ZTE’s dual-screen Axon M is fascinating and flawed

Six years ago, a smartphone maker without much clout in the US designed an Android device with a novel second screen that turned a thick phone into a small tablet. That company was Kyocera, that device was the Echo, and uh, it totally flopped. (David Blaine doing magic tricks under 10,000 gallons of water at the phone’s unveiling was, in hindsight, not a great omen.)

Rather than leave the idea of a dual-screen phone in the dustbin, ZTE ran with it and last month released the Axon M, an AT&T exclusive. It’s hard not to look at the thing as a $725 curiosity, but don’t be fooled: It’s a lot more than that. It’s an argument that smartphones can and should be more than the flat slabs we’ve grown so used to. Too bad that argument isn’t compelling.

Having twice as much screen as usual may seem tantalizing, but chances are you won’t be using both displays all the time. When it comes to using the Axon M as you would a normal phone, the compromises ZTE had to make become especially conspicuous. When closed, the phone is half an inch thick, making it the chunkiest smartphone I’ve tested all year. Now, I’d gladly trade smartphone sleekness for better battery life, but the Axon M uses a 3,180mAh cell that’s enough to get through just a single day and not much more. Bear in mind, that’s when you’re only using one screen at a time; prolonged multitasking all but guarantees you’ll need to keep the charger handy.

And then there are the screens themselves. ZTE went with two 5.2-inch LCD panels: one baked into the phone’s chunky body and another wedged into a sliver of metal that flips arounds on a hinge and locks into place with a satisfying click. Sadly, these displays are wholly unremarkable. They’re middling 1080p panels with lackluster colors and decent viewing angles. Neither of them gets as bright as other devices I’ve tested this year. For a phone as uniquely screen-focused as this one, it’s disappointing that ZTE didn’t go with more-impressive panels. It’s not hard to see why, though: The Axon M would have been even more expensive.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

While the Axon M’s flip-open design might initially seem clever, in practice it’s flawed. When closed, both of the Axon’s screens face outward, sort of like an inside-out Nintendo DS. Even the earlier Echo device, which was otherwise a resounding failure, kept its second screen protected. The hinge is also wedged into the right side of the phone, forcing ZTE to stick the volume rocker, power button and camera key on the phone’s left edge. This runs counter to just about every other smartphone other there, and even after weeks of use, I still haven’t gotten used to this layout. Since there’s a screen on the other side, you’d think there would be a way to use it as the main display, so the phone’s controls are on the usual side. Nope! You’re stuck with ZTE’s awkward design choices.

In daily use, the glass covering both sides of the phone makes it surprisingly slippery. And since both screens always face outward, there’s twice as much screen to shatter when the phone does take a tumble. Going off the number of busted phones I see in use every day, I’m already concerned for Axon M owners. After all, if you screw up one of the screens, you’ve basically destroyed the only reason to own this phone.

The screens are also flanked on the top and bottom by some thick bezels, though that was probably unavoidable — after all, the engineers had to stick the mediocre 20-megapixel camera somewhere. The camera is always pointed straight at you, and you use the second screen around back, then fire up the camera app. It’s a clever approach, but image quality is middling at best — a far cry from the performance you’d normally expect from a $700+ phone.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Honestly, one of the few nice things I can say about the Axon’s design is that the phone feels sturdier when it’s fully open than I had expected; the two screens sit flush with each other, and the hinge feels strong. To actually make use of both screens, you’ll have to tap the "M" (you know, for "multitasking") key next to the standard navigation keys. This is where things start to get wild.

In addition to using the Axon M as you would a normal phone, there are three ways to make use of that extra screen. You can mirror the contents of one screen onto the other, so you can, say, watch a YouTube video with someone sitting across from you. There are some theoretical business use cases too, such as propping the phone up like a tent and walking someone through a PowerPoint presentation, but this is easily the most forgettable of the Axon’s multiscreen modes. Dual mode, which gives you the power to run two distinct apps on their own screen, is more obviously useful. It’s a year old at this point, but Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 chip plus 4GB of onboard RAM keep pairs of apps moving with respectable fluidity. Occasional instances of lag are to be expected, but giving two apps screens of their own generally works well.

