The News app in iOS 9 is officially available only in the US, but you can still access stories when you’re traveling abroad… unless you’re visiting China, that is. A New York Times source understands that Apple has completely disabled News access in China, preventing you from reading anything new even if you’re using one of the country’s few uncensored connections on a US device. Apple hasn’t commented on why it’s switching things off, but the theory is that it would rather turn off News access altogether than deal with the many hassles of censoring individual sources and articles.
This kind of nation-specific deactivation isn’t new. Apple automatically disables Maps’ regular data when you’re in China, replacing it with government approved maps that blot out details of most other parts of the world. As software testing service head Larry Salibra notes, though, there are worries that Apple is a little too willing to automatically change features the moment you set foot in China, even if you’ve turned location services off. While the company’s current approach is arguably necessary if it wants to keep selling iOS devices in China (and it definitely wants to), the concern is that officials may ask Apple to selectively disable other apps that challenge the nation’s political status quo.
China has a history of tightening its censorship of internet services during times of political upheaval, and that’s unfortunately happening again with massive pro-democracy protests underway in Hong Kong. Both monitoring sites and on-the-ground observers report that the country has blocked access to Instagram on the mainland, most likely to prevent images of the demonstrations from spreading beyond Hong Kong (where Instagram is still working). It’s potentially a big blow to free speech, as the photo sharing service was one of the few foreign social networks that operated unfettered in the area. We’ve reached out to Instagram for more details, but it’s safe to presume that China won’t lift its restrictions so long as the protests continue — and it won’t be surprising if this ultimately proves to be a permanent ban.
[Image credit: Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images]
Breaking: Instagram just got blocked in China, possibly due to the circulation of protests photos in Hong Kong.
There’s no question that the Jolla Tablet is an odd duck. It’s a crowdfunded, first-generation slate running an unfamiliar platform (Sailfish OS), and some of its features are based on your input — if enough of the Sailfish community votes for an interface tweak, you’re likely to see it become reality. But does that mean this tablet is a refreshing break from the status quo, or a quirky device that will make you wish you’d bought something commonplace? I’ve been living with the tablet for a few weeks to find out, and the truth is somewhere in between. As you’ll soon see, whether or not you’ll like it depends largely on how willing you are to live on the bleeding edge.
Before I dive in, it’s important to get a feel for what Jolla is trying to do. Effectively, the team (founded by ex-Nokia staffers) is carrying the torch for fans of the late, iconic N9 smartphone and the MeeGo platform at its heart. Much like Jolla’s inaugural smartphone, the Tablet aims to preserve both Nokia’s reputation for slick hardware design as well as MeeGo’s reliance on swipes for navigation instead of the usual buttons. This isn’t a me-too manufacturer — Jolla is more interested in following its unique philosophy than reaching the widest possible audience.
The hardware, at least, lives up to that lofty goal. It’s not the thinnest or lightest tablet I’ve held at 8.3mm thick and 13.5 ounces, but it manages a level of quality that you don’t usually find in tablets around Jolla’s standard post-crowdfunding price (€267, or roughly $300), let alone something that cost Indiegogo backers a mere $239. The 7.85-inch, 4:3 aspect ratio LCD gives it just the right proportions for a small tablet, and the display’s output is bright, color-rich and sharp, with a pixel count of 2,048 x 1,536. It’s not something you’d want to use one-handed very often, but it’s comfortable and well-balanced. In other words, it won’t fly out of your hands if you grab it gingerly.
This attention to hardware quality translates to the performance, for the most part. While the quad-core, 1.3GHz Atom chip and 2GB of RAM aren’t anything special at first glance, I found both Sailfish OS and its native apps to be glass-smooth. The battery drains faster than I’m used to with some tablets (including my iPad Air), but it’s more than up to the job of handling an evening’s worth of web browsing, messaging and gaming. About the only letdowns are the 5-megapixel rear and 2-megapixel front cameras. Neither is especially sharp, and I was disappointed by their muted colors and dodgy low-light performance — they’re good enough for photographing receipts and selfies, and that’s about it. Although I wouldn’t treat the camera as a major deciding factor in a tablet, it’d be nice if I could take at least a few brag-worthy shots, you know?
