May 7, 2017

Top 24 Torrent Sites - May 2017

by Paul Gil, Updated May 01, 2017

The top torrent sites currently include old favorites like The Pirate Bay, as well as very popular sites like ExtraTorrent, RARBG, Limetorrents, and 1337X.

That said, we know that the best torrent site is always the one that has the high quality torrent you're after, and with the most seeders, so a large and thorough list of torrent sites, like you'll find in the table below, is always a welcome resource to find.

Please know that Lifewire does not condone the illegal sharing of copyrighted files! See our full disclaimer and warning for new torrent users at the bottom of this page.

Important: See our Best VPN Service Providers piece for a constantly updated list of services that can help keep your torrent activity, and other browsing, private and secure.

The Best Torrent Sites: May 2017
Below is a big list of torrent sites, more or less in the order that we prefer to search from. If you're new to torrents, don't forget that you'll need a torrent client to get these files! We have a list of the Best Torrent Downloader Software if you're interested.

Note: All torrent sites in this table are working, as least as of the last update to this page. Let us know if we need to add or subtract a listing.

Torrent Site -What We Like

The Pirate Bay -This site is a classic! TPB It has been around in one incarnation or another for a long time and the torrents are, and have always been, trusted here.

ExtraTorrent -Torrent searching here can be more of a browsing activity, helpful for finding torrents for movies and music you might not have known about.

BARBG -This torrent site is for P2P enthusiasts. It's full of quality, high-resolution torrents. It's about quality here, not quantity.

1337X -If you're after older or more obscure torrents, 1337X might be for you. Their torrent database isn't nearly as large as some others, but it might have just what you're after.

LimeTorrents -This is another torrent site you don't want to skip in your serach. Users love the size of their database and the frequency of legitimate files.

TorrentDownloads -We love the super straightforward torrent detail page at TorrentDownloads. That would be reason enough to give this one a try but the big database and high quality of torrents make it a great choice.

Demonoid -The Demonoid site has been serving up torrents since 2003 as a number of different domains. This is a private membership community so you'll need an invite to join.

IsoHunt -Also beginning in 2003, IsoHunt has gone through a lot of changes but even in its newest incarnation, is a very popular torrent search engine.

YTS.AG -Frequently written off as a TIFY/YTS impersonator soon after launch, most users find YTS.AG torrents to be high quality and legit.

Torrentz2 -This is like a super torrent index, searching for torrents across dozens of other torrent sites. You can see the complete list in their sites in our index page.

KAT -This super popular torrent site is formally referred to as "Kissass Torrents" and lives across various mirror sites.

TorrentProject -TorrentProject has around 10 million torrents indexed and is an often cited favorite.

TorrentFunk -This is a pretty popular torrent site, in no small part due to its "verified" status indication, as well as user comments.

Torlock -This is the "no fake torrent" site you've been waiting for. The site actually pays its users $1 per fake torrent they find.

EZTV -You won't find every torrent you're after here, but users say the quality of the torrents you do find is consistently good.

WorldWide Torrents -Set aside the aggressive splash screen on WWT's home page, this torrent index is worth a look.

Sky Torrents -With a huge database and pretty clean interface, it's no wonder this multi-million strong collection of torrents is one we frequently hear about.

BTScene -A clean interface and relative lack of annoying advertising makes BTScene one of our favorites. -This meta torrent site isn't too special among all the others but we love the amazing dashboard on their home page. If you're a data nerd and a torrent fan, you'll appreciate what they've done.

iDope -The iDope torrent site is worth mentioning if only for its innovative iDope Android app. P2P file sharing right from your smartphone or tablet!

YourBittorrent -The clean interface is a big reason to try this torrent searcher... especially if you're new to BitTorrent.

Monova -A nice, clean design is reason enough to spend time here. Advertising can be an issue at times but if you can get over that, it's a great torrent site.

Toorgle -This is another "meta" torrent search engine, pulling in the databases from over 450 torrent sites into one place.

Seedpeer -With a sizable database of torrents, Seedpeer is and always has been a great place to search. The interface isn't as nice as some others, but it's still a very usable site.

There are a number of popular non-English torrent sites that exist as well, like 7tor, RuTracker, Pirateiro, ArenaBG, NT, and Pirate Public. They'll be harder to use for your English-only downloaders but could have that one file you're after.

Tips for New BitTorrent Site Users
Those of you who've been downloading and seeding torrents for years probably don't need much help anymore, but if you're new to torrents, we have two resources that you'll be very happy you read.

First, we highly recommend our Torrent File Sharing: A Beginner's Guide piece. Here you'll learn how BitTorrent file sharing works, how to protect yourself, and how to get to the movies and music you're after in the most safe and efficient way possible.

Second, but probably even more helpful, is our How to Spot Fake Torrents article. This is a really big problem and not one a newcomer might assume is something she or he has to worry about. Here we have lots of torrent site searching tips that will keep you out of harm's way.

It's also worth noting that the advertising on torrent sites very often skew towards the NSFW variety so keep that in mind as you're deciding to use one of them on a public computer or in view of others.

Disclaimer & Torrent Legal Warning
Lifewire does not condone illegal sharing of copyrighted material. While P2P file sharing technology is completely legal, many of the files traded through P2P are indeed copyrighted. Uploading these copyrighted files puts you at risk of a civil lawsuit in the USA, Canada, Australia, and the UK, at a minimum.

While these lawsuits are often class-action suits, filed against groups of users who blatantly copy and distribute copyrighted materials, some lawsuits are targeted at individual users in an attempt to make an example of them.

These P2P civil lawsuits are very real, and whether or not they are successful, they are often an extreme financial and emotional burden on the defendants.

Additionally, your Internet Service Provider may choose to release a history of your download and upload activity to potential copyright plaintiffs. In general, the more data you download and upload, the more risk you have of being sued by copyright protection groups.

April 19, 2017

Say Goodbye to SMS: The Best Google Hangouts Alternatives

On May 22, 2017, Google Hangouts will lose carrier-based SMS (text messaging) integration. If you currently use Hangouts as your default SMS app, that means you also need a Hangouts replacement.
But the best replacement app depends on your needs.

Why People Used Hangouts

For a while, Hangouts seemed poised to be the iMessage of Android. Hangouts came as the default SMS app on some devices, and others voluntarily made it their texting app. Unfortunately, it just never caught on.

Now, with Hangouts moving towards the corporate scene and away from the consumer side of things, Google has decided to remove the SMS integration. That means no more sending or receiving texts (from your carrier-supplied number) using the Hangouts app.

