watchOS 8 beta hands-on: Subtle but useful changes

With the iOS 15 and watchOS 8 public betas now available for testing, it’s time for us to get an early look at some of the features coming to Apple’s biggest platforms. While the next watchOS might not represent as significant a change as iOS 15, it does bring new health and fitness tools, along with tighter iPhone integration.If you’re thinking of checking out the public beta for yourself, make sure you’ve considered the risk of running preview software. Those who simply can’t wait for a stable public version of the upcoming platform can sign up for Apple’s beta program and install the builds now, provided you have an Apple Watch Series 3 or newer, along with an iPhone running the iOS 15 beta.Mindfulness, health and fitnessApple’s new health-centric features could interest those looking for a more wholistic approach to wellbeing. The company has renamed its Breathe app to Mindfulness, adding “Reflect” to the existing breathing exercises. You can set each Reflect session’s duration from one to five minutes. A prompt appears before each session to help you focus your thoughts, along with a button to begin. So far, I’ve seen prompts similar to other meditation guides that tell you to be aware of your thoughts and let them pass without judgement. Some other examples include “Think of someone you care about. Imagine you can feel your connection with them” and “Consider the values that matter to you in something you’re focused on.”Then, a colorful swirling animation takes up the screen. I usually just lean back and close my eyes at this point, but if you continue to stare at your watch, the animation is a nice distraction that’s almost hypnotizing. When your time is up, the watch vibrates and shows a closing thought tied to the opening prompt, like “Bring this sense of open awareness with you.” You’ll also see your heart rate and your total Mindful minutes for the day (which includes time spent doing Breathe exercises). After two Mindfulness sessions, my Apple Watch SE said my pulse plummeted from 64 to 47bpm, which is great, I guess.Cherlynn Low / EngadgetIt does at times feel like a glorified timer, meets fortune cookie, meets Magic 8 Ball, all set to Windows Media Player visualizations. But combined with reminders throughout the day that you can customize, Mindfulness can be a valuable tool for checking in with yourself and your state of mind.A few other health-centric additions to watchOS include two new Workout categories: Tai Chi and Pilates. I’ve yet to do a session of either exercise so I can’t say how accurately Apple tracks these yet. There are also a couple more features I need more time to get a better sense for, like respiratory rate tracking overnight and walking steadiness. To be clear, the latter isn’t specifically a watchOS feature — it uses your iPhone stashed somewhere on your body, but I thought to include it as part of Apple’s health updates here. Walking steadiness requires at least two weeks of testing before delivering an assessment, so it’ll take some time before I get results. Messaging, new apps and integration with iPhoneA big part of the watchOS 8 update is improved communications tools and integration with your iPhone. Notably, the Messages app now allows you to compose via Scribble, Dictate and Emojis all within the same screen. I scrawled out part of a message, dictated longer parts of it, and added emoji from one page easily. Editing is also less of a hassle than before, thanks in large part to the ability to use the Digital Crown to control the cursor. Hallelujah! Scrolling back to insert a space or fix a stray “v” got so much easier. Additionally, there’s a new option now to send GIFs in Messages, from the same place you’d send a Digital Touch (just hit the search glass button and type in your keyword). Communicating with people is also easier now thanks to the new Contacts app, which lets you find specific friends more quickly. If you’ve set one of iOS 15’s new Focus modes on your iPhone, the same settings will apply to your watch. People and apps that have been blocked will remain muted on your wrist, and a symbol at the top of the screen indicates which Focus mode is active.Contacts isn’t the only new app for watchOS 8. Apple is also redesigning Home to make interacting with your connected appliances easier, and bringing Find Items, Find Devices, and Tips to your wrist. The new OS will also add support for ultra wideband to enable more precise car key functions like spatial awareness. Plus, the update lets you use your Watch as a key for hotels and offices in addition to your home and car, though naturally it only works with compatible buildings and locks. I haven’t had a chance to test those features yet.AppleLike its counterpart on iOS, the watchOS Wallet app will also support adding your driver’s License, which you can use in participating states and agencies in the US when that’s more broadly rolled out. In addition to privacy and security concerns around Apple storing your ID on your device, there are also questions here about how likely law enforcers or various authorities are to welcome these digital cards. But that’s not something I was able to test with this preview build, given this feature is not accepted in most places at the moment.Portrait watch faces, multiple timers and Fitness+In addition, I tried out a few other new features on the watchOS 8 beta: portrait watch faces and multiple timers. Similar to how you could create a Photos face for Apple Watch before, hit Share on a picture on your iPhone, then tap Create Watch Face. If you want the faux depth-of-field effect on your wrist, you’ll need to pick an image shot using your phone’s Portrait mode. The effect will animate when you rotate the watch dial. Currently, there are only three clock styles available for these, and I found “Modern” the least offensive. You can also add a single complication to Portrait faces.As for multiple timers: It works. I set a countdown for three minutes, then hit back and set another for a minute. They both went off without a hitch. It’s funny that something as simple as this took eight whole updates to get, but at least it’s here. Those who use their Apple Watch for cooking timers will appreciate this one.Finally, this isn’t quite a watchOS update but since you need an Apple Watch to use Fitness+, the two are intertwined. When you use Fitness+ on your iPhone or iPad, you’ll now be able to watch the exercise videos in Picture-in-Picture mode. I was also able to resize the panel that was overlaid atop my other apps simply by pinching to zoom. Wrap-upThis isn’t the biggest update to watchOS, but Apple has made some subtle improvements to its communication apps and it’s also tightened its iPhone integration. I also appreciate the attention paid to different takes on health and wellbeing. There are still more features to test, like walking steadiness and ID support, but for now the watchOS 8 beta feels like a thoughtful, if small, update.Update (at 7:45pm ET): This article was edited to clarify that Walking Steadiness is an iOS 15 feature, not a watchOS 8 feature.

