99.99 players.


  • Samsung's Galaxy S 4 is a No-Touch-Touchscreen, Not-Quite-Android Android Phone

    Samsung's new smartphone contains multitudes.

    The Galaxy S 4's touchscreen doesn't need to be touched to respond to your actions. Its software looks less like Android than almost any other phone running Google's operating system, but the thing ships with a newer version of it, 4.2, than almost all others. And its 5-inch screen outsizes the 4.8-in. display of the earlier Galaxy S III, but it's smaller and lighter than Samsung's flagship phone of last year.

    And like its best-selling predecessor, the S 4 invites an assessment from multiple perspectives.


  • Tim Berners-Lee: The Web needs to stay open, but DRM is fine by me

    AUSTIN—The knight who invented the World Wide Web came to SXSW to point out a few ways in which we're still doing it wrong.

    Tim Berners-Lee's "Open Web Platform: Hopes & Fears" keynote hopscotched from the past of the Web to its present and future, with some of the same hectic confusion that his invention shows in practice. (The thought that probably went through attendees' heads: "Sir Tim is nervous at public speaking. Just like us!")

    But his conclusion was clear enough: The Web is our work, and we shouldn't put our tools down. (more…)

  • Google's cheaper Chromebook: enough of a computer

    The cheaper Chromebooks that Google introduced last month don't deserve credit for being a cheap way to read e-mail and surf the web: any smartphone meets that specification.

    But the $249 Samsung model I've been testing for the past two weeks can do those things and also plausibly replace a low-end laptop.

    Like an iPad or an Android tablet such as Google's Nexus 7, this Chromebook demands no special setup, provides an excellent window on the Web and updates itself almost automatically. But Samsung's WiFi laptop adds a physical keyboard and a bigger, 11.6-in. screen and then welcomes other digital devices without needing adapters: Like any other laptop, you can plug in a USB flash drive, SD Card, digital camera or HDTV.


  • Off the Grid, Still In the Box: where's Cable TV headed?

    The cable box can make channel serfs of us all. It's big, it's bulky, it has an interface an Excel spreadsheet might salute, and it sucks down too much electricity. It's one reason why cable TV bottom-feeds in customer-satisfaction surveys–only airlines and newspapers score lower in the University of Michigan's research.

    But for a still-sizable majority of American viewers, the cable box is How They Get TV, and nobody can fix it except for their cable operators.

    The industry's just-finished Cable Show in Boston featured exhibits by dozens of networks hoping to see new channels added to cable lineups, plus a few starry-eyed demos of technology we may not get for years. (Disclosure: A freelance client, Discovery Communications, owns quite a few channels.) But it also revealed modest hope for "clunky set-top boxes"–to quote an acknowledgment of subscriber gripes in National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell's opening speech.