Microsoft no longer solely counts on Windows 10 to pay the bills. With CEO Satya Nadella at the helm, it’s also betting heavily on cloud services, and just revealed an interesting new one: Bitcoin-style encryption. Redmond joined forces with startup ConsenSys on a platform called Ethereum to help business to play around with the blockchain tech used in crypto-currency. The move is well-timed, as banks are starting to get seriously interested in BItcoin-style currency. However, Microsoft said that Bitcoin applications are “just scratching the surface of what can be done when you mix cryptographic security [with the] reliability of blockchain.”
The tech can also be used to secure and verify the exchange of any data, which will make it useful to other industries. Via simple templates, companies can create blockchain-based “smart contracts,” for instance. However, the main attraction of the tech is still Bitcoin-style money, something that still befuddles financial institutions. Microsoft’s tech would let use peer-to-peer networks and “consensus-formation algorithm” to secure the Ethereum-based currency, just like Bitcoin. However they could create their own, far more secure currency than Bitcoin in just 20 minutes and update the value every 15 seconds — 40 times faster than Bitcoin.
The best thing about Windows 10 is that it’s simply Windows, through and through. It’s as if Microsoft realized that devaluing the desktop in Windows 8 was akin to sacrilege, and Windows 10 is its penance. At its core, it’s a union of the best qualities of Windows 7 and Windows 8 — the desktop features of the former with some of the touch-friendly aspects of the latter. It’s no wonder Microsoft is calling it an operating system that’s both fresh and familiar. It’s easy to use with a keyboard and mouse, but it’s even better with touchscreen computers. The Start menu is back! And new features like Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant and Edge browser breathe new life into Windows. Microsoft is framing the OS as “Windows as a Service,” meaning it’s never quite done and constantly evolving. Most importantly, Windows 10 proves that Microsoft’s dream of delivering a single OS that can work across computers, tablets and phones might actually come true.
Brings together Microsoft’s best desktop and touchscreen interfaces
Easy upgrade process
Cortana and Edge alone are worth upgrading
Changes to modern Windows apps finally makes them useful
No major changes beyond the traditional Windows desktop
Xbox One game streaming requires a robust network
Still not many worthwhile modern Windows apps yet
Windows 10 is the ideal next step for Microsoft, bringing together the best elements of Windows 7 and 8. With new features like Cortana and Edge, extensive desktop interface refinements and Microsoft’s free upgrade offer, it’s a must-have for anyone who uses Windows.
I don’t blame Microsoft for trying to sacrifice some sacred cows with Windows 8. It’s hard to truly innovate when you’re tied to a decades-long history. And as far as operating systems go, Windows’ interface is one of the oldest, with a core design that goes all the way back to 1995. But the real mistake with Windows 8 was that it was built for touch computing at a time when most people were still dealing with keyboards and mice (or trackpads). Adding insult to injury, it made the experience of using Windows worse for people without touchscreens. Now that touch-enabled laptops and multi-function devices like the Surface are more commonplace, Windows 8’s touch innovations seem a lot more useful. But given the ill will that OS built up over the past three years, it also made sense for Microsoft to start fresh. (There’s still no clear reason why Microsoft skipped the “Windows 9” name, but I like to think it was because it needed to distance itself from Windows 8 as much as possible.)
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of Windows 10, it’s worth exploring the upgrade experience. In short, it’s pretty painless! Gone are the days where we had to devote hours and enlist the help of Windows specialists just to upgrade to a new OS (or, in my case, be the one to get recruited). Microsoft has steadily made upgrading easier with Windows 7 and 8, but with Windows 10, the process is even smoother. If you’re a current Windows user, you just need to click the “Get Windows 10” app in the system tray and click “Reserve Your Free Upgrade” to join the queue. If you don’t see that app, make sure you have all of the current Windows Updates. Microsoft is making Windows 10 available to its Insider testers first starting on July 29, so you might have to wait a bit before you can upgrade.
Most of us will just be upgrading right from within Windows, but you can also boot off an external hard drive or USB drive to get it going. The entire installation process takes anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, depending on your setup, and it’s mostly hands-free.
Once your installation is complete, you’re prompted to add in some personalization details and log in with your Microsoft Account. On a modern computer with a solid-state hard drive, Windows 10 typically boots within 10 to 15 seconds, about the same as Windows 7 and 8. (If you don’t have an SSD yet, now is the time to make that upgrade!) The login screen will probably look no different to you. But if you’ve got a computer that supports Windows Hello — that is, one with a fingerprint sensor, eye scanner or infrared camera (like Intel’s RealSense 3D camera) — you can also log in almost instantly with biometric authentication. There aren’t many Windows Hello-capable devices out there right now — the few include the Dell Inspiron 15 5548, HP Envy 15t and Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 15 — but from the demos we’ve seen, it looks like a logical evolution from just typing in passwords. Like many aspects of Windows 10, expect the mere act of logging in to get more intriguing over time.
If you’ve used any previous version of Windows, you’ll be right at home with Windows 10. The desktop is once again front and center, rather than being shoved off to the side like it was in Windows 8. The Start menu replaces the blocky Start screen from Windows 8, which was one of the many reasons that kept users from upgrading. Even Windows 8’s modern apps got something new: They can actually be used in their own windows! Before, they were either full-screen or took up a vertical slice of your display.
After spending the past few years with Windows 8, using Windows 10 felt like being thrown back into the past — but in a good way. I never quite got used to the way the last OS treated keyboards and mice as an afterthought, and I’ve heard the same from plenty of other Windows power users. So you can imagine how satisfying it was to feel a return to Windows 7 levels of desktop productivity. For example, when you tap the Windows key on your keyboard, the Start menu pops up immediately. In Windows 8, it took a bit longer for the Start screen to appear. So now the simple task of hitting the Windows key and immediately typing to search for something — one of the things I do most often — feels significantly improved.
It wasn’t long until I was back in my familiar Windows groove, with a desktop filled with multiple applications, browser tabs and random windows, all in a sort of ordered chaos. Being able to use modern apps in traditional windows is transformative. I used to avoid those apps entirely in Windows 8 since they were really meant for full-screen use, and they always felt like a huge waste of space on my 24-inch monitor. Full-screen apps make sense for tablets, but not so much for laptops and desktops. Now that I can actually move and resize modern apps on a whim, they suddenly feel more useful. Windows 10 also supports multiple desktops right out of the box, something that you had to download separately in earlier versions.
