Sony Xperia Z3 review - Sony Xperia sequel hits all the right notes

Good - The Sony Xperia Z3 packs great battery life, a brilliant display, beautiful design and waterproof features. If you own a PS4, you'll also be able to play PS4 games remotely on your phone.

Bad - The UI can use updating -- all the icons just look way too big. While it may have a 20.7-megapixel camera, autofocus can be a little off, but nothing a quick tap on the screen can't fix.

Bottom Line - The Sony Xperia Z3 is Sony's most formidable to date with a formidable display and promising features that easily give Android competition from HTC, LG and Samsung a run for their money.
Sony's newest Z-series flagship phone didn't take long to arrive -- the Xperia Z2 was only announced earlier this year -- but in a flash it took its place as Sony's ultimate smartphone. It brings a new, refined design and is one of the first smartphones along with the smaller Z3 Compact and the Z3 Tablet Compact, to promise a deep integration with Sony's PlayStation 4 games console.

With the Z3, Sony finally integrates its various platforms into an ecosystem that can rival Apple or Microsoft -- but on top of Google's Android. Indeed, the company's purchase of the mobile division from its joint partnership with Ericsson has finally take fruit, after two and a half years.

The Xperia Z3 is on sale now in the UK and set to hit stores Asia in early October. In the UK, it's available SIM-free from around £500 online, or free on monthly contracts from around the £35 mark. There's no word yet on how much the Z3 will sell for unlocked in the US but its Singapore price, S$998, converts to around $800.

In Australia, the Z3 is available for pre-order now at Au$849, but there's no actual onsale date yet. You can get a more detailed look at pricing and carrier plans here.

In the US it's slated for a fall launch with T-Mobile, making it the first time Sony is actually selling its flagship handset at roughly the same time right around the world.

Design

Sometimes there's really no need to deviate too much from a good thing, That's just what Sony has done here, only slightly refining the previous Xperia formula to good effect. It keeps the glass-covered front and rear and the aluminum band that holds it all together, but like Apple, Sony refined the Z3's profile for a new generation. The a result is slightly smaller, slimmer and lighter Z2. The rounded edges also make for a better grip -- the sharper edges of the Z2 can dig uncomfortably into your hand.

Like the recent iPhone 6 and HTC One M8, the Z3 has a premium feel that's hard to beat. The rear glass back can be prone to fingerprint smudges -- particularly the black model, but the white version hides this well.

Software features
Like the Z2, the Z3 comes running Android KitKat, but 4.4.4 instead of 4.4.2. The difference between the two versions are just some bug fixes, so software-wise, the features found on the Z3 are pretty much the same.

You have built-in themes, floating apps, Sony's own take on the image gallery called Albums, a music app called Walkman and a Movie app that lets you rent films (although this doesn't work from where I'm testing in Singapore).

There is new stuff, however, and this includes Lifelog, a health tracker; Sony Select, an app curator; and PlayStation, which lets you play PlayStation 4 games on your phone anywhere at home. You'll essentially be able to use your Xperia Z3 as a remote screen for your PS4, using the PS4's DualShock 4 controller to stay in the game.

PS4 integration
Of the new features, the new PS4 remote play stands out as one of the more important features. Sony has been talking about integration for years now, having acquired the other half of its mobile business from the partnership with Ericsson in early 2012, and the Z3 looks set to properly realise this. If you already own a PS4, there's more reason to get locked in to the Sony ecosystem to get the full experience.

Unfortunately, this isn't quite ready yet -- the rollout looks likely to happen sometime in October or November, and as such, we're unable to test out this feature just yet. Given that this is one of the major calling cards for the new Z3 range of devices, we'll properly evaluate this before we give our final verdict.

The Z3 is the first smartphone that lets you stream PlayStation 4 games to it: a very intriguing incentive, if you already have the console and are desperate to play while other people take their turn on the family TV.

Internal specs
Spec-wise, the Z3 packs a snappy Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor clocked at 2.5GHz, and like the Z2 has a 5.2-inch full HD display (1,920x1,080 pixels). Unlike other manufacturers, including Samsung, who have chosen to go with a "Quad HD" display (2,560x1,440 pixels), Sony is sticking with full HD on the Z3 and has come out fighting on this point, saying that the higher resolution isn't worth the tradeoff in reduced battery life. This does make some sense, especially since Sony has claimed two days of battery life for the Z3, but more on this later.

Other specs include 3GB RAM and either 16GB or 32GB of onboard storage. You'll also have dual band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC connectivity.

Are you curious about how the Xperia Z3 holds up against the current crop of Android flagships from the major brands? 

Camera

The Sony Xperia Z3 comes with the same 20.7-megapixel camera found on the Z1 and Z2, and like the Z2, but with a few improvements -- ISO sensitivity now hits 12,800 and it has a wider lens as well as better image stability. Like the Z2, it's also able of capturing 4K video.