It’s a tougher call when it comes to software. Sailfish OS and its swipe-based navigation are, as a whole, enjoyable to use. Flick your finger around the home screen, which doubles as a BlackBerry 10-style multitasking view, and you’ll get an app drawer, a notification screen with quick task shortcuts and “ambiences” (read: themes) that can change both the look and sound of your tablet. You frequently swipe through menus, too, including pull-downs that stand in for buttons. The overall package isn’t as immediately intuitive as Android or iOS, but there’s a refreshing, uncluttered feel to it and a surprisingly gentle learning curve. I quickly found myself zipping around Sailfish, and those swipes were helpful when I wanted to quickly switch apps or couldn’t use both hands. My only major beef is that Jolla tends to lean a little too much on those pull-down menus. I shouldn’t have to guess which important commands are hiding just off-screen.
However, there’s no question that Sailfish is still a young platform, with some buggy behavior to match. The web browser is very quick, but it will make the occasional rendering mistake you rarely see elsewhere, such as refusing to show story images on Engadget’s main page. It wouldn’t show me one Android app portal (more on this in a bit) until I reset the device, and I’ve never successfully updated the OS. I’m not expecting Jolla to produce flawless software so early into its life cycle, but these are the kinds of hiccups you’d expect a tablet maker to catch before it sends out review units. At least the company is good about releasing frequent patches, so there’s a chance these issues will be resolved by the time you read this.
Apps are another story altogether. Don’t get me wrong; the core apps are elegant and (outside of the quirks I’ve mentioned) by and large useful… it’s the third-party selection that falls short. The catalog of Sailfish-native apps is pretty threadbare, and there are some very conspicuous gaps. Good luck finding native Twitter or YouTube clients, folks. You’re more likely to find niche titles, like city-specific travel planners and ports of years-old MeeGo games. It’s understandable that Sailfish wouldn’t have as rich a catalog as its heavyweight rivals, but Jolla really needs to do a better job of getting the apps that people tend to use every day, like social networking clients.
Android app support isn’t quite the cure-all it’s made to be, either. Jolla offers easy access to three third-party Android stores (Aptoide, China’s AnZhi and Russia’s Yandex) that stock many of the apps you’d otherwise be missing, but the titles you get don’t always behave the way they would on a true Android tablet. Twitter’s app wouldn’t bring up the keyboard to let me write a new post, for instance (I had to download Plume), and games like Pac-Man 256 and Threes didn’t run as well as they should on the Jolla Tablet’s very capable hardware. Frankly, it was a chore to get enough functional apps that I could use my tablet for longer than it takes to visit a few web pages or check email.
And that last part is why the Jolla Tablet is more of a promising device than something I would recommend when someone asks for buying advice. The design is ahead of the pack in this category, and the software is at once intriguing and accessible. It’s easy to imagine Sailfish becoming mainstream at some point down the line. I can already see the appeal for tablet newcomers who have light demands, yet are willing to spend a little time wrapping their heads around the gesture-based interface concept.
However, Jolla will have to tackle the app deficit before it gets a breakthrough hit. There was more than one occasion where I asked, “Well, now what?” after using the tablet for only a short while — I’d already run out of things to do. That’s no good for a market where many simply assume that an app exists for whatever they need. While Android compatibility is a decent crutch in the short term, Jolla needs to attract enough native apps that this device appeals to more than just early adopters and first-timers. If that happens, the Jolla Tablet could easily live up to its potential.
When Jolla’s first smartphone debuted with Sailfish OS, it didn’t leave a great impression with some of our staff. The gesture-heavy UI was confusing to newcomers and offered few advantages over rival mobile platforms. Aside from just being different, of course. Since then, however, Jolla has been quietly improving Sailfish OS to ensure it makes a splash with its first tablet. That’s right: We’re talking about the slate that blasted through its $380,000 crowdfunding target on Indiegogo last November. We’ve been hands-on with a not-quite-final build at Mobile World Congress and the impact of “Sailfish OS 2.0” is immediate. The hardware is solid, but it’s the simplified navigation that stands out the most.
