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Google Pixel Visual Core is a Custom Designed Co-Processor for Smartphone Cameras

October 18th, 2017 1 comment

Google unveiled their latest Pixel 2 & Pixel 2 XL premium smartphones powered by Snapdragon 835 SoC earlier this month, and while they are expected to go on sale tomorrow, reviewers have got their hands on samples, and one of the key feature is the camera that takes really good photos and videos as reported here and there.

You’d think the ISP and DSP inside Snapdragon 835 SoC would handle any sort of processing required to take photos. But apparently that was not enough, as Google decided to design their own custom co-processor – called Pixel Visual Core -, and integrated it into Pixel 2 phones.

The co-processor features a Cortex A53 core, an LPDDR4 memory interface, PCIe interface and MIPI CSI interface, as well as an image processing unit (IPU) IO block with 8 IPU cores. Google explains the IPU block will allow 3rd party applications to leverage features like low latency HDR+ photography, where the camera takes photos with different exposure very quickly, and “juxtapose” them to provide the best possible photo.

Each IPU core includes 512 arithmetic logic units (ALUs), and the IPU delivers more than 3 TOPS (trillion operations per second) on a mobile power budget. Pixel Visual Core allows HDR+ to run 5x faster using a tenth of energy required by running the algorithm on the application processor (AP). Programming is done using domain-specific languages: Halide for image processing and TensorFlow for machine learning, and a Google-made compiler optimizes the code for the hardware.

Pixel Visual Core will be accessible as a developer option in the developer preview of Android Oreo 8.1 (MR1), before being enabled for any apps using the Android Camera API.

Xiaomi Mi A1 Review – Part 1: Unboxing, First Boot, Firmware Update, and Benchmarks

October 16th, 2017 13 comments

Xiaomi Mi A1 hardware specifications are pretty much standard for a mid-range smartphone, except possibly for its dual rear camera, and what makes it stand apart is really Android One program that promises regular firmware update, including to the latest “pure” Android version, during a 2-year period from launch.

In my case, the phone is also interesting because so far I had only used smartphones with Mediatek SoCs, and Mi A1 is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor. SD625 should be slower than the Mediatek Helio X20 deca-core processor I’ve been using in Vernee Apollo Lite, but I’m curious to find out if some apps have been better optimized for Qualcomm processors. I’ll soon find out as GearBest sent me a review sample.I’ll start with an unboxing and first boot post, before writing the second part of the review in a couple of weeks once I’ve finished testing the phone.

Xiaomi Mi A1 Unboxing

I took a while to go through customs because local authorities did not know that model/brand, and at one point I understood there was no hope and I had to abandon the smartphone, since I could not provide the required paper work. So I was quite surprised when DHL showed up with the phone this afternoon.

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The exact model I got is called MDG2. It comes with 4GB RAM, and 64GB storage as all other Mi A1 models, but there may be differences in network bands since the device will be officially sold in around 40 countries.

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The phone comes with a short user manual in English, a 5V/2A power supply (no quick charge?), a USB to USB type C cable, and a SIM slot tool.

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One side of the manual has some useful information, including how to use the SIM card tray, but the other side is mostly useless legalese, except maybe for the frequency bands and power info.

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The front of the phone has the 5.5″ full HD display, camera, LED, and 3 Android buttons. The latter are a bit confusing to me, as the back and menu keys are inverted compared to my current phone.

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The back of the phone featuring the dual camera and LED flash, as well as the fingerprint scanner. Build quality looks good, and the phone feels a little lighter than Vernee Apollo Lite.

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Power and volume buttons are located on the right side,

The SIM card + micro SD slot on the left side,

and speaker, USB type C, and 3.5mm audio jack on the bottom side of the phone.

You can check the unboxing and first boot video below.