Now, the Z3's camera seems pretty decent, but with a few caveats. Despite it having 20.7 megapixels, Sony uses pixel-binning for most of its modes, and produces a picture of around 8 megapixels.

Auto-focusing still seems a little slow compared with the iPhone 6 I have to hand, but I would imagine Sony is likely to take a page from Samsung and Apple in a future phone and add phase detection for better focusing.

Also, the camera doesn't always seem to get the focus right the first time, but a quick tap on the screen seems to solve this. Colors also seem a little drab, but you can tweak the settings to obtain warmer tones.

One last thing to note is that the physical camera shutter button is pretty handy to have, and the automatic mode seems capable of handling whatever shots you need.

Performance

With the Z3 packing a quad-core Snapdragon 801 2.5GHz processor, the phone was quick and snappy. While it's not the latest Snapdragon 805 processor found in newer devices, you'll have no performance issues with this phone, that's for sure.

On the Quadrant benchmark, the Z3 scored 20,425, which is similar to other phones that use the same processor. The result of the Linpack multi-threaded test is also similar, scoring 843.333 MFLOPs over 0.2 seconds, which is pretty good.

The results of the Z3 are comparable to other phones using the Snapdragon 801 processor, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5, which had a higher Quadrant score of 23,707, or the LG G3, which managed 23,103. Bear in mind though that benchmarks don't tell the full story -- some manufacturers have been to known to tweak their phones to get them to score higher in these tests.

Call quality
I found no issues with call quality, and I even used this phone to do a radio interview. The radio hosts had no problems with the quality, and that's always a good sign. The front-facing speaker volume was also pretty good, though not as loud or as clear as HTC's own front-facing BoomSound blasters.

Battery life
Here's where the Z3 shines. Sony claims that the phone is easily able to last two days, and while I didn't quite get there, I easily lasted one and half days of heavy usage. I spent at least a full morning browsing on the phone and checking emails while waiting for an appointment, followed by a lull period back at the office, and then Web surfing on my evening commute. I left it uncharged at night, and the phone survived till around noon-ish through my usual morning activities, which included taking pictures and tweeting at an event. If you're a moderate user (checking emails and Web browsing occasionally during the day), I think you'll be easily able to hit that claimed two-day mark.

In the CNET Video Lab test, the Z3 measured 12.5 hours, which puts it ahead of the iPhone 6, HTC One M8, and LG G3 but behind the Galaxy S5.

Conclusion

Sony's Xperia Z3 doesn't have a brand new design, but it's an evolution of what the company has been working on the last few years. It's a great phone, but it's still early to say if the Z3 will make a Sony global force in smartphones. After all, HTC is a prime example of a company making great handsets, but struggling to stay afloat.

That said, if you haven't already upgraded from the Z1 to the Z2, skip it and jump straight to the Z3. It packs a brilliant display, waterproof features and a good camera into a slim and sleek design. While the UI could use a little tweaking to better suit the phone's sexy design, the Z3 definitely impresses.

While we await to test the PlayStation 4 remote play feature, I daresay the Z3 is one of the best Sony phones to date. It's as good as the LG G3, but with the promise of much better battery life -- plus, I'll be honest, the "Quad HD" screen of the G3 is cool, but it's not really required right now.

Sony researcher wants to put you in someone else's head

Jun Rekimoto, who studies augmented reality at Sony Computer Science Labs, is using cameras, drones and sensors to capture and share what others are seeing and feeling.

Jun Rekimoto envisions a future in which sports spectators will be able to watch games through the eyes of the players, experiencing the sights and feeling on the field, even while sitting at home on the couch.
This concept of "jacking in," popularized by William Gibson's seminal 1984 novel "Neuromancer," is something that's existed in the reaches of science fiction for decades, but one that Rekimoto is trying to bring closer to reality.

Rekimoto, deputy director of research at Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Tokyo, outlined some of his work in this area at the lab's first-ever research symposium in the US. The event was held this week in Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, where researchers discussed their work in music, art and prosthetics, to name a few areas.

Rekimoto's focus has been on augmented reality, taking the ideas from Gibson's novel and trying to apply them to current technology. "I wanted to extend this concept, that we can immersively connect to other humans or drones," he said during an interview after the symposium.

Augmented reality technologies have existed for years, but there's a sudden acceleration in virtual reality technology, from Oculus' gaming-oriented virtual reality technology to Sony's own Project Morpheus. Even Samsung, working with Oculus, is set to sell a virtual headset powered by its Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. These products could spark huge changes in how people watch movies, play games and communicate with each other.