You definitely shouldn’t run two games side by side, but everything else is fair game. I’ve taken to leaving YouTube running on one screen while I dash off emails in another. And trying to get through The New York Times Saturday crossword puzzle isn’t so difficult when I have Google search results for tricky clues beneath it. For all the quirks and strange design choices, multitasking on the Axon M can be useful. Here’s the rub, though: The primary way people multitask on their smartphones is by jumping in and out of different app windows, and despite everything, we’ve gotten good at it. As a result, I quickly ran out of reasons to run different apps on these screens. After a while, I was doing it just to do it, not because using both screens made me any more efficient.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The coolest — and most problematic — option is what ZTE calls Extend mode. Through some clever software trickery, the Axon M treats the two displays as one big one, and the effect is generally impressive. When the phone’s screens are side by side, you’ll get a perfectly square 6.2-inch screen that handily blurs the line between phone and tablet. The only downside: a noticeable gap separates the screens. It’s a constant reminder that major tech companies still haven’t mastered the kind of foldable smartphones we’re excited about. ZTE worked with software developers to optimize some apps for this larger canvas, but to get the most use out of it, you’ll need to toggle a setting that forces all apps to stretch across those screens. To ZTE’s credit, I haven’t run into any showstopping issues, but you should expect a few hiccups. The most glaring occurs when scrolling through content that spreads across both screens. The secondary display sometimes lags behind the main one, so it’s not uncommon to see one half of, say, a news article moving faster than the other.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The irony here is that even though the Axon M has two screens, videos that stretch across them don’t appear much bigger than they would on a single phablet screen. Let’s say you’re watching an episode of Stranger Things. With the Axon M set to extended mode, the size of the video spread across both panels is roughly equivalent to watching the same episode on an iPhone 8 Plus. "Roughly equivalent" is pretty generous too: The sizes of the video windows are close to equal, but you’ll never unsee the gap that separates the Axon’s two screens. In fairness, neither ZTE nor AT&T have claimed this mode is a particularly great way to watch video, though it’s a little odd that the phone has a "TV mode" that launches a predefined video app with a long-press of the camera key.

The awkward way the Axon M handles video is proof that two screens aren’t necessarily better than one. Still, that’s not to say the Extended mode is useless. I stopped carrying my Kindle around because I could just flip open the Axon M, fire up the app and thumb through a novel on the subway. The combined size of the two screens eclipsed my Kindle Voyage, and thanks to apps like InPen’s Reading Mode, the Axon M doubles as an e-reader without much hassle. In fact, this is probably what I used the Axon M for the most.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

That said, the idea of shelling out more than $700 to make reading slightly more pleasant is a silly one. I’m wading into iffy legal territory here, but the most fun I had with the Axon M came when I used it to play backed-up Nintendo DS games. (A note to our lawyers and Nintendo’s: I own physical copies of all the games whose ROMs I loaded onto the Axon M.) In those moments, when I could lose myself in a game I’d beaten countless times before, the Axon felt like something special. Then I’d exit the game and find myself left with this ambitious but flawed machine.

By now, it should be clear that you don’t need this phone. There is, however, something to be said for chutzpah. In building the Axon M, ZTE has displayed a kind of disregard for the smartphone status quo that is both interesting and genuinely refreshing. This might be a concept we’ve seen before, but there can be no progress without experimentation. If nothing else, this attempt at a dual-screen phone is much more well-rounded than the first. Ultimately, though, the Axon M feels like just that: an experiment, albeit one that’s as promising as it is frustrating. I’m glad it exists, just not enough to go out and buy one myself.

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Take that, Amazon and Walmart: Kroger sales surge

So much for Amazon and Walmart killing the grocery business.

Supermarket giant Kroger, which also owns Ralphs, Fry’s and Harris Teeter, reported sales and earnings that topped forecasts thanks to discounts that lured back shoppers.

Shares of Kroger (KR)surged 12% Thursday morning on the news, making it the top performer in the S&P 500. But the stock is still down more than 20% so far this year.

That’s because Kroger has been in a fierce battle with Amazon (AMZN, Tech30), which acquired Whole Foods earlier this year and immediately began to slash prices on food. Walmart (WMT) has been a tough competitor, too, as it has stepped up its game in the grocery business.

Walmart recently acquired delivery startup Parcel. It’s also running a test program in which customers can order groceries online and have them delivered by a driver who enters their home using a one-time code on a smart lock to put away groceries — all while the customer watches on a security camera.

And Europe’s supermarket kings Aldi and Lidi have also invaded American shores — stealing customers in the process.

