Xiaomi Phone 2 review: high-end specs in a surprisingly affordable package
As mobile phones have become more powerful, prices for many flagship models have managed to linger were they always were -- at the top end. The Xiaomi has always been one exception, though. Last year, this Beijing startup launched its very first namesake phone at just CN楼1,999 ($320), which was rather impressive given that this was the first Chinese device to feature the 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon MSM8260 chip (not to be mistaken with the Krait-based MSM8260A). This stimulated two fronts of the smartphone war: the price-per-performance ratio kind, and the cheap-as-hell kind. With regards to performance, we're looking at competitors like Huawei, ZTE, Lenovo and good old Meizu; while the price battle involves taking on MediaTek-powered devices under various new brands -- many of which have done so well that they've now set up stores in Shenzhen's Huaqiangbei area.
Needless to say, Xiaomi is now facing a greater challenge -- one that barely existed a year ago. But on the brighter side of things, the company now has three Android devices spanning two price tiers: two editions of the Xiaomi Phone 1S for 楼1,299 ($210) or 楼1,499 ($240), and the quad-core Xiaomi Phone 2 -- the star of this review -- for 楼1,999, which is well below its 楼2,350 ($380) raw cost, according to CEO Lei Jun. There's no doubt that Xiaomi could recoup some of the costs from its vast range of accessories, and with the imminent launch of the Xiaomi TV set-top box this week, it's clear that the company's hoping to profit from content. Still, as mama said, it's the first impression that counts (especially for consumers outside China, anyway), so read on to see how we coped with Xiaomi's second-gen flagship phone.
Sadly, the old microSD slot is nowhere to be found.
What makes Xiaomi tick is that it's always been at the forefront of delivering top specs at surprisingly low prices, and this time it seems to have outdone itself. Discounting its earlier pre-production units, the Xiaomi Phone 2 is the fourth retail device to feature Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064, a 1.5GHz quad-core Krait SoC complemented by 2GB of RAM and the powerful Adreno 320 GPU. Right now, the device comes in 16GB and 32GB flavors, though sadly, the old microSD slot is nowhere to be found. There's 5GB of MI Drive cloud storage if you want to count that in, but that's not quite in the same league as ASUS' 50GB or Baidu's 100GB offerings. Alternatively, you can plug in an external drive via a USB OTG adapter.
On a more positive note, Xiaomi's thrown in a superb 4.3-inch, 720p gapless IPS display from Sharp and JDI, similar to the one on the Xperia acro S. There's also an improved 8-megapixel BSI camera sensor with f/2.0 aperture and video stabilization. Even the front-facing camera -- which was absent on the Xiaomi Phone 1 -- has a 2-megapixel BSI sensor. To power all these, there's a removable 2,000mAh (7.4Wh) battery underneath the swappable back cover, and soon users can also purchase the thicker 3,100mAh (11.47Wh) mammoth cell with its special cover. There's no LTE radio here, but you do get DC-HSPA+ (WCDMA 850/1900/2100) along with FM radio, Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11b/g/n WiFi plus WiFi Display.
We hope Xiaomi will eventually offer matte covers to rid the cheap plastic feel.
Xiaomi's latest flagship device takes a rather different design approach compared to its predecessor. For starters, the phone's default look features a glossy white back cover that contrasts with the black front face. Particularly with the near-straight sides suddenly curving to the flat back of the cover, it reminds us of the Meizu MX and MX 4-core. That said, Xiaomi's six other color options -- magenta, cyan, lime green, yellow, orange and purple -- look much nicer than Meizu's pale crystal covers. To be nitpicky, though, we hope Xiaomi eventually offers matte covers to rid the cheap plastic feel. Plus, the coating would cover the ripples around the logo and the openings. Regardless, the phone felt solid thanks to the secure cover fitting, and this was still the case even after we've peeled off the cover multiple times to change the mini-SIM card (which is located underneath the battery).
Let's talk about the keys and ports. Below the display you'll find three shiny capacitive buttons for menu, home and back. But, unlike most Android phones these days, Xiaomi didn't implement a backlight this time around. No big deal, perhaps, but it's just not as convenient as what we're used to seeing on most other Android phones these days. Thankfully, there's still an LED indicator -- it's right below the home button instead of next to the earpiece. As for physical keys, they're all on the right-hand side of the phone: there's a volume rocker followed by a power button, both metallic and nicely crafted. It's a slightly weird arrangement compared to most other phones, but we got used to it very quickly.
But what about the old two-stage multifunctional MI key towards the bottom of the volume rocker? To our disappointment, Xiaomi decided that it's no longer needed, which we're certain our very own Myriam would disagree to. You can still set the volume rocker as shutter buttons (as well as zoom buttons, for that matter), but obviously they won't be as handy as a real two-stage shutter key. What's left are the usual 3.5mm headphone jack at the top, a micro-USB port (MHL and OTG supported) at the bottom and a secondary microphone on the back for noise suppression (which we'll talk about later).
Xiaomi started off as a team that built MIUI, a heavily customized Android ROM, to cater to various flagship devices, so obviously the meat of its own phones lies within the software. In fact, when we first wrote about Xiaomi Phones, many readers erroneously accused Xiaomi of stealing MIUI, when in fact they were staring right at the ROM's creator. In short, MIUI brings the iOS home screen experience to Android, in the sense that all the apps are spread across the home screens instead of the usual Android app drawer. At the same time, the OS also allows highly flexible personalization. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but if nothing else it's a good way to bring people out of their iOS comfort zone. Other than that, MIUI has preserved most parts of the native Android UX for Ice Cream Sandwich and beyond. Plus, users are promised weekly OTA updates.
The Xiaomi Phone 2 ships with Jelly Bean-based MIUI so the same rule applies, but as with many Android phones in China, it doesn't come with any Google services due to local regulations. Fortunately, you can still get the Play Store app from Xiaomi's market app, and from there onwards you can get back Gmail, Google Maps (the phone comes with Baidu Map instead), Google Search (which includes Google Now), YouTube and various other apps from Mountain View. Obviously, the lack of an app drawer means you can't toggle Google Now by swiping across the non-existent app drawer button; but if you want to replicate a similar experience, you can hold down the menu key and then set this as the default way to toggle Google Now.