"When you combine that viewing experience, it really creates a new way of communicating," said Brian Blau, a consumer-technology analyst for research firm Gartner. "Seeing someone else's viewpoint, I think, is going to be a powerful paradigm."

Rekimoto sits further out on the developmental curve, with some of the ideas he's working on not expected to reach the market for years. In one project, he and a team are developing a headset called LiveSphere, which includes six cameras and can capture 360 degrees around someone wearing the device. Rekimoto said the headset, along with audio instructions from someone watching remotely, could help users get guidance on cooking or medical procedures. Athletes could wear a similar device to provide a fresh view for spectators.

"The resulting image is quite exciting," Rekimoto said when describing a test with a gymnast swinging around on a high bar while wearing LiveSphere.

He added that Sony researchers are also working on adding the sense of touch into LiveSphere by using a "tactile device," such as actuators mounted on fingers.

In another project, Rekimoto said the lab is developing something called Flying Head, in which a drone follows a person's movements. That technology could be used to help athletes gauge their form and style when practicing. In another case, jacking into a personalized drone could allow a user to inspect disaster areas too dangerous for people to visit.

"I think the more important, or more promising, practice is a human augmenting other humans," Rekimoto said, adding that he expects that such technology could birth "a huge industry" with human abilities transmitted from one person to another.

The bizarre bendable phone wears like a shirt sleeve

A California startup is crowdfunding a flexible phablet that you strap to your arm and it might not be totally ridiculous. 

For the past few years, the standing lazy punchline about wearables has been something about awkwardly strapping a computer or a phone to your body. Finally, a crowdfunding campaign has taken the joke to the next level and made that punchline a reality.
San Francisco Bay Area startup Arubixs has designed a flexible screen phablet dubbed "Portal" that slides into a dual-strap arm cradle that extends about halfway up the forearm from the wrist. It seems equal parts brilliant and ridiculous. We've seen flexible displays like this for years now -- mostly as demonstration models at CES that never make it to market -- but this is the first design I've seen that's built entirely around the flexibility of the screen.

"Current wearable offerings and even the new Apple Watch are just too small to text on or do anything really practical," Arubixs founder Brandon Mairs told CNET via email. "This (Portal) is not just a wearable. It's a smartphone you can wear. So when the phone is not in the cradle it's just a thin, 6-inch smartphone that's flexible, water resistant and shatterproof."

While the idea of essentially strapping a bendable phone the size of a Galaxy Note to your arm seems like it would be a tough sell even in a futuristic sci-fi universe, the Portal's specs are hard to ignore.

 Arubixs claims its 6-inch TFT display is also scratch-resistant and reinforced by a flexible Kevlar exterior. It has 2GB RAM, a total of four cameras, 64GB of storage, a full suite of sensors, NFC, Bluetooth, LTE, wireless charging and a proprietary 3,200mAh flexible battery. The processor is yet to be determined. Portal will run a skinned version of Android and respond to touch, gesture and motion-based commands.

Part of me really likes the basic concept here, which is a single device that can act as smartwatch, fitness tracker and phone all at once, but the whole thing reminds me a little too much of the guy at the office party who tries a little too hard. Right down to the Indiegogo pitch video below, which at first seems like a satire from an episode of HBO's "Silicon Valley."

 But if we can just throw away the absurd steel-banded "executive" model, and focus on the idea of a large, rugged wearable device for active uses like sports or even working in the field, Portal starts to seem like a pretty cool potential niche product.

If you're such a shameless phablet fan that you'd have no problem wearing one on your sleeve -- or as a sleeve -- you can claim a Portal via an Indiegogo campaign right now, starting at $349. If you prefer something a little more subtle, the company says it's working on a smaller, 4-inch model.

"We started with a 6-inch display first, then realized in testing (that) a smaller one could close the gap for everyone's needs," Mairs told CNET. "In early 2016 we will be introducing a more compact 4-inch. I personally prefer the 4-inch myself and wear that mock-up around town all the time."

Check out the pitch video below and let us know in the comments or by tweeting @crave if you'd ever consider wearing something similar.

Motorola Moto X (2014) review - Motorola's new Moto X far surpasses the original

The Good - The Motorola Moto X has a sharp 1080p screen, a swift quad-core processor, nifty software and gesture features, and customizable design options that'll fit anyone's style.
The Bad - A minimalist camera, combined with no expandable memory, are the handset's only drawbacks.
The Bottom Line - The Motorola Moto X hits all the right notes, delivering stock Android inside a powerful high-end handset that you can customize yourself.

Personally, it's been a long time since I've been excited about a phone. I'm not sure if it's because I'm a sucker for stock Android, or because I crave something aesthetically unique, but the last time I remember something really piqued my interest was the red-hot Google Nexus 5.
That being said, the next-gen Motorola Moto X is my next handset. Why? Because it's fast. Because the screen is gorgeous. Because it can come in wood and leather and (some would say an "artless") pink. Because even though I've seen cameras with more features, its 13-megapixel shooter is still solid. Because I get a kick out of talking with it like it's a human who knows a lot of facts even though she's slow to respond. Because it's all this combined.

