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★ iPhone XR Review Roundup

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The bottom-line conclusion in my iPhone XR review:

It sounds too good to be true, but the XR is almost as good as the XS models at a far lower price. Dollar for dollar, the XR is almost certainly the best iPhone Apple has ever made.

I’ve read over a dozen other reviews of the XR this week, and that’s been the bottom line of every single one of them. It’s a remarkable consensus. There are some interesting differences though.

Matthew Panzarino thinks the biggest compromise is the lack of a telephoto second camera:

However, I found myself missing the zoom lens a lot. This is absolutely a your mileage may vary scenario, but I take the vast majority of my pictures with the telephoto lens. Looking back at my year with the iPhone X I’d say north of 80% of my pictures were shot with the telephoto, even if they were close ups. I simply prefer the “52mm” equivalent with its nice compression and tight crop. It’s just a better way to shoot than a wide angle — as any photographer or camera company will tell you because that’s the standard (equivalent) lens that all cameras have shipped with for decades.

Wide angle lenses were always a kludge in smartphones and it’s only in recent years that we’ve started getting decent telephotos. If I had my choice, I’d default to the tele and have a button to zoom out to the wide angle, that would be much nicer.

But with the iPhone XR you’re stuck with the wide — and it’s a single lens at that, without the two different perspectives Apple normally uses to gather its depth data to apply the portrait effect.

Nilay Patel, on the other hand, doesn’t miss the telephoto second camera much but instead thinks the LCD display is the biggest compromise compared to the XS iPhones:

Those differences are interesting and worth pulling apart, but really, the simplest way to think about the iPhone XR is that it offers virtually the same experience as the iPhone XS for $250 less, but you’ll be looking at a slightly worse display.

So, how much do you care about the display on your phone?

Look. The display on the iPhone XR is… fine. It’s fine! It has a lower-resolution and pixel density than the OLEDs in new flagship phones like the iPhone XS, Galaxy S9, and Pixel 3, but it’s the same 326 pixels per inch as Apple’s previous non-Plus LCD iPhones. Anyone coming to this phone from any iPhone, save the iPhone X, will not notice a huge discrepancy in resolution. I suspect most people will find it totally acceptable.

That’s not to say it matches the quality of previous iPhone LCDs. The iPhone XR LCD definitely shifts a little pink and drops brightness quickly when you look at it off-axis, which often leads to a bit of a shimmery effect when you move the phone around. I noticed that shimmer right away, but I had to point it out to other people for them to see it. (It’s one of those things you might not notice at first, but you can’t un-see it.) Apple told me the XR display should match previous iPhone LCDs in terms of performance, but side by side with an iPhone 8 Plus, the off-axis shifts are definitely more pronounced.

Neither Panzarino nor Patel are wrong. It’s obvious that the display and lack of a second camera are the two biggest compromises on the XR that allow it to be priced so much lower than the XS models. Which one matters more to you is purely subjective. Panzarino says “If I had my choice, I’d default to the tele and have a button to zoom out to the wide angle”; Patel says “I rarely take zoom photos, so I didn’t miss the telephoto lens from the iPhone XS at all”.

Count me on Panzarino’s side, though. If I could have a next-gen iPhone XR that either (a) keeps the same LCD display but adds the XS’s second camera, or (b) switches to the XS’s OLED display (including smaller bezel) but still lacks the second camera, I would choose (a) in a heartbeat. After a day with the iPhone XR I stopped seeing anything wrong with the display or wider bezel. I miss the telephoto camera every day.

Another tidbit from Patel, regarding the amazing work Apple put into making the XR display as nice as they could:

Apple’s also done some extremely detailed work to make the rounded corners of the LCD perfectly match the corners of the phone itself, which is work I desperately wish other companies would do. (Most other phones with rounded corners have mismatched radii, and the Pixel 3 XL has different corner radii at the top and bottom, which, to me, looks far worse than any chunky bezel.)

