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Fitbit announces Charge, Charge HR + Surge health and fitness trackers

Fitbit has announced three new additions to its lineup of wristband fitness and health tracking products. The first, Charge ($130) is a reinvention of Fitbit’s Force product, providing activity tracking of steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned, and floors climbed. It features an OLED display that displays the time of day and real-time fitness stats, a high-quality, water-resistant textured wristband design with an improved clasp, and up to seven days of battery life. Charge, which is available now, also supports caller ID from a connected iPhone or other mobile device, with vibrating alerts and display of the caller’s name or number.

Charge HR ($150) expands on the features in Fitbit Charge by adding continuous wrist-based heart rate monitoring using Fitbit’s proprietary PurePulse optical heart rate technology, which uses LED lights to detect blood volume changes on the wrist. The heart-rate monitoring feature provides more accurate reporting of stats such as all-day calorie burn and workout intensity, although the feature drops the battery life down to five days.

Apple looking to expand NFC use beyond Apple Pay

A new report from The Information (subscription required) notes that Apple is presently in talks regarding expanding NFC use in the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus to go beyond mobile payments. While the NFC chip in the new iPhone models is currently restricted to use by Apple Pay, this new report suggests that the company is seeking partnerships to implement the technology into areas such as building security and public transit, conceivably to let people use iPhones as replacements for business ID cards and metro passes. The report specifically notes that Apple has already been in talks with HID Global and Cubic, two companies that develop electronic solutions in these areas. [via 9to5Mac]

Some U.S. retailers disabling Apple Pay in favor of other services?

  • October 27, 2014
  • Apple,

At least two U.S. retailers have disabled Apple Pay in their stores, with analysts speculating that the move may be intended to promote a rival payment system, The New York Times reports. Both Rite Aid and CVS have disabled NFC payments in their stores, and although the move appears to specifically target Apple Pay, other contactless payment systems such as Google Wallet and even MasterCard PayPass and VISA payWave are also affected by the move.

Rite Aid and CVS are part of a consortium of retailers known as the Merchant Consumer Exchange (MCX) that also includes Wal-mart, Best Buy, and Gap, among others. The group is presently in the process of developing their own payment system, CurrentC, which is scheduled to be released in 2015 and will link payments directly to a customer’s checking account using a dedicated app. CurrentC will use an on-screen QR Code rather than NFC, removing the requirement for NFC payment terminals while also bypassing the credit card companies and their associated merchant fees entirely. The retailer-developed system also promises to provide the companies with the ability to track shopping habits and collect related data on customers—data that Apple has explicitly stated is not shared via Apple Pay for the protection of consumer privacy.

AT&T locks Apple SIM cards upon activation in iPad Air 2, iPad mini 3

  • October 24, 2014
  • iPad,

Users who activate Apple’s own SIM card to use an AT&T data plan with the Wi-Fi + Cellular models of iPad Air 2 or iPad mini 3 are finding the SIM will lock itself to AT&T, and can no longer be used by another network. Though it appeared the SIM card would be interchangeable between AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile — though not Verizon — it’s not the case with AT&T. The issue was confirmed by Re/code through AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel, who said users will need another SIM card to switch carriers, as the device remains unlocked. Why did AT&T decide to lock its card, unlike T-Mobile or Sprint? Siegel said “it’s just simply the way we’ve chosen to do it.” An Apple support document notes: “If your Apple SIM becomes dedicated to a specific network and you want to choose from other carrier programs, you can purchase a new Apple SIM from an Apple Retail store.” T-Mobile CEO John Legere tweeted a screenshot of AT&T’s SIM card prompt on Thursday. [via MacRumors]

iTunes music sales down at least 13 percent worldwide

A new report from The Wall Street Journal reveals that iTunes music sales have fallen by 13 to 14 percent worldwide this year, citing people familiar with the matter. This is in stark contrast to only a 2.1 percent overall dip last year in global revenue from music downloads – a decline that was said to be offset by increases from ad-supported and subscription services. As previously reported, Apple has been working to cut music subscription prices and has plans to rebuild its recently-acquired Beats Music and relaunch it next year as an iTunes service, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Despite the drop, Apple remains the largest seller of music in the world, both physical and digital, and according to music executives, its dominance over other digital music stores is “especially pronounced.” Although overall music sales were mostly steady last year due to physical CD sales, some record company executives are reportedly concerned that the music industry could fall into decline if download sales drop more quickly than streaming service growth accelerates. Notably, executives are working to persuade users of online music services to pay a monthly subscription fee, rather than using free ad-supported services which are said to generate considerably less revenue for the music labels. According to the RIAA, streaming services now account for nearly one-third of the revenue from recorded music in the U.S.