True, we were already fans of the original Moto, even though it wasn't designed to equally match up against other flagships at the time. The same is true here, except this new model closes the gap between it and its rivals. And though it only sits a mere half-step behind top-tier phones, the new Moto X makes up for it in spades with its price, build quality, and reliable performance.

Availability
In the US, the device starts at $100 on contract from AT&T and Verizon, or for $500 unlocked, plus $25 for optional wood or leather backs, and another $50 for 16GB of extra storage. UK users can nab it for £420 unlocked, plus £20 for the premium finishes, and £40 for the extra storage. Unfortunately, Australia just got its hands on the first Moto X six months ago in March 2014, so this updated variant isn't available there yet. It is however scheduled for a release by the end of October or early November. No additional pricing or availability details have been supplied by Motorola at this stage.

Design
Similar to its predecessor, the Moto X sports curved backing, which renders it incredibly comfortable to hold. It's more ergonomically accommodating than the straight-edge Samsung Galaxy S5 and its arc bends deeper at the center than the HTC One M8, making it fit cozier in the hand. Even with my petite grip, I didn't run into much trouble flicking through and maneuvering this device with my thumb.

With its larger 5.2-inch display, the phone now measures 5.54 inches tall, 2.85 inches wide, and 0.39 inches thick at its deepest (140.8 by 72.4 by 9.9mm). And at 5.08 ounces (144 grams), it's a tad heavier than its predecessor. I don't consider these design flaws, however, since you gain more screen real estate.

Besides, the new Moto X looks a whole lot sexier than before. For one thing, its trimmings have been upgraded from plastic to metal, so the device has a more premium aesthetic. The fact that the display curves smoothly over the edges (which is reminiscent of the Google Nexus 4) instead of being hugged by the bezels adds to the sleek, luxurious feel. Motorola also tacked on another front-facing speaker grille at the bottom, and textured the power button with ridges to make it easier to discern by touch. The signature M-dimple on the rear is bigger too, and I found it useful as an anchor for my finger while holding the handset.

Of course, one of the phone's main draws is the fact that you can customize it through Motorola's Moto Maker website. (This is now available in the UK too, though sadly, once again, those living in Australia don't have a chance to partake in this -- Aussies will get a choice of the black resin or bamboo finish and that's it.)

There are only two color options for the front side (black or white), but for the back, you can choose between 17 colors, four types of wood grain, and four leather dyes. Wood and leather finishes add $25 or £20 to the final price, however. Your speaker grilles and the ring around the M-dimple are known as "trim" and that comes in 10 more colors. Other options include memory capacity (either 16GB or 32GB, with the latter being $50 or £40 more), cases, and personal engravings.

My review unit had a black leather backing, which looked sophisticated and austere. But while the material is unique and staves off fingerprints, it does accumulate small indentations here and there from daily use that you can see. This is a natural occurrence with leather, so it isn't a huge deal, but it's something to keep in mind.

Display
The Moto X's 5.2-inch OLED screen features Corning Gorilla Glass 3, a 1080p resolution, and 423 pixels per inch. It's much sharper than last year's 720p AMOLED screen, and is on par with the 5.1-inch Galaxy S5 and the 5.0-inch One M8 in terms of clarity and richness. (The LG G3 still edges out all these devices with its quad-HD technology, 538ppi, and bigger 5.5-inch size, however.)

In general, this handset's display looks vibrant and brilliant. Images, videos, and games are vivid, the screen has a wide viewing angle, and it's easily readable in sunlight given that the brightness is cranked to its maximum level. When I checked specific swatches of black and white, the former looked deep, while the latter appeared pure and bright. The display's also responsive to the touch, and the way it contours down to the edge as mentioned before keeps my swiping and flicking smooth.

Software features
Compared to Google-branded devices like the Nexus and special Play Edition handsets, the Moto X doesn't run the "purist" form of Android, but it comes pretty darn close. It has Android 4.4.4 KitKat, and Motorola noted that the phone will be able to update to Android L the moment the new version rolls out. As expected, the device also includes your usual bundle of Google apps like Drive, Gmail, the Chrome Browser, Maps, and Quickoffice.

Similar to its predecessor, the Moto X has a bevy of convenient software tricks. The digital and search assistant, Moto Voice, works similar to Google Now, and you can activate it without touching the device. Just set up a personal greeting (in my case, I went with the informal, "Hey yo, Moto X") to perk up its ears. Then, say a command -- you can look up the current weather forecast, ask when the next game is on, look up a song title if it's playing in real-time, and more. Moto Voice also launches other apps. If you ask it to take a selfie, the front-facing camera will open up and begin to countdown for a picture. You can also ask the handset to peck out a text, post to Facebook and Twitter, set an alarm, or navigate to a destination.