Design wise, Microsoft stuck with the sharp corners and tile-like look it’s been using since the debut of the Zune HD and Windows Phone, but there’s also much more flair than Windows 7 and 8. The Start menu and settings menu (accessible by swiping in from the right side of the screen, or the notifications button in the system tray) feature a hint of transparency, while applications like the File Explorer are built out of clean lines and plenty of white space. The default dark theme felt a bit more mature than Windows 8, and you can also flip on an option that automatically pulls an accent color from your current desktop wallpaper. Overall, Windows 10 looks and feels modern yet welcoming, which is exactly the right balance Microsoft needs if it wants to appeal to everyone.
Start menu, we missed you
Like most of Windows 10, the Start menu’s return should appease longtime fans and newcomers who are more used to Windows 8. It features your most-used applications (something resurrected from several Windows versions ago), and you can click through to get to all of your applications. But the bulk of the Start menu is made up of Live Tiles, those blocky icons Microsoft can’t seem to get enough of. I didn’t care for them much on the Windows 8 Start screen, but on Windows 10 they’re more functional, especially since you don’t need to completely leave your desktop to see them. Both the Live Tiles and the Start menu itself are customizable, so you can make them as small or as big as you’d like. At its largest, the menu is practically indistinguishable from the Windows 8 Start screen, but don’t tell that to Windows 7 holdouts.
While it’s a bit more work to find applications in the Start menu, I’ve honestly given up on the whole hunting and pecking thing. You’re better off just hitting the Start button (or even better, the Windows key on your keyboard) and typing to bring up a specific program.
And what if you’re the rare Windows 8 user who actually liked that Start screen? You can just switch over to that instead. Really, though, I’d suggest giving the new Start menu a shot, as it’s far more useful than the Start screen in desktop mode.
Continuum makes Windows more than meets the eye
One of the best things about Windows 10 is its ability to transform itself from a touch-focused platform to traditional desktop platform easily. Microsoft calls that feature “Continuum,” because of the seamless transition between different work environments. It’s really meant for multi-function computers like the Surface, which can be both a tablet and laptop depending on which accessories are connected. But it could also be useful if you want to connect a keyboard and mouse to your Windows 10 tablet. The tablet mode simplifies the taskbar, makes every application full-screen and enables a Windows 8-style Start screen. Windows 10 can automatically switch interfaces when it detects your keyboard has been removed, or you can choose to make the swap manually from the settings menu.
Looking ahead, Continuum has the potential to completely change the way we compute. In early demos, Microsoft showed off how a Windows 10 phone can be plugged into an external monitor — either wirelessly or with an HDMI dongle — and display a desktop-like interface. That could be a fun way to distract kids with videos when you’re on vacation, but in the future when our phones get even more powerful, it could have an even bigger impact. It could mean the end of lugging around laptops for some people.
While testing Windows 10 on a Surface Pro 3 over the past few months — first with the preview builds and finally with the complete release — I grew to appreciate Continuum as I moved between typical work tasks and more fun things, like reading digital comics with Comixology. It’s certainly better than how Windows 8 handled the difference between tablets and traditional computers.
Cortana brings virtual assistants to the desktop
Okay, virtual assistants are nothing new these days, but Cortana brings plenty of notable features to Windows 10. While setting it up, you can choose to have Cortana always listen for your commands (enabled by saying “Hey Cortana!”). You can ask her about basic things like the current weather or what’s on your schedule, or you could have her search the web using Bing. Cortana can answer some queries without even launching a web browser (you wouldn’t believe how old Tom Cruise really is). If you’re not a fan of voice commands, you can also type in queries into the Cortana search box on the taskbar, and you can choose to have her only activate voice commands when you hit a button.
If you’re worried about having Cortana always listening for your commands, perhaps over latent fears about AI taking over the world, I’d suggest getting over it. Cortana’s true strength, much like Alex on Amazon’s Echo, is her ability to handle voice commands at any moment. If you’re in the middle of a work document, for example, you can tell Cortana to set a quick reminder or look something up without interrupting your workflow. Siri requires manual activation, unless your iOS device is plugged in, and while Google Now has become more widely available for voice commands on Android phones, it’s still not as reliable as an always-on assistant.
Inspired by actual assistants, Microsoft also gave Cortana a notebook that contains all of your personal preferences. Many of them she learns over time, but you can also hop straight into the notebook and tell Cortana things like your food preferences, and what sort of restaurant you prefer. All of that will help her return more personalized answers for future queries. Cortana is also part of Microsoft’s plan to bring its services to all of your devices: Microsoft is bringing it to Android soon and iOS eventually, and in each case the app will include Cortana’s notebook of your preferences.
Cortana handles voice commands about as well as Siri and Google Now. It’s pretty accurate when it comes to recognizing your voice input (although that also depends heavily on the quality of your microphone), and in many cases it even fetched more useful results than Siri. It’s not nearly as preemptive with information as Google’s offering, though. That assistant is smart enough to warn me when I should leave for my next meeting, or when my latest Amazon orders have arrived. Those are things we’ll eventually see on every virtual assistant, but at the moment Google Now remains the smartest one overall, even if it’s not much of a conversationalist. Cortana is the most human-sounding assistant; so there’s that.
Edge: Sayonara, Internet Explorer
If you ever wanted Microsoft to just give up on Internet Explorer and create a web browser from scratch, Edge may be just what you’re looking for. It forgoes all of the legacy protocols, like ActiveX, that turned Internet Explorer into a slow and insecure beast. And it takes a few lessons from Google’s Chrome with a minimalist style and speedy browser engine. In fact, I ended up preferring Edge to Chrome in my testing, mainly because Google’s browser has become a major memory hog over the years.
Edge may be the most elegant piece of software to come from Microsoft. Its interface is simple: tabs on the top; back, forward and refresh buttons below; and an address bar. The latter is smarter than other browsers as it also features Cortana (without the voice commands). You can type in questions and often get them answered right within Edge’s location bar — no need to hit Enter to complete your search. That’s something Google has been dabbling with in Chrome, but Edge takes it to another level.