Xiaomi Mi A1 SIM Card / micro SD card installation

Today, I also learned how to use the SIM card tool… With my previous phone I insert the tool with an angle and pulled the slot. I found it was not very convenient, but it worked. But finally, I realized you had to insert the tool right inside the hole, push, and the SIM card adapter would just pop out… Facepalm…

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Xiaomi Mi A1 has a single slot that supports either two Nano SIM card, or one Nano SIM card with an optional micro SD card. It’s not really obvious you are supposed to do but just looking at the adapter, so for once, it pays to read the manual. I could install a micro SD card and a NanoSIM card as shown below.

Both were properly recognized in the phone.

Xiaomi Mi A1 First Boot, Firmware Update

The very first boot makes go go through a wizard asking for permissions, setup WiFi, Google Account, and so on. I did not take screenshot, but if you are interested you can watch the video above.

Some Xiaomi phones comes with MIUI launcher, but since the phone is part of Android One program it comes with a stock launcher. We have a folder for Google specific apps, and one for three XiaoMi apps.

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I logged into Google Play and install Antutu and CPU-Z, before taking the sscreen shot for the list of pre-installed apps. The phone has a 58.24GB internal storage partition with 9.46 GB used (48.96GB free), so I doubt I’ll use a micro SD card over the long term.The phone runs Android 7.1.2 on top of Linux 3.18.31. Also notice the Android security patch level is dated August 1, 2017. Soon after I could see a notifications about “Android System Update (Sep 2017).

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Clicking on it reveal it’s a security update from Google. Rather a large 1GB download, but no problem over WiFi. Once it is installed, you’ll be ask to reboot, and we can verify the Android security patch level is now dated September 1, 2017, the kernel is still 3.18.31 but has been updated too. That’s a nice change compared to my current Vernee phone. It was sold with Android 6.0, with a promise of Android Nougat update that never came. I still got 3 or 4 OTA updates, but nothing since January, and the Android security patch level is dated July 5, 2016, over one year old. That’s where Android One phones have a clear advantage, as I’m expecting updates until end of 2019 at least, and maybe even later for security updates.

Xiaomi Mi A1 System Info, Antutu Benchmark

CPU-Z reports the phine is powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 SoC with eight Cortex A53 cores @ up to 2.02 GHz, and an Adreno 506 GPU. There’s only 3593 MB shown out of the 4GB RAM, probably because of some hardware buffers, and 50.38GB internal storage. The phone – codenamed “tissot” – has a 5.52″ display with 1080×1920 resolution.

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I also included screenshots about battery, thermal sensors, and other sensors (partial).

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Finally I ran Antutu 6.x, and Xiaomi Mi A1 scored 60,161 points. Vernee Apollo Lite got a much higher score with 81,623 points. I’ll have to see of I can notice any differences between the two during use.

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I’d like to thank GearBest who kindly provided the smartphone for review, and if you’re interested you could get one for $233.90 including shipping. Coupon XMA1GJ and MI5A1FS should bring the price down to respectively $229.90 (golden version only) and $218.90 (Rose Gold). Other options includes GeekBuying, Banggood, eBay, and others online shops, as well as your local shops if the phone has launched in your country.

Google Clips is an A.I. Camera Powered by Movidius Myriad 2 VPU

October 5th, 2017 No comments

Most consumer cameras offers some ways for the photographer to check the framing of the picture, such as a viewfinder or LCD display, before pressing the button. The first time I saw a consumer camera without such features was with MeCam, a tiny snap-on camera that you can wear on your shirt, and just press a button to take a picture. Convenient, but no ideal as subjects were often out of frame with the camera pointing at the wrong angle.

That was in 2013. But today, those cameras can be improved with artificial intelligence, and Google Clips is a camera without viewfinder nor LCD display that can allegedly take good photos – or short clips – automatically, acting in some ways like a human photographer, so that every human in the room / the whole family can be on the shot.