If you connected Hangouts with Google Voice and use that integration to get free outgoing and incoming SMS messages from your Voice number, you’re in luck. That feature isn’t being killed… yet. But with the revitalization of the Google Voice app, its death might be on the horizon, so why not jump ship early? Google Voice Gets an Update and Is More Useful Than Ever Google Voice Gets an Update and Is More Useful Than Ever Google Voice, long thought abandoned, was just revived by 

Google. Here's what's up with Voice and what you can expect to see in the revamped apps. Read More For one reason or another, it’s probably best for most folks currently using Hangouts to make to other apps.

Backing Up Hangouts Data

Before you start using another service, you should back up your Hangouts data. Hangouts isn’t getting killed off, but you may want to backup your data anyway if you’re planning to leave the service behind. Thankfully, it’s dead-simple.
If you use Hangouts for SMS, this has to be done in two parts.
hangouts takeout

Part 1: Hangouts-to-Hangouts Messages

Simply navigate to Google Takeout (preferably on a desktop/laptop). Deselect all of the services that you don’t want to back up. Then choose Done from the bottom left of the screen.

backup hangouts data

On the next screen, the defaults should work for almost anyone. Choose Create archive to backup your data. If you use Hangouts for SMS messaging, this will only save your Hangouts-to-Hangouts message, but not your SMS messages.

backup hangouts data

Google stores Hangouts chats as JSON data. On the downside, I am not aware of any chat app that can currently important this data.

Part 2: SMS Messages

To back up all of your SMS messages, we recommend using SMS Backup & Restore. If you’ve been using Hangouts as your default SMS app, this will save all your SMS messages, but none of your Hangouts-to-Hangouts messages. How to Delete, Back Up, and Recover SMS Text Messages on Android How to Delete, Back Up, and Recover SMS Text Messages on Android If you need to delete, backup, or restore text messages on Android, this article has you covered. Read More
You can then restore your SMS messages to whichever app you decide to migrate over to.

WebsiteGoogle Takeout
DownloadSMS Backup & Restore

If You Need an SMS Replacement App

If you used Hangouts as an SMS app, you can replace that function with the stock Android SMS app: Android Messages. Android Messages offers a drop-in replacement for Hangouts. For most newer devices, the app comes pre-installed. On older Android devices, you can simply install it from the Play Store.

android messages app example

However, if the stock app isn’t what you crave, Facebook Messenger offers a compelling alternative. Not only does it centralize your SMS conversations, it also aggregates Facebook chats.

facebook messenger example

There are also a ton of other replacement SMS options for you in the Play Store, ranging from the simple to the feature-packed. Text Better with These Alternative SMS Apps for Android Text Better with These Alternative SMS Apps for Android Don't like your default SMS app? Try a new one! Read More

DownloadAndroid Messages (Free)
DownloadFacebook Messenger (Free)

If You Want Free Wi-Fi Calls and Texts

If you used Hangouts integration with Google Voice, you got free SMS messages and phone calls from your Voice number. If you can see the writing on the wall for Voice integration in Hangouts, you can just go ahead and download the new updated Voice app.
This will allow you to text and check your voicemails from the Voice app, but unfortunately, Voice still doesn’t have a built-in dialer.

google voice hangouts replacement

On Android, that means that Voice uses your default dialer app — but on the desktop, that means that you still need to make and receive calls through Hangouts. Hopefully they’ll give Voice its own calling feature independent of Hangouts soon, but for now, users are kind of forced to be split between the two apps.
If you’re fine just waiting until Google officially kills Voice integration with Hangouts, though, you can just leave it integrated and continue as normal.
Or, if you find Google’s fragmented messaging strategy too irritating to deal with, try Talkatone.

talkatone example dialer
Not only does it handle calls and SMS for numbers based in the United States, it also comes with a free phone number — provided that you register the app.
Another service, GrooVe IP, offers most of the same excellent services and features as Talkatone. The difference is in their pricing structures. While both offer ad-supported free versions, Talkatone’s in-app pricing runs for $1.99 per month. GrooVe IP charges a one-time fee of $6.99 for the pro version.
If neither of those work for you, try one of these alternatives for getting a free U.S. phone number. No US Phone Number? No Problem – Best Free Apps for Calling to the USA No US Phone Number? No Problem – Best Free Apps for Calling to the USA With these apps, you get your very own American phone number that you can use from anywhere in the world. Read More

DownloadGoogle Voice (Free)
DownloadTalkatone (Free)
DownloadGrooVe IP (Free)

Temporary Phone Apps

If you want an anonymous alternative to Hangouts, considering trying a temporary phone app.

burner app

These apps provide a temporary phone number along with SMS and calling capabilities. You also get the benefit of concealing your identity. Most people use temporary phone apps for conducting Craigslist or eBay transactions. For those interested, we’ve covered 5 Apps for Getting a Temporary Burner Phone Number 5  anonymous messaging apps and reasons to get a burner number.Apps for Getting a Temporary Burner Phone Number If you need a temporary or second phone number, you should download one of these burner apps. Read More

The text messages and calls don’t cost much, and they consume data rather than your phone’s minutes or SMS allotment. There are two main options you might want to try.


Burner (its name derives from “burner phone“), provides users with a temporary phone number with unlimited calls and texts. It does cost quite a bit at $5 per month, but as such a reliable app, it could be worth it. Sick of the NSA Tracking You? Burn Them with a Burner Phone Sick of the NSA Tracking You? Burn Them with a Burner Phone Sick of the NSA tracking you using your phone's positioning coordinates? Prepaid phones known colloquially as "burners" can provide you with partial privacy.


Like Burner, Hushed can create anonymous and temporary phone numbers. It also includes a texting plan. Hushed offers several tiers of prices and services. But you can try the service out for free. I personally prefer Hushed — but the Burner app is just as good.
DownloadHushed (Free)
DownloadBurner (Free)

Get All Your Messages in One Place

For those of you who use Facebook Messenger, SMS, and Whatsapp, you’re in luck. You can get all your conversations dumped into a single app: Disa. Disa’s developers intend to plug additional chat services into their app later.

disa example app hangouts replacement

Unfortunately, you still pay for SMS. Had it included interoperability with a VoIP app, such as GrooVe IP or Talkatone, it could entirely replace Hangouts (in fact, it’d be better than Hangouts). But for now, it’s just a flexible cross-platform instant messaging service.
Hopefully sometime in the future, Disa might offer a plugin for a VoIP client, and that would make it the ultimate chat app.
DownloadDisa (Free)

What’s the Best Hangouts Replacement?

Right now, no perfect Hangouts replacement exists. Fortunately, if you’re done with Hangouts, most of its features can be found in other apps.
If you need a new SMS messaging client, try Android Messages. If free SMS capabilities are your thing, try out Talkatone. And for those who need a temporary number, try Hushed.