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Punishing platformer ‘Ghostrunner’ adds accessibility mode

Ghostrunner was one of the best surprises of 2020. It’s a stylish first-person platformer that takes the best elements of Titanfall’s parkour mechanics and adds a cyberpunk twist to the proceedings. It’s also a challenging game that demands precision and purpose from the player. Make a single mistake, and you’ll need to replay a section of a level again. That can get frustrating fast, so developer One More Level is adding a new feature called Assist Mode.

Assist Mode introduces three options you can toggle on and off. You can opt to shorten your character’s ability cooldowns, slow down the game to give you more time to react and play with an extra life to make mistakes less punishing. Accessibility modes are becoming more common in video games, and it’s always good to see another developer find a way to allow more people to enjoy their work.

For experienced players, there’s a new feature called Wave Mode that is essentially Ghostrunner’s take on a roguelike. You’ll need to complete 20 rounds in succession, with each one featuring different enemies — even when you attempt the same one multiple times. Make it all the way to the end, and you’ll earn a fancy new katana for your character.

Both Assist and Wave modes are available today for free on the platforms where you can already buy Ghostrunner. That includes PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam, the Epic Games Store and GOG. When the game makes its way to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S on September 28th, it will come with those modes included.

Samsung adds Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Flip 3 features to older foldable phones

You won't have to buy a Galaxy Z Fold 3 or Flip 3 to get their software upgrades. Samsung is rolling out a One UI 3.1.1 update that brings many of those phones' multitasking and app resizing features to the original Fold, Fold 2, Flip and Flip 5G.

The Fold line unsurprisingly benefits the most thanks to its larger, tablet-like screen. Features like Multi-Active Window (up to three apps at once) and App Split View (seeing extra content for an app) make that folding display much more useful. You can also force apps to resize and rotate on your Fold, pin your favorites with the Taskbar and mirror your internal display on the cover screen.

Not that Flip owners are out of luck. Drag & Split lets all Samsung foldable owners create a new window for an already-open app, and you can invoke Flex Mode to bring up media controls when the phone is partially folded.

Most of these features are deploying now, although you'll have to wait an extra week if you're using the first Galaxy Fold. Not that you'll likely mind. This could significantly improve the usefulness of your older foldable, and suggests Samsung is eager to earn the loyalty of early adopters — if just to increase the chances that you'll buy another Fold or Flip when you're due for an upgrade.

LinkedIn is shutting down its Stories feature after a year

LinkedIn is ditching Stories. The company will shut down the feature by the end of September, a year after rolling it out. As it turns out, ephemeral posts aren't a perfect fit for every social network. Perhaps with ROI and KPIs in mind, LinkedIn says its users want videos that stay on their profiles permanently, not ones that vanish.

"In developing Stories, we assumed people wouldn’t want informal videos attached to their profile, and that ephemerality would reduce barriers that people feel about posting," Liz Li, LinkedIn's senior director of product wrote. "Turns out, you want to create lasting videos that tell your professional story in a more personal way and that showcase both your personality and expertise."

As such, the company's going back to the whiteboard. It's taking what it learned from Stories (such as users wanting creative tools to liven up videos in a professional way) to create a "reimagined video experience across LinkedIn that’s even richer and more conversational."

Just about every major social network hopped on the Stories bandwagon after the likes of Snapchat and Instagram found huge success with the format. Although the feature has proven a hit on the likes of YouTube and Facebook, Stories haven't taken off on every platform. Twitter recently shut down Fleets, its take on Stories, less than nine months after launching the feature.