Google Clips specifications:

  • Vision Processing Unit – Movidius Myriad 2 VPU as found in Intel Movidus Neural Compute Stick
  • Storage – 16 GB for photos
  • Camera
    • TBD?? megapixels; 1.55μm pixels;  130° field of view; auto focus; auto low lux/night mode.
    • Motion photos (JPEGs with embedded MP4s) @ 15 fps, MP4, GIF, JPEG. No audio.
  • Connectivity – WiFi direct and Bluetooth LE
  • USB – 1x USB type C port for charging
  • Battery – Good for 3 hours of smart capture
  • Dimensions – 49 x 49 x 20 mm
  • Weight – 42.2 grams without clip, 60.5 grams with clip

The camera works with Google Clips app for “compatible mobile devices” running Android 7.0 Nougat or higher, such as Google Pixel, or Galaxy S7/S8, or iOS devices starting from iPhone 6. Google Clips will ship with a clip stand, a USB-C to USB-A cable, a quick start guide, and a user guide.

Google Clips will sell for $249, and if you’re interested you can join the waiting list on the product page.

Google Adds Home Mini and Home Max to its Google Assistant Family

October 5th, 2017 No comments

As we’ve just discussed in our post about Pixel 2 / Pixel 2 smartphones, Google had a hardware day yesterday, where they made announcements about various devices with new smartphones, Pixel Buds earbuds optimized for Google Assistant, Pixelbook chromebook, and so on.

Google Home family has also been extended with two new models: Home Mini with a much smaller device and a lower price, as well as Home Max with premium speakers.

Left to Right – Home Mini, Home, Home Max

Google Home Mini

Specifications:

  • Speaker – 360 sound with 40mm driver
  • Microphones – “Far-field voice recognition supports hands-free use”
  • Audio formats – HE-AAC, LC-AAC+, MP3, Vorbis, WAV (LPCM), FLAC
  • Connectivity – Dual band 802.11 b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth
  • USB – 1x micro USB port for power
  • Misc – Play/Pause/Talk button, volume buttons, LEDs, microphone on/off switch
  • Power Supply – 5V/1.8A
  • Dimensions – 98 mm ∅ x 42 mm (h)
  • Weight – 173 grams (device only)

Home Mini is compatible with devices running Android 4.2 and higher, or iOS 9.1 and higher, and comes with built-in ChromeCast audio support. The new Home Mini appears to compete directly with Amazon Echo, as it is sold for $49.

Google Home Max

Specifications:

  • SoC – Quad core ARM Cortex A53 @ 1.5 GHz (Could it be Amlogic A112 or A113 processor?)
  • Speakers
    • 2x 4.5″ (114 mm) high-excursion (+/- 11 mm) dual voice-coil woofers
    • 1x 0.7″ (18 mm) custom tweeters
  • Microphones – “Far-field voice recognition supports hands-free use”
  • Audio In – 3.5mm analog audio input jack
  • Audio formats – HE-AAC, LC-AAC+, MP3, Vorbis, WAV (LPCM), FLAC, Opus
  • Connectivity – Dual band 802.11 b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2
  • USB – 1x USB type C port
  • Sensors – Ambient light sensor,  orientation sensor
  • Misc – Play/Pause/Talk button, volume buttons, LEDs, microphone on/off switch
  • Power Supply – AC Power 100-240 V, 50/60 Hz
  • Dimensions – 336.6 x 190.0 x 154.4 mm
  • Weight – 5.3 kg

Home Max has the same Android and iOS requirements, and support for ChromeCast audio as the mini version, but it adds support for multi-room audio and wireless stereo pairing, meaning you can use it as a Bluetooth speaker too. Price is $399, but you’d have to join a waiting list before ordering it. You can do so, and find more details on the product page.

Google Introduces Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL Smartphones running Android 8.0 on Snapdragon 835 SoC

October 5th, 2017 2 comments

When Google introduced Nexus brand, it aimed to provide affordable yet decently spec’d Android smartphone. The Nexus has now been deprecated, Google left the low/mid range market, leaving other fills the void, and instead launch the Pixel brand for premium devices.

The company announced several new hardware devices yesterday, including two new Pixel smartphones: Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, both powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, and running the latest Android 8.0 Oreo.