Deflation in the food business hadn’t helped either. A drop in prices for many agricultural commodities has meant that Kroger and big food suppliers like Campbell Soup (CPB), ConAgra (CAG) and Kraft Heinz (KHC) have had to cut prices. That’s hurt profit margins.

But Kroger is fighting back. It unveiled a “Restock Kroger” plan in October that focuses on even lower prices, more private label brands and an increase in its digital shopping initiatives. The program seems to be working.

Overall sales were up 4.5% in the quarter, and same-store sales, a key measure of how well stores open at least a year are doing, rose more than 1%.

Related: Amazon vs. Walmart — is the rest of mass market retail fighting for crumbs?

What’s more, digital sales more than doubled thanks to the company’s ClickList service, which lets consumers shop online for home delivery or be ready for pickup at the store.

“Restock Kroger is off to a great start. Customers are recognizing our efforts to redefine the customer experience and rewarding us with their loyalty,” said Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen in a statement.

McMullen added that the company just saw its best-ever Black Friday general merchandise sales too, thanks to record results at the company’s Fred Meyer department store subsidiary.

Kroger’s comeback shows that there are some retailers that are able to hold their own with Amazon and Walmart. Home Depot (HD) and Best Buy (BBY) have both thrived this year as well.

But many retailers are still hurting. Shares of Sears (SHLD) did soar Thursday after it said its losses narrowed, but sales continued to plunge at both Sears and Kmart stores. And Barnes & Noble (BKS) tanked after the book seller reported another lousy quarter.

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American Airlines’ Computer Glitch Leaves It Without Pilots Over Christmas

Traveling during the holidays is, by definition, no fun. If you caught a flight over Thanksgiving this year, you got lucky—everything ran more or less to plan. No freak winter storms, no striking baggage handlers, no collapsing computer systems. Expecting the Christmas travel rush to go just as smoothly is a bit like expecting lightning to hit twice.

Indeed, trouble has already arisen. Today, American Airlines revealed it accidentally told too many of its pilots they could take time off the week of Christmas. Now, it faces a manpower crisis that could leave an estimated 15,000 flights with nobody to sit in the cockpit.

The airline blames some sort of computer glitch. It looks like the scheduling system it uses to assign pilots to flights indicated that there were plenty of captains and first officers to go around. Meanwhile, a separate system, which assigns holiday leave based on seniority, got carried away with the festive spirit and gave way too many people time off.

To get their aviators back to work—and avoid mass cancellations—American is offering time-and-a-half pay to pilots who pick up certain flights. In a statement, it said it has reserve pilots to cover the uptick in flying time during December, and it’s working with the pilot’s union to smooth everything out. Representatives for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents nearly 60,000 pilots in the US and Canada, say the airline should have consulted them over the extra pay. But with weeks left before peak travel times, it’s hard to imagine they won’t find an acceptable solution.

Still, the tussle highlights just how complicated the process of getting an airplane into the air is—and how easy it is for something to go wrong. Airlines operate control centers you could mistake for a NASA setup, with thousands of computers running hundreds of software systems to book and monitor everything that goes into a successful flight: planes, ground crew, meals, fuel, de-icing equipment, baggage handlers, cleaners, airport gates, and so on. It doesn’t take much to derail the whole system.

“These are really complicated systems, they’re huge, and testing them for every potential interaction is almost impossible,” says Bill Curtis, the chief scientist at CAST, which finds software flaws for large corporations. He’s also the executive director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality, which works to design better software standards.

Much of the time, airlines can deftly cope when bad weather grounds planes, leaving crews in the wrong location, or when someone’s luggage misses a connection. But a glitch in software that affects planes, pilots, or passengers en masse is a lot harder to handle.

Airline IT systems are particularly complex—and vulnerable—because the industry is so enamored of mergers and acquisitions. When American Airlines joined with US Airways in 2015, it had to integrate distinct computer programs that governed hundreds of planes and thousands of people, systems that may well have been dated and incompatible.

“If they have legacy systems, it may be time to rebuild them on a more modern language,” says Curtis. But in an industry that operates on profit margins tighter than an overhead bin, it can be hard to find the time and resources for a project of that magnitude.

American isn’t the first airline to be too generous with time off. In September, European budget operator Ryanair booked too many crew members for vacation. It had to cancel 2,100 flights, messing with some 315,000 customers trying to get to, or home from, summer vacations.