For the most part, the feature works well, but there are some caveats. You'll need to be in a relatively quiet room, and speak in clear, distinct manner that can sound a bit unnatural. You also need to give Moto Voice enough time to register you command, which can take several seconds to kickstart.

Moto Display shows any missed notifications you have, even while the phone's sleeping. Just wave your hand over the screen's front sensors, see what pops up, and if you want more information on a specific notification, tap the individual app icon. There's also Moto Assist, which adjusts your device's settings depending where you are (in a meeting, at home, driving, or trying to catch up on sleep, for example). Lastly, Moto Actions incorporates gesture control, such as waving your hand over your Moto X to silence it in case it receives an incoming call.

As an AT&T handset, you will get some preloaded apps from the carrier. In addition to its branded email and navigators apps, there's AT&T Live, a news service powered by Yahoo! There's a usage manager so you can look over your battery and data consumption, 5GB of free cloud storage through AT&T Locker, and MyAT&T, which lets you check your data and account info.

Camera and video

The Moto X's camera jumped from 10- to 13-megapixels, and can record video in slow motion and in 2,160p ultra HD 4K. The fact that the phone runs mostly pure Android means that users miss out on manufacturer-specific camera software. And similar to the Google Nexus, the Moto X's camera only has a handful of features, including geo-tagging, panoramic shooting, and HDR. The front-facing 2-megapixel camera can record in 1080p HD video, though panoramic shooting and control focus are disabled. Users can takes photos while shooting, as well as pause live recording.

Similar to its predecessor, users can flick their wrists with the device in hand, to launch the camera. Though this isn't the most natural motion, it's pretty effective and useful. To activate the 4x digital zoom, you'll need to swipe up and down on the left side of the viewfinder; and to call up the menu wheel, you can swipe inward from the edges of the screen.

There's also a feature called "control focus and exposure." This lets you lock in the lighting exposure or focus of certain areas and objects inside the picture. The tool is signified with an encircled bracket that appears directly on the viewfinder, and you can drag it around the screen to select your area of focus.

For me, this tool took some time to get used to. Before I got the hang of it, I took many disappointing, out-of-focus pictures that had randomly blurry objects in the middle or edges of my photos. The fact that directly tapping the viewfinder also activates the shutter didn't help either. But after a while, I was able to learn the difference between "hard tapping the screen to take a picture" and "gently pressing my finger against the screen to start operating the control focus." Other users may get the hang of this much quicker than me, but it's important to note that some learning is required nonetheless.

Again, the camera isn't as feature-rich like the GS5, and with HDR turned off, light sources can be blown out easily. But I was impressed by how true-to-life colors were (especially with indoor lighting and white hues) and how fast it operated. For more on handset's photo quality, check out the images below. And be sure to click on them to see them at their full resolution.

Performance
I tested the Moto X in our San Francisco offices and call quality on AT&T was great. Although I could hear a slight amount of static every now and then when my calling partner spoke, it was very subtle and wasn't overly distracting or irritating. Other than that, none of my calls dropped, volume range was appropriate, audio remained continuous, and there weren't any other buzzing or extraneous noise going on in the background. In addition, speaker quality was particularly notable. Although audio didn't quite have the same depth as it does on the One M8, the dual front-facing speakers rendered conversations louder and clearer than most devices.

Likewise, my partner said my voice sounded clear as well. Although she could tell I was speaking from a mobile handset, she said that audio on her line sounded clean with no distortion or static.

Data speeds on the carrier's 4G LTE network was fast, and I was most impressed with the phone's average download and upload rate, which according to Ookla's speed test app was 33.92Mbps down and 12.29Mbps up. As usual when I browsed the web on AT&T, I experienced some load time hiccups, with some sites stalling to display after several seconds passed by. On this device, however, it occurred quite rarely, happening only two or three times total.
On average, sites loaded very fast. For example, both of CNET's mobile and desktop pages loaded in 6 seconds. The New York Times mobile and desktop sites took 10 and 8 seconds, respectively. The mobile for ESPN clocked in at 4 seconds and its full page loaded in 6. Downloading and installing the 45.80MB game Temple Run 2 was also quick, taking only 25 seconds.

The Moto X's processor is incredibly zippy -- apps launch and close with ease; graphics intensive games like Riptide GP 2 show high frame rates and play smoothly; and the camera is nimble, readying itself instantaneously for the next shot. Benchmark tests also mirrored my real-world findings. Its best multithread Linpack score was 591.813 MFLOPs in 0.28 seconds, and though its highest 21,936 Quadrant result falls just below its competitors, the score is still fast.