The first software revamp that grabs your attention are the retooled gestures. Now, you swipe in from either the left- or right-hand edge to jump to the home screen. Similar to the Jolla smartphone, this area doubles as the app-switcher with live previews for recently opened Sailfish apps. Dragging your finger from the bottom edge will open the app drawer, while a flick from the top offers different profiles and a lock shortcut. Following so far? Good, because that’s almost all there is to it. From the home screen, thumbing left will reveal Jolla’s combined quick settings and notification center, while a step right reveals optional “partner spaces,” where brands can offer pinned, personalized services.
When I first used the Jolla smartphone and Sailfish OS, which is based somewhat on Nokia’s old MeeGo platform, I was a little overwhelmed. All too often, I would dive one or two levels down into a menu and then feel disorientated as I tried to step back and, almost inevitably, used the wrong gesture to end up somewhere else entirely. Needless to say, Sailfish 2.0 should be a little easier to grasp for people just testing the water. The overall look hasn’t changed all that much, but it feels markedly better on the new hardware.
The roughly 8-inch display is fairly bright and sharp, and the Intel Atom processor kept everything ticking along nicely. I didn’t have the chance to really put the tablet through its paces though — I’ll save a proper stress test for when the company has a finalized, consumer-ready version. Unlike the Jolla smartphone, which felt like a distinctively mid-range device, this new tablet has some premium flair. There are few buttons and other hardware clutter, and the rounded edges make the navigation-critical swipes easier to perform. The design isn’t adventurous or original, but it’s pleasing to the eye.
Jolla is still optimizing Sailfish OS 2.0, so it would be unfair to nitpick individual apps. The company’s own offerings seem functional though, and its support for Android apps should make most of them redundant anyway. There’s no Google Play, but you can get your Android fix via Jolla’s marketplace and third-party alternatives, such as Yandex.Store.
Jolla wants Sailfish OS to be the third dominant ecosystem behind iOS and Android. Microsoft, Mozilla and a few others might have something to say about that, but the Finnish company has a clear strategy to differentiate itself; for one, it’s promising monthly Sailfish OS updates, as well as increased security through a new partnership with SSH Communications Security. It’s also picked a fight with Google today, claiming that Android is “designed to collect data from its users.” If you pick Sailfish OS instead, Jolla co-founder Marc Dillon says your user data will be kept under lock and key.
I’ll hold off on a final judgment until Jolla’s tablet is closer to release. But this first look surprised me. The company’s debut smartphone was a mixed bag full of promising ideas and lackluster execution. The tablet is a different proposition though; the hardware is better and the improvements to Sailfish OS show promise. Jolla is now keen for other manufacturers to adopt Sailfish OS, so think of this device like Google’s Nexus program. Regardless of how it sells (although its crowdfunding campaign suggests there’s plenty of interest), Jolla can use it to demonstrate the potential of its alternative mobile OS.
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Microsoft and Dell added a slew of new products to their portfolios this week. But those aren’t the only additions to the industry over the past seven days. Netflix added a dollar to the price of its popular streaming service and Verizon added $20 to its grandfathered Unlimited Data plan’s monthly fees while NASA dropped more than 8,000 Apollo-era images into Flickr for your viewing pleasure. If you’ve got a nose for numbers, check out the rest of this week’s After Math lineup.
Yesterday, Jolla teased “something big” and has just revealed what that is: the Jolla Tablet with Sailfish 2.0. There’s just one caveat, however — you’ll have to design and fund it yourself. It’s now up on Indiegogo with a $380,000 target, and Jolla has said that it’s taking suggestions from users for features, with the best ideas up-voted to make the cut, Reddit-style. Those features will likely be software tweaks or other details, as all of the main specs appear to be locked down. It’ll have a 7.85-inch, 2,048 x 1,536 screen, 64-bit Intel quad-core CPU, 32GB of upgradeable memory, a 5-megapixel camera and a 4,300 mAh battery. The price will start at $189.