April 18, 2017

Inside the Dark Web

The Dark Web is supposed to be the Internet's seedy back alley. But the real Dark Web is a lot more complicated than that. From TOR to the Silk Road and beyond, we investigate.

Dark Web Feature
If our popular culture is to be believed, most people assume there's a place online where the worst of the headlines you read about drugs, money laundering, murder for hire, and vast child pornography rings are born. It's called many things, though "Dark Web" is the most dramatic.

Although it's true that this Dark Web exists, it's much larger and more diverse than merely these illegal activities. What's more, the same technology that makes it possible for such marketplaces to operate in secret is also protecting political dissidents overseas and hiding everyday Internet traffic from surveillance. It may be that this digital back alley is the path toward a more secure Internet.

The World of Webs
Most people take the Internet at face value, but what most of us interact with is really just a slice of the information available called the Surface Web. To get to the Dark Web we have to go deeper, away from the world of standard Web addresses and onto the anonymity network called Tor. When you click on a link in Google, you're connected with the target information fairly directly. Someone accessing the same site while connected through Tor would have their request bounced randomly through volunteer computers called nodes before exiting Tor and arriving at the site, making their online movements much harder to track.

Tor can be used to access sites on the Surface Web, but servers can also be assigned special addresses that can only be reached within the Tor network. These are called hidden services, and when we're talking about the Dark Web, we're mostly talking about these sites. Of course, there are other services to hide online activity and even host hidden websites, but Tor is perhaps the most well known and well established.

Surprisingly, the onion routing protocol that powers Tor was originally developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. Tor is now a volunteer-run nonprofit operation, but it makes no secret of its roots. A page on Tor's history reads: "[Onion routing] was originally developed with the U.S. Navy in mind, for the primary purpose of protecting government communications. Today, it is used every day for a wide variety of purposes by normal people, the military, journalists, law enforcement officers, activists, and many others."
Among those "others" are some of the Internet's ne'er-do-wells. Some malware authors, for example, have used Tor to hide communication with their creations. The anonymization of the Tor network is also attractive for people carrying out illicit online activities, such as selling and purchasing illegal merchandise. When you read about illegal websites selling drugs, weapons, and child pornography, it's a safe bet that those websites are hosted within Tor.

The Bad Dark Web
"A few years ago, if you tried to browse the Internet through Tor, it would be a very slow and very painful experience," says Kaspersky researcher Stefan Tanase (pictured). As is often the case with digital security experts, speaking with Tanase and his fellow Kaspersky associate Sergey Lozhkin required a phone call from the PC Magazine office in New York to Bucharest and Moscow. That part of the world produces huge amounts of spam, malware, and cyberattacks, but just so happens to also produce some of the best minds in digital security in almost equal proportions.

Tanase and Lozhkin have a unique perspective on the hidden ecosystem of the Dark Web. Although the Surface Web has search engines to index its contents and connections, there was no map of the Dark Web on Tor. Tanase and Lozhkin set out to create one.
"We started with a list of known hidden websites hosted within [Tor], so we've been crawling, accessing these websites and looking for links to other websites," says Tanase, describing their process of mimicking Google's approach in mapping the Surface Web. Though the number of hidden services on Tor is relatively small compared with the Internet at large (Tanase describes it as containing "thousands but not tens of thousands of websites"), the researchers say the Dark Web will remain a bit of a mystery, even after their explorations.
"There are a number of sites that go offline every day and some that are available for months or weeks," says Lozhkin. "In the next few hours, the sites with the same content can be available on a completely different address." The relative difficulty in simply finding hidden services, in addition to the anonymity provided by Tor, feeds the Dark Web's aura of mystery. Not to mention the exclusivity of its illegal offerings.

But even that's changing. These days, you can download a specially modified Web browser from Tor that requires little to no technical know-how to use. The Dark Web is nearing drag-and-drop simplicity. There's even an officially supported Android client you can use to access Tor on the go. Using tactics similar to those of the Kaspersky researchers, search engines have begun to appear within the Dark Web over the last year or two. "They're like Google," says Lozhkin. "Search whatever you like. I dunno, malware, drugs, stuff like this, and get links right away."

This is what most people imagine the Dark Web to be: an electronic black market where anything is available. And the researchers I spoke with confirm that all that—and worse—is available on websites hidden within Tor. Drugs, guns, and even rhinoceros horn are for sale on the Dark Web, but those still require the physical exchange of goods. The Dark Web is, without question, far more dangerous when it comes to easily distributing illegal digital material, such as child pornography. In 2011, the Dark Web child pornography marketplace Lolita City made headlines when activists from Anonymous knocked the site offline and released information about its patrons. At the time, it was reported that the site hosted more than 100GB of sexual images of children as young as toddlers. When Eric Eoin Marques, the operator of a Tor-based webhosting service called Freedom Hosting (which hosted Lolita City and was also attacked by Anonymous), was arrested in 2013, the Irish newspaper The Independent wrote that Marques' customers used the service to share "graphic images [depicting] the rape and torture of prepubescent children."

How Can You Fight What You Can't See?
Andrew Conway works for Cloudmark, an antispam company that serves more than 120 major communications providers including AT&T, Verizon, Swisscom, Comcast, Cox, and NTT. When I met with Conway, he was sporting a denim outfit and white leather vest, complete with bolo tie. It's an outfit befitting his job, where he and his coworkers go toe-to-toe technologically with the criminal networks behind spam operations. He understands criminal networks, and how money flows through these groups.
Though he was dressed like a cowboy, Conway spoke with a gentle British accent. We discussed how the U.S. law enforcement managed to take down the black market website Silk Road. It was the embodiment of the Dark Web myth: a place where a few bitcoins could get you a fake ID, heroin, or even (allegedly) an assassin.

Silk Road, which was hosted as a hidden service within Tor, vanished from the Internet in October 2013, and its alleged operator, Ross William Ulbricht (who operated the site under the name The Dread Pirate Roberts), was arrested in short order. It's surprising, because the site appeared bulletproof for so long. Conway isn't so surprised the site has vanished. "There are many nation-states or individuals who have the resources to bring Tor down for a limited period, and quite a few who could do it permanently," he says. "Eventually one of them will get annoyed enough by something that Tor is doing and take action against it."
Lozhkin says that in the case of Silk Road and its successor, Silk Road 2, law enforcement probably didn't find a secret weakness within Tor. "They didn't do anything with the Tor network or architecture," he says. Rather, the Feds likely got what they needed from undercover agents.