Save for the One M8 (which has a 2.3GHz clock speed) all the devices including the Moto X, Galaxy S5, and LG G3 have a 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor. The One M8 scored the highest with 24,593, with the GS5 and G3 coming right after with their scores of 23,707 and 23,103, respectively. On average, it took Motorola's handset to power off and restart in 35 seconds and it took 1.76 seconds for the camera to launch.

Powered by a 2,300mAh battery, the phone has a reported talk time of 17 hours and a standby time of 10.4 days. Anecdotal observation shows that the battery is decent, but not significantly impressive. With mild usage, it can survive a work day without a charge, but expect to plug in if you're a high-powered user. During our battery drain test for continuous video playback, the phone lasted 10 hours and 38 minutes. According to FCC radiation measurements, the device has a SAR rating of 1.08W/kg.

Conclusion

The Motorola Moto X is not without its faults. Compared to other flagship competitors, its camera has few editing features, and storage hogs will find its lack of external memory disappointing.

But all its benefits mean it's easy to look past these drawbacks. Its US starting price, both on- and off-contract ($100 and $500, respectively) is lower than the Galaxy S5 and LG G3. It delivers the same high-speed processor as the other two, and has a brilliant screen. In addition, with software features like the Moto Voice and Display, the user experience feels personal and seamless.

And most importantly, in a sea of black slabs and few color options, the device achieves what no other handset has yet to do: it can look and feel like it truly belongs to you. With Moto Maker, you can design a phone that's unique and personal. Even if that's not a high priority for you, the fact is that you're already starting off with a premium device in your hands. But add the ability to customize it to reflect your personal style? Well, that's just a gigantic cherry on the top.

Amazon's iPad Air competitor, the $379 Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, gets faster processor, better Wi-Fi

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Amazon's new Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 tablet may look the same on the outside as last year's model, but look under the hood and it's got a new engine, an overhauled Wi-Fi transmission system, some audio tweaks, and an updated operating system.
That's right, there's a new quad-core Snapdragon 805 processor running at 2.5 GHz, which according to Amazon delivers 70 percent faster graphics performance, along with 802.11ac MIMO Wi-Fi, said by company reps to amp up to four times the peak bandwidth.

Prices start at $379 (for the 16GB model), with the product available for pre-order now and shipping in the US in October. A 4G version is $479 and also ships in October. UK and Australian prices and availability weren't immediately available, but that converts to about £230 or AU$420 for the 16GB model, and £300 or AU$530 for the 4G.

Amazon isn't bashful about comparing the Fire HDX 8.9 to Apple's iPad Air, which is due for a processor bump of its own this fall. The impressively slim 13.2-ounce HDX 8.9 is 20 percent lighter than the iPad Air and according to Amazon, its 2,560x1,600 (339 pixels per inch) display has 30 percent more pixels than the iPad Air's Retina display.

Later this year, a new feature, Dynamic Light Control, which "changes the the white point of the display based on the ambient light of the surroundings in order to make the page of a Kindle book more closely resemble a piece of paper," will be enabled. At the launch event in New York, we got a brief demo of the feature, which showed the background of the a digital page compared to an actual printed book page in a couple of lighting conditions. 

Amazon also says the HDX 8.9's speakers are twice as loud as those on the iPad Air and it's now the first tablet with Dolby Atmos, which typically requires dozens of "surround" speakers in a theater. To claim the Atmos experience can be replicated with a $379 tablet and a standard headphone is a bit of stretch (I saw a screening of "Guardians of the Galaxy" in Dolby's Atmos-enabled theater in New York City and it was pretty awesome). We got a demo and frankly I wasn't all that impressed -- it basically sounded like some faux surround. But hey, it sounds good to be the first Atmos-enabled tablet.

Like the new Kindle Fire HD models, including the entry-level $99 Kindle Fire HD 6, the Fire HDX 8.9 runs Amazon's freshly minted Fire OS 4.0 "Sangria," a customized version of Android KitKat (Android 4.4) that includes Family Library, Firefly, and Amazon free cloud storage of photos feature (for shots taken with Fire devices). 

Amazon's step-down 2013 Fire HDX 7 won't get an upgrade at this time, but in the US Amazon has dropped the tablet's price from $229 to $199 for the 16GB model. All of Amazon's 2013 Kindle Fire tablets can be upgraded with Fire OS 4.0 and gain access to its new features.

If you're wondering whether Amazon upgraded the front- and rear-facing cameras (rear is 8MP and captures 1080p video), it didn't, but Amazon reps said some software improvements have been made to the camera. Also, battery life is still rated at "up to 12 hours of reading, surfing the Web on Wi-Fi, watching videos, and listening to music."