Such flexibility is what made us fall in love with MIUI in the first place.
As before, the latest version of MIUI still lets you keep a bunch of quick toggles (such as screen rotation, WiFi, torch, data connection and guard mode) on the Android notification tray, and better yet, this time the default layout is page mode instead of compact mode. In page mode, the notification tray is split into two tabbed pages, one for just notifications and the other for just toggles. Whereas in compact mode, you get everything on one page, but naturally you don't see as many toggles at a glance -- you have to scroll the row of toggles horizontally to see more. Again, users are free to rearrange these toggles at will. Such flexibility is what made us fall in love with MIUI in the first place. Having said that, somehow Xiaomi left out the toggle for WiFi tethering, but it shouldn't be too hard to add it back.
Fans of MIUI should already be familiar with its library of funky themes. These aren't just skins that you slap onto the icons and home screens, as many themes also offer unique lock screens and handy toggles, as pictured above. Like a lock screen but prefer a different set of icons, fonts and ringtones? No problem: for each theme, you can select which of its particular features you want to apply.
New this time is something called free launcher, an interactive interface with common functions portrayed by graphical objects. As of this writing, there were only two themes that came with a free launcher: the default Study Room theme and the Angry Birds Space theme. These are rather self-explanatory -- you get a panoramic study room in 2D (remember Microsoft Bob?) or a level in the Angry Birds Space game, as pictured below. For us this was amusing initially, but the novelty quickly wore off as we got fed up with having to constantly scroll around to find what we wanted. Nor was it easy to immediately identify some of the icons in the Angry Birds free launcher. Another problem with themes is that some of them clash with the text color and therefore render the text invisible in certain apps, so users may have to experiment with elements from other themes when they see this. At the end of the day, this feature is great for showing off, but not so good for everyday use.
MIUI comes with a host of other handy tools, most of which exist for the sake of privacy (SMS filters and caller blacklist), security (antivirus and app permission monitor) and network usage monitoring (monthly bandwidth reminder and prompt for large file downloads). These are particularly important for users in China, where spam messages, unsolicited calls and infected apps are the norm. Additionally, the carriers there aren't very generous with 3G data usage -- you'd be looking at a $140 per month tariff for a 3GB allowance on China Unicom. Even $46 per month would only get you 950MB, and $25 per month gets you 500MB. With this in mind, it's no wonder the Xiaomi Phone 2 comes preloaded with stringent settings, such as a prompt for every file or app download that exceeds 10MB. We've only managed to disable the prompt for file downloads in Downloads under Tools, so hopefully Xiaomi can also add such an option for Play Store downloads.
One of the new highlights of the tool bundle is the voice assistant, and yes, it's basically a shameless Siri-wannabe. Hold down the menu key at any time (unless you've assigned that to Google Now already) and you'll be greeted by a familiar-sounding tone plus a silver round button awaiting your vocal command. Alas, this service is only available in Mandarin, but even if the language is no issue for you, the level of intelligence offered here is far from what you'd get from Siri, S Voice or even Google Now. Let's say a simple question about the weather: the phone's incapable of assuming that you're asking about the weather at your current location, so it would always ask you to specify the city.
Similarly, the assistant can't recommend a nearby restaurant unless you mention the location. Here's another amusing one: we asked what activities we had that day and the response was, "I'm enjoying the greatness of life." Thanks? Despite all this, you can still ask the assistant to stream music (powered by Baidu Music), make a joke, call or send someone text messages (though it can't recognize English names), ask for directions and set up reminders. Just don't expect a huge amount of freedom with your commands -- you gotta stick to the script. There's plenty of room for improvement here, and Xiaomi can start by changing that UX to avoid upsetting Apple.
MIUI is also about the small details, some of which have been around for a while. For instance, if you want to move an icon from one home screen panel to another, you can hold your finger on it until it hovers, and then use another finger to scroll to your desired panel. (In fact, if you have one of the latest HTC phones, you can do the same.) You can also organize all the home screen panels by pinching with three fingers on any panel, at which point you'll see a preview of your six to nine panels at a glance, and you can rearrange them or set your main panel as you desire.
Another old but neat feature that can be easily overlooked is that when you're in the lock screen, you can hold down the home key to use the LED light as a torch. Last but not least, here's a new addition that impressed us the most: there's now a "misoperation prevent mode" feature which uses the proximity sensor to detect whether the phone is in your pocket or bag, and if that's the case, it prevents any input on the touchscreen should the power button be accidentally triggered. This is enabled by default so you can leave it as it is, but if it isn't working out for you (which we can't imagine it would), it can also be overridden (by holding the back and volume up keys) or even switched off entirely.
While there's no drawer to house all the apps and widgets in MIUI, Xiaomi has kept the same widget selector from the Gingerbread days -- you can either pinch the home screen with two fingers or hit the menu key and select "Edit Widgets" to enter widget mode. While selecting your widgets, you'll notice that each of them has a few dots below it to indicate how many tiles it takes up, which is pretty handy and considerate. In the same mode, you can shake the phone in order to tidy up icons on a home screen. While there still isn't an option to sort the icons in alphabetical order, there are several other useful settings for the launcher: you can toggle between a 4 x 4 grid and a 4 x 5 grid, change the transitional effect (classic, crossfade, tumbling, page, cascading, rotation or 3D cube) as well as the wallpaper alignment (scrollable, center, left or right).
MIUI is also about the small details, some of which have been around for a while.
