Walmart is giving everyone a month of free shipping

— Walmart’s Amazon Prime competitor just got more competitive.

The mega retailer’s ShippingPass program is now available for a free 30-day trial. Even existing ShippingPass customers can partake in the deal — Walmart will automatically tack on an extra month to their subscriptions, gratis.

Looking to take a slice out of Amazon’s online retail dominance, Walmart introduced the $50-a-year ShippingPass subscription service last year.

Initially, ShippingPass only offered free three-day shipping. But in May, Walmart matched Amazon Prime with unlimited two-day shipping — while trimming the price to $49 a year. That’s less than half Amazon’s $99 price for Prime.

In addition to unlimited two-day shipping, ShippingPass also lets Walmart customers purchase items with no minimum order requirements, and returns are free — both online and in store.

The program’s free one-month trial offer matches Amazon’s similar 30-day free trial for Prime.

Unlike ShippingPass, Prime includes many services beyond two-day shipping, including Amazon Instant Video, Amazon Music, unlimited photo storage and free e-books.

Free shipping subscription services have been a big boon to retailers. In a press release, Fernando Madeira, CEO of Walmart U.S., noted that ShippingPass customers shop on Walmart.com more often than non-subscribers. Amazon has said that Prime subscribers are far more likely to purchase items on Amazon, even if they just purchase the subscription for the video or music services.

As brick-and-mortar retail sales swoon, Walmart has been ramping up its online efforts. The company bought a stake in Chinese e-retailer JD last week, and Madeira said that Walmart will be introducing new ways to connect the Walmart app, site and store in the coming weeks.

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Facebook activates Safety Check after Brussels attacks

— Facebook has activated its Safety Check feature, so people in Brussels can let loved ones know they’re okay.

A suicide bombing at the Brussels airport and an attack on the Brussels Metro on Tuesday left dozens dead and many more injured.

As in similar attacks and natural disasters, Facebook’s Safety Check prompts people in the region to mark themselves as “safe.”

In addition to themselves, people can declare other friends “Safe,” “Unsafe,” or “Not in the area.” Safety statuses appear as a notification on their friends’ Facebook accounts and News Feeds. Friends will then get an alert in their news feeds. That information could be listed on someone’s profile or disclosed when using the “Nearby Friends” feature.

Facebook unveiled Safety Check in 2014. The attacks on Paris four months ago were the first time that Facebook used Safety Check for a terror attack, previously only using the tool for natural disasters.

The Dutch Red Cross has also set up a safety check-in website, called “I am safe.”

Google has not activated its Person Finder tool for Brussels, though it typically limits that to large-scale natural disasters.

How to get the best deal on your iPhone trade-in

— The new iPhone is just around the corner, and it’s time to get serious about trading in your old smartphone.

Apple Stores, carriers and smartphone recycling companies are practically falling over themselves trying to get you to trade-in your old phone, offering huge deals. The market for older smartphones — particularly used iPhones — is exploding, and there’s a likelihood that your old phone is worth hundreds of dollars.

But deciding where to recycle your phone can be confusing. Each company is offering a slightly different promotion. Some are giving credits towards a new phone, others are giving discounts on service and then some are simply giving you cash.

Here’s a quick guide to what you can expect to get for your old iPhone:

1) Gazelle

The phone recycling company Gazelle is offering a tempting plan: It will beat your carrier or Apple’s trade-in offer between Sept. 2 and Sept. 9 (the day of Apple’s announcement), and it will give you cash for your old iPhone 5S, 6 or 6 Plus.

Gazelle said if you trade in your old 16 GB iPhone 6, you should be able to get between $300 and $390 for it, depending on its network and condition. A 16 GB iPhone 6 Plus will get you between $325 and $440, and a 16 GB iPhone 5S demands between $165 and $200.

The company’s most lucrative deals are for Verizon phones (which have the highest demand) and for iPhones in perfect condition. If you find a better offer during that time period, Gazelle said you have to send the company proof, and it will beat the deal.

The promotion has limitations, though. It only applies to a deal from your carrier — not a rival carrier’s offer to switch. Gazelle also doesn’t guarantee that it will beat offers from other phone recyclers, such as NextWorth.

2) Carriers

Each of the wireless carriers is giving customers incentives to re-up (and new customers reason to switch), luring them in with impressive trade-in deals.

