For Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is announcing a few updates to its suite of accessibility features for Android. The biggest one is the final, public release of Action Blocks. They let you create big, customized buttons for relatively complex actions like playing music or calling somebody — tasks that might be difficult for people with a cognitive disability. Google is also adding features to Live Transcribe, Bluetooth support to Sound Amplify, and better navigation options to Voice Access.
Each of these features could be critically important to a person with a disability, though they could be useful regardless. Action Blocks, in particular, could help you set up little Google Assistant macros to automate common things you’d normally have to use your voice for, like asking it to turn off all of the lights in your house.
After you install the Action Blocks app, you set one up by choosing from a list of predefined actions or by typing in your own. It works via Google Assistant, so anything you can ask for with your voice can be typed in. After you test that it works, you can save it as a button on the home screen.
Importantly, you’ll have the option to put your own custom image on the button. Again, the purpose of the features isn’t to let productivity junkies make workflows; it’s to help people with cognitive disabilities achieve tasks on their phones. So setting a big photo of a family member to make a video call is an essential feature.
That’s not to say that Action Blocks don’t have the potential to become more powerful. I asked Google if it would support Google Assistant Connect, the API it announced in 2019 that allows third-party accessories like buttons and E Ink screens to interact with Assistant. It doesn’t yet.
Live Transcribe is next, and it remains one of the most helpful Android features Google has ever made. It does exactly what it sounds like, automatically transcribing speech into text — in more than one language if you like.
The new feature here is that you can set specific words that Google’s transcription engine might not recognize, like a specifically hard-to-transcribe name or technical term. You do so by simply typing the word into Live Transcribe’s settings; you don’t actually need to train it by speaking the word out loud.
Live Transcribe already offered the ability to save transcriptions locally, but now, Google’s finally adding the ability to search them by keyword. Google notes that even with the search feature, data is all based locally on your phone instead of on Google’s servers. Transcriptions are sent to the cloud “ephemerally to be processed” but aren’t kept.
Finally, Live Transcribe will let you set your name as a keyword that will vibrate the phone when it’s heard. For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, it could allow others to get their attention.
Android’s Sound Amplify feature lets people use their phones to amplify and clarify audio. It’s not a replacement for a dedicated hearing aid, but it is still useful. Until now, it only worked with wired headphones, a fairly big problem in a world where few phones have a headphone jack anymore. Today, it will finally support Bluetooth headphones.
Last but not least, Google Maps across both Android and iOS will give users the option to show wheelchair access right away when they search instead of making users tap into the location’s details. Maps still shows multiple types of access, including the building itself, bathrooms, seating areas, and parking areas.
Huawei overtakes Samsung as world’s biggest smartphone vendor, says report
For the first time ever, Huawei has shipped more smartphones worldwide over a quarter than any other company, according to a new report from analyst firm Canalys. Huawei has long harbored ambitions to overtake Samsung as the world’s biggest smartphone seller, and going by the numbers from Canalys, that’s just what happened during the April-June period this year.
That doesn’t mean Huawei will hold onto the top spot for long, as the results were clearly influenced by the ongoing pandemic. Canalys’ figure of 55.8 million Huawei smartphones shipped is actually down 5 percent year-on-year, while Samsung slid 30 percent to 53.7 million. More than 70 percent of Huawei’s devices are now sold in China, which hasn’t been hit as hard by COVID-19 as many of Samsung’s major markets. Samsung, meanwhile, is a tiny player in China.
“Our business has demonstrated exceptional resilience in these difficult times,” Huawei said in a statement to The Verge. “Amidst a period of unprecedented global economic slowdown and challenges, we’ve continued to grow and further our leadership position by providing innovative products and experience to consumers.”
“This is a remarkable result that few people would have predicted a year ago,” says Canalys senior analyst Ben Stanton. “If it wasn’t for COVID-19, it wouldn’t have happened. Huawei has taken full advantage of the Chinese economic recovery to reignite its smartphone business.”
Despite impressive hardware, Huawei phones are now a hard sell to most consumers outside China because they are blocked from using Google services. It’s difficult to see the company staying at the number 1 spot once global smartphone demand recovers; Samsung just said it expects better sales next quarter due to new flagship phone launches. But Huawei’s continued strength in China shows that external pressures aren’t yet posing an existential threat to its consumer businesses — at least not at home.
Google confirms new Nest smart speaker with official photo and video
Google has responded to the inadvertent reveal of a new Nest smart speaker through regulatory filings by, well, confirming its existence. The company just sent The Verge an official photo of the device, referring to it only as “what the Nest team is working on from home.”
The speaker looks somewhere between the pillowy Nest Mini and the larger Google Home Max, with a similar ability to stand vertically. The picture shows it wrapped in a blue fabric, while the photos from the filing depicted a more neutral grey design.
Google also shared a brief teaser video that shows the speaker being used in the background, including a pink-ish color variant.
Google’s hardware products are notorious for leaking early, so as with the Pixel 4, it’s helpful to see the company get ahead of that reality. No word on when this new Nest speaker will be revealed in full or released, though.
Google discontinues the Pixel 3A and 3A XL
Google has discontinued its mid-range Pixel 3A and 3A XL smartphones, the company announced today (via Android Police). “Google Store has sold through its inventory and completed sales of Pixel 3A,” Google said in a statement to The Verge. “For people who are still interested in buying Pixel 3A, the product is available from some partners while supplies last.”
That might be disappointing to hear for people who were on the market for a more affordable Google-made phone. In his review last year, my colleague Dieter Bohn found the 3A had an excellent camera, especially for its low price.
With the discontinuation of the Pixel 3A, the only phone Google sells on its own store is its flagship Pixel 4, which was released last October. But a mid-range successor to the Pixel 4, supposedly called the Pixel 4A, could be coming soon, and we may already know a lot about it after months of rumors and leaks.
The rumored Pixel 4A apparently has a 5.81-inch display with a 2340 x 1080 resolution, a Snapdragon 730 processor, a 12.2-megapixel rear camera, an 8-megapixel front-facing camera, a fingerprint reader on the back of the phone, and a headphone jack. And we possible know what it looks like thanks to a hands-on posted on YouTube in March and photos of what appear to be a retail Pixel 4A box that hit the web in April.
But the Pixel 4A isn’t actually for sale yet. So for now, if you want the latest mid-range Google phone, you’ll have to snag one of the last Pixel 3As, if you can find one.
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