Notably, Apple reported a healthy increase in overall iTunes sales this quarter, which includes other types of content such as apps, movies, and books, although the company does not break out sales by individual content type.

iPad Air 2 includes NFC chip, but likely won’t be used (Updated)

  • October 24, 2014

Earlier this week, iFixit’s teardown of the iPad Air 2 revealed the unexpected presence of an NXP 65V10 NFC Controller chip. This is the same NFC chip found in the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, where it is presently used for Apple Pay wireless payments at retail locations. While Apple announced last week that the iPad Air 2 would include Apple Pay support, this was limited to storing credit card information for online transactions, and specifically excluded point-of-sale merchant payments, presumably due to the impracticality of using the much larger full-sized iPad for such things.

Despite speculation that the NFC chip is for an as-yet-unannounced Apple Pay enabled cash register, a search of the FCC’s device certification database suggests that Apple did not seek certification for any NFC functionality in the iPad Air 2, as it would have needed to do if the chip was to be used for wireless communications. Further, no evidence of an NFC antenna was found inside the iPad Air 2.

Apple notably filed a patent earlier this year to enable NFC and non-NFC wireless antennas to be coupled together, suggesting the possibility that existing antennas could do double-duty for NFC purposes. But if this patent was being used in the iPad Air 2, an FCC filing would have been required.

Updated: Through a source, a new report from 9to5Mac confirms that the iPad Air 2’s NFC chip will not be used for wireless transactions, and is instead serving only as a “secure element” to hold credit card information. iFixit notably has also discovered the same NXP chip inside the iPad mini 3, where it serves the same purpose.

Apps of the Week: Inbox by Gmail, Pixelmator, NHL 2K + more

New Apps

Inbox by Gmail (Free*) — A new app by Google has been getting a lot of buzz this week for its approach to reinventing the way that e-mail is managed. The key benefit here is Google using its algorithmic magic to try and group your incoming e-mails into bundles based on categories like Travel, Finance, Purchases, Social, and so forth to make it easier to manage your incoming flow. You can pin individual items to mark them as important, and then sweep the rest away into your archive or trash at the push of a button. Each bundle gets its own notification settings, and you can create your own and automatically file messages based on the usual search criteria. Inbox also borrows a page from Dropbox’s Mailbox app, allowing you to snooze individual items to return to your inbox later, but takes it a step further with location-based snoozes, so you can file away that e-mail about getting that TPS report done until you actually get back to work on Monday.

Right now the iOS version of Inbox is available for the iPhone only, and you’ll need a golden ticket in the form of an invite to play. However, Google employees have been given stacks of invites to hand out, and those who have been invited already should get more to share, so it should only be a matter of days before anybody who really wants access can get it. Google is no stranger to this game, of course, pioneering an arguably revolutionary new approach to e-mail when it first debuted Gmail ten years ago. While only time will tell whether Inbox has the same impact, what Google has done here is definitely a very interesting approach to handling a decades-old technology.

Pixelmator ($5) — When Pixelmator debuted on the Mac a few years ago, it turned out to be a very popular choice for many users who might have otherwise defaulted to simply going with the considerably more expensive Photoshop, providing almost all of the functionality that most users really needed in an image editor in a seriously inexpensive package. The Pixelmator Team has now brought that same power to the iPad version in a $5 app that provides a plethora of image editing tools in a user-friendly app that feels right at home on iOS. Right out of the box, Pixelmator provides a nice collection of templates to get you started, and then takes you into an intuitive collection of tools for doing everything from adding effects to painting, color-correcting, retouching, and repairing.

As with its Mac counterpart, Pixelmator also provides full support for layer-based editing on the iPad, allowing you to select any part of an image and apply corrections or effects to it, or remove it entirely. You can also cut and paste objects between different images, and add non-destructive layer styles and change them any time. A huge collection of effects is also included to help you give your images that extra artistic punch, from vintage effects to bokeh lights. All of the typical image file formats are supported, including opening PSD files with layers intact. Best of all, Pixelmator is built specifically to take advantage of the latest-generation iPads for high performance, and it integrates nicely into the iOS environment, providing full iCloud Drive support rather than trying to get you to use its own cloud service, syncing your work across your Macs and iPads.