For multimedia entertainment, the bundled music app does a pretty good job: you can sort the music by artists, albums, folders and playlists, plus it automatically looks up synchronized lyrics for those who want to sing along. There's also a sleep timer which can be set from one minute all the way up to 90 minutes. Our favorite part of the app is the integrated search engine for Baidu Music, which has a surprisingly large library with both local and foreign music (they even have PSY's Gangnam Style accompanied by Chinese lyrics), and it works outside mainland China. By default, you can only stream music over WiFi, but if you have a reasonable 3G data allowance, you can manually enable streaming over cellular network in the app's settings. On the other hand, the native video player isn't as exciting but it'll handle your usual AVI, MP4 and RMVB files -- you'll have to open them through the file explorer app. If you need to view any MKV files, you'll still need to rely on third-party apps like MX Player and PPTV (which is now very popular in China as it also offers a vast range of movies and local TV shows for streaming).
One multimedia feature that Lei Jun's rather proud of is the Dolby Mobile certification. You can find these three settings all the way down at the bottom of the Sound menu under system settings: off, music mode and movie mode. These actually work rather well with the phone's loudspeaker on the back, but not so much with our own earphones. But then again, it's probably all subjective, so new users should just bear in mind that the Dolby music mode is enabled by default.
It shares a similarly impressive low-light performance with the HTC One X.
Xiaomi says that its quad-core phone uses a second-gen 8-megapixel BSI sensor, which turns out to be either a Sony IMX175 (as used by some of the Galaxy S III) or a Samsung S5K3H7. Our particular unit had the former, according to Supercurio's Voodoo Report (thanks for the help, Brian Klug from AnandTech!). Of course, ultimately, it all comes down to the optics -- an f/2.0 five-element lens -- as well as the sensor's software tuning, and we're happy to report that the camera on the Xiaomi Phone 2 does pretty well overall. The picture above was actually captured in HDR mode, and if Xiaomi can go easy with the default saturation level for HDR then it'd be a perfect shot. This issue was more apparent when we attempted to do HDR shots of the Shanghai skyscrapers at night, but hey, you can count that as an intentional effect.
We do have a few niggles with the Xiaomi Phone 2's camera. For instance, we occasionally noticed some slight underexposure in outdoor shots. At night, we sometimes saw a fair amount of noise in the dark regions (and this gets worse in HDR shots), but at least the details on lit subjects are still preserved, as illustrated below -- it shares a similarly impressive low-light performance with the HTC One X.
Several readers have asked whether they'd miss much if they went for the more readily available Xiaomi Phone 1S, so we decided to compare its camera quality with the Xiaomi 2's camera samples. A quick look in a Voodoo Report revealed that the 1S is preloaded with drivers for the Sony IMX105 and Samsung S5K3H2 (both of which are also utilized by the Galaxy S II, according to Klug from AnandTech). Our particular 1S is equipped with the Sony sensor, so it's no wonder that its images look similar to the ones we took at the same spots -- provided that they were well-lit -- with our Xiaomi Phone 2. Notice that we said "similar" and not "identical" as the newer phone does produce slightly sharper images, and it really showed off its higher sensitivity when we compared dark shots from both devices. The Xiaomi Phone 2 also manages up to eight frames per second in burst mode (we got up to about 15 continuous shots, with super fine quality setting), whereas the 1S supports neither burst mode nor HDR.
Apart from those performance differences, the cameras on both phones otherwise offer the same set of features: panorama mode, sound shutter (to trigger the shutter with sound), filter effects, white balance, skin tone enhancement, redeye reduction and various other advanced settings. As on the Optimus G, you can also capture 1,920 x 1,088 stills (yes, it's 1,088 for some reason) while recording 1080p video on both the 1S and 2, but if you absolutely must take full resolution stills while recording video, then you'll have to consider either the One X or the PadFone 2.
We didn't have much problem with video capture on the Xiaomi Phone 2. As you'd expect, the highest resolution is 1080p, and we've seen captured clips rated at 25 fps and with a video bit rate of up to 7.3 Mbps. This is a bit less than the One X's 10 Mbps but it still does the job. Even on a dark street at night, the camera maintained the same frame rate instead of dropping frames for the sake of exposure compensation -- which was what the first Xiaomi Phone suffered from. The one bug we noticed in our clips is that there's a somewhat infrequent random crackling noise, but chances are it can be fixed via an OTA update.
Xiaomi added fast-motion (from 2x up to 250x) and slow-motion (60 or 90 fps capture) modes.
On top of a satisfactory video camera performance, Xiaomi added fast-motion (from 2x up to 250x) and slow-motion (60 or 90 fps capture) modes, and both kinds of clips play back at a fairly smooth 30 fps sans audio. Then there's also a video stabilization feature that's actually disabled by default, and we soon knew why this was the case: the digital process creates a huge amount of distortion even with the help of the phone's gyroscope. But for stationary shots, the stabilization does provide a certain amount of benefit for some. Anyhow, the option's there for you. See for yourself in the sample clips below.
1080p with digital stabilization:
Slow motion (90 fps capture; skip to 0:35 for the juicy part):
GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt HD C24Z16 Offscreen (fps)
We managed to get about 6.5 hours of normal usage, mostly on 3G.
With a quad core APQ8064 SoC on board, it's no surprise that the Xiaomi Phone 2's benchmark scores and graphics performance come close to that of the PadFone 2 and the Optimus G, so we won't go into too much detail here. Also, we've rarely experienced a hiccup on the phone, nor did it crash during our time with it -- unlike the engineering sample we had beforehand. The only concern here is that under normal power mode (instead of performance mode or power saving mode), our review unit only lasted four hours in our standard video loop test (where we set the screen brightness to 50 percent, use 3G data only but leave WiFi on, and keep Twitter, Gmail and Facebook running in the background). As for real-life battery performance, we managed to get about 6.5 hours of normal usage, mostly on 3G. That's better than that four-hour showing, but still ranks behind competing devices. Hopefully this will improve over time -- the engineers probably just need to consider heavier 3G usage, as opposed to the more common and readily available 2G in China.