Google adds shipping and return labels to product listings in search and shopping tool

With the holiday season quickly approaching, Google plans to surface the shipping and return policies of stores that list items on its platforms to help consumers quickly find out if they can get free delivery and returns on their purchases. You’ll see the labels appear across both free and paid listings. “Free delivery by Friday, December 24th,” says one of the example annotations the company shared. Merchants will need to meet a list of requirements before they can add the labels to their listings, so you won’t see them on every product.

Shipping and return annotations won’t dramatically change your shopping experience, but they make you decide to jump on a product you would have otherwise glossed over. Google has spent much of the last year adding these types of features to its shopping hubs. At I/O 2021, for example, it showed off a feature inside of Chrome that displayed shopping carts you abandoned before completing a purchase in a new tab.

Google delays mandatory return to office until January 2022

Google is once again pushing back its return to in-person work. CEO Sundar Pichai told employees the company is delaying the mandatory return to office until January 2022. The current voluntary scheme will last through January 10th. From then on, Google's offices will make the decisions about when (and if) to make office work mandatory. Staff will be notified 30 days in advance if they're required to show up.

The internet pioneer previously hoped to institute a hybrid work week on October 18th, with staff coming in for three out of five days. That, in turn, was later than the originally planned September return.

The reasoning behind the delay isn't surprising. The COVID-19 pandemic recovery, and thus the return to offices, has been "longer and bumpier than expected," according to Pichai. In other words, factors like the virus' Delta variant, vaccination rates and varying case levels have clouded the situation — what works well in one country could be dangerous in another.

Not that Google will take chances regardless. The company now requires full vaccination for any employee returning to the office, voluntary or otherwise. Google might be eager to have people fill its halls, but it also doesn't want safety issues or skittish employees. It's not alone, either — fellow tech firms like Apple have delayed their own return-to-office plans as the pandemic's realities become clearer.

DOJ: Hackers behind SolarWinds attacks targeted federal prosecutors

The perpetrators of the SolarWinds hacks apparently targeted key parts of the American legal system. According to the AP, the Justice Department says hackers targeted federal prosecutors between May 2020 and December 2020. There were 27 US Attorney offices where the intruders compromised at least one email account, officials said.

The victims included some of the more prominent federal offices, including those in the Eastern and Souther Districts of New York as well as Miami, Los Angeles and Washington.

The DOJ said it had alerted all victims and was taking steps to blunt the risks resulting from the hack. The Department previously said there was no evidence the SolarWinds hackers broke into classified systems, but federal attorneys frequently exchange sensitive case details.

The Biden administration has officially blamed Russia's state-backed Cozy Bear group for the hacks, and retaliated by expelling diplomats and sanctioning 32 "entities and individuals." Russia has denied involvement.

It's not certain if the US will escalate its response. The damage has already been done, after all. This further illustrates the severity of the attacks, however, and hints at the focus — they were clearly interested in legal data in addition to source code and other valuable information.

Latest posts

Google delays mandatory return to office until January 2022

Google is once again pushing back its return to in-person work. CEO Sundar Pichai told employees the company is delaying the mandatory return to office until January 2022. The current voluntary scheme will last through January 10th. From then on, Google's offices will make the decisions about when (and if) to make office work mandatory. Staff will be notified 30 days in advance if they're required to show up.

The internet pioneer previously hoped to institute a hybrid work week on October 18th, with staff coming in for three out of five days. That, in turn, was later than the originally planned September return.

The reasoning behind the delay isn't surprising. The COVID-19 pandemic recovery, and thus the return to offices, has been "longer and bumpier than expected," according to Pichai. In other words, factors like the virus' Delta variant, vaccination rates and varying case levels have clouded the situation — what works well in one country could be dangerous in another.

Not that Google will take chances regardless. The company now requires full vaccination for any employee returning to the office, voluntary or otherwise. Google might be eager to have people fill its halls, but it also doesn't want safety issues or skittish employees. It's not alone, either — fellow tech firms like Apple have delayed their own return-to-office plans as the pandemic's realities become clearer.

Google adds shipping and return labels to product listings in search and shopping tool

With the holiday season quickly approaching, Google plans to surface the shipping and return policies of stores that list items on its platforms to help consumers quickly find out if they can get free delivery and returns on their purchases. You’ll see the labels appear across both free and paid listings. “Free delivery by Friday, December 24th,” says one of the example annotations the company shared. Merchants will need to meet a list of requirements before they can add the labels to their listings, so you won’t see them on every product.

Shipping and return annotations won’t dramatically change your shopping experience, but they make you decide to jump on a product you would have otherwise glossed over. Google has spent much of the last year adding these types of features to its shopping hubs. At I/O 2021, for example, it showed off a feature inside of Chrome that displayed shopping carts you abandoned before completing a purchase in a new tab.