iPad mini 3 unboxing and comparison gallery posted

  • October 23, 2014
  • iPad,

iLounge has posted an unboxing and comparison gallery for Apple’s new iPad mini 3. In a full photo gallery, we take a closer look at Apple’s newest mini tablet, along with photos comparing the iPad mini 3 to other Apple devices. More pictures will be added throughout the day. Also be sure to check out Wednesday’s iPad Air 2 gallery, and check back soon for our full reviews of both new iPads.

iPad Air 2 Control Center features separate mute and rotation buttons

  • October 23, 2014
  • iPad,

With the removal of the side switch from the new iPad Air 2, Apple has added separate mute and rotation buttons to the iOS 8.1 Control Center to replace the missing functionality, exclusive to the new device. The switch itself has had something of an identity crisis over the years, with Apple originally debuting it as a rotation lock when the iPad was first released, then later unceremoniously changing it to a mute switch before finally giving users a choice as to its function. The iOS Control Center has traditionally included a button to toggle whichever of the two functions was not assigned to the side switch; Apple has now removed the switch and simply added controls for both settings into the Control Center.

GT Advanced announces settlement with Apple

  • October 23, 2014
  • Apple,

As was reported Wednesday, GT Advanced Technologies has now officially announced that it has reached a settlement agreement with Apple. The announcement reveals GT will retain ownership of its production, ancillary, and inventory assets in Mesa, Arizona. GT will also be given four years interest-free to repay Apple $439 million – money that the company will earn by selling its sapphire furnaces. Although GT is leaving the sapphire production business, the company and Apple will “continue their technical exchange involving the development of processes for growing next generation sapphire boules.”

iPad Air 2 ships with 10W power adapter

  • October 23, 2014
  • iPad,

Our initial look at the iPad Air 2 reveals that Apple is bundling a 10W/2.1A power adapter with its newest iPad model – a step back down from the 12W/2.4A unit that has been included with the last two generations of full-sized iPad models. While a 10W power adapter would theoretically require longer charging times, iFixit’s recent teardown confirmed that the iPad Air 2 contains a smaller battery than its predecessor, suggesting a possible justification for the lower-powered adapter. It remains to be seen how much of a practical impact this will have, if any, in real-world use; the Air 2 may not charge any faster with the more powerful adapter.

Olloclip debuts 4-in-1 Photo Lens for iPhone 6 / 6 Plus

Olloclip has introduced its new 4-in-1 lens system for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus ($80), with a new design that works with both the front and rear camera. The package includes fisheye, wide-angle, macro 10X and macro 16X lenses, along with three wearable pendants for carrying the lenses. The Olloclip 4-in-1 Photo Lens for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus is available in five lens and clip color combinations. It can be pre-ordered from Olloclip’s web site and is expected to ship in late November.

iFixit posts iPad Air 2 teardown

  • October 23, 2014
  • iPad,

iFixit has posted its complete teardown of the iPad Air 2, revealing some new details and confirming most of the specs. The article notes that Apple has revised a lot of the hardware from last year’s iPad Air, including: a fully laminated 9.7” IPS multi-touch LCD with 2,048 x 1,536 resolution at 264 ppi and an anti-reflective coating, the expected A8X 64-bit CPU with 2GB RAM and the M8 motion coprocessor, the 8MP rear iSight camera, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and the new Touch ID fingerprint sensor. The iPad Air 2 also gets the barometric pressure sensor added to the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. The battery is located below the logic board, and this year’s model packs a reduced-capacity 27.62 Wh package, down from the previous 32.9 Wh capacity. Although Apple’s claims of the same 10-hour battery life suggest more efficient power use, it remains to be seen whether this will be the case in practice.

The new Touch ID sensor design closely resembles the sensors found on the new iPhone models, using an NXP chipset. The camera was noted to be different from the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus version, but is also described as a “leap in quality” over the original iPad Air. The main logic board is also glued into the case, with the Lightning connector soldered on, making replacement or repair of the Lightning port a more difficult task. iFixit summarized its report by giving the iPad Air 2 a very low repairability score, due to everything basically being glued together and the fragility of the front display assembly.

Apple Pay Bank of America customers experiencing double-charges

  • October 22, 2014
  • Apple,

Only two days into its rollout, some Apple Pay users are already reporting a problem with the service. Some Bank of America customers have seen two charges for the same purchase on their credit card statements after using Apple Pay to make transactions, as reported by CNN. The issue is said to be affecting “hundreds of customers.” A Bank of America representative told CNN that the issue was on Apple Pay’s end, but the bank was ultimately able to refund the money after some back-and-forth between Apple and bank representatives. A fix for the problem is expected to be released at some point today.

iPad Air 2 unboxing and comparison gallery posted

iLounge has posted an unboxing gallery for Apple’s new iPad Air 2. In a full photo gallery, we take a closer look at the newest full-sized iPad, along with photos comparing the newest Air to other Apple devices.