Jolla is stressing the speed and mulitasking capabilities of the tablet, saying you’ll see “all your running apps conveniently in one single view.” It’ll work with Android on top of native Sailfish apps, and sport a minimalistic design “without any distractions” on the front. On its Indiegogo page, Jolla compares its upcoming slate (favorably) to the iPad mini 3, Nexus 9 and Nokia N1, which just launched yesterday. Ironically, Nokia’s new tablet is strictly an Android affair, despite the fact that some of its greatest models (like the N9) ran on MeeGo, Sailfish’s predecessor.
It bears noting, however, that the models from Apple, Google and Nokia actually exist, and Jolla’s specs and price seem rather optimistic. The Sailfish OS is also a dicey proposition — our hands-on look at it on the Jolla smartphone was not a pleasant experience, despite the best of intentions. That said, the fledgeling OS has had a year to evolve since then, and Jolla admitted that it didn’t nail the early user experience.
If you feel like Jolla can meet its goals, the tablet is up for pre-order on Indiegogo now starting at $189, with an estimated delivery date of May 2015. The funding part doesn’t seem to be a problem — after less than an hour, it’s already bagged half its goal.
Update: Just hours into the campaign, Jolla’s new tablet is already fully funded. Surpassing $380,000 in such a short space of time is certainly impressive, but although the tablet looks certain to become a reality, it’s worth noting that this still only translates to less than 2,000 tablets sold.
Overcast is widely considered to be the best podcast app on iOS, if not all mobile platforms. For many, its no-nonsense interface and slick features (such as cutting dead air and boosting voices) make Apple’s official app seem crude. You’ve had to pay $5 to see everything it has to offer, though… until now. App creator Marco Arment (he of Instapaper fame) has released Overcast 2, which switches to a completely free business model. As he puts it, he didn’t like seeing the majority of users (80 percent) miss out on the features he wrote — he’d rather make sure you see everything. You can still donate $1 per month if you want to help, but that contribution is strictly optional.
The new version isn’t just about unlocking existing features, as you might have guessed. You can now stream podcasts rather than downloading everything in advance, and keep tabs on your storage so that your collection doesn’t get out of control. There’s long overdue support for chapters, too, and you’ll get 3D Touch shortcuts if you happen to own an iPhone 6s or 6s Plus. All told, Overcast 2 is likely worth trying even if you passed on it the first time around — you can find out if it lives up to the hype without denting your bank account.
If you’re wondering what Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper, has been up to since he sold the read-it-later service to Betaworks, wonder no more. At the XOXO festival in Portland, OR, Arment announced that he’s been working on a new podcasting app for iOS called Overcast. Why? The tl;dr reason is because “podcasts are awesome” (We can’t say we disagree). The long of it, however, is because as a lover of podcasts, Arment was frustrated at the quality of the podcast apps that are out there, stating that Apple has been asleep at the podcast wheel for years and third-party solutions aren’t that much better. So he’s taken matters into his own hands with Overcast. He’s currently about half-way done with the app and hopes to release it later this year. We don’t really know that much more about it, but if Arment’s previous work is any indication, we have high hopes for this one. In the meantime, you can head on over to Overcast.fm to sign up for updates.
Folks that spin favorites through Podcasts on iOS to endure the workday can nab an update that should boost listening sessions. Version 2.1 of the standalone app boasts improved browsing by episode, complete with Unplayed and Feed (available for download or stream) tabs for easy access. You can also save favorites for offline enjoyment and tweak the settings to automatically delete selections once you’ve listened. Siri integration finally makes its debut as well, allowing voice-activated commands like “play podcasts” or specific stations with “play Stuff You Should Know” for the virtual assistant. There’s also CarPlay support added in to prep for its arrival in autos in the months to come. If you haven’t been alerted to the new version just yet, hit the source link that follows to snatch it up.