LinkedIn is shutting down its Stories feature after a year

LinkedIn is ditching Stories. The company will shut down the feature by the end of September, a year after rolling it out. As it turns out, ephemeral posts aren't a perfect fit for every social network. Perhaps with ROI and KPIs in mind, LinkedIn says its users want videos that stay on their profiles permanently, not ones that vanish.

"In developing Stories, we assumed people wouldn’t want informal videos attached to their profile, and that ephemerality would reduce barriers that people feel about posting," Liz Li, LinkedIn's senior director of product wrote. "Turns out, you want to create lasting videos that tell your professional story in a more personal way and that showcase both your personality and expertise."

As such, the company's going back to the whiteboard. It's taking what it learned from Stories (such as users wanting creative tools to liven up videos in a professional way) to create a "reimagined video experience across LinkedIn that’s even richer and more conversational."

Just about every major social network hopped on the Stories bandwagon after the likes of Snapchat and Instagram found huge success with the format. Although the feature has proven a hit on the likes of YouTube and Facebook, Stories haven't taken off on every platform. Twitter recently shut down Fleets, its take on Stories, less than nine months after launching the feature.

Samsung adds Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Flip 3 features to older foldable phones

You won't have to buy a Galaxy Z Fold 3 or Flip 3 to get their software upgrades. Samsung is rolling out a One UI 3.1.1 update that brings many of those phones' multitasking and app resizing features to the original Fold, Fold 2, Flip and Flip 5G.

The Fold line unsurprisingly benefits the most thanks to its larger, tablet-like screen. Features like Multi-Active Window (up to three apps at once) and App Split View (seeing extra content for an app) make that folding display much more useful. You can also force apps to resize and rotate on your Fold, pin your favorites with the Taskbar and mirror your internal display on the cover screen.

Not that Flip owners are out of luck. Drag & Split lets all Samsung foldable owners create a new window for an already-open app, and you can invoke Flex Mode to bring up media controls when the phone is partially folded.

Most of these features are deploying now, although you'll have to wait an extra week if you're using the first Galaxy Fold. Not that you'll likely mind. This could significantly improve the usefulness of your older foldable, and suggests Samsung is eager to earn the loyalty of early adopters — if just to increase the chances that you'll buy another Fold or Flip when you're due for an upgrade.

Punishing platformer ‘Ghostrunner’ adds accessibility mode

Ghostrunner was one of the best surprises of 2020. It’s a stylish first-person platformer that takes the best elements of Titanfall’s parkour mechanics and adds a cyberpunk twist to the proceedings. It’s also a challenging game that demands precision and purpose from the player. Make a single mistake, and you’ll need to replay a section of a level again. That can get frustrating fast, so developer One More Level is adding a new feature called Assist Mode.

Assist Mode introduces three options you can toggle on and off. You can opt to shorten your character’s ability cooldowns, slow down the game to give you more time to react and play with an extra life to make mistakes less punishing. Accessibility modes are becoming more common in video games, and it’s always good to see another developer find a way to allow more people to enjoy their work.

For experienced players, there’s a new feature called Wave Mode that is essentially Ghostrunner’s take on a roguelike. You’ll need to complete 20 rounds in succession, with each one featuring different enemies — even when you attempt the same one multiple times. Make it all the way to the end, and you’ll earn a fancy new katana for your character.

Both Assist and Wave modes are available today for free on the platforms where you can already buy Ghostrunner. That includes PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam, the Epic Games Store and GOG. When the game makes its way to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S on September 28th, it will come with those modes included.

Over 100 warship locations have been faked in one year

Abuses of location technology might just result in hot political disputes. According to Wired, SkyWatch and Global Fishing Watch have conducted studies showing that over 100 warship locations have been faked since August 2020, including the British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth and the US destroyer Roosevelt. In some cases, the false data showed the vessels entering disputed waters or nearing other countries' naval bases — movements that could spark international incidents.

The research team found the fakes by comparing uses of the automatic identification system (AIS, a GPS-based system to help prevent collisions) with verifiable position data by using an identifying pattern. All of the false info came from shore-based AIS receivers while satellites showed the real positions, for instance. Global Fishing Watch had been investigating fake AIS positions for years, but this was the first time it had seen falsified data for real ships.

It's not certain who's faking locations and why. However, analysts said the data was characteristic of a common perpetrator that might be Russia. Almost all of the affected warships were from European countries or NATO members, and the data included bogus incursions around Kaliningrad, the Black Sea, Crimea and other Russian interests. In theory, Russia could portray Europe and NATO as aggressors by falsely claiming those rivals sent warships into Russian seas.

Russia has historically denied hacking claims. It has a years-long history of using fake accounts and misinformation to stoke political tensions that further its own ends, though. And if Russia is connected, the faked warship locations might be a significant escalation of that strategy. Even though such an approach might not lead to shooting matches, it could get disconcertingly close.