It’s somewhat easier to round the corners of an OLED panel: each pixel is its own light source, so you can turn them off individually around the curve to smooth it out. You can’t do that with an LCD panel because there’s just one single backlight for the entire display, which will shine through the black pixels along the edge. So Apple built little apertures for the pixels around the corners of the XR display to mask some of the light coming through, on top of antialiasing the curve in software. It’s a neat example of Apple’s attention to detail.

The sub-head from Panzarino’s review made me laugh:

The iPhone XR is Apple’s best knockoff yet of its groundbreaking iPhone X.

I think it could have worked to write an entire iPhone XR review using the conceit that it’s an amazing knockoff of the iPhone X.

Speaking of design details, Rene Ritchie, in an otherwise glowing review, points out some small industrial design niggles:

Less fine is the sudden loss of Z-axis asymmetry thanks to the shoved down Lightning port on iPhone XR. Again, yes, this is only something I.D. nerds like myself care about, but after iPhone XS broke X-axis symmetry to fit a 4 × 4 MiMo antenna on the bottom, iPhone XR has gone and broken the Z by top aligning instead of middle aligning Lightning to the screws and grills, probably to make room for the not-as-thin-as-self-illuminating-OLED edge-to-edge LCD.

I still haven’t gotten used to the steel screws and ports not always being vapor coated to match the aluminum anodization, now this?

I know it bugs the designers and engineers even more than it does me. And while it’s still not as rando as some other companies seem to be by tossing elements into the casing like drunken darts at a board, and as nit-picky (and I’m sure eye-rolling) as I’m sure it is for some of you, I’ve given Samsung shit about it for years, so I’m not going to stop just because, this time, my eyes are bleeding courtesy of Apple.

I hate to admit it, but I didn’t mention the Lightning port not being centered with the screws or speaker grills because I didn’t notice it until I read Rene’s review. (Nilay Patel mentions it too.) But now I can’t unsee it:

Bottom view of the iPhone XR, showing how the Lightning port is not center-aligned with the screws or speaker grills.

It’s not perfectly aligned but it is perfectly excusable. It’s simply really, really hard to make an LCD phone with no chin or forehead to mask the display controller. It’s hard to make an OLED phone with no chin or forehead — just ask Google. But LCD is a different ballgame. To my knowledge, iPhone XR is the only LCD phone ever made, by anyone, with no chin or forehead. With the display controller underneath the display, the Lightning port had to be pushed down. It is absolutely a compromise, but well worth it for the overall look of the device. Everyone would notice if the XR had a chin; almost no one is going to notice the Lightning port is top-aligned rather than centered with the screws and speakers.

Joanna Stern, as usual, has the best video. She got the Product Red variant, and her video really shows how great it looks. She also illustrates well the sort of scenarios where you’ll miss having a telephoto lens.

Lastly, a point on pricing and the notion that today’s phones are “just” phones. Here’s Lauren Goode at Wired:

Apple wants to make it clear that it’s not trying to gouge you. Sure, when the iPhone X launched last year, Apple priced it at nearly $1,000. And yes, this year’s iPhone XS sells for the same amount. And of course, Apple killed off its smallest and most affordable handset, the iPhone SE, right as it was introducing the most expensive iPhone yet.

But Apple wants you to know you have a choice. You get to pick from a very small pool of potential devices, but hey, at least you have options! Never mind that certain choices, like color, were predetermined for you by a room full of powerful tastemakers who decided to make coral or cerulean happen. Never mind that whatever you pay, it’s still a crazy amount of money for a phone. You are making the call. You, sir or madam, have your choice of new iPhones.

I think the rest of Goode’s review contradicts the notion that $750 (or better, $800 for the 128 GB version) is a “crazy amount of money for a phone”.