As for audio input performance, the Xiaomi Phone 2 boasts Audience's earSmart technology for dual-mic noise suppression, but the end result we got had a big impact on the volume, and some early adopters of this phone have also experienced the same problem during phone calls. In the same scenario (in the middle of a Hong Kong shopping mall), our PadFone 2 produced a tinny but easily audible voice recording, whereas our Xiaomi Phone 1S came out with a more natural recording but still with effective noise suppression. For some bizarre reason our One X's noise suppression failed to kick in (presumably a bug of some sort), but in this case we shall keep its audio clip as a reference. You can hear all four sample audio clips below.
Xiaomi Phone 2:
Xiaomi Phone 1S:
ASUS PadFone 2:
HTC One X (AT&T, noise suppression disabled):
We gotta hand it to Xiaomi for delivering such an amazing package for this price. These guys have yet again proven that they aren't here to make quick money with cheap components -- they should really be charging us twice as much for that spec, let alone their generous bundle of software features plus their commitment to weekly updates. Sure, the software and performance aren't perfect (especially the voice assistant interface, battery performance and the weird English here and there), but they can be fixed, and the rest of it is already stable and also highly customizable. Simply put, you'd be a fool to pass on any opportunity to pick up this phone.
Now, it's a given that the next step for Xiaomi is to spread the hype beyond China, with Taiwan already confirmed to be the next stop, possibly followed by some European countries early next year. The biggest challenge now is that the company is seemingly struggling to keep up with demand, which is giving competitors the opportunity to accuse it of artificially stirring up hype, as well as letting them catch up with similar products in the meantime. As outsiders, we don't know the truth behind the shortage, but what's certain is that entering those new markets would require massively scaling up production. Only then can they worry about setting up new retail channels, which should be a doddle anyway if the local carriers are fighting over partnership deals. Now, let's see where that Xiaomi set-top box will take the company next.
500 Startups-Backed Tapastic Raises $750,000 To Bring Webtoons To US-Based Comic Fans
First Gangnam Style. Now Webtoons. Both are Korean phenomenons, and now both are available for U.S. audiences. The latter comes thanks to a new platform called Tapastic, which aims to help artists share and find an audience for their bite-sized web comics.
According to Tapastic founder Chang Kim, Webtoons are a particularly Korean obsession. The cartoons, which are created and distributed by famous artists and amateurs alike through online platforms like Naver Webtoons in Korea, are viewed by about one-third of the total Internet audience there, he told me.
Most of the famous comic brands here are of the superhero genre, while Korean webtoons typically focus on more mundane subjects like dating, or pets, or travel. A fan of the art form himself, Kim hoped to introduce U.S. audiences to webtoons. There was just one problem: There were no really good aggregators or distribution platforms for the particular type of comic in the U.S. market. So he built Tapastic.
On the consumer side, Tapastic is similar to existing webtoons aggregators in the Korean market — it provides a list of serially updated comics in a variety of genres. The startup has lined up between 50 and 60 different English-language webtoons that span from comedy to drama to horror, among other things. The comics are updated weekly and fall under a set schedule, so that readers always know when to expect them. That said, Tapastic has built a notification system which will allow users to mark their favorite webtoons and get updated whenever a new one is available.
But the real magic might be what Tapastic has built for the artists and writers themselves. Today, most U.S.-based Webtoons artists have cobbled together their content through platforms that weren't meant for distribution of their art. Some posted on Tumblr, while others used text-based content management systems to upload their art to the web. The Tapastic platform offers those artists a purpose-built distribution engine for webtoons. And since it aggregates content from multiple artists, Tapastic provides an opportunity for artists to find new audiences that might not have stumbled across their work on other platforms.
Tapastic is available on the web at Tapastic.com, as well as through an app available for Android devices. An iOS app is also in the works and coming soon, Kim told me. Tapastic has raised $750,000 from investors that include SK Planet, 500 Startups, Strong Ventures, and other angels. The company has 12 employees and is based in San Jose, Calif.
Xi Jinping's Unexpected Delay Prompts Online Speculation
If you were up last night live streaming CCTV waiting to meet China's Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), you'd know that Xi Jinping and his six PSC colleagues were nearly an hour late.
Xi Jinping had mysteriously disappeared from public life for two-weeks in September and sparked a string of rumors about his death, health, and political infighting ahead of the leadership handover.
So last night as China watchers on twitter sat around awaiting his arrival a new meme was born: #WhyXiJinpingIsLate.
Here are some of the best ones we caught with references to U.S. election gaffes, Gangnam Style and Chinese corruption:
Hands On With Spotify For The Browser: Speed Sizzles, But Discovery Fizzles
It's speedy, and for a streaming music service like Spotify making the jump from desktop software to the browser, that's of the utmost importance. This is just an early beta of what will rollout next year, so I'll forgive the missing features and say I was impressed with the feel. But discovery still has a long way to go to unlock the potential of near infinite music.
To set the stage, in September I broke the news that multiple industry sources had confirmed Spotify was building a browser version. Yesterday, the company supposedly closed a massive $100 million+ round of funding valuing it at over $3 billion. And today, The Verge revealed that a test of the browser version's beta is now available to some users. Spotify has confirmed with us that it will be rolling out the beta over the next few weeks and months, and it will have more news in Q1 of next year.
The browser version could be a big boon to Spotify because it means you can listen to your playlists or nearly any song no matter what computer you're on. That includes work or public computers you can't install software on, or the ability to play form your ad-free subscription while on friend's laptop at their house. If Spotify is going to convince people to pay $5 or $10 a month, they're going to want access from anywhere. That's what the browser version delivers.
So what's it like? I wrangled an invite link to try it out. This link play.spotify.com is currently giving some people access too, so give it a shot. But here's what I think about Spotify for the browser.
It performs a lot like the desktop software, which is good news. My biggest worry was that the time it took to search the world's catalogue of music or start playing a song would be annoyingly slower than on the downloadable version. That's not what I found. It's built on Flash, and with a decent wi-fi connection I saw tracks starting to play in less than a second. The only delay is a few seconds when you first open it up.