Or maybe loose lips sank Silk Road's ship. The owners of Tor nodes, says Lozhkin, sometimes chat on hidden forums. "These guys, they like to talk, and what they talk can be used against them," he says. It's worth noting that, as of this writing, another spinoff of Silk Road called Silk Road Reloaded has reportedly appeared on an anonymous network called I2P.

"All the Tor nodes are simple websites, and every website can have a vulnerability," Lozhkin explains. "If the law enforcement find a [vulnerability] they can easily exploit it to get inside the server. If you get access to the server side you can easily identify its location."
In the case of Silk Road, sloppy mistakes almost certainly played a part. Tanase says Silk Road's operator was managing the server from an Internet café and connecting to that server directly, not through Tor. Ironically, these are the kind of simple mistakes that criminals frequently exploit in order to attack companies and individuals.

However law enforcement identifies the server hosting hidden, law-breaking websites, the next course of action is to physically take control of the server. "They usually get the warrant for monitoring the server first and try to extract the information from the server when it's still live to track the criminals," says Tanase. Does this mean that at least some percentage of illegal hidden websites is being operated by law enforcement? "Nobody knows," he says. "I'm always wondering if they're actually sellers [running the sites] or if it's a trap set up by law enforcement.

"But this is why services like Silk Road become so popular; they're like eBay of the [Dark] Web, and offer users the chance to give reputation to each other," Tanase continues. "Law enforcement has to work quite a lot of infiltrate these markets and achieve reputation."
Of course, there are far more exotic attacks to use to expose the machines serving up hidden websites within Tor. Tanase says that if a single entity were in control of the bulk of the Tor nodes, they could trace traffic through the whole system. "No malicious actor or agency can do this, but the more nodes you can monitor, the greater the chances," says Tanase. As of this writing, there appear to be approximately 6,500 Tor nodes.
Tanase and Lozhkin describe an even more audacious scheme to locate hidden services on Tor. It would require selecting all the IP addresses in a certain range—say, all the IP addresses within a country—and methodically flooding them with fake requests in a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. While that's going on, the attackers would carefully monitor the status of a hidden Tor website. When it went down or experienced a noticeable spike in traffic, they'd know they've hit on the right group of IP addresses.
All the attacker would need is some hint as to where the server might be located in order to begin the attack. That's exactly the kind of information that could be obtained from an undercover agent, or from stalking hidden forums where Deep Web operators chat. Pulling off attacks like this would require vast resources and the will to break into Tor. Conspiracy theorists can fill in their favorite nation-state or three-letter agency of choice. Of course, that assumes that whoever would attack Tor would allow it to survive.

To actually bring down Tor, Conway says he'd expect to see a large-scale DDoS attack against the few Tor nodes that exit back to the Surface Web. "As of this morning there are only 1,199 of them, and many are on consumer networks," he tells me. "A DDoS attack on those IP addresses from the regular Internet, without using Tor at all, would limit the ability of Tor traffic to pass through those nodes and render the Tor network unusable."
Even Tor has seemed dim on the future of hidden services. After the U.S. government seized and shuttered more than 400 websites (including Silk Road 2) in "Operation Onymus," an article appeared on the Tor blog that read, "In a way, it's even surprising that hidden services have survived so far. The attention they have received is minimal compared to their social value and compared to the size and determination of their adversaries."

The Good Dark Web
Those adversaries include law enforcement, but not always the kind that's involved in busting drug rings or prosecuting human traffickers. It's spies, the nation-states they work for, and the increasingly capable electronic expressions of force available to those states. That's because the same protection Tor provides to criminals can also be used to circumvent censors and nationally imposed restrictions on the Web.
Though it's U.S. law enforcement that most recently gutted Tor's hidden services, various branches of the federal government and DoD continue to support Tor financially. In 2014 it received funds from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and the National Science Foundation. Previous donors include the Naval Research Laboratory and DARPA. It's clear that the U.S. government still sees value in Tor, no doubt in supporting this country's continued stated mission to promote free speech (and dissent) abroad. It's also possible that it's a handy, free, off-the-shelf tool for intelligence agents.

"One mark of human progress is the weight given to human rights," Conway tells me, citing Article 19 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which describes the right to the freedom of opinion and the expression of those opinions, as well as the right to seek and receive information. "Yet for much of the world's population, the right to seek, receive, and impart information is seriously impaired. Tor is helping to support a basic human right. Many of our basic rights can be abused, but that abuse does not justify taking the right away from everyone."

I hear much the same thing from Tanase: "You cannot ignore the good users because there's some bad users." The Dark Web, he explains, supports a surprisingly diverse ecosystem of websites. "Online stores that are selling drugs or guns, personal websites, and just simple services that are providing secure communications."

Tanase continues, "Like any technology out there, Tor is double-edged sword. It has its good parts and its worst parts. It's up to us, security researchers, to try to clean it up, right? To make sure it's only being used for good stuff."

A GNU Dark Web
Without a doubt, 2014 was a banner year for terrifying digital security headlines. Concerns about NSA surveillance dominated public discussions for months, massive data breaches shocked and titillated the public, and the argument over net neutrality continued in a stymied U.S. Congress.
These are engineering, not political, problems for security researcher Christian Grothoff (pictured). He hopes to correct them with GNUnet, which he began in 2001 as a free-software, volunteer project to create secure peer-to-peer networking. Like Tor, it's designed with security and anonymity in mind; but unlike Tor, it does not require the underlying architecture of the Internet (TCP/IP) to function. TCP/IP lets anyone with the know-how inspect much of users' traffic, and it relies on central authorities such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages the Domain Name System. Because GNUnet offers a secure alternative to these services, it's easy to understand why Grothoff says it could "effectively reenvision the Internet."
Christian Grothoff"Explain to me, why does an IP packet have to have the source IP in the packet? To route it, we only need the destination," says Grothoff. "In Tor, we can bounce it around. Or we could have new protocol where it's already encrypted."

Grothoff says GNUnet is a mesh network where individuals use privacy-preserving name resolution instead of DNS lookups for greater security without the need for central authority. By its nature, it should resist the kind of widespread surveillance the NSA has been accused of, and prevent governments from being able to segment the Internet. In other words, GNUnet is dark from the start.
"It is not enough to anonymize the access; we have to decentralize the application logic of how and where we store data," says Grothoff. For him, GNUnet is the next stage of the Internet, and he invokes the military-funded pre-Internet computer network when describing it. "Like ARPANET, except secure and for civil society."

Grothoff has a healthy respect for Tor, which he regards as the best tool for people with an urgent need for anonymity today. But Tor, Grothoff says, is a bolt-on solution for an Internet whose structure does not take privacy into account.