You can manage your Favorites, Reading List entries (articles you save to read later), History and Downloads from Edge’s Hub, which mostly stays out of the way until you need it. Microsoft also gave Edge annotating capabilities: You can highlight and mark up web pages any way you like (the Surface’s stylus comes in handy for this) and send them off to Evernote with just a few clicks. Those marked-up pages also retain your notes when you visit them again.
A much better Xbox app
While the Xbox app was a decent way to stay connected to your gaming friends in Windows 8, now it’s actually useful for gaming. Windows 10 can stream games from any Xbox One on your home network (and eventually Xbox 360 games that are compatible) — all you need to do is plug an Xbox One controller into your PC and hit the streaming button on the Xbox app. The games still run on your Xbox One; it’s just spitting out a real-time video feed to your computer rather than just your TV. As you can imagine, such a feature requires pretty strong network capabilities, so I’d recommend plugging either your Xbox or computer into Ethernet (ideally both) to use it. Streaming over WiFi is possible, but even with a strong router, I ran into issues testing out this feature.
My Surface Pro 3 refused to hold a stream for more than a few seconds (I think it may not be playing nicely with my 5GHz 802.11n wireless network), while my desktop gaming PC (also connected to my 5GHz N network with a large external antenna) handled it just fine. I was able to race in Forza Horizon 2 and play some Destiny matches with the same amount of control as I had on the Xbox One. There are some video artifacts, and the connection occasionally cut out, so it’s not ideal for truly important gaming scenarios. Still, these are early days, and I can imagine Microsoft will continue to optimize how Windows 10’s game streaming works on typical home networks. If you’ve got a high-end AC router, you’ll probably have fewer issues.
The Xbox app also serves as a single hub for all of the games on your computer; it even managed to find Broken Age, which I installed via Steam, and you can manually add games as well. You can also start a party chat with people on your friends list, as well as share clips from your Game DVR library on Xbox Live. Overall, it’s simply a much more functional offering than the Windows 8 Xbox app.
Windows 10 also features redesigned versions of core apps, like Mail, Calendar, Maps and the Windows Store. They all adopt the minimalist aesthetic from Windows 10, but what’s really interesting about them is that they’re universal apps, meaning they’re the exact same apps that will run on Windows 10 phones later this year. We’re still waiting to see how third-party developers latch onto Microsoft’s universal apps — those that can be written once and run across multiple devices — but the company has at least proven they’re possible with Windows 10.
Apps were a big focus at Microsoft’s Build developer conference, and for good reason. One of Windows 8’s big issues was that it didn’t attract a healthy developer community like iOS and Android, even though Microsoft has been talking about the idea of universal apps even before that OS launched. To that end, Microsoft also announced that developers will be able to recompile their iOS and Android apps to work on Windows 10. In fact, that’s how King brought Candy Crush Saga over to Windows. There are also new developer tools for iOS and Linux, so developers don’t even need to run Windows to build Windows apps.
As for those new Windows 10 apps, they all look and function better than their Windows 8 counterparts. Mostly, that’s because you can actually run them in traditional windows. The Mail and Calendar apps, in particular, are good enough that I’ll likely be sticking with them for the time being. They’re fast, relatively lightweight and attractive — the sort of thing you normally had to rely on non-Microsoft developers to create. The News app is also more useful than I thought it would be. It’s basically Microsoft’s spin on news readers like Feedly, except built right into the OS. News did a decent job of alerting me to interesting tidbits, like when NASA discovered an Earth-like exoplanet, and even without much training it highlighted news it knew I would be interested in.
The upgraded Windows Store app also makes it much easier to locate and install new apps. Again, since you’re not forced to navigate it in fullscreen, you can actually use it without completely disrupting your workflow. It feels more like Apple’s Mac Store app now, which is a huge improvement over Windows 8. Many Windows users still have to get used to the notion of using an app store to find software, and this redesigned Store app goes a long way towards making that happen.
Pricing and system requirements
Microsoft surprised everyone when it announced that it would be giving away Windows 10 for free (specifically for existing Windows 7 and 8 users). It showed that, for once, it was more interested in getting people to use Windows than it was in forcing people to pay for yet another upgrade. Instead, Microsoft made it clear that it was far more important to actually get people on Windows 10, which would make it a more viable platform for developers, as well as a gateway to its many online services. Windows 10 is more than a piece of retail software; it’s the basis of Microsoft’s future Windows empire.
After that first year, Windows 10 Home will cost $120, while the Pro version will go for $200. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft ends up extending its free offer even further though, especially if Windows 10 really ends up taking off. As usual, the Home version of Windows 10 is the one meant for most consumers, while the Pro version adds advanced features like Active Directory support. There are also editions meant for enterprise users and schools, and of course we’ll see it hit mobile devices later this fall. (Side note: Microsoft also removed Windows Media Center in Windows 10, so be prepared for that shocker if you actually used it.)
As far as basic requirements go, Windows 10 is pretty much the same as Windows 8: You’ll need at least a 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM (2GB for the 64-bit version), as well as 16/20GB of free hard drive space for the 32-bit/64-bit editions. Basically, just about anyone can run Windows 10. You can’t buy a computer these days that doesn’t meet those specs.
I had high hopes for Windows 10 after Microsoft’s Build conference, where I noted that, for once, the company was acting as a leader, not a follower. Windows 10 delivers the most refined desktop experience ever from Microsoft, and yet it’s so much more than that. It’s also a decent tablet OS, and it’s ready for a world filled with hybrid devices. And, barring another baffling screwup, it looks like a significant step forward for mobile. Heck, it makes the Xbox One a more useful machine.
It’s nice, for once, to be able to recommend a new version of Windows without any hesitation. If you’ve got a Windows 7 or 8 machine, there’s no reason not to take advantage of Microsoft’s free upgrade offer. And if, for some reason, you have a machine that’s older than Windows 7, Windows 10 is good enough to justify getting a new computer.