As for the design, it's got cascading navigation similar to Spotify's iPad app. That means if a band catches your eye off the homepage and you click, their artist page will slide out on top. If you don't dig them, the edge of your previous screen is still visible, which makes it quick to jump back there.
Navigating to Search, What's News, Radio, and Playlists is much easier than on the desktop, as the little iTunes-style links have been replaced with bigger buttons. The permanently visible “Now Playing” section is bigger and easier to control too. You won't have to squint to find the pause button. A nice little bonus is the song name and track time appear in the browser tab.
Oddly, there seems to be no way to view album art full-screen. Also, why don't music services have a “laid back mode designed to help you DJ without sitting down at your computer. I'd love a view with huge cover art, controls, and play queue, but with search and navigation minimized.
One noticeable absence is the Play Queue section, which lets see what you've got coming next and as well as your listening history. Another is the Spotify third-party app platform. You won't find Pitchfork's curated playlists or Last.fm's personalized recommendations. However, I'd imagine the app platform may be ported to the browser version eventually.
Unfortunately, those apps were a solution to Spotify's biggest problem: discovery. When you have most of the world's catalogue of music at your fingertips, it can induce decision paralysis. “If I could listen to anything, what would I listen to? Ummmm.” Spotify's browser version is sadly not as helpful as it should be.
Here you get all the same What's New suggestions from the desktop, including new recommended albums, trending playlists near you, new releases, and 5 top tracks near you and in your country.
A nice addition to the What's New section is top tracks in the world. There you'll find your favorite horse dancer PSY's “Gangnam Style” to contrast with America's love of country music. The browser version currently lacks the Top Lists section, though. This let you go past the top 5 tracks and explore the top 100 songs or albums in any country or the world.
What most disappointed me is that there's no truly innovative new discovery options which I'd heard were in the works. There's not even ones stolen from Rdio's game-changing Heavy Rotation section, which shows what you've been bumping lately. A core joy of on-demand music services is getting your fix of that song you can't get out of your head. Without an option to view your listening history, you're forced to add those earworms to a playlist or search for them every time you log on.
There's also no improved way to follow influencers. I see celebrities, artists, and music experts becoming asynchronous DJs for the masses through on-demand services. Instead of tuning into a radio station, you'll subscribe to one of these people's playlists and check out whatever new tracks they add. The 555,000 people who follow Sean Parker's playlist “Hipster International” shows there's clearly demand for this. Finding people like Sean is not any easier on the browser version. You know what would be lovely? Recommendations of who to follow based on my listening habits.
I wrote this review after playing with Spotify's browser app for a few hours, but remember this is a beta — not something you'd typically review. And while I'm judging it against the desktop software, Spotify doesn't necessarily do the same. A little box in the corners tells me to “Install Spotify on your Mac for the full Spotify experience”. Apparently this is Spotify Lite.
Still, with any luck there's a reason we're not seeing play queue, listening history, apps, better music discovery, and simpler influencer following. Spotify is hopefully in the process of overhauling these features so when they debut, this won't just be an incomplete port of the desktop software. Instead it could be a portal that expands our musical consciousness. Our ancestors could only dream of exploring the greatest sounds from the corners of the earth at a moment's notice. It's time for Spotify to make that dream come true.
40 Essential Mashable Stories You May Have Missed in 2012
Now that the year is nearing a close, it's an appropriate time to reflect on the prodigious growth of digital culture in 2012.
Social media is more popular than ever. Facebook has more than one billion users. The number of active smartphones also eclipsed one billion in 2012. The Internet is becoming so essential to our lives, we want to take it with us wherever we go.
Even though the web constantly moves forward at a blistering pace, at Mashable we've been doing our best to keep you up to speed. What you may or may not have noticed as our flurry of posts sailed through your Twitter feed is that, in addition to writing quick hitting news stories, our editorial staff regularly posts in-depth, feature-length articles on a multitude of topics, all relating back to digital and tech culture.
Here is a list of 40 of our most memorable stories from the past year. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did writing them.
Making the Internet a more user-friendly place is our bread and butter. Here are a few stories that will surely help improve your online experience.
While the previous batch of stories were about how to utilize the Internet, these features are about how the Internet has come of age in 2012. You'll find stories about technology, social media and digital business.
The digital sphere is constantly redefining how entertainers connect and interact with fans. Here are a few stories about how pop singers, indie artists, NBA stars, TV personalities, comedians and slam dunk specialists are leveraging the Internet both to further their personal brands and to have a good time.
Kenny Chesney ensured his recent livestreamed concert was just as entertaining for online viewers as it was for the sweaty live crowd.
Tiny Porter Maberry's dunks will blow your mind. This is his amazing journey from a warehouse job to viral YouTube fame to a LeBron James ad and beyond.
Nadia G of “Bitchin' Kitchen” successfully turned her web series into a show on one of the most popular networks in the U.S. Learn how she did it.
The Flaming Lips hit the road with the O Music Awards. We look back at the marathon event and where it succeeded and failed.
“The Nekci Menij Show,” a parody of pop music, began in Microsoft Paint and depicts today's biggest pop stars as crudely drawn ducks and blobs.
The seven-foot two-inch NBA (and Internet) All Star talks Twitter, “Gangnam Style” and Sega in this revealing Q&A.
How old and new media work together in pursuit of comedy.
A ton of political news broke in 2012, from a contentious U.S. presidential election to continuing uprisings in the Middle East. As you might expect, our political coverage focused on the digital angle. With excerpts from our Politics Transformed series, here are some political stories worth another look.
Even though the point of the Internet is usually to interact with others remotely, it is good to keep in mind that there are still human beings involved in this equation. Here are a handful of stories, both inspiring and tragic, about how online interactions can profoundly affect people's “real” lives.
Every so often, something will inspire one of our top editors or brilliant guest writers (such as Sally Ride) to create a strongly-worded opinion piece. Here are a few of our most memorable op-ed stories from 2012.
Children in Need 'biggest ever'
Terry Wogan is hosting the six-hour fund-raiser along with Fearne Cotton, Tess Daly and Radio 1's Nick Grimshaw.