"We used to say we need to write laws to reflect our ethics," Grothoff says. "These days, code is the law. That's an old quote by now. When we write code, we should write code that is ethical, and writing code is an engineering issue.

"My goal is to build, engineer, deploy a network where the technology reflects what a broad number of people can get behind," he continues. Grothoff says that, despite being in the works for more than a dozen years, GNUnet is still only for geeks right now. Although he certainly believes in the project, he has no illusions about its complexity. "We have made some progress but it's still not usable for most users, and I know that. There's some really hard issues remaining. I don't have all the answers today, but I have some good answers."

Should We Make the Web Go Dark?
In the process of writing this piece, I did traverse the Dark Web. I beheld the smoking ruins of Silk Road—now just a placeholder image left by U.S. law enforcement officials. I've seen a site that promises to kill the person of my choice for a few thousand dollars. I've priced out automatic weapons in bitcoins. I've seen links that seemed to promise underage pornography (but I didn't click on any of them).

It's disgusting, but a lot of it is elusive. Most of the links are dead, and many of the sites I can visit don't inspire the same kind of confidence that eBay or Amazon do. Though there's something spooky about the matter-of-factness of a site that claims to offer murder at reasonable rates, I don't know if any of this is real. Accessing a website that is only viewable while my traffic is bounced around doesn't necessarily mean that the site's owners—if they exist—can follow through on their promises.

What's more, the Surface Web isn't exactly a paragon of upstanding behavior. A cursory Google search will reveal thousands of sites devoted to violent and racist causes. It's almost impossible to visit a website without advertisers collecting your data, and loading a legitimate website can trigger the download of malicious software. That's not to mention mass surveillance from nations like the U.S., or countrywide censorship like what's seen in China or Iran.

That makes me wonder what the Internet would be like if it were more like the Dark Web. Our Web would, at least in theory, be free from state-sponsored censorship and more secure by design. A lot of what we take for granted in our current economy—the passive gathering of personal data by companies for profit, for example—would vanish. But capitalism adapts. So does law enforcement, as Silk Road demonstrated.
The Internet as we know it now is a far cry from the simple collection of labs and universities that were first linked together in ARPANET, but the underlying technology isn't so different. Reinventing the Web as a tool for communication, but also one with built-in privacy, doesn't seem like such a bad idea in today's world, where the Web plays as much a role in defining us as our jobs and haircuts.

Perhaps it's not surprising that, in this environment, Tor and the Dark Web are growing. The number of volunteer nodes through which Tor traffic is routed has steadily increased. When I ask Tanase if he thinks Tor and the Dark Web will ever eclipse the Surface Web in size, he says it's very unlikely but then adds, "Never say never. People want it."


April 7, 2017

For Internet Privacy, VPNs Are an Imperfect Shield

When Congress voted to overturn online privacy rules last week, Steve Wilmot, a Los Angeles songwriter, reacted like many worried consumers: He looked into signing up for a technology service known as a virtual private network, or VPN.

The online privacy rules, which were set to go into effect this year and which President Trump fully repealed on Monday, would have required broadband providers like Comcast and Charter to get permission from customers before selling their browsing history to advertisers. Without restrictions, the companies can track and sell people’s information with greater ease.

A VPN was a natural service to consider in response. That’s because the technology creates a virtual tunnel that shields your browsing information from your internet service provider. So Mr. Wilmot researched VPNs in hopes of protecting his own browsing data.

“I don’t really want anybody to have any sort of access to what I’m looking at,” he said. “If anyone is going to profit off my privacy, I’d prefer it to be me.”
Continue reading the main story

But while VPNs are worth considering, they are an incomplete and flawed solution. For one thing, they often slow down internet speeds significantly. Some apps and services may also stop working properly when you are connected to a virtual network.

Still, VPNs are among several tools for better protecting your digital privacy. Here’s an overview of the pros and cons, based on tests of VPN services and interviews with security experts.

Why go with a VPN?

When you browse the web, a broadband provider helps route your device’s internet traffic to each destination website. Each device you use has an identifier consisting of a string of numbers, also known as an IP address. When you are on the internet, a service provider can see which devices you use and which sites you visit.

VPNs help cloak your browsing information from your internet provider. When you use VPN software, your device connects to a VPN provider’s servers. That way, all your web traffic passes through the VPN provider’s internet connection. So if your internet provider was trying to listen in on your web traffic, all it would see is the VPN server’s IP address connected to the VPN service.

“We provide you an encrypted tunnel from you to us,” said Sean Sullivan, a security adviser for F-Secure, a Finland-based company that offers a VPN called Freedome.

VPNs are especially handy when you are connecting to a public Wi-Fi network with which you aren’t familiar. For example, when you use public Wi-Fi at a cafe, airport or hotel, it’s often unclear who the service provider is and what its data collection policies entail. In this scenario, a VPN is highly recommended.

VPNs also have the ability to make it appear as though your device is connecting from a different location. So if you are in Europe, traveling to Spain from France, and want to stream content that is only viewable in France, you could connect to a VPN server whose IP address is in France.
Does a VPN have any downsides?

VPN services have their downsides, and the biggest one is speed degradation. Because your internet traffic passes through a VPN provider’s connection, you will likely see a dip in broadband performance.

Speeds will vary depending on the VPN provider’s infrastructure. In my tests with a Mac, download speeds dropped about 85 percent after connecting to F-Secure’s Freedome VPN service, and by 50 percent when connected to another VPN service called Private Internet Access. In other words, if you are downloading large files over a VPN, it will take much longer to accomplish those tasks.

Another drawback is that VPN services cost money. F-Secure charges $4.17 a month to use its service for a year on three devices, and Private Internet Access charges $6.95 per month or $40 a year on five devices. That’s not a lot of money, but broadband service is generally expensive, and tacking on a few extra dollars a month to use the internet more privately can be annoying.

In addition, some services may not work properly on a VPN. Netflix often blocks them to keep people from streaming content that is not licensed for their regions. In tests with Freedome and Private Internet Access, I tried connecting to a server in Mexico to stream the catalog of Netflix movies available there. With both VPN services, Netflix detected I was using a VPN and prevented movies from playing.

For VPN providers, this is a known issue. F-Secure’s Mr. Sullivan said that when services like Netflix block VPNs, they are probably “putting up a fight for Hollywood.”

Which VPNs are worth a try?

There are hundreds of VPNs on the market, and vetting them can be overwhelming.

Runa Sandvik, a director of information security for The New York Times, said that consumers should be scrupulous about reading privacy policies and selecting a VPN they can trust. That’s because a VPN service is also tied to an internet service provider, meaning a VPN provider could share your information with the service provider if it wanted to do so.