Pixel 2

Both phones share most of the same specifications:

  • SoC – Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 with 4x Kryo 280 “performance” cores @ 2.35GHz, 4x Kryo 280 “efficiency” cores @ 1.90GHz, Adreno 540 GPU, security module
  • System Memory – 4GB LPDDR4x
  • Storage – 64GB or 128GB flash
  • Display
    • Pixel 2 – 5.0″ always-on AMOLED display with 1920×1080 resolution (16:9 aspect ratio); 2.5D Corning Gorilla Glass 5
    • Pixel 2 XL – 6.0″ always-on pOLED display with 2880×1440 resolution (18:9 aspect ratio) ; 3D Corning Gorilla Glass 5
  • Cellular Connectivity
    • Built-in eSIM chip+ single Nano SIM slot
    • GSM/EDGE: Quad-band (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
    • UMTS/HSPA+/HSDPA: Bands 1/2/4/5/8
    • CDMA EVDO Rev A: BC0/BC1/BC10
    • FDD-LTE : Bands 1*/2*/3*/4*/5/7*/8/12/13/17/20/25/26/28/29/30/32/66*; TD-LTE: Bands 38*/40/41; * = bands that support 4×4 MIMO
    • Supports up to CAT 15 (800Mbps DL / 75Mbps UL), 3x DL CA, 4×4 MIMO, 256-QAM DL and 64-QAM UL depending on carrier support
  • Other Wireless Connectivity – Dual band 802.11 b/g/n/ac 2×2 MIMO WiFi, Bluetooth 5 + LE, NFC, GPS + GLONASS
  • Camera – 12.2 MP rear camera with auto-focus, OIS and EIS, up to 4K @ 30fps / 720p @ 240 fps video recording; 8MP front-facing camera up to 1080p30 video recording
  • USB – 1x USB 3.1 Gen 1 type C port (Google did not bother mentioning about data or DisplayPort support)
  • Sensors – Active Edge, Proximity / Ambient light sensor, Accelerometer / Gyrometer, Magnetometer, Pixel Imprint(Back-mounted fingerprint sensor), Barometer, Hall effect sensor, Android Sensor Hub, advanced x-axis haptics for sharper/defined response
  • Battery
    • Pixel 2 – 2,700 mAh battery with up to 7 hours of go with a 15-minute charge
    • Pixel 2 XL – 3,520 mAh battery with up to 7 hours of go with a 15-minute charge
  • Dimensions / Weight
    • Pixel 2 – 145.7 x 69.7 x 7.8 mm / 143 grams
    • Pixel 2 XL – 157.9 x 76.7 x 7.9 mm / 175 grams
  • Case – Aluminum unibody with hybrid coating, IP67 ingress protection rating

The phone come with a USB-C charger, a USB-C to 3.5mm headphone adapter (since no 3.5mm audio jack), a quick start guide, and a quick switch adapter. Not too many new things here, except for the embedded SIM (eSIM) that was never used in a phone previously and to initially work with Project Fi, Active Edge (squeeze your phone to start Google Assistant, similar to HTC Edge Sense), and the not-so-common pOLED (Plastic OLED) display found in the XL version. The camera must be really good through, as DxOMark rated the Pixel 2 camera with a score of 98, making it the best mobile camera so far. Google further explains that the camera leverages computational photography and machine learning (ML) capabilities.

Pixel 2 XL

Software and support is probably what make the phones stand part, with the latest Android 8.0 OS from Google, including “an exclusive preview of Google Lens”, which will automatically be able to recognize objects, landmarks, books, movies, etc… scan business cards to adds them to contact list, etc… The company also boasts improvement with Google Assistant, which can now start by squeezing the edges of your phone, and has become smarter with more features such as routines like “good night” to turn off light, set alarms. and put your phone to sleep.

Google Pixel 2 will sell for $649 or $749 with respectively 64 GB or 128GB storage, and Pixel 2 XL for $849 or $949. Visit Google Phones page for further details.