Kylie, Girls Aloud and One Direction are among the show's live performers.
Other highlights include the BBC Newsreaders taking on Top Gear's Star in a Reasonably Priced Car and Lord Sugar's The Walford Apprentice.
This year's event is taking place against the backdrop of widespread allegations of child abuse against former BBC presenter Jimmy Savile, and Newsnight's dropped investigation into some of the allegations.
The BBC has confirmed the Children in Need programme will make a reference to recent events that have featured in the news, but no specific names will be mentioned.
More than £3,645,530 has already been pledged this year, and will be given to projects supporting children and young people around the UK.
Last year's even raised £26m on the night, which rose to £46m over the year
Friday night's live show will also feature performances from Susan Boyle, Leona Lewis and Tim Minchin, while the newly reunited Girls Aloud will give the first TV performance of their official Children in Need single, Something New.
Around 20 of Britain's Olympic and Paralympic stars have also got in on the action in a special music video.
Tom Daley, Rebecca Adlington, Zara Philips, Louis Smith and Ellie Simmonds are among those seen dancing to everything from Beyonce's Single Ladies to Gangnam Style.
Meanwhile two of Strictly Come Dancing's most amusing celebrity competitors return for a Children in Need special.
Ann Widdecombe and Russell Grant have dusted off their dancing shoes to perform again with partners Anton Du Beke and Flavia Cacace.
Children in Need mascot Pudsey the bear will also be dancing, after being partnered with this year's Britain's Got Talent winner and his namesake, Pudsey the dog.
The show will also offer a first glimpse of Doctor Who's new companion in action in a preview of the Christmas special.
"This year's campaign is bigger and better than ever and people right across the country are once again coming together to raise thousands that will help change the lives of disadvantaged children right here in the UK," said David Ramsden, BBC Children in Need chief executive.
DIY: SOS and Bargain Hunt also recorded special Children in Need programmes, while Terry Wogan paid a fund-raising visit to Lee Mack sitcom Not Going Out.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra teamed up with urban artists including Fazer, Angel, Stooshe and Tyler James to produce Wish I Belonged, with proceeds going to the charity.
Other fund-raising events include The One Show's Rickshaw Challenge, Radio 2's Children in Need Jukebox and Saturday night's Strictly Live Wembley Show.
The TV broadcast will also feature films highlighting some of the work the charity does with children throughout the UK, presented by stars including Fearne Cotton, Robbie Williams, Geri Halliwell and EastEnders actress Nina Wadia.
Children in Need is on BBC One.
Phillip Phillips, The Lumineers, And The Mumford-ization Of Pop
The incessant shopping trips start to make your life feel like a single, unbroken stream of home-furnishings-related commerce when you reach a certain age and all your friends get married. So I'm not sure when or why I was in a mall parking lot with my wife when I first heard “Home” on the radio this year. What I do remember is that the song struck me as slightly unusual for WNCI, the local top-40 station we were bumping on that particular Macy's trip. The chorus reached to the heavens on the strength of acoustic guitars, arching choral harmonies and a relentless 4/4 thud maintained by kick drum and stomping feet. The earnest lead vocal was a robust tenor accented with folksy tremble and weathered beyond its years like distressed denim. The chorus went like this: “Settle down, it'll all be clear / Don't pay no mind to the demons that fill you with fear / The trouble it might drag you down / If you get lost, you can always be found / Just know you're not alone / Because I'm gonna make this place your home.” This had to be Mumford & Sons, right?
My brain probably generated a few alternate origin stories for “Home,” but none of them involved American Idol. Upon encountering the song again when it was smeared all over NBC's Olympics coverage, I was dumbstruck to discover this was the first single from Idol winner Phillip Phillips, and not just the kind of dumbstruck you feel when you realize somebody really named his or her child Phillip Phillips. Idol winners have a checkered history where actual pop stardom is concerned, but it wasn't surprising to hear this year's champ on the radio. The surprise was just that a fresh-faced Georgia boy like Phillips would be on the radio sounding like a bunch of fervid Englishmen who dress up like Jack White in Cold Mountain. “Home,” written as Idol‘s Season 11 coronation song by Drew Pearson and Greg Holden, seems scientifically engineered to replicate the Mumford & Sons formula. Folk-rock — even inspirational folk-rock of the Mumford variety — is not a sound I expect to hear from an institution founded on wind-beneath-my-wings diva bluster.
Then again, why wouldn't a fame factory like Idol try to copy an approach that made Mumford & Sons the biggest band in the world? Just listen to these absurd statistics: Mumford's debut album Sigh No More climbed all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 two years after its 2009 release, and it was still near the top of the chart when follow-up Babel dropped this September. Babel moved 600,000 copies in its first week, the best sales debut of the year until Taylor Swift came along. It was the biggest debut for a rock band since AC/DC sold 784,000 copies of Black Ice in 2008. (Yes, that happened.) Babel‘s success extended to the Hot 100 singles chart, where Mumford became the first band to log six songs simultaneously since the Beatles. Mumford-mania translated to live shows too; when the band came to my native Columbus back in August, it was initially booked for the 5,000-capacity outdoor amphitheater LC Pavilion, but tickets were on pace to sell out during the presale, so the promoter moved the show to the parking lot behind the venue and doubled the capacity. Judging from the buzz in town that day and the number of people who lined up along the fence to hear the show, they could have easily filled an arena or two.
Imitating a band that's incurring that level of adulation is obviously a lucrative career move, so of course Phillips isn't the only one doing it; it seems to be working out for Denver folk trio the Lumineers. The group shares Mumford's aesthetic in both sight (a fondness for olde-timey instruments and attire) and sound (acoustic anthems with mega sing-along potential), and they recently pulled off a similar leap from budding underground sensation to legitimate chart power. The Lumineers' self-titled album made it up to No. 11, and clap-and-stomp-powered single “Ho Hey” is at No. 13 and climbing. A few months ago this band was part of the undercard at an independent radio fest here in Columbus. Now they're set to tour arenas with Dave Matthews Band, which — well, more on that in a second. First, let's talk about context.