With that in mind, Ms. Sandvik highlighted F-Secure’s Freedome as a trustworthy VPN provider. The Wirecutter, a product recommendations site owned by The Times, picked Private Internet Access because it has the hallmarks of a trustworthy service, available at a low cost.
Based on those recommendations, I tried Private Internet Access and Freedome for my tests. Both products were easy to use: Just install an app on your smartphone, computer or tablet and hit a button to connect to a server. In the end, I preferred Private Internet Access because of its faster speeds.


What’s the VPN bottom line?

All things considered, VPN is only a partial solution for keeping your browsing data private.
Even if you hide your activities from your internet provider, web companies like Facebook and Google can use tracking technologies like cookies, which contain unique alphanumeric identification tags, to identify your activities as you move from site to site. Beyond that, web trackers often lurk inside ads.

“The real problem is ads are dangerous,” said Jeremiah Grossman, the head of security strategy for SentinelOne, a computer security company. “They’re fully functioning programs and they carry malware.”

If you are truly concerned about keeping your web browsing history private, Mr. Grossman recommended using a combination of a VPN and an ad blocker. His ad blocker of choice is uBlock Origin, a free piece of software. For those who would prefer not to block ads, there are tracker blockers as well — my favorite is Disconnect.

With VPNs, most people would probably be better off using them when it seems necessary — and turning them off when they are not needed. The slowdown in speed is the biggest negative and makes constant use impractical.

Many people would probably benefit from using a VPN in certain situations, like when they are connected to a public Wi-Fi network or are browsing sensitive websites. But for watching Netflix or sending emails with large attachments? Turn the VPN off.

For Mr. Wilmot, the Los Angeles musician, the slow speeds of internet downloading spurred by VPNs were a dealbreaker. In the end, he opted against getting one at all.
“If I don’t have lightning-fast internet 24 hours a day, it inhibits my workflow and affects deadlines,” he said. “I think I’m accidentally relaxing into that kind of ‘What can you do?’ mentality. There’s no good option.”

January 21, 2017

How to Send Text Messages (SMS) Via Gmail for Free

This may not be news for a lot of people, but I just discovered that you can send text messages via email to most major cellular providers. This tip is stellar in that it is part stupid frugal trick (save money on texting from your cell phone by emailing for free), part productivity (you can probably type faster from a normal QWERTY keyboard than a phone), and part tech geek. You get the three-fer on this one! Here’s how to do it.

How to Send a Text Message (SMS) Via Email:

To send a text message via email, you must use a SMS to email gateway. Just substitute a 10-digit cell number for ‘number’ for each carrier below:
  • how-to-send-text-messages-from-emailAT&T:
  • T-Mobile:
  • Verizon: (text-only), number@vzwpix (text + photo)
  • Sprint: or
  • Virgin Mobile:
  • Tracfone:
  • Metro PCS:
  • Boost Mobile:
  • Cricket:
  • Ptel:
  • Republic Wireless:
  • Google Fi (Project Fi):
  • Suncom:
  • Ting:
  • U.S. Cellular:
  • Consumer Cellular:
  • C-Spire:
  • Page Plus:
Sending text messages to email is actually a much easier task.

Making the Most of Texting from Email:

To take this to the next level from a productivity standpoint, I’d recommend creating ‘contacts’ within your email account so that you aren’t constantly looking up all of those cell numbers that you don’t have memorized each time you send an email.

How to Add Cell Numbers for Text Messaging in Gmail Contacts:

In the following example, I’m going to add my mother’s cell to my gmail contacts. Let’s say that her phone provider is Verizon and her number is (555)123-4567. You should be able to set up contacts through most email programs (if you can’t, switch to gmail).
1. Click on ‘contacts’:
2. Now, add a new contact (in lower right corner):

3. Put in ‘name’ and the word ‘cell’ to clarify between email and cell contacts in both the Name and Nickname fields:
sms from email
4. When composing a new text message, simply type in your contact’s name:
email to sms
Texting through Email Topics
  • What text message productivity tips have you found to be useful?
  • Have you figured out any other ways to save on text messages?
  • Are there any providers I’ve missed?


October 21, 2016

Google Pixel review: Home run

Every Android phone has always been a little compromised, and everybody knows it. There's been a veil of bullshit between you and what Google intended on all of them.