Microsoft knows that you probably don’t trust it completely with your sensitive info, especially if you live outside the US. What assurances will you get that you won’t be spied on, or sold down the river? The company thinks it has an answer: it just became the first big service provider to adopt a new international standard for privacy in the cloud. The guideline requires that Microsoft give its business clients (and by extension, you) guarantees about what happens to online data. It’ll only handle personal info according to instructions, makes it clear where that data is going, enforces strict limits on public use and promises that content won’t be used for ads. Importantly, the measure also requires that Microsoft give a heads-up about government requests for data whenever the law allows.
The pledge is partly symbolic — Microsoft already follows a lot of these principles. However, the standard puts that promise into writing, and gives other companies (not to mention governments) a privacy model they can follow. There’s no certainty that your cloud data will be much more secure as a result, but wide adoption of the standard could eliminate a lot of the uncertainty surrounding privacy when your files change hands or cross borders.
Whenever you make a Bitcoin transaction, it’s recorded on a public ledger called “blockchain.” Now, a handful of big banks have partnered (PDF) with New York firm R3 to adopt the cryptocurrency’s database system for use in finance. These nine banks, including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Barclays, will help the firm develop standards and agree on the underlying architecture that the sector will use. After that, they will decide where the software can be applied and then test it out to be sure. Due to the way blockchain works, it has many potential applications: for instance, it could speed up the process of tracking ownerships or the transfer of assets between two people.
The Senior Vice President of Emerging Technologies at State Street, Hu Liang, believes “these new technologies could transform how financial transactions are recorded, reconciled and reported — all with additional security, lower error rates and significant cost reductions.” For this new system to be effective, though, all banks and everyone else in the financial market must agree to use it. In addition to the financial sector, IBM has also been eyeing Bitcoin’s blockchain technology: the corporation is also working to adopt it for use on a new international payment platform.
Uber and Lyft are doing a rare team-up to offer “tens of thousands” of free rides to veterans who need transportation to seek work, according to a message from the White House. Uber pledged to donate 10,000 rides worth around $125,000, while Lyft told Techcrunch that it’s giving away “thousands of rides” in total. The White House pointed out that the rides will be particularly beneficial to the estimated 50,000 homeless veterans, two-thirds of whom don’t have access to transportation. In addition, Uber will today offer riders a chance to donate $5, which it’ll use to offer additional rides.
According to the “Joining Forces” program headed by the First Lady and Vice-President Joe Biden, the PenFed Foundation will offer stopgap funding to veterans who have lost their jobs and need emergency funding. Uber is actually one of the largest employers of US military veterans thanks to its UberMILITARY program, which has signed up 40,000 or so veterans as drivers. According to stats from January, Uber has around 160,000 active driver, making veterans a significant portion of that pool.
For the first time last month, I requested a car using a smartphone. The app correctly guessed my location using GPS, gave me a ballpark arrival time with a real-time map and even estimated the fare. A polite driver arrived on time and whisked me to my destination. When I tried to pay and tip, he explained that the payment was already taken (I’d receive a receipt by email soon) and that the service (Uber) forbade tipping.
Wait, what? No haggling, luggage fee, credit card refusal, time wasted on receipts or even tipping? This was an epiphany! But professional taxi drivers who pay thousands of dollars for a license are understandably not thrilled about these services. Neither are many cities (and regions) that collect those fees and say that Uber/Lyft/etc. are dangerous or improperly insured. The result of this clash, thus far, is chaos: bans, mass demonstrations and even violence. Despite all that, ridesharing poster child Uber was recently valued at $17 billion. So, will app-driven car services gain traction or be run out of town?
WHAT IS IT?
Uber and Lyft are the best-known services, but other players include Sidecar, Wingz, Summon and Hailo. In Europe, there’s also LeCar, SnapCar, BlaBlaCar, Djump, Heetch and Carpooling.com. Uber has several slightly different services: It still operates its limo-style UberBLACK, which requires drivers to have a commercial chauffeur license and insurance. Taxis can now sign up for a service called UberTAXI with their existing permits and insurance. Finally, there’s the pure ridesharing service UberX and an even cheaper version called UberPOP. For its part, Lyft, with its pink ‘stache, is ridesharing-only, but recently announced Lyft Plus, a premium service it says is cheaper than competitive offerings.
Believe it or not, Sidecar and Lyft only launched two years ago. Uber arrived in 2009, but was just limos with apps until UberX launched in 2012. Oddly, the companies style themselves as “peer-to-peer transportation” platforms, not passenger services. So why the slippery terminology? We’ll cover that soon, but it’s largely about licensing, permits and insurance.
If you drive for Uber, Lyft or Sidecar, you don’t need a commercial license. However, all the services require a clean driving record and Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) check. They also perform a 10-year background check to ensure drivers have never been convicted of a violent crime, sexual offense or DUI (for example). Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and others also offer liability insurance for drivers, passengers and pedestrians for up to $1 million, but only if the driver’s personal insurance doesn’t cover an accident. Both Uber and Lyft now levy a $1 per-ride charge for insurance.
A driver who works for all three companies in San Francisco (let’s call him “Jasper”) told me that Lyft and Sidecar encourage drivers to be extra-smiley and friendly, complete with fist bumps. He added that Lyft tends to overdo it, however, and some drivers “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” and aren’t crazy about the “look-at-me” pink mustaches — which aren’t optional, by the way.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Most ridesharing companies have a smartphone app that works on iOS and Android. You need to sign up and give your personal details, along with a credit card or PayPal account. When you’re ready to find a ride, they all work about the same. You can input your location based on your GPS coordinates, and add your destination if you need a price estimate. With Sidecar, you must enter your destination when you order a car. Most will tell you how close the nearest ride is in minutes, and show the car arriving on a map. You’ll also get the name of your driver, their overall rating (for Uber and Lyft, it’s on a scale of one to five) and the type of car they’re piloting.
The nearest driver is dispatched based on their GPS location, and just before they arrive, you’ll receive a text message. “Jasper” told me that Uber’s driver app won’t transmit your destination to the driver, unlike Lyft’s and Sidecar’s apps. Instead, he has to enter it manually when the passenger arrives, so most Uber drivers pack a second phone or GPS. However, as mentioned, Sidecar customers must enter a destination, which drivers like as it gives them a close idea of their fare. He said that many of his customers avoid Sidecar for the same reason, though — they’d rather not be bothered.