Phones are the most important computer in most people’s lives. They’re the only computer in many people’s lives. Nobody says it’s crazy to spend up to $1,500 on a laptop — but most people use and care about their phone more than they do their laptop. That’s why phone displays are getting bigger. We’ve been corrupted by thinking of them as “phones” in the pre-2007 sense of the word.

A cell phone used to be just a wireless telephone. No longer. They are our ever-present personal computers. They are also our most important cameras (and often our only cameras). A decade ago, point-and-shoot cameras ran $200-400, easily. It’s your watch, it’s your alarm clock, it’s your Walkman, it’s your map and GPS. It’s your wallet full of photos of your family and friends. It’s also, increasing, your actual wallet.

If you took an iPhone XR back to 2006 people would be amazed. If you told them they could buy one for $750 they’d think you were lying.

On a related note, I would argue that iPhone prices aren’t really going up. Last year’s X and this year’s XS models are a new premium tier. The iPhone XR is the phone at the previous “regular” top-of-the-line tier. New top-tier iPhones used to cost $600-650, yes, and the iPhone XR starts at $750. But when you account for inflation that starting price is about the same. The iPhone 4 was introduced in June 2010 starting at $600. $600 in June 2010 dollars is about $700 today. That $600 got you a 16 GB iPhone in 2010. The 32 GB model cost $700. That’s about $810 in today’s dollars — $10 more than the price of a 128 GB iPhone XR, which I think is the sweet spot in the lineup for most people. Inflation adjusted, the iPhone XR is right in line with the iPhone 4 prices from 2010.

Considering how much more capable an iPhone XR is compared to an iPhone 4, I’d say $750 is an amazing bargain.

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jqlive
46 days ago
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You could swear that he's on Apple's payroll. Always so apologetic and making up excuses for the company. Apple's products are overpriced and over hyped. They are good products, but they're not cheap or world saving. Apple is a public company, they only care about their profits, and their shareholders. It is a business, therefore they will expand those profit margins as much as they can, their consumers be damned... people will keep buying their phone until a new product class replaces the smartphone. Apple is smart enough to keep improving their cash cow. The XR is outrageously overpriced for what it is, no doubt about that. The sole reason it exists is to hit a price point that otherwise would've been usually handled by the previous year's phone. But because they didn't want to lower the price of the X, and decrease their margins in the process, they created the XR... IMO the only things that make any iPhone worth buying is iOS's security and update track record.

iPhone XR is not a bargain, a $750 USD phone will never be a bargain. Unless you are privileged enough to think it is.
Beijing/Hong Kong
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jheiss
47 days ago
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I think it’s crazy to spend up to $1,500 on a laptop. But thankfully modern laptops are overpowered so I can buy slightly used ones on eBay for what I consider reasonable dollars.
apadilla
45 days ago
Same for used iPhones on ebay

Ben Thompson on the iPhone as a franchise ↦

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Here’s some typically brilliant analysis from Ben Thompson of Stratechery. In his piece, Ben puts Apple’s interesting new iPhone product line in the context of its continuous ratcheting up of iPhone pricing—with a nod to the last time Apple tried to make a multi-colored iPhone with a funny letter stuck on the end.

Ben’s conclusion is fantastic:

That is the iPhone: it is a franchise, the closest thing to a hardware annuity stream tech has ever seen. Some people buy an iPhone every year; some are on a two-year cycle; others wait for screens to crack, batteries to die, or apps to slow. Nearly all, though, buy another iPhone, making the purpose of yesterday’s keynote less an exercise in selling a device and more a matter of informing self-selected segments which device they will ultimately buy, and for what price.

One of the most important things to remember when analyzing any new iPhone is to remember the extended buying cycles. The average iPhone XS and XR buyer won’t be updating from the iPhone X; they’re upgrading from an iPhone 6 or 6S or 7.

[Read on Six Colors.]