Geolocation on ESP8266 without GPS Module, only WiFi

October 3rd, 2017 8 comments

When I think about geolocation in I normally think about global navigation satellite systems such as GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, or Beidou, as well as IP geolocation, but the latter is highly inaccurate, and often only good for find out about the country, region, or city.

But if you’ve ever been into your phone location settings, you’d know GPS is only one option, as it can also leverage cellular base stations and WiFi SSIDs, where the former working where there’s coverage, and the later in area with a high enough density of access points. Somehow, I had never thought about using such technology to find location with WiFi modules until Espressif Systems released an application note entitled “Geolocating with ESP8266“.

This document describes how the ESP8266 module may be used to scan for nearby Wi-Fi access points and, then, use their SSID, RSSI and MAC address to obtain a potential fix on the device’s geolocation, using Google geolocation API.

That’s basically a two step process with an AT command returning the list of available APs, SSID, RSSI, and MAC Address:

and after setting up a secure SSL connection, you can then feed that data to Google Geolocation API to get the location with a command that looks like (wifiAccessPoint data not filled here):

Further research led me to m0xpd experimentation with Geolocation on ESP8266 last year, using both IP geolocation (found to be very inaccurate), and Google or Mozilla APIs, and posted his Arduino source code on Github. The Google API found his actual home in Manchester with just the information retrieved from the list of access points.

That also means that unsecured devices on the public Internet can easily be located, as an hacker logins to a router or IoT device, he just needs to run a command to find out the information required by his preferred geolocation API.

Google Cloud IoT Core Enters Public Beta, Various Devkits Available

September 29th, 2017 No comments

Back in May, I wrote about Allwinner R18 based Banana Pi BPI-M64 Board with Google Cloud IoT Core support, as Google unveils the new cloud service during Google I/O. However, at the time it was only available to selected partners, and Google has recently launched the public beta making their IoT device management platform available to all.

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I first learned about this through an ARM community blog post announcing availability of the ARM-based IoT Kit for Cloud IoT Core on Adafruit using Raspberry Pi 3 board,  a breadboard, and various modules that can be managed through Google services.

But that are plenty of other IoT kits or boards for Google Cloud IoT Core including:

You’ll find purchase links and documentation for each board on Google Cloud IoT Core’s IoT Kit page. Sample code specific to the RPI3 kit can also be found on Github.

Google Cloud IoT Core Architecture / Features Overview

Google IoT Core is free to use for up to 250 MB/month with no limit on the number of devices, and if you exceed this limit pricing per MB depends on data usage:

  • 250MB to 250 GB – $0.0045 per MB
  • 250GB to 5 TB – $0.0020 per MB
  • Over 5 TB – $0.00045 per MB

Bose QuietComfort 35 II Headphones Are Optimized for Google Assistant

September 21st, 2017 3 comments

Many years ago, when the first Bluetooth headset started to be sold, it was always a bit funny to hear people apparently talking to themselves while walking in the street. But soon enough, fellow walking zombies may start talking even more on the go, as Google and its partners have launched a new category of headphones with support for Google Assistant starting with Bose QuietComfort 35 II (aka QC35 II).

The new headphones are actually an update to QC35 headphones that not only adds Google Assistant support but also noise control settings. It’s not really as cool as it first sounds though. The headphones have an “Action” button to trigger Google Assistant, so no “OK Google” or “Hey Google”, and support is not exactly built-in, meaning you’ll still need to pair the headphones with your smartphone over Bluetooth.

You’ll then be able to hear your incoming messages and calendar automatically right from your headphones, even when you listen to music. It will also be easier to control your music, for example to access specific playlists, and get informed by asking your headphones to “play the news” from your favorite news source. Finally, you’ll be able to make calls without getting your smartphone out, press the Google Assistant button, and say “Call mum” and you’re good to go.

QC35 II can also be plugged to a 1.2m audio cable, offers up to 20 hours of battery life. The headphones are charged via a USB cable, and a 15-minute charge should be good enough for around 2h30 of listening time.

Google Assistant will be available to QC35 II headphones in the US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and the UK for $350 or equivalent.

Via Liliputing