Sometimes that veil looks like ugly, bad, and usually unnecessary extra software. Sometimes it looks like a carrier failing to send out timely software updates. Other times it means getting something inexpensive, but fundamentally flawed in some way. Even the Nexus phones were behind the veil, little more than reference designs with hardware that was mostly determined by a third party before Google made tweaks here and there.
A pessimist would call this situation "fragmentation," an optimist would call it "diversity." Either way, it hasn't really been a huge problem for Google yet. Google wanted people to use its services, and the Android platform was flexible and ubiquitous enough to thrive and take over the planet, achieving dominant marketshare.
Just because Android is everywhere doesn't mean that Google is everywhere on mobile. There has been a lot of talk about Google being more "opinionated" about what a phone should be, and Google's opinion has always been hidden behind that veil. That situation might be okay at the low end, but at the high end (where all the profit and mindshare is), Samsung and Apple have expressed the only opinions that really matter. With Note 7s off the market and Samsung hedging its bets against Google's services, that situation was going to become untenable someday.
Someday is today: Google is making a phone for the first time. It's called the Pixel and it’s a Google phone inside and out, sold directly by the company to a mass audience for the first time. With Pixel, we finally get to see behind the veil and get an unmediated experience of Google's very best shot at a phone. All the excuses that existed before for Android phones not living up to their potential won’t work here.
No more bullshit.
There are actually two Pixels: the regular 5-inch screen version and a larger 5.5-inch version called the Pixel XL. They are identical in every respect except for the size of their batteries, the resolution of their screens, and, of course, their prices: the spectrum ranges from $649 for a 32GB Pixel and goes all the way up to $869 for a 128GB Pixel XL.
For people who have been following Google's phone efforts so far, the best comparison we have are the Nexus phones spanning the past six years. That comparison has led many to experience sticker shock about the price, because Nexus phones were usually inexpensive. But the Pixel is different: although it is manufactured by HTC, it's fully designed by Google. And Google designed it to compete at the top tier, so it's priced to match the iPhone and the Galaxy S7. It has a couple incredibly obvious objectives in mind with this phone: make it familiar and make it powerful.
Let's start with familiar and say the obvious thing: the Pixel kind of looks like an iPhone. Every high-end phone these days is designed with some combination of metal and glass, and so you could argue that there are only so many ways to make a rectangle. But even so, look at the bezels on the front, the curves at the corners, the antenna lines, and the placement of the speaker; the thing looks very familiar. After years of trying, Samsung managed to find its own, techier aesthetic. Maybe Google will do that eventually, but for this first try I think it wants the thing to look like what what people are used to. People are used to iPhones.
That said, there are lot of differences, and they add up to a phone that's utilitarian and approachable. The biggest design element is the glass shade that replaces the metal on the top third of the back of the phone. Functionally, it might help with radio reception, but mostly I think it's there to align the phone in your hand.
Neither Pixel is precisely flat, there's a subtle wedge shape to them to accommodate the camera at the top. That means there’s no camera bump but also that they still feel relatively thin where you actually hold them — on the bottom half. On the front, it's easy to kvetch about the large bezel on the bottom, but I don't mind it; it makes the phone feel balanced and it's more comfortable to hit the on-screen home button.
Google puts the fingerprint sensor on the back, and I really like having it there. It's a hassle when the phone is sitting on a table, but I usually pick up my phone to interact with it anyway. You can just rest your finger on it to turn on and unlock the phone, but it doesn't serve as a home button. You can also set it up so that when you slide your finger down on it, it pulls down the notification shade.
The Pixel is not waterproof, which is dumb and annoying. I should also note that a very short fall managed to crack the screen on the smaller Pixel during our review. A sample size of one is obviously too small to say that these devices are less durable than they ought to be, but it's not a great sign.
It fast charges via USB-C and there's only one speaker — at the bottom. Luckily, it's a pretty loud, decent speaker (a charitable person might say that’s why the bezel on the bottom is so large). There is, of course, a headphone jack on the top.
These are easily the best Android phones you can buy
As for specs: they're great. Both Pixel variants have a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor, 4 gigs of RAM, and flat-out gorgeous OLED screens with deep blacks and vibrant, punchy colors. And that’s important: at some point next month, Daydream VR will finally get released and you'll want high-quality screens for that.
The Pixels are fast — noticeably faster than Samsung's Galaxy S7. On performance alone, these are easily the best Android phones you can buy. For a phone made by Google, that's absolutely the expectation — it's just good to note that at its first time at bat, Google hit a home run.
For the first time, Google is arguing strenuously that it can make a better phone because it controls both the hardware and software. So I wouldn't enjoy being another Android manufacturer right now. That's not my problem nor yours, though. For us, the really important question is simply this: did Google take advantage of that integration to push the Pixel beyond what has been possible on other Android phones.
I'd say that the answer is yes. Google tells me that once again it did more work optimizing touch response to make the phone feel snappier. In fact, the company claims that under a high-speed camera it's exactly as responsive as an iPhone. It doesn't quite feel that way to me, but perhaps the differences come down to how the different operating systems tune their inertia on scrolling.
I also think that Google was able to optimize battery life beyond what other Android phones can do. Over the week and a half I tested the phones, I got absolutely stupendous battery life, especially on the Pixel XL. Last Sunday I streamed two hours of the Vikings-Texans game, used the phone throughout the day, and obsessively scrolled Twitter during the presidential debate. At the end of the day I was still at 30 percent.
In my experience, the Pixels are lasting a couple of hours longer than comparably sized iPhones or Nexuses. That’s better than the "about a day" you get from most phones these days, and it’s so good that I’m a little worried that it won’t last or my results are an outlier. So I’ll note that two other reviewers I spoke with were less pleased with the battery life on the smaller Pixel. If you care about battery life, definitely get the XL. It feels much smaller than the iPhone 7 Plus, too.
Besides the battery, Google says the other hardware component that benefits the most from Google’s assembly integration is the Pixel camera. The camera on the back is 12.3 megapixels with an f2.0 lens and two ways to focus: phase detect and laser auto focus. It has a two-tone flash, too, but unfortunately no optical image stabilization. Google product VP Brian Rakowski calls this "the best smartphone camera anyone has ever made." Usually you don't hear such bold claims, but he's confident — DxOMark gave it the highest score it's ever given a phone.
But benchmarks are one thing, results are very much another. Luckily for Google, the results on the Pixel are very, very good. I put it in the same ballpark as the iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S7 in most situations, which is not something I expected to say going in.
The Pixel bested the iPhone in picking up detail and color in my test shots. To my eyes, it seems to be making more pleasing decisions with lighting and HDR, too. I want to put the emphasis on "more pleasing," because my hunch is that if we looked at the raw input each sensor is getting we'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Instead, the distinctions between all three of these phone cameras are more about the stylistic decisions each company is making. Both Google and Samsung are slightly more aggressive at processing the image into something pleasing, while the iPhone seems to give a more natural look.
It matches or beats the iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S7 Edge
But for me, the most important thing is that Google seems to have finally fixed my biggest gripe about most Android cameras: the speed. The camera app opens fast and takes pictures immediately. Google also has figured out a way to make HDR feel fast — the camera defaults to HDR auto and though sometimes it takes a couple of seconds to process the HDR image, it happens in the background, freeing you to take more shots. You can manually turn on HDR+ mode, which forces the camera to take a higher quality HDR shot and slows things down a bit.
Holding your finger down on the shutter button takes burst photos, and the Google Photos app will pick the best one for you and also automatically make a little GIF animation of your shots. If you like custom camera controls, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that you have easy access to AF/AE Lock by holding your finger down on the screen, and dragging your finger up and down adjusts exposure. The less good news is that the camera defaults to HDR Auto every time you open it — even if you turned HDR off the last time you used it.