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jqlive
85 days ago
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Yep, I'm coming from a 6, and from the amount of money I'm spending, I'll go another 4 years before I update again.
Beijing/Hong Kong
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Apple Identifies and Fixes Thermal Bug in the New MacBook Pro Models

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Statement from Apple:

Following extensive performance testing under numerous workloads, we’ve identified that there is a missing digital key in the firmware that impacts the thermal management system and could drive clock speeds down under heavy thermal loads on the new MacBook Pro. A bug fix is included in today’s macOS High Sierra 10.13.6 Supplemental Update and is recommended. We apologize to any customer who has experienced less than optimal performance on their new systems. Customers can expect the new 15-inch MacBook Pro to be up to 70% faster, and the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar to be up to 2X faster, as shown in the performance results on our website.

I figured it was a bug when some tests were showing that performance improved on the Core i9 15-inch MacBook Pro after disabling two of the six cores. Apple told me that this thermal bug affects all new MacBook Pros — not just the Core i9 model — and older models are not affected. Anyone with a new MacBook Pro should now see the fix via Software Update.

I’d love to hear a further explanation of exactly what this “missing digital key” is. I think it’s just the sequence of bytes that configure the thermal settings for the CPU.

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jqlive
140 days ago
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I'll believe it was a software bug after everyone runs their tests again... Apple PR likes to gloss over stuff and stick to their single message.
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MotherHydra
140 days ago
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Apple: Hey Squirrel! Meanwhile the VRM is hosed don't look at that!
Space City, USA
satadru
140 days ago
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Turns out that the problem is likely the voltage regulator module getting too hot, which leads to deeper thermal throttling than one would get from the processor getting too hot. And the VRM chip doesn't have a heat sink on it, so that's going to be a limitation too.

More in this deep dive post here: https://www.reddit.com/r/macbookpro/comments/91256u/optimal_cpu_tuning_settings_for_i9_mbp_to_stop/
New York, NY

★ Google Demos Duplex

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Google has finally done what they should’ve done initially: let a group of journalists (two groups actually, one on each coast) actually listen to and participate in live Duplex calls.

Heather Kelly, writing for CNN:

For one minute and ten seconds on Tuesday, I worked in a trendy hummus shop and took a reservation from a guy who punctuated his sentences with “awesome” and “um.”

“Hi, I’m calling to make a reservation,” the caller said, sounding a lot like a stereotypical California surfer. Then he came clean: “I’m Google’s automated booking service, so I’ll record the call. Um, can I book a table for Saturday?”

The guy was Google Duplex, the AI-assisted assistant that made a stir in May when CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled it at its Google I/O developer conference. That demo, shown in a slick video, was so impressive that some people said it had to be fake.

Not so, says Google, which invited clusters of reporters to Oren’s Hummus Shop near its campus in Mountain View, for a hands-on demonstration. Each of us got to field an automated call and test the system’s limits.

But, regarding the curious recordings played on stage at I/O in early May:

Scott Huffman, the VP of engineering for Google Assistant, conceded that the demo at I/O in May “maybe made it look a little too polished.” That’s because Pichai tends to focus on Google’s grand visions for the future, Huffman said.

Ron Amadeo, writing for Ars Technica:

Unfortunately, Google would not let us record the live interactions this week, but it did provide a video we’ve embedded below. The robo call in the video is, honestly, perfectly representative of what we experienced. But to allay some of the skepticism out there, let’s first outline the specifics of how this demo was set up along with what worked and what didn’t. […]

During the demonstration period, things went much more according to plan. Over the course of the event, we heard several calls, start to finish, handled over a live phone system. To start, a Google rep went around the room and took reservation requirements from the group, things like “What time should the reservation be for?” or “How many people?” Our requirements were punched into a computer, and the phone soon rang. Journalists — err, restaurant employees — could dictate the direction of the call however they so choose. Some put in an effort to confuse Duplex and throw it some curveballs, but this AI worked flawlessly within the very limited scope of a restaurant reservation.