When I used UberX about a half dozen times on a recent trip to San Francisco, none of the drivers had a rating less than 4.7 out of five. However, the quality of vehicles varied. I rode in an older, not-very-fancy (but clean) Toyota Corolla and in a new, deluxe Honda Accord. Some drivers were very familiar with the city and drove me efficiently to my destination (I checked), but a few times, they overshot it or took a wrong turn. Incidentally, Uber drivers keep track of passenger ratings, too, but keep them under wraps to avoid confrontations — a low enough passenger rating can get you kicked off the service. The only way to find out is to ask a driver, who may or may not reveal it. I was told that on all three services, if either you or your driver gives a rating of three out of five or less, you’ll never be paired together again.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Once you arrive, the driver will stop the “meter” and that’s it. You can just say “bye” and split because your fare has already been calculated and the payment taken automatically. Tipping isn’t permitted on most services, though 20 percent is automatically added on UberTAXI (that can be changed globally). So how much does it cost? That depends, but the chart below for San Francisco — the home base of Lyft, Uber and Sidecar — offers a rough idea. Most of the services come in around 10 to 30 percent less than a regular taxi… with some huge caveats. Uber’s infamous “surge” pricing, for instance, could make a trip much more expensive depending on demand, while Lyft’s happy hour pricing could make it much cheaper (which aggravates some drivers). UberBLACK, XL and VAN services are higher, more in line with the price of a taxi or limo.
San Francisco Rideshare/Cab (regular rates)
Per Minute (waiting-only for taxis)
Safe Ride (or similar) Fee
Price for 5 mile, 15 minute ride
[Source: Uber, Lyft, SFMTA — assumes four minutes of traffic/red light delays for cabs]
Sidecar allows drivers to select their own rates — either lower or up to 1.25 times higher than the so-called community average (the company doesn’t post those figures). That lets users pick a driver with a low fee or, say, a high rating. Jasper told me, however, that Sidecar offers drivers some other interesting options. For instance, during their own commute, drivers can lower their minimum rate drastically to ensure they have a fare, rather than riding empty. If a neighbor goes to work at the same time, for instance, the driver could give him a cheap ride every day — a win-win deal.
How much commission ridesharing companies take is another interesting aspect. Jasper said that right now, Uber is charging a 20 percent commission, while Lyft is charging zero in San Francisco. (He added that fees seem to drop when companies get new rounds of funding.) In addition, drivers can be offered bonuses for recruiting other drivers — Uber is reportedly offering up to $500 for new recruits right now.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
It’s hard to see the downside of ridesharing for passengers. The increased supply of cars makes it easier to find a ride, for one thing — even if you prefer taxis. It also avoids the normal calling or wandering around to hail a cab, and gives you a status of your ride from the moment you request it. It’s often cheaper than a cab, and there’s rarely a dispute about unwanted fees or questionable route decisions. And the rating systems help keep drivers (and passengers) honest.
From a ridesharing driver’s perspective, it’s mostly all good, too. You’ll never get stiffed on a fare, and the services generally shuffle cars around efficiently, minimizing downtime. The pre-registration process and automatic ride-logging also add a safety factor for both parties. Of course, most cab drivers would rather that ridesharing services go away. They see them as amateur interlopers who pay no hefty fees, but steal precious fares. As pointed out by The New Yorker, if peer-to-peer transportation companies continue on their current trajectory, they could put a lot of taxi drivers out of business. That would turn out to be bad for passengers in the end, too — with less competition, fares would go up.
WHAT’S THE ARGUMENT?
A demonstrator kicks a car, suspected to be a private taxi, during a protest in Madrid, Spain.
The ridesharing issue has two loud camps — which have literally come to blows in the past. Cab drivers call Lyft and Uber businesses-for-profit — not “peer-to-peer transportation” — and believe they should pay the same license fees and insurance as taxis. Cities, states and countries feel the same, in many cases. Uber started up in Vancouver in 2012, but was quickly shut down on the grounds that it was technically a limousine service and had to charge a minimum of $75 per trip. Similarly, it was barred in Virginia and is technically illegal in all of Belgium.
In addition, though Uber now does thorough background checks, it wasn’t always so careful. Following an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, it had to apologize for hiring a driver with a felony conviction and was forced to redo thousands of driver screenings. Other black marks include an allegation of kidnapping against one Uber driver (the charge was dropped), and questions of insurance gaps for passengers. The new $1 fee for “passenger safety” and insurance addressed those issues, but one pundit noted that it was like paying a fee not to get assaulted.
On the other hand, taxis have a horrible reputation in many cities. According to the Washington Post, some 12,000 complaints were filed against cab drivers in Chicago through the city’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection fields, or around 33 per day. Among those, one passenger cited a driver that left him at the curb when the driver saw that he had a guide dog, while another cabbie refused a customer that wanted to pay with a credit card. Worse, many drivers have been cited for racist behavior or flat-out dangerous driving. Ridesharing services say their drivers would be banned at the first sign of such behavior, or weeded out by lousy customer ratings. They also say there wouldn’t be a demand for their services in the first place if cab companies didn’t mistreat customers so poorly.
WANT EVEN MORE?
The best way to find out if ridesharing services are for you? Grab one of the apps, sign up and give it a whirl. You’ll find them by searching for Sidecar, Uber, Lyft, et al on the iOS and Google Play app stores. Unfortunately, none of the major players have official Windows Phone apps at the moment — Uber did at one point, but the app was pulled. Uber also has a BlackBerry app. Lyft’s, Uber’s and Sidecar’s blogs detail new city locations, service changes and other news. Uber also uses its blogs to discuss controversial topics, like the banning of cars in Brussels. You can check out the Washington Post’s story about the litany of Chicago taxi complaints, the Daily Beast’s argument against Uber’s $1 “safety” fees and why ridesharing insurance headaches could get worse. Forbes’ feature details the competition between Uber and Lift while GQ’sUber Cab Confessions touches on the industry’s sordid side. Finally, we here at Engadget have covered Lyft, Uber and Sidecar closely since ridesharing became “a thing.”
Update: Hailo reminded us that you “must be licensed by local regulators” to drive on its network. The article previously stated that no commercial license was required on Hailo. It has been updated with the correct information.