Same Fire HDX 8.9, just that much better

Last year's slick HDX 8.9 was a great performer and an excellent value (Editor Eric Franklin gave it high marks). Really, it was the star of Amazon's Fire lineup and in my limited time with the new version, it seemed as zippy as any tablet out there.

We'll find out just how much of a performance boost that new processor delivers and review Fire OS 4.o's new features as soon as we get our hands on a shipping unit and run it through our testing regime. But at first touch, the Fire HDX 8.9 remains an appealing choice for heavy Amazon users, particularly Prime Members, with the only big strike against it being the lack of access to the Google Play app store and no expandable memory option.

Amazon debuts new $99 Kindle Fire HD 6, updated $139 Fire HD 7 tablets

Amazon says it challenged its designers and engineers to deliver a sub-$100 tablet that was better than all the other budget tablets that it was selling in its online store. Now here's the result: the new $99 Kindle Fire HD 6, which comes in multiple color options and ships in October, with pre-orders starting now. (Release dates and availability for the UK and Australia weren't immediately known, but that converts to about £60 and AU$110.)
As the 6 in its name indicates, this is a 6-inch tablet (measured diagonally), one of the smallest tablets you can buy. It has a 1,280x800 full-HD resolution screen (252 pixels per inch) and comes with a rather meager 8GB of memory. A 16GB version is available for $119 (converts to about £75 or AU$130). No Amazon tablets feature expandable memory like Samsung's tablets.

The larger 7-inch model, the Kindle Fire HD 7, starts at $139 with 8GB of memory and also comes in a 16GB version for $20 more or $159. Resolution on the 7-inch Fire HD is same as that of its little brother, but the pixels per inch drops to 216. Both models have brighter screens than that of their 2013 Fire HD predecessor, have Dolby Digital Plus Audio, and run Amazon's freshly minted Fire OS 4.0 "Sangria," a customized version of Android KitKat (Android 4.4) that includes Family Library, Firefly, and Amazon free cloud storage of photos feature (for shots taken with Fire devices). (It's worth noting that all of 2013's third-generation Fire tablets will be upgradeable to the new Fire OS 4.0 for free.)

For those keeping track of Amazon's tablet history, this is the company's third-generation Fire HD, which shouldn't be confused with the step-up 2013 Fire HDX 7, which remains on the market.

A better cheap tablet?

At the closed-door briefing for its new tablets and e-ink readers in New York, Amazon reps made it a point to compare the $99 Fire HD to other inexpensive tablets, including Samsung's Tab 3 Lite and Galaxy Tab 4, which cost well north of $100 (Barnes & Noble's US-only Tab 4 Nook Edition costs $179).

Amazon says the Fire HD's processor -- a quad-core MediaTek running at 1.5 GHz -- offers better performance than the processors that run competing budget tablets (Amazon says it has three times the graphics performance of the Samsung Tab 4's processor).

The new Fire HDs feature front and back facing cameras (the front camera is 2 megapixels while the back is VGA) and 8 hours of "reading, listening to music, watching video, and browsing the Web." That's the same battery rating as the previous Fire HD.

In my limited time with the product, it seemed fairly zippy and felt sturdy in hand (its display is made of Gorilla Glass). It didn't feel like a premium tablet and isn't ultrathin like the HDX 8.9 (the 7-inch Fire HD weighs the same as the previous 7-inch Fire). But for a $99 entry-level tablet, its fit and finish did seem like a cut above the rest of the generic tablet pack.

Personally, I wouldn't buy a tablet that has less than 16GB of memory, but Amazon reps said its customers tend not to fill their devices up with a lot of content, and Amazon's cloud-centric media and app infrastructure means you can always delete and redownload content as needed.

On the other hand, Amazon's continued use of its Fire OS means you're stuck with its quasi-Android apps, but without access to the real Google Play app store. That's one big issue that sank the ill-fated Fire Phone.

With the new the Fire HD products, it's clearly targeting folks on tighter budgets who are looking for a name-brand tablet at a modest price point. It also seems to be a good choice for parents who don't want to spend much money on a tablet for their kids, but want a quality product that ties into their existing Amazon accounts.

Fire HD Kids Editions

To that end, Amazon has also launched Kids Editions of the Fire HD 6 and 7, which cost $149 and $189 respectively (no 16GB versions are available). Like with the regular versions, international pricing and availability is unknown. Converted pricing would be about £90 for the 6 Kids Editions and about £115 for the larger Kids Edition; in Australia, respective pricing would be about AU$170 or AU$210.

The Kids Editions include a case (available in various colors) and a year free of Amazon's Kindle FreeTime Unlimited subscription service that gives you access to over 5,000 kid-friendly movies, TV shows, educational apps, e-books, and games in an all-you-can-eat package.