Here’s the video Google has provided. It is indeed an impressive approximation of a human speaking. One thing that stands out, in fact, is the difference between the artificial voice of the Google Assistant on the woman’s phone — no um’s, no ah’s, robotically precise — and the decidedly un-robotic voice of Duplex on the phone call.

Regarding the actual rollout to actual users, some unspecific number of “trusted testers” will get access to Duplex very soon, but only for asking about restaurant hours, not making reservations — and the haircut appointment feature has no delivery date other than “later” and wasn’t demonstrated to the media.

Dieter Bohn, writing at The Verge:

If you’re hoping that means you’ll be able to try it yourself, sorry: Google is starting with “a set of trusted tester users,” according to Nick Fox, VP of product and design for the Google Assistant. It will also be limited to businesses that Google has partnered with rather than any old restaurant.

The rollout will be phased, in other words. First up will be calls about holiday hours, then restaurant reservations will come later this summer, and then finally hair cut appointments will be last. Those are the only three domains that Google has trained Duplex on.

Bohn on the speech quality:

The more natural, human-sounding voice wasn’t there in the very first prototypes that Google built (amusingly, they worked by setting a literal handset on the speaker on a laptop). According to VP of engineering for the Google Assistant Scott Huffman, “It didn’t work. …. we got a lot of hangups, we got a lot of incompletion of the task. People didn’t deal well with how unnatural it sounded.”

Part of making it sound natural enough to not trigger an aural sense of the uncanny valley was adding those ums and ahs, which Huffman identified as “speech disfluencies.” He emphasized that they weren’t there to trick anybody, but because those vocal tics “play a key part in progressing a conversation between humans.” He says it came from a well-known branch of linguistics called “pragmatics,” which encompasses all the non-word communications that happen in human speech: the ums, the ahs, the hand gestures, etc.

I’m on the fence regarding the issue of whether it is ethical for Duplex to speak in a way that sounds so human-like that the person on the other end of the call might never realize they’re speaking to a bot. What raises a flag are the injected imperfections. If they’re good for Duplex to use while making a call, why doesn’t Google Assistant speak similarly when you, the user, know you’re talking to a bot?

The fact that they started getting fewer hangups when they added these natural-sounding imperfections makes sense. But it’s disingenuous to say they’re not using these um’s and ah’s to trick the person into thinking it’s a human. That’s exactly what they’re doing. The problem is, tricking sounds devious. I’m not sure it is in this case. It’s just making the person on the call more comfortable. We use “tricks” in all of our technology. Motion pictures, to name one example, don’t actually move — they’re just a series of still images played quickly enough to fool our eyes into seeing motion.

With or without Duplex’s involvement, the restaurant is going to get a phone call for the reservation. (Duplex doesn’t make phone calls for restaurants that support online booking through OpenTable — at least not if the device user has an OpenTable account.) Based on these examples, Duplex doesn’t seem to waste the restaurant’s time — the phone calls take about the same time as they would if you, the human, made the call yourself. So neither the restaurant nor the employee who answers the phone lose anything when a call is made by Duplex, whether they realize they’re talking to an AI or not. No one is getting cheated, as in the case with, say, bots that play online poker.

To me, the truly difficult ethical questions are years down the road, when these AI’s get close to passing an open-ended Turing test.

Lauren Goode, writing at Wired:

I then asked whether there were any allergies in the group. “OK, so, 7:30,” the bot said. “No, I can fit you in at 7:45,” I said. The bot was confused. “7:30,” it said again. I also asked whether they would need a high chair for any small children. Another voice eventually interjected, and completed the reservation.

I hung up the phone feeling somewhat triumphant; my stint in college as a host at a brew house had paid off, and I had asked a series of questions that a bot, even a good one, couldn’t answer. It was a win for humans. “In that case, the operator that completed the call — that wasn’t a human, right?” I asked Nygaard. No, she said. That was a human who took over the call. I was stunned; in the end, I was still a human who couldn’t differentiate between a voice powered by silicon and one born of flesh and blood.