And it’s far from the first time a computer problem has grounded planes. In September, a check-in system failure at several European airports had world-wide ramifications. In May, British Airways had to deal with a server being unplugged, halting 75,000 passengers. In August of last year, an IT outage took down all of Delta.

According to Bloomberg, American’s latest problem affects flights scheduled to depart from from Dallas-Fort Worth, Boston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Charlotte, North Carolina. The glitch has come to light with enough notice for AA to, hopefully, fix its schedules, protect its reputation, and get ready for the next problem.


Fasten Your Seatbelt

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These Gmail searches will dig up stuff you never knew you missed

Gmail dominates the email landscape. It provides gigabytes of storage, works at super-fast speeds in any browser, and automatically sorts messages into specialized sections depending on their content and importance. But perhaps its greatest strength—as you might expect from a Google product—is its search abilities. You’re probably comfortable typing a few words or contact names into the search box at the top of the page, but some less obvious terms can open up whole new inbox-sifting possibilities. We’ve collected nine invaluable search tools to help you organize your inbox, find lost emails, dig up oversize attachments, unsubscribe from spam, and more.

1. Find important emails that you haven’t read

Search query: “is:important is:unread”

Based on the emails you’ve opened and responded to in the past, Google determines which messages are most important to you and flags them with a little yellow arrow just to the left of the sender’s name. To find these messages, add “is:important” to your search terms. If you also include “is:unread” in the query, then Gmail will display all of the important messages you haven’t got around to reading yet.

2. Delete space wasters

Search query: “has:attachment larger_than:10mb”

If you’re running out of Gmail storage, you can clear out some room in your account by identifying, and deleting, the messages that take up the most space. Including “has:attachment” in a query will find any emails with attachments, and the “larger_than:10mb” term specifies the message size—in this case, 10MB or over. You can increase or decrease this size to pick out larger or smaller messages as needed.

3. Winnow out really old messages

Search query: “before:2016/12/31” or “before:2017”

For those who like to keep their Gmail inboxes clean and tidy, this search picks out all of the emails sent or received before a certain date. You can change the date after the “before:” handle to any date as long as you give it either a yyyy or a yyyy/mm/dd format. Then you can erase them in bulk: Check the select-all box in the web interface’s top-left corner and then click the trash can icon to delete the selected messages. Combine this search with the attachment-finding search above to easily find and remove old and oversize messages.

4. Pinpoint messages on which you were copied

Search query: “cc:me OR bcc:me”

Some of the bulk in your inbox comes from filler messages that coworkers decided to copy or blind-copy you on. But they might not be vital to your own record-keeping. So use this search query to root them out. Like the other terms in this list, you can adapt the copy and blind-copy search to suit yourself—for example, add “from:AnnoyingBob@company.com” to the query to limit it to CCs or BCCs from a particular contact.

5. Destroy disorganization

Search query: “has:nouserlabels”

If you scrupulously organize your Gmail inbox with a series of labels, then use this search query to find and take care of all the messages you haven’t yet corralled. To create, edit, delete, and view your email labels, hit on the cog icon on the top right of the Gmail web interface, choose Settings, then click Labels.

6. Take an unsubscribe shortcut

Search query: “label:^unsub”

For years, Google has used its smart scanning technology to pick out the “Unsubscribe” links from newsletter or mailing list emails and copy them to the tops of these messages. If you search for the hidden “^unsub” label, you can see all of these messages in one place. You can call on this useful shortcut to unsubscribe from or delete a lot of automated messages at once.

7. View all photos

Search query: “filename:jpg” (or replace jpg with jpeg, gif, or png)”

You can adapt the filename search query to look up specific types of attachments, such as Word documents or PDFs. It’s particularly helpful when you’re looking for photos that friends and family members have sent to you. If your first attempt turns up nothing, change around the file type in your search: To find animated GIFs, try “filename:gif,” and for screenshots, you might search for “filename:png.”

8. Watch all YouTube videos

Search query: “has:youtube”

People may not send you full video files over email, but your contacts probably share a regular stream of funny or interesting YouTube links. This search query brings them all up at once. If you’re looking for one in particular, you can always modify the query by adding a sender (“from:friendo@email.com”) or a date modifier (“before:2016/12/31”).