Google did add some video stabilization software that ties the camera sensor to the gyroscope. It can stabilize what you're shooting as long as you don't shake the camera too much. Walking down a wooded path: fine, the results are stable and don't have a "jelly" effect, though the video does look vaguely artificial to me. Running down that path: less fine, this isn't going to save you from shaky video if you really jostle it.
Bottom line: if you wanted to agree with Google and call this the best smartphone camera, I wouldn't argue with you. Instead I would say that picking the best camera among the Pixel, the iPhone 7, and the Samsung Galaxy S7 is more a matter of personal preference than it is of pure picture quality. And I would add that I don't think Google would have gotten this far if it hadn't controlled both the hardware and the software from the start.
So Google has made a great phone that can compete at the high end. But that's really not enough reason for it to exist — at least not for a company like Google. Instead, the real reason the Pixel exists is to be the flagship platform for the Google Assistant.
You launch the Assistant by long-pressing the home button and then talking, just like Siri on the iPhone. You can also say "OK Google," but (as always) that's a little less reliable for me. What's remarkably reliable is the Assistant's ability to understand what I'm asking: it gets it right almost every time, in all sorts of noise environments, and even when my data connection isn't very good.
The Assistant shows up in a chat-like interface that slides up from the bottom. You pose your question, Google answers it, and then you can ask follow-up questions either by speaking or tapping a suggested reply.
There's a lot riding on the Assistant being good. When he announced the Pixel, CEO Sundar Pichai envisioned creating a personal Google for each person. In order to make that happen, the company is going to need to keep collecting and analyzing a lot of data to make that happen. So the tradeoff has to be that you get a massive benefit from using the Assistant.
I can't judge for you whether it's a good idea to continue to let Google know so much about you — including location, web and search history, and whatever is on your screen when you launch the Assistant — but I can tell you if the Assistant is any good. Short answer: it is. But it still lives in a weird world of functionality. Sometimes it amazes you with what it can figure out and sometimes it also baffles you when it can’t answer seemingly obvious questions.
google assistant on the pixel
When you ask the Assistant for information that can be culled from the web, it's impressively, sometimes ridiculously, smart. It can read the screen and then tell you who the cast is for the TV show you're reading about — then understand follow-up questions about someone like Lee Pace (who is a national treasure). The Assistant can read back relevant sections of how-to articles, complete with spoken sourcing.
In general it's less likely to frustrate you enough to stop using it like Siri, but it's not radically better. For example, it can tell me when the next debates are but it's not smart enough to understand its own answer has enough information to add it to my calendar.
It also doesn't (yet) talk to as many apps and services as Siri does. I've successfully made dinner reservations with OpenTable but it can't call an Uber. Google says it's been working to create an "Actions" system that makes those integrations easier for the user than it is on, say, Amazon's Alexa. That system won't arrive until December, unfortunately.
Meanwhile the Assistant is also able to do most of the basic phone stuff you'd expect: make calls, send texts, adjust screen brightness, and so on. It also has a daily briefing feature that will tell you the weather, your next appointment, and play some news from sources like NPR, the BBC, and Fox.
The Google Assistant is the smartest there is, but it's not a genius
That daily briefing is similar to the Flash Briefing, a feature I use with Amazon’s Alexa every day, and I love it. It's also the perfect example of the Assistant's as-yet unrealized promise: for as much as Google knows about me, it's not using all that information effectively yet. See, my most important Google calendar is on my work Google account, and the Assistant doesn't include that in the briefing. If I explicitly ask about my next appointment, it can find it, but it doesn't include it in my daily briefing.
There is one place where Google knows a lot about me and its Assistant returns amazing results: Google Photos. I’ve asked it for whiteboards, pictures of my cat, pictures of my kitchen, pictures of my friends who I don’t ever remember tagging, selfies, locations, and more. Every time Google finds the pictures. It’s way more accurate and comprehensive than iOS and Siri.
Even though there's ostensibly One Google Brain behind all of it, the different lobes don't always seem to be talking to each other. That confusion extends to the various ways that Google exists on the Pixel itself. You can only speak to the Assistant, for example, not type at it. Except that you can type at it in Allo, Google's chat app. You can also tap the Google search button on the home screen to type queries, but that's not technically the Assistant. Oh, and Google Now, the predictive information stream, still sits to the left of your main home screen.
That's four different ways to talk to Google on this phone, not counting apps like Maps and Gmail. And each one has a slightly different interface and provides slightly different results. For example, the Assistant can’t recognize songs yet, but asking the exact same question with the Google search button works fine.
To be very clear: the Google Assistant is absolutely the smartest of the assistant bunch, but it's not yet in a class of its own. Google knows so much more about me than, say, Apple, and its assistant should reflect that. Because Google itself is placing so much emphasis on the Assistant, it should be held to a higher standard than all the rest — and there's clearly still some work to do.
Since we're getting into the business of holding the Pixel to a higher standard, let's also do that with Android. In general, the persistent knock on Android is that its third-party apps are slightly worse than on iOS and that it can often feel slower or "jankier." I think that these arguments still have some merit, but not as much as the conventional wisdom would have you believe. I find Android Nougat to be comprehensible and powerful, but it still has some annoying spots.
The phones ship with version 7.1 of Android Nougat, with a few Pixel-specific features. The one you'll notice right away is a custom launcher with round icons and a new swipe-up gesture to get to the app drawer. I like it — but then I am the guy who was already using a third-party launcher with a custom icon theme to begin with. You can also long-press on icons to get shortcut options, and the neat trick with them is you can drag any of those shortcuts out and make it a top-level icon in your launcher. There are also some nice Live Wallpapers that change based on your location, time of day, or even your battery level.
Google is also providing some bonus features for Pixel users. There's chat and phone support built right into the Settings app on the phone. If you like, you can give screen-viewing capabilities to your support representative so they can walk you through your issue. You also get free, unlimited cloud storage for every picture and video you take with the Pixel.
As for Android 7.1, it's a nice incremental update. It has support for Daydream VR, which I didn't get to test. It also (finally!) has a Night Mode that shows less blue light so it's easier on your eyes in the dark. It is aggressively, almost ridiculously yellow and I am not as fond of it here as I am on iOS devices, where it’s possible to adjust the strength of the filter.
Google has done more tuning to make Android feel more responsive to touch — and that work is much appreciated. But I don't think that same attention to detail has been applied to the overall interface yet. Take the new keyboard as one example: it supports GIF search, but it's buried deep in the keyboard and it only shows up in certain supported messaging apps. Sometimes it's there, usually it's not, and it's basically guaranteed you'll forget about it and never use it.
I should note that the Pixel will get software updates before any other Android phone — and they'll install quietly in the background on a custom partition and seamlessly switch you over when they're ready. Verizon users will have a small handful of apps downloaded to their phone when they put a SIM in, but you can easily delete them without any issue.
These are small gripes about an operating system that I genuinely like and prefer over iOS for its openness and flexibility. But in making a system that supports such flexibility, Google has historically let its opinions about design and functionality take a back seat to the preferences of Android manufacturers (and carriers). And that has meant that you need to do a little more work to make Android feel polished than you should have to. Google has, in essence, been too deferential to everybody else in the Android ecosystem.
You can see the results of that deference most clearly in its messaging apps, where the company's "try everything and don't piss off anybody" strategy has it losing out to Apple, Facebook, and even smaller outfits like Telegram. Should you be using SMS messaging, Hangouts, Allo, the messenger app Verizon auto-installs, Facebook Messenger, or all of the above? Google doesn't offer any guidance on the issue, and that's a problem. The result is confusion for potential iPhone switchers who don't know what their go-to messaging app should be.
I think it's just going to take a while for Google's "opinionated" take on how its software should be designed to get stronger. I hope it does get stronger. Every time Google has made a forceful choice in designing the hardware or the software on this phone, it's been a good one.