It’s a shame that Google wouldn’t release the recordings of the calls the journalists answered. Goode’s anecdote above, to me, is the most fascinating of the bunch, and I’d love to hear it. She was able to trip up the logic of Duplex by asking about allergies and high chairs, but was unable to discern when an actual human took over the call. Google’s breakthrough isn’t how smart Duplex is, but how human-like it sounds.

I still think the whole thing feels like a demo of a technology (the human-like speech), not a product. Google claimed this week that Duplex currently succeeds 4 out of 5 times at placing a reservation without a human operator’s intervention. That’s a good batting average for a demo, but untenable for a shipping product at Google’s scale. With a 20 percent failure rate, Google would need an army of human operators standing by all day long, to support a feature they don’t make any money from. I’m skeptical that this will ever be a product expanded to wide use, and if it is, it might be years away. Google said as much to Ars Technica:

“We’re actually quite a long way from launch, that’s the key thing to understand,” Fox explained at the meeting. “This is super-early technology, somewhere between technology demo and product. We’re talking about this way earlier than we typically talk about products.”

Right now it feels like a feature in search of a product, but they pitched it as an imminent product at I/O because it made for a stunning demo. (It remains the only thing announced at I/O that anyone is talking about.) If what Google really wanted was just for Google Assistant to be able to make restaurant reservations, they’d be better off building an OpenTable competitor and giving it away to all these small businesses that don’t yet offer online reservations. I’m not holding my breath for Duplex ever to allow anyone to make a reservation at any establishment.

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jqlive
166 days ago
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Always so salty with Google. But if this was Apple's new version of Siri, he would be praising them as if they walked on water.
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EA reverses course on Star Wars Battlefront II loot box controversy

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In an unprecedented last-minute reversal, EA has drastically altered Star Wars Battlefront II's controversial loot box system by temporarily removing the ability to purchase “crystals.” The game was previously designed so that players could spend real money on crystals to buy randomized bundles of in-game items, the acquisition of which was tied to earning credits — another virtual currency that could be used to unlock characters.

Fans revolted, however, after widely circulated posts on Reddit and elsewhere that suggested the game was balanced in a way that it could take dozens of hours to unlock iconic characters like Luke Skywalker without paying. There were also concerns that the gameplay-influencing items inside loot crates would encourage a “pay-to-win” metagame around the multiplayer modes.

“As we approach the worldwide launch, it's clear that many of you feel there are still challenges in the design,” DICE general manager Oskar Gabrielson says in a statement. “We've heard the concerns about potentially giving players unfair advantages. And we've heard that this is overshadowing an otherwise great game. This was never our intention. Sorry we didn't get this right.”

EA had already responded earlier in the week by reducing the number of credits required to unlock characters, but evidently that wasn't enough. With the ability to purchase crystals removed for now, all progression in Battlefront II will be earned through playing the game. EA does note, however, that it plans to bring back crystals at a later date after making balancing and tuning changes to Battlefront II's systems.

Battlefront II is set to be released in a few hours.

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jqlive
390 days ago
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PSA: I strongly recommend waiting to see how this plays out over the next few days. It's EA after all.
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Ina Fried Reviews Google’s Pixel Buds

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Ina Fried, writing for Axios:

Apple’s AirPods are more elegant as well as smaller and more comfortable. However, Pixel Buds have some other appeals, most notably the ability to aid in real-time language translation.

The real-time translation feature is cool, but how often would you need it? I’ve been using AirPods for about a year and I don’t think I would have used this feature even once. And it seems like it’s more of a feature of the Google Translate app, not the Pixel Buds themselves.

Given that they both cost $159, Apple comes out way ahead here.

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jqlive
393 days ago
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So says the guy that lives in Philadelphia, and doesn't travel abroad very often. I personally would find this feature useful every single day.
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