More pictures will be added as the day progresses, and be sure to check back for our full review of iPad Air 2, coming soon.

Apple’s new Maps Connect lets businesses manage listings, request iBeacon indoor mapping

  • October 22, 2014
  • Apple,

Apple has launched Apple Maps Connect, a new online portal to allow local businesses to add or edit their business listings for the Apple Maps service. Targeted at small business owners or their authorized representatives, the service is free and allows users to quickly and easily add content directly into Apple Maps. Users can sign in with their normal Apple ID and password, or can create a new Apple ID if they don’t already have one, or would prefer to use a different one for business purposes. The service is available only for U.S. addresses for now, but Apple says that it has plans to add additional countries “soon.”

Apple reportedly begins in-store sales of iPad Air 2, iPad mini 3

Following last week’s launch of the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3, the new models are reportedly now available for sale in at least some Apple Retail Stores, and initial shipments have begun arriving for customers who pre-ordered the new models. Unboxing videos have already started appearing from customers in the UK and Australia who have received their pre-ordered devices, and a number of sources are reporting that the new tablets are now available for purchase online and in-store — although strangely, an Apple customer service representative responded to an inquiry stating that the new models are not yet available in-store. During last week’s launch event, Apple announced that pre-orders would begin October 17, but did not specify an actual retail availability date. [via MacRumors]

Cook discussing security with top Chinese official

Apple CEO Tim Cook has been in recent discussions with a top Chinese government official concerning security, Reuters reports. The meeting comes following a report that Apple users in China have been targeted in a “sophisticated and widespread” attack by hackers looking to access private user data stored in iCloud. The report was released by Chinese web monitoring group Greatfire.org, which has also claimed that the Chinese government is involved in the hack—a claim strongly refuted by the Chinese government. Cook and Vice Premier Ma Kai met Wednesday in Zhongnanhai to discuss “protection of users’ information” and “strengthening cooperation and in information and communication fields,” according to the official Xinhua news agency. Apple also appears to have rerouted user data on Tuesday to circumvent the hack, Greatfire told Reuters.

GT and Apple to part ways ‘amicably’

  • October 22, 2014
  • Apple,

GT Advanced Technologies has signed an agreement with Apple for an “amicable parting of the ways,” The Wall Street Journal reports. GT’s attorney, Luc Despins, told a U.S. Bankruptcy court that as part of the agreement, the two companies have agreed to file a revised explanation for GT’s sudden bankruptcy filing earlier this month — the companies will also withdraw court papers from the public record that outlined what went wrong in the partnership.

Earlier this year, Apple had financed a new factory in Arizona for GT Advanced Technologies to the tune of $578 million, and entered into a multi-year agreement to set the company up as a supplier of sapphire material for Apple products. GT’s bankruptcy filing earlier this month came as a surprise to Apple. Shortly after the filing, GT began asking for court documents in the bankruptcy proceedings to be sealed due to confidentiality agreements, and then later requested that the court void its agreements with Apple entirely. Although this latest news suggests that the two companies are working toward a peaceful resolution, court documents and proceedings in the case remain sealed, at least while the two companies continue to pursue their settlement.

Apple Pay can be used internationally with U.S.-based cards

  • October 21, 2014

Following yesterday’s roll-out of Apple Pay in the U.S., a number of users are reporting that the service also works with standard NFC terminals in other countries, provided of course that the user has registered a credit card or debit card from a participating U.S. bank. NFC terminals that accept VISA payWave or MasterCard PayPass cards will also apparently accept payments from an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus setup for Apple Pay with a U.S. card. Although Apple has only announced partnerships with specific U.S. retailers, Apple Pay unsurprisingly appears to use standard NFC payment technology, effectively allowing it to work with the NFC payment systems that are already extremely common outside of the U.S.

This suggests that the key to rolling Apple Pay out internationally will require integration with banking systems rather than point-of-sale retail systems in most countries, although Apple is likely involving retailers to ensure a commitment to supporting NFC technology in general and benefit from marketing the Apple Pay service as a practical consumer feature. Apple for its part has made no specific comments about rolling out Apple Pay internationally beyond a statement by Apple CEO Tim Cook during yesterday’s earnings call that “we can’t wait to sign up more retailers and extend it around the world.” [via 9to5Mac]

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