On top of that, the product is fully guaranteed for two years. If your kid drops it and breaks it (or you do), you simply send it back to Amazon and they send you a new one.

If you're interested in using FreeTime Unlimited, which is a good service, the Kids Editions are potentially appealing. But otherwise it's probably not worth spending the extra dough.

Spreading out the Kindle Fire line

With the addition of the $99 Fire HD 6 has brought down the entry price point for its tablet line and breaking the $100 price barrier is a big deal.

With its tablets, Amazon has always had good, better, best options, but the entry-level product -- last year's Fire was more of an OK deal. By breaking the $100 barrier, Amazon now seems better positioned at the low-end, though we'll reserve final judgment until we're able to fully test the new units.

iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, Apple Pay, and the Apple Watch: Here's everything Apple just announced

It happens but once a year: Apple debuts its newest phone in a grand, press- and-analyst-filled event. This year, as the iPhone gets bigger, it's joined by its long-awaited, smaller, wearable cousin. If you didn't feel like sitting through the two-hour erratic live stream or missed our live blog, here's the lowdown on what you missed.

iPhone

It wouldn't be a mobile launch without at least one new iPhone, and this year we've got two. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, with 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch screens, respectively, as well as new generation Retina Displays -- Retina HD. And the Plus' is full HD resolution.. They're thinner, have redesigned keyboards, faster graphics processing and a new motion coprocessor (for tracking motion and distance data), and bettery battery life than the iPhone 5S. they also promise faster Wi-Fi and LTE, plus there's support for VoLTE.

The camera's been updated with phase-detection autofocus, and optical image stabilization debuts in the 6 Plus, and the phone now supports 1080/60p and 30p, with slow-motion 120fps or 240fps, continuous autofocus and image stabilization. The FaceTime camera has a new sensor and f2.2 aperture, plus burst mode, better face detection, and single-shot HDR for still or video.
For US residents craving the iPhone 6, the 16GB version is just $199, while $299 gets you 64GB (instead of the 32GB that the 5S carried at that price), and $399 bumps you up to 128GB. If you're in the UK, it'll run you £539, £619, and £699, respectively, and in Australia the line of iPhone 6s will set you back AU$869, AU$999, and AU$1,129.

Meanwhile, the iPhone 6 Plus starts at $299 for 16GB, $399 for 64GB, and $499 for 128GB in the US and £619, £699, and £789, respectively, in the UK. Australian pricing is AU$999 for 16GB, AU$1,129 for 64GB, and AU$1,249 for the top-of-the-line 128GB model. Available: September 19.


Apple Watch

With a return of its trademark "One More Thing," Apple finally makes its official jump into the wearables market with the Apple Watch -- sorry, no iWatch, folks. It uses a "Digital Crown" -- you know, that thing on the side of an analog watch you use to set the time -- for navigation, as well as addition to touchscreen swiping and Siri, and provides haptic feedback.
There's a second button on the watch for Digital Touch: it brings up a list of your favorite contacts, and supports tap-based shortcuts. A sensor on the watch activates the display when you raise your wrist, and it bears a completely different interface than iOS, optimized for a small screen. It sports a flexible Retina display with a sapphire screen, a variety of sensors for motion and health tracking, and it supports inductive charging. Apple demoed some interesting applications, like the ability to unlock a hotel-room door, as well as Fitness and Workout.

In addition to watch faces, there are six different straps, each of which uses a standard means to change them. There are three collections; Apple Watch, Apple Watch Sport (most durable), and Apple Watch Edition (18K gold). It also requires an iPhone, though it will work with the 5 series as well as the iPhone 6 versions. How much? It starts at $349. Apple has not revealed pricing for the UK or Australia, but $349 converts to around £220 or AU$380. Regardless, you won't be able to get one until early 2015.

Apple Pay
Catching up with the rest of the pack, for its latest mobile devices Apple incorporates NFC (near-field communications) technology and an infrastructure called Apple Pay. It's limited to the new phones because it requires a new Secure element chip, and it sounds pretty ambitious. Credit card info is integrated through PassBook, and it uses the TouchID sensor to authenticate a payment; the retailer gets just a single-use number verified by the bank instead of your name and credit card number, whether brick-and-mortar or online. And Apple claims it doesn't monitor your purchases. It will launch with support from 83 percent of all banks and 220,000 US merchants. Apple Pay will launch in the US in October, with other countries to come in the future.

iOS 8


Announced in June and subsequently seeded to developers, this is when we finally get to see the final apps and their implementations, including new games that take advantage of the Metal gaming engine. Apple's apps have some built-in optimizations for single-handed use on the bigger screens. iOS 8 will be available to update your current devices September 17, at which point you'll get these apps on your old phone.