[Image credits: AP (Lyft); Uber (Passengers, Car interior and London); Lyft; Paul White/AP (Protestor); Justin Sullivan/Getty Images (Taxi and Lyft)]
While Cyanogen has whipped up a suite of exclusive apps for the commercial version of its mobile operating system, those using the open source CyanogenMod were unfortunately left out. Now it’s changing that, by offering a “Cyanogen Apps Package” as an optional download that adds its Boxer email app, redesigned AudioFX and more — it doesn’t have every custom tweak but the company says more parts will come along in future updates. That’s good news for modders loading the custom OS on random devices, and also users who want to switch to CyanogenMod on phones like the OnePlus One or Yureka without losing these Google-alternative apps. You’ll need to be running version 12.1 of the OS to make it work — check out the wiki for installation instructions.
Cyanogen and OnePlus aren’t as close as they once were, but the wide open Android variant finally has a release-ready version of Lollipop and it’s rolling out to the OnePlus One today. Cyanogen OS 12 has all the improvements Google could pack in to the fifth iteration of Android — you’ll need to wait for 12.1 for the 5.1 tweaks — plus a couple of special additions with app theming, a built-in Gmail replacement and more. If you’re not seeing the rolling update on your device yet, the factory image should be available to download here soon. Of course, OnePlus has its own OxygenOS version of Android to offer owners of the devices, so in the space of nine days, anyone carrying a One has gone from no official avenues for installing Android Lollipop to two. Choose wisely.
Cyanogen’s certainly set on loading its Android version with Google app replacements. Earlier this year, it announced that it will make Boxer’s Gmail-like email app the stock option for Cyanogen OS 12. Now it has revealed that the new calendar made by the same firm will also become a stock app in future versions of the platform. As Boxer is known for making Google app substitutes for those fond of them but who’d rather not tie their details to an account, its new calendar’s pretty much like GCal, with events indicated by color-coded blocks. It’s integrated with the company’s email app, which means you’d instantly know if you’re available when you receive an invite in your inbox. Boxer’s calendar will come preloaded on Cyanogen OS devices to be released in the next few months, but you can download it right now from Google Play or iTunes.
Look at your phone. If you can honestly admit that you love every single thing about it, I have good news: You can stop reading this review, since it won’t have an impact on your happiness. But if there’s even one thing you wish your smartphone could do better, it means you had to make compromises when you bought it. Everybody wants a perfect phone, but such a thing simply doesn’t exist. So, we settle on a phone that has only 95 percent of the features we want, and that… kinda sucks.
OnePlus believes it doesn’t have to be this way. Its motto, “Never Settle,” represents the fledgling Chinese company’s mission to build and sell the perfect smartphone. Its first attempt is the One, a premium-looking device that has customizable firmware and top-shelf specs. Oh, and it’ll sell for $299 unlocked and free of contract, which is even less expensive than Google’s Nexus 5. Seems a little over-ambitious for a small startup with no official track record, doesn’t it? Let’s find out if the One is too good to be true.
For $300, no other phone comes close to what the OnePlus One offers. Not only does it look and feel like a premium device, but it also comes with specs similar to what you’d find in a flagship smartphone. If you want a high-end phone on a budget, look no further.
The OnePlus One doesn’t look like a $299 phone. Its arched back, polycarbonate build, elegant chassis and top-of-the-line spec sheet could easily fool someone into thinking you paid $600 for it. That’s probably because a lot of other companies are trying to sell the same kind of device for that much money.
How is it possible, then, for a startup like OnePlus to sell a flagship device at a lower cost than many of its closest competitors? Easy: Use the same business model Google used with the Nexus 4 and 5. In other words, it doesn’t plan to make any money for a while. OnePlus has no track record to rely on aside from the fact that its founder and much of its workforce came over from Oppo, which has a reputation for making great devices (albeit at a much higher cost). Keeping the price down is an investment for the nascent company; it’s got a lot to prove, and the One is meant to be exhibit A.
There’s not much to hate for a first-gen product, unless you’re simply not a fan of larger smartphones. That’s because the One sports a 5.5-inch display and is 1.7mm taller and 0.6mm thicker than the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. It is, however, roughly four millimeters narrower and six grams lighter than Samsung’s 5.7-inch flagship. If you’re not used to holding phones bigger than a Galaxy S5 or Nexus 5, you may feel like you’re stretching hand muscles you never knew you had. I’m used to devices this size, however, and I found that using the OnePlus One was as pleasant an experience as you’re going to get with any phone larger than 5.3 inches. It features an arched back, which makes it rest more naturally in my hands, and its blunt edges give my fingers plenty of room to rest comfortably.
Doing the calculations, the One’s 5.5-inch 1080p IPS LCD panel has a pixel density of 401 ppi. The pickiest of pickies will automatically discount the quality of the screen based on the fact that it’s not quite as crisp as devices like the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5, but I’m sure you won’t notice the difference. And dare I say, I actually enjoy the One’s display more than most flagship smartphones, and it’s leaps and bounds better than the Nexus 5. Because it uses an IPS panel, the One’s viewing angles are among the best in the industry, keeping pace with the One M8 and absolutely destroying the GS5. It’s not quite as bright as the GS5, but it’s still respectable for a flagship-caliber device; heck, even its whites are whiter than those three other phones. Most importantly, the colors are natural, making them more satisfying to stare at than the saturated GS5 and overblown Nexus 5. In case this isn’t your style, however, the firmware lets you customize the amount of color saturation, intensity and contrast.
The display rises slightly above the rest of the frame, which means it’s more exposed than most smartphone screens. Fortunately it features a slab of Gorilla Glass 3 for scratch resistance, which should help for those chance encounters with keys, pens and other similar objects. There’s a 5-megapixel front-facing camera near the top next to the earpiece and sensors, and you’ll also find a set of three capacitive buttons at the bottom, which can be turned off in favor of virtual soft keys (more on this in the next section).
A volume rocker and micro-SIM slot line the left side of the One, while a power button adorns the right. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack on top, and you’ll find twin speaker grilles flanking a micro-USB port on the bottom. Some potential buyers might complain about the lack of a microSD storage slot, but if that’s really an issue, you can just spend an extra $50 for the 64GB version. This is a fantastic deal compared to other flagships that make you pay another $200 for that amount of space.