9. Recall past chats

Search query: “in:chats”

By default, Google logs your Hangouts chats in your Gmail account. This query brings them all up in reverse chronological order so you can view them all in one place. You can also look for something specific within your chat history by adding a search term or two after “in:chats.” For example, if you know someone’s mentioned an address or a phone number you need to check, typing “address in:chats” or “phone in:chats” will let you narrow down your search.

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Magnetic System Turns Heat into Motion

Scientists at the University of Exeter have discovered a technique to transform ambient heat into motion in nanoscale devices. This thermal ratchet is made from a material known as “artificial spin ice,” which comprises a number of tiny nanomagnets made of the nickel-iron alloy Permalloy, and which are 200 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

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Tesla Internal Quality Checks ‘Routinely’ Reveal Defects In Model S And Model X Cars: Report

Internal quality checks at Tesla have “routinely revealed” defects in more than 90 percent of Model S and X vehicles after they come off the production line, according to a new report from Reuters. Tesla countered by saying any reworking of cars post-assembly shows that it’s committed to quality.

Reuters spoke with nine current and former employees—including some who were recently fired as part of a mass dismissal of workers—who all spoke on the condition of anonymity due to non-disclosure agreements they signed.

What they described was a production process that ultimately required numerous fixes before the cars could be shipped.

Here’s more from the story:

The luxury cars regularly require fixes before they can leave the factory, according to the workers. Quality checks have routinely revealed defects in more than 90 percent of Model S and Model X vehicles inspected after assembly, these individuals said, citing figures from Tesla’s internal tracking system as recently as October. Some of these people told Reuters of seeing problems as far back as 2012.

Tesla’s no stranger to quality issues, but the company said it has continued to improve upon the reliability of the Model S and X over the last couple of years. The automaker didn’t respond directly to the internal figures cited by Reuters, but it portrayed its quality control process as rigorous, with the intention of scouring the vehicle for “even the smallest refinement.”

Model S or Model X cars go through “hundreds” of inspection and test points on the assembly line, Tesla said, and toward the end, they’re subjected to an additional 500 inspections and tests. That means the 90 percent figure is likely as high as it is because of small issues that, according to Tesla, are virtually inconsequential and swiftly resolved.

“Most customers would never notice the work that is done post-production, but we care about even a fraction of a millimeter body gap difference or a slight paint gloss texture,” a Tesla spokesperson said in a statement to Jalopnik. “We then feed these improvements back to production in a pursuit of perfection.”

The spokesperson went on:

This is reflected in the overall efficiency of the factory, which has improved dramatically. The number of labor hours needed to complete a vehicle has decreased 33% since early 2016. Of the 250,000 Tesla vehicles ever produced, more than half were built in the past 18 months. Whereas before, it took three shifts with considerable overtime to produce our target annual production of 100,000 Model S and X vehicles, now it can be done with only two shifts and minimal overtime.

Tesla earns high marks from its rabid fanbase, but the company has sky-high expectations with the Model 3. If it’s going to expand into the mass-market, it’s going to need everyday, average car buyers—those uninterested in dealing with quality issues.

Some fixes are easily solvable on the floor, workers told Reuters, but they contended that chronic defects in Tesla’s more expensive models show it’s struggling to grasp the basics of auto manufacturing.

Known as “kickbacks” within Tesla, these vehicles have glitches as minor as dents and scratches to more complex troubles such as malfunctioning seats. Easy fixes are made swiftly on the factory floor, workers said.

Trickier cases head to one of Tesla’s outdoor parking lots to await repair. The backlog in one of those two lots, dubbed the “yard,” has exceeded 2,000 vehicles at times, workers told Reuters.

Tesla denied that any such “yards” exist, saying that some of the final tests for the car simply can’t be conducted while the vehicles are on the assembly line. The majority of the issues are minor, Tesla said, resolved in a few minutes, and vehicles aren’t delivered to a customer unless they pass the hundreds of inspections and tests.

The company has shipped cars without parts like seats or computer displays in the past. But Tesla said it’s part of an effort to “constantly” improve software and hardware, which means it’ll occasionally send certified parts to meet a car at the delivery center if they’ve been upgraded “after the car has shipped.”

All told, quality’s a big concern for the company as it races to ramp up production of its all-electric Model 3 sedan. Tesla recently announced a production delay for the Model 3, which starts at $35,000, a bumpy launch for the car. At the same time, it’s planning production in the coming years for a new semi truck (2019) and a new Roadster (2020).

Which is to say Tesla has a lot on its plate right now.

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