What initially took me aback when I heard “Home,” and what's so astonishing about this whole folk-rock-on-the-pop-charts movement, is how it's happening in an environment almost entirely geared around club music. The EDM explosion has been well-documented, so no need to belabor the point, but just consider for a moment how dance-oriented the singles chart is right now. The Top 20 almost exclusively comprises R&B (Rihanna, Chris Brown, Miguel), rap (Kanye West, Flo-Rida), alternative bands gunning for the dance floor (Maroon 5, fun., Alex Clare's polarizing Internet Explorer jingle “Too Close”) and outright dance-pop (Ke$ha, “Gangnam Style”). Taylor Swift has all but abandoned her bedazzled guitar collection to fit in there. It's a wonder that a band in the Mumford mold could survive in this climate, let alone thrive.
How did it happen? Did Mumford and the Lumineers really just barnstorm the charts out of nowhere, or did they benefit from some trailblazing? One event that springs to mind is Arcade Fire's Album Of The Year win at the Grammys last year. After all, those guys were donning olde-timey costumes and singing their compassionate Canadian hearts out long before Marcus Mumford was a blip on the pop-culture radar. But Mumford & Sons were already well into their ascent by the time the 2011 Grammys rolled around — remember, they and the Avett Brothers performed with Bob Dylan during the ceremony that night. Speaking of the Avetts, they surely had a hand in establishing the lung-busting dress-up folk demographic. So did their bookish counterparts the Decemberists. Those two groups might as well have sired Mumford & Sons during a one-night stand at Bonnaroo, and I have to believe they both would have a shot at crossover success if they released the right single right now. Whoever manages Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros should be leaning hard on radio programmers right now, too.
So we can choose to see the success of Mumford and his progeny as a long-gestating underground movement that's finally spilling over into the mainstream, and there may be some truth to that. But I can't help thinking these acts are carrying a torch that dates back to long before indie rock got in touch with its inner renaissance faire — a torch that burns kind of like chlamydia burns. Dating back to my first dabblings with top-40 radio at the height of Blues Traveler's “Run Around,” the format has always had room for that bro-friendly H.O.R.D.E. Tour sound. Sometimes it veers toward jam-band status (DMB), sometimes teeny bopper guitar-slinging (Jason Mraz), sometimes goofy gimmick pop (Barenaked Ladies), but it always seems to persist on the pop charts. Now bands like Mumford and the Lumineers are fulfilling that role, but they're also becoming the latest installment of the whole “indie goes mainstream”/”mainstream co-opts indie” thing that's been happening since Seth Cohen‘s heyday — or, you know, since Don Draper married Megan.
It's an unexpected intersection of galaxies, but it's happening. Really, what separates Mumford and Lumineers from the likes of Train and Howie Day? If we're honest, most of it comes down to marketing more than music. These bands dress like Wes Anderson characters. They're signed to indie labels — Lumineers with Dualtone, the home to Brett Dennen and Bobby Bare, and Mumford with Glassnote, which makes them colleagues with Stereogum favorites like Phoenix, Oberhofer, and Bloc Party's Kele Okereke. They're both bound to pop up if you listen to the Bon Iver Pandora station for a couple hours. But they also appeal directly to a segment of the population that probably makes a sizable swath of indie music fans squirm. Lumineers are about to hit the road with Dave Matthews, after all, and the number of DMB T-shirts at that Mumford concert over the summer was telling.
Phillips exposes the common threads by embodying them. On Idol, when he got the chance to choose which song to perform, he opted for Dave Matthews Band's “The Stone” and “Volcano” by Damien Rice, the Irish singer whose bleeding-heart folk is a clear precursor to Marcus Mumford's anthems. His debut album, The World From The Side Of The Moon, out this week on Interscope, affirms his status as a living, breathing Venn diagram overlap. (Listening to it feels very much like a trip to the mall. Not so much the Olympics.) Every detail vacillates between sounding like a Mumford production and a Matthews production depending on how you crane your ear. Every weathered vocal run is a pivot point, every acoustic strum a litmus test. It reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld where the girl Jerry's dating veers from gorgeous to grotesque depending on the lighting. But it's still the same girl.
Just Dance 4: Gangnam Style Trailer
Things to Be Thankful For, Technology Edition
You know the scene. The family is gathered, the turkey is carved, the sweet potatoes are mere inches from your fork and have no idea of the fate that is about to befall them. Then someone pipes up: “I think we ought to go around the table and say what we're thankful for.”
What are you going to say? You're hipster enough that you would rather die than spout a cliche like “my health” or “my job” or “this food”; that's a given, surely — of course we're all thankful for such things. But you're also enough of a geek that you fear saying what you're really thankful for; reeling off the specs of that awesome phone you just bought would be met with blank stares.
Fear not, we've got your back. If you find yourself fumbling for words in front of the family, try something like this:
I'm thankful that we get to live in a golden age where every piece of knowledge you can imagine, the greatest library in history, is available at all times to everyone. I'm thankful that roughly 50% of this country now carries supercomputers everywhere, and that we don't even think it's a big deal any more.
I'm thankful that I have creative tools in my pocket that would make Leonardo da Vinci weep, and I'm thankful that I occasionally have the wit to use them, rather than just sitting back and letting the content come to me.
I'm thankful that I can freely express any opinion in any one of a thousand forums, instantly, globally. I'm thankful for my Twitter followers and for those I'm following, and that they labor all day to keep me amused and informed without receiving a single penny in compensation. I'm thankful for my Facebook friends, who help and encourage and cajole and tease and share and point me towards the light when I'm in a dark place.
I'm thankful for Instagram, and for the fact that there are a million artfully filtered pictures of everyone's turkey dinner being posted to phones across America right now.