The gently curved back is minimal, featuring a 13MP camera with dual-LED flash, noise-canceling mic and logos for OnePlus and Cyanogen (unless you have the Chinese version, which doesn’t have the latter). The back cover is interchangeable, which gives you the ability to customize your hardware somewhat. Five plates have been announced so far, each with different colors and/or textures, but only two will be available at launch time. You’ll need the extra time to practice removing the back, though, because the process is about as painful as changing the oil in your car. To do it, you’ll need to first eject the SIM tray and then, using a mixture of fingernails, luck and prayer (if that’s your thing), pry open the back methodically. OnePlus made it difficult to take off on purpose, since nothing underneath the cover is removable — not even the 3,100mAh battery. Plus, think of the fine sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you’ve actually succeeded.
The One will come in two variants: one for China (with Chinese-specific bands and TD-SCDMA) and another for the rest of the world. OnePlus has tried to cram as many connectivity options as possible into the One, with seven LTE bands (1, 3, 4, 7, 17, 38, 40), as well as penta-band HSPA+ (up to 42 Mbps) and quad-band GSM/EDGE. For US readers, that means you can use this on AT&T or T-Mobile, but not Verizon or Sprint. It also supports Bluetooth 4.0, USB OTG, WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac, GPS/GLONASS and NFC.
As an aside, my review unit is a white 16GB model and is a pre-production device. OnePlus reps tell me the hardware and firmware are “almost final,” but improvements and bug fixes may be made between now and when the final units hit the assembly line. Once I have a final unit in my hands, I’ll take another look and update my review if anything gets fixed (or broken, as it were).
Before moving on, a disclaimer: Despite the company’s “Never Settle” mantra, a few of you may still feel like you’d be settling with the One. OnePlus couldn’t realistically pack every possible feature that now exists into its perfect phone — especially at such a low price — so if you want something with wireless charging, a microSD slot, waterproof design, aluminum build or a removable battery, this may not be the perfect phone for you.
As if the One wasn’t unique enough, it also comes with a much more customizable Android experience than what 99 percent of users currently enjoy. This is because OnePlus is an exclusive partner with CyanogenMod, so naturally its very first phone comes with the firmware (build 11S, based on Android 4.4.2) directly baked in.
Hold up. What exactly is CyanogenMod? It’s custom firmware based on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) and gives the user more freedom to fiddle around with settings, icons, themes and… well, nearly every aspect of the Android experience. Cyanogen’s one of the most popular pieces of third-party firmware in the Android universe and can be installed a wide variety of devices, but the experience is even better on the One because it was built into the phone; since CyanogenMod could work with the hardware early in its development, it was able to add a bunch of optimizations that you won’t find on other phones.
At first, it doesn’t appear that different from stock Android, save for a few style changes (think: icons and buttons). But don’t let its understated facade fool you: There’s a lot of power behind the scenes, and it becomes more evident as you continue to poke around. There are several new features, with tweakable settings thrown in everywhere. Many of you are simply looking for an inexpensive phone and don’t care about making dozens of tiny adjustments to your Android setup, and the beauty of CM is that it can fit your style just as easily as it can fit the preferences of power users — it’s completely customizable, and it’s fantastic. Here’s a crash course on what you can tweak.
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Thanks to a healthy modding community, there are tons of different CyanogenMod themes to choose from. Prefer LG’s or Samsung’s interfaces for some weird reason? No sweat, just go to the Themes Showcase app and download what you want. Most of them aren’t perfect ports (some only feature select parts of the UI, like icons, buttons or fonts), but they will at least offer you some of the familiarity of what you’re used to. You can also choose to download a number of different fonts, sound packs, boot animations and wallpapers.
The One comes with a set of capacitive keys below the screen, but you can deactivate them and opt for a virtual bar of soft buttons instead. It may not make sense to do that if you’re trying to squeeze as much real estate as possible out of your screen space, however. If you choose to keep the on-screen bar, CM will let you add, take away and rearrange the buttons that appear there.
You can also customize the status bar to show the clock, battery percentage (and the type of indicator it uses) and the number of notifications for certain apps, like Gmail. You’ll also be able to adjust screen brightness just by sliding your finger to the left or right on the bar, and you can choose to add a double-tap-to-sleep option.
If you want to change which tiles show up in your quick settings menu (and the order in which they’re shown), you can do that by hitting a plus icon near the top. And by the way, instead of having to use a two-finger gesture to open that menu, it’s possible to pull down on the right side of the status bar to get there — pulling down on the left would bring up the standard notification bar. Finally, you can also change which shortcuts show up on the lock screen, as well as the quick launch shortcuts that appear when you slide up from the home button. I could keep talking about more stuff you can tweak, but you get the idea — you can do a lot. And part of the fun is discovering new settings to tweak.
The One lets you use gestures to activate different parts of the phone. Oddly, this is one of the few parts of the OS that isn’t customizable. A double-tap wakes the device; a V motion activates the LED flashlight; two fingers up/down will turn on your music; and a circular gesture gets you straight into the camera. These gestures were incredibly sensitive on my pre-release unit, so I would often hear music coming from the phone as it sat in my pants pocket. Hopefully OnePlus and Cyanogen will fine-tune this as the One gets closer to an official launch.
Lastly, during the course of my review I stumbled upon one of the One’s best features: always-listening voice recognition, thanks to Qualcomm. CM throws in a few modifications of its own to add more customization. After the phone learns your voice, you can say “Hey Snapdragon” “OK OnePlus” to activate Google Now or any app of your choice.
The Nexus 5 has a lot of endearing traits, but the camera isn’t one of them. Sure, it has its moments of greatness, but I can’t help think this is a case of settling. The OnePlus One, on the other hand, uses a 13-megapixel rear camera with a Sony sensor, six-element lens setup and f/2.0 aperture for lower-light shots. Additionally, the front-facing camera tops out at 5MP — a sizable improvement over the 1.3-megapixel sensor on the N5.
The camera app is a special flavor made by the CyanogenMod team. It consists of three circular buttons on the side for taking stills, video and panoramic shots. Along the top sits some settings, scenes and a toggle for the front-facing camera. In addition to HDR, night mode, landscape and a few other standard options, the One has less-traditional scenes like snow, sunset, party and theatre. These may offer some fun ways to experiment with your camera, but I found that auto mode took care of most scenarios perfectly well. But if you want to switch back and forth, all you have to do is swipe your finger up or down on the viewfinder.
