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The best budget smartphone for travelers has been updated for 2018, Microsoft’s translation app just got a whole lot smarter offline, Google Maps has started giving directions like a human, and smart luggage company Bluesmart is no more.
Our Favourite Budget Phone Just Got Better
I’ve been recommending Motorola’s Moto G series for a while now. In a world full of crappy budget devices, the company has consistently delivered one of the few sub-$250 smartphones I’d travel with.
When I smashed the screen on my Pixel 2 recently, I actually spent a day wandering the electronics shops of Kota Kinabalu trying to find one as a temporary replacement, but it seemed to be out of stock everywhere.
That’s probably not a coincidence, since Motorola just announced the latest version, the Moto G6. There are a few different models, and the specs vary slightly between them. Both the standard and Plus editions have many of the features of a much more expensive phone, at an affordable price.
The standard model has a 5.7″ screen with slim bezels that mean it’s no bigger than last year’s 5″ version. There’s a fingerprint scanner under that screen, and fast-charging USB-C replaces the dated micro-USB port of previous models. There are still dual SIMs on the international version, which is always good to see.
The camera has been upgraded to 12 megapixels, and performs better in low light than pretty much any other budget smartphone I can think of (and many mid-range ones as well). There’s a second rear sensor that enables a portrait mode, as well.
Of course, some compromises have been made to hit that price point. The chipset is slower than other new mid-range and premium phones, the speakers aren’t anything exciting, and the camera can be slow to respond. Still, with 32GB of storage and 3GB of RAM (64GB/4GB if you buy the Amazon-exclusive version), it’s a phone that covers most traveler’s needs very well, at a reasonable cost.
The Moto G6 is out in the UK next week, and is due to hit US stores later in the month.
Microsoft Translator Now Works Offline Too
One of the most useful features of Google Translate for travelers is its offline support. Simply by downloading a language pack ahead of time, you get basic translation ability even without an Internet connection. It’s not always the most accurate, but it’s definitely better than nothing.
Until recently, Microsoft’s version worked the same way, but the company’s lifted its game with the latest release. Now when you don’t have a connection, the app runs a slightly-modified version of the same AI-powered translation service used when you’re online.
The end result? Much better translations, on almost any Android or iOS device. The updated language packs are available for nearly a dozen languages already, with more to follow. If you’re often offline while traveling somewhere you don’t speak the lingo, Microsoft Translator is now very much worth a look.
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Google Maps Has Started Giving Directions Like a Human
When you think about how computers give directions versus how humans do, they’re not really all that similar. If you were guiding a friend from the passenger seat, would you say “in 300 feet, turn left onto Smith Street”, or would you say “take a left just after McDonald’s”?
In an apparent attempt to be more like a human and less like a robot, Google Maps has started using obvious landmarks (like fast food restaurants) in its directions. It looks like it’s just a trial at this stage, which means we may not ever see it get a wider release, but it’s a smart idea either way.
I can see it being particularly useful when driving in countries which use an unfamiliar script. After all, you may not be able to quickly translate a Chinese street sign at a glance, but you’ll recognise a Burger King anywhere.
Smart Luggage Pioneer Bluesmart Shuts Down
Bluemart was one of the early pioneers in smart luggage, with a wildly-successful crowdfunding campaign for its high-tech suitcase in 2014, and plenty of positive press from bloggers and others once it officially launched.
When several US airlines banned luggage with non-removable lithium batteries earlier this year, though, the company was instantly in trouble. Customers started getting upset about their now-useless $300+ suitcases, and to make matters worse, Bluesmart had just started taking pre-orders for an updated model… that still didn’t have a removable battery.
Faced with slumping sales, angry customers, and a product that was obsolete before it even shipped, the company realised it no longer had a business model, and is shutting down. Warranties are no longer being honoured, and whatever’s left of Bluesmart has been bought by luggage company TravelPro.
The most surprising part of this whole thing is the company not seeing the change coming. Given the fire risk, airlines were against lithium batteries in the hold long before smart luggage was a thing. Most competitors were sensible enough to make their batteries removable, but Bluesmart has paid the price for its blind spot.