I'm thankful for the iPhone, I'm thankful for Android, I'm thankful they made a decent Windows Phone, and I'm thankful that there is real competition between them. I'm really thankful we won't see a repeat of the Microsoft monopoly of the 1990s. I'm thankful that the Galaxy SIII recently became the most popular smartphone; maybe it'll spur Apple to make an even more innovative iPhone 5S.
I'm thankful for e-books. I'm thankful for the fact that I'm reading more than ever because of them, despite the naysayers who claim technology is dumbing us down. I'm thankful that tablets single-handedly saved the comics business. I'm thankful that artists have so many channels to distribute their content without the middlemen, so those middlemen can go off and become artists themselves.
I'd like to thank Netflix and Hulu for being there to cuddle up in bed with when I'm sick. I'm thankful that there are more great games available than I can ever hope to play in a lifetime, and that they cost 99 cents each rather than $50. I'm thankful that when I think of a song, any song, I can be listening to it seconds later. I'm thankful that everyone gets to be a DJ now. Well, sometimes I'm not thankful for that.
I'm over the moon at the fact that NASA successfully put a rover the size of a truck on Mars earlier this year, and that it's tweeting photos, and that it may have found something unprecedented on the surface. I'm thankful that math and science education is ramping up, even if it isn't yet where it needs to be. I'm thankful for numbers, and for Nate Silver.
I'm thankful for memes that let me feel like everyone on the planet is in on the same joke. I'm thankful for LOLCats, who never fail to perform as advertised; they may actually be making us smarter too. I'm thankful that when a bus monitor gets harassed by kids and it gets caught on video, the Internet clubs together to shame the bullies and give her a $500,000 vacation. Thank you, Reddit and YouTube.
I may even still be thankful for Gangnam Style, though ask me again in a few months.
Most of all, I'm thankful that anything we might decide to argue about over this dinner can be settled with a simple search. And I'm thankful that any time I get tired of my real family, I can go take a quick time out with my Internet family, and because of that break I can come back and be once again grateful for your presence, your proximity, your warmth.
Now pass the damn potatoes. I'm starving.
What are you thankful for this holiday season? Let us know in the comments.
Image credit: Mashable composite. iStockphoto via NAN104
'Gangnam Style' invading Toronto for Bills-Seahawks
Elliot Harrison reevaluates the NFL hierarchy yet again, with plenty of movement in the top half and a change at No. 32. More ...
The "Gangnam Style" dance has become an on-field meme this season, with players celebrating sacks and touchdowns by emulating the moves of a cherubic Korean rapper.
Check out the video above for some of the best NFL "Gangnam Style" tributes, and try to overlook the fact we opted not to secure the rights for the song itself.
Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @danhanzus.
Senior Citizens Make ‘Call Me Maybe' Young Again [VIDEO]
(Most were around before the Internet existed, so if they want more Carly, let's respect that.)
Of all the parodies we've seen, the residents at the Waverley Mansion in Ontario, Canada might just be our favorite. The group describes itself as “stayin' young and havin' fun!”
According to the video's comments, the Internet-savvy seniors might have a Gangnam Style parody in the works. Clearly, the group is a gift that keeps on giving.
ATL Buzz Report: Where Mark Sanchez can slide safely
Each week, Dan Hanzus sifts through the pro football landscape to bring you sublime subplots of NFL life. Some of it he loves. Some he does not. Other stuff, he can't quite decide. The ATL Buzz Report.
Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @danhanzus.
'Gangnam Style' Has Broken Justin Bieber's YouTube Record
At the time of writing "Gangnam Style" has amassed 805,055,375 views ahead of Bieber's 803,732,561.
Gangnam Style has achieved a pretty impressive feat, the video was only uploaded July 15, 2012.
Gangnam Style is projected to hit 1 billion views on December 16, 2012, according to ChannelMeter.
Just in case you're one of the only people on the planet who hasn't seen the video yet, check it out below:
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Psy's "Gangnam Style” Passes Justin Bieber's "Baby” To Become The Most Popular YouTube Video Ever With Over 805 Million Views
It was only a matter of time, and we're happy this happened on a slow news day over the weekend: Psy's viral music video hit “Gangnam Style” just passed Justin Bieber's “Baby” to become the most popular video in the history of YouTube. The video has now been watched over 805 million times.
The video made its YouTube debut on July 15 and currently has over 5.3 million likes and about 320,000 dislikes. Bieber's “Baby” – which had a nice run at the top of YouTube's charts since its debut in February 2010 – only has about 1.4 million likes and a whopping 3.2 million dislikes. At least Bieber's corporate parents won't be too unhappy about this development: since September, Psy and Bieber work for the same music label.
Thanks to Psy's (and his management's) relatively hands-off approach to fan-made remakes and parodies, the song itself has likely been heard quite a bit more often on YouTube. According to one metric, these fan remakes have garnered over 220 million views. The first live performance of the song on Korean TV also has a full 152 million views.
With the exception of “Charlie bit my finger – again,” every single video in the YouTube top 30 is now a music video and sadly, this list also includes the “Tootin' Bathtub Baby Cousins” with 251 million views and “The Gummy Bear Song” with 265 million views. We'll leave it up to future anthropologists to decide what this all means…
PSY's "Gangnam Style” Is Now Officially The Most-Watched Music Video On YouTube Ever
Baby baby baby no! PSY‘s “Gangnam Style” just surpassed Justin Bieber‘s “Baby” to officially become the most-watched video on YouTube ever. We knew it was inevitable in recent weeks as PSY became increasingly viral — so viral that even Madonna had to get in on the action in concert. So viral that not even Barack Obama could avoid discussing the worldwide phenomenon on the eve of his reelection.
There's obviously no hope for a “Baby” comeback — Beliebers have obviously moved on to Justin's more recent material, while “Gangnam Style” is still kind of a thing. (Albeit a thing we're ready to go the way of all such phenomenons, and go quietly into the night until we're ready to dust it off for nostalgia's sake in a few years.)
Strangely enough, “Gangnam Style” hasn't reached #1 on Billboard's Hot 100, proving that fans need to see PSY's giddy-up dance moves to accompany their enjoyment of the song.