When it comes to performance, the camera is decent, but hardly stellar. Colors appear more natural than on the Nexus 5, but they’re still slightly less saturated than they should be. The sky isn’t as blue as I’d like, and some of my sample images suffer from soft focus. For low-light shots, the large aperture didn’t help the camera capture as much light as I expected, as the level of detail is nowhere close to what I got from the HTC One M8 or high-end Nokia Lumias. It’s also quite noisy. Compared to the N5, it gets about the same amount of light, but the One’s white balance is much better at night. Lastly, HDR mode is a little too strong; it does so well at highlighting the shadows that it ends up making the rest of the picture look a tad cartoonish. All told, the camera is one area in which flagship devices still outperform the One, but at least it’s a slight improvement over the Nexus. (I’ve added an album of full-res photos to Flickr, and will continue to add more as new updates come out.)
That said, the built-in editing software has some serious chops, in case your photo needs a little post-production flair. If you feel the HDR effect is too strong (or you want to bump it up even more), you can change filter strength or switch to a different preset style. You can also adjust the color, focus, sharpness and brightness. Even better, you can select certain areas of each image that you want to tweak. There are also heaps of filter options thrown in for good measure.
Video recording here is solid, with up to 4K resolution and a bit rate of 20 Mbps. You can also film in 60 fps slow motion at 1080p and 120 fps at 720p. Since the One doesn’t have optical image stabilization, CM had to tweak the software to ease the pain a bit. It certainly helps, because footage is noticeably smoother. It can’t fully replace actual hardware, of course, but the software enhancements at least make a difference. The front mics seemed to pick up more sound than the rear ones, so when taking movies of my children, my voice came out much stronger unless they were close by; when filming them outdoors, however, they sounded muffled when they were more than a few feet away.
Performance and battery life
It’s hard to believe that a $300 device like the One has as much muscle underneath the hood as the Galaxy S5 and Oppo Find 7. In fact, you technically can’t get any faster, since the phone sports a 2.45GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 (MSM8974-AC), a 578MHz Adreno 330 GPU and 3GB of RAM. Until the Snapdragon 805 comes out later this year, this is the absolute best silicon that Qualcomm has to offer. But what does it mean to you? Smooth everything, fast everything and no lag as far as the eye can see. If you don’t mind my nitpicks: The gaming experience is still slightly sluggish with the occasional frame skip, but it’s not very noticeable unless you’re paying close attention. Additionally, since the phone’s still running on a pre-release build, there are a few kinks that OnePlus needs to iron out before it releases the One to the world.
CyanogenMod’s firmware gives you the option to change your performance profile to one of three modes, ranging from power conservation to battery sucker. If you don’t want to use any presets, you can adjust some of the settings manually, such as minimum and maximum CPU frequency. This is definitely in advanced territory; I don’t recommend you try it unless you know what you’re doing.
One such issue is soft audio output, both on the external speakers and in the earpiece. All of my conversations were much quieter than they should have been, and I could barely hear music blaring at full volume. (OnePlus tells me this will be resolved in an upcoming update, and I’ll amend my review as soon as that happens.) Fortunately, none of this was a problem when I used headphones; in fact, I often had to turn down the volume to make my ears feel comfortable. In addition, the One has an equalizer app called AudioFX, which lets you fine-tune the audio.
Battery life, at least, is a bright spot. The One has a 3,100mAh non-removable cell that’s just a tad smaller than the battery inside the Note 3. What’s more, it’s actually larger than what you’ll find in the GS5 and One M8. On most days, I made it to the end of the evening with around 5-10 percent life remaining. (On average, this constituted 14-15 hours of solid use, and roughly four hours of screen-on time.) These were days full of emails, calls, travel, social networking and a little bit of gaming. All told, our standard video rundown test yielded 10 hours of life. This isn’t the best I’ve seen, but I’d consider it well above average for a smartphone — and I’m hard-pressed to ask for more from a $300 device.
Good things come to those who wait. Phones with lower asking prices often come with excruciating delays, and OnePlus’ first handset is no exception. The company is going to have a difficult time meeting demand right away, which is one reason why it’s offering the One on an invite-only basis at the beginning. The $299 16GB option, which will come in white, will go out to the first batch of invites in mid to late May; the $349 64GB model, offered in black, starts shipping in early June. For the rest of you still waiting for an invite, OnePlus is hoping to send one your way by the end of June.
At launch, the OnePlus One will be available in 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, the UK and the US. Once it’s ready, the One will face intense competition. The most notable device in its price range is the Nexus 5, which you can get for $349 (16GB) or $399 (32GB). It comes unlocked and has the full native Google experience, but admittedly, it doesn’t have as extensive a spec list as the One. The Nexus 5 is still the best option if you want timely updates, but CyanogenMod has a good track record of pushing updates quickly, and since the ROM is baked into the device (rather than requiring a separate install), it makes the chances of getting prompt refreshes even more likely. CM’s also pledged that it will support updates for the One for at least two years.
It doesn’t make sense that the OnePlus One should be this inexpensive. It looks elegant, feels solid and performs smoothly, and it doesn’t show any signs that it’s a first-generation product from an unknown company. Regardless of how well it sells, the industry will see this as a benchmark for what an affordable phone really can be. All told, it outperforms Google’s Nexus 5 in nearly every way — and it does so at an even lower price. Heck, it’s better than many flagship phones that sell for twice as much.
The OnePlus One gets close to the perfection it’s aspiring for, but it’s not for everyone. Many will despise its large form factor, non-removable battery and lack of external storage. To a nitpicky reviewer like myself, a truly perfect device would also include wireless charging and some type of waterproofing. But let’s be real: It just isn’t going to happen in a $299 device, especially one that’s already filled to the brim with flagship features.
Here’s the thing: The One doesn’t have to be perfect for me to recommend it. A few missing features? Sure, no problem. What matters is that it’s perfect for you, and it fits all of your needs. Besides, imperfections make us eager to see what’s around the corner. In the meantime, we keep dreaming of perfection, and perhaps one day we’ll actually find it.