Verizon will give customers who trade in an old smartphone and buy a new device a $200 Verizon gift card and a $100 bill credit. It’s a good deal if your old phone is worth less than $300.

AT&T similarly offers customers up to $300 for old phones, but the amount you’ll get is determined by the phone’s appraisal. If your phone is worth more than $300, it probably isn’t the best deal.

T-Mobile is offering customers who trade in their old phones the ability to pay $15 a month to lease a new iPhone for 18 months (a savings of $12 per month). Customers will get an iPhone 6 and then get a free upgrade to a new iPhone 6S (or whatever it will be called) when that becomes available. But if your phone is worth more than $216, T-Mobile’s deal isn’t worth it. Also, you won’t be able to trade in your leased iPhone, since T-Mobile owns the phone.

Sprint is also offering a similar deal, providing a $15-a-month leased iPhone to customers who trade in their old phones. The promotion will last 22 months, so it’s a bit better than T-Mobile’s deal — but not by much. If your phone is worth more than $264, it’s not the best deal.

3) Apple

Apple will give you credit towards your next iPhone if you trade in your old iPhone at an Apple Store. You can also receive an Apple gift card if you trade in your old iPhone online.

Online, you’re currently unable to trade in an iPhone 6.

Apple’s prices are competitive, but they’re not the best.

Charging your phone will soon be a thing of the past

— Imagine never again having that frantic feeling that your smartphone battery is about to die.

Amazingly, charging your phone may soon be a thing of the past: Technology companies are developing a way for your gadgets to power up while they’re sitting in your pocket.

By converting radio waves into battery-replenishing power, smartphones equipped with special receivers can literally pull energy right out of the air.

It’s not far-off in the future stuff — the technology is making its way to the real world in a matter of months.

Companies like Energous, Nikola Labs and a small handful of others have different ways to accomplish that, but their technology essentially works like this: Special antennas focus cellular and Wi-Fi signals into a pocket of low-powered energy around the back of your phone. A receiver on your phone then converts that radio energy into DC power that can charge the battery.

Wireless charging technology has existed for years in the form of power mats, pads and even Ikea furniture. But you need to keep your phone on the pad in order to charge it, making it only slightly more convenient and aesthetically pleasing than plugging it into the wall.

Long-distance wireless charging was long thought to be too dangerous. Walk between your phone and the charger, and you were likely to get zapped.

But by harnessing the energy that is already being sent to and from your phone — radio signals — you can charge your phone at a distance without worrying about being fried in the process.

Energous plans on releasing wireless chargers and phone cases in late 2016 that will let you charge your phone at a distance of up to 20 feet. The company demonstrated the technology at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, winning two “Best in Show” awards and three other honors.

At a distance of up to five feet, the company’s transmitters charge phones at the same speed as a wall charger. Up to 10 feet, the speed is reduced to USB-charging levels. And up to 20 feet, your battery will charge at a rate of about 1% per minute.

But what makes Energous particularly compelling is that it claims to have signed a commitment with a “top tier” tech company that will build the wireless receivers right into the gadgets themselves (no case needed). Energous says that its nondisclosure agreement prevents it from naming the company, but CEO Stephen Rizzone told CNNMoney that the commitment is for “millions of devices,” and “it’s highly likely that you own some of this company’s products.” Hmmm….

Nikola Labs, which stole the show at TechCrunch Disrupt this year with its battery-extending smartphone case, uses somewhat different technology to apply a similar concept. Unlike Energous, which requires a special transmitter to send energy to your phone, Nikola Labs’ smartphone cases harness and recycle the unused energy your phone creates by searching for cell towers and Wi-Fi routers.

With normal use, the Nikola Labs cases don’t actually charge up your phone — they help extend your battery life by about a third. But get close enough to a Wi-Fi router, and your phone will start charging similar to the way that Energous’ transmitters operate.

Nikola Labs’ cases will ship later this year, but early adopters can get their hands on it by backing a Kickstarter campaign.

In the early days of wireless charging technology, you’ll still have to plug in on occasion: Your Energous transmitter will be limited to a single room in your home, and your Nikola Labs case usually won’t charge up your battery.

But one day soon, transmitters could be deployed in Wi-Fi routers themselves and receivers could be universally built into devices.

Universal wireless charging wouldn’t only impact phones. Imagine toys with “batteries not required” labels. And the impact universal wireless charging could have on the wearables market could be game-changing.

The Apple Watch and other wearable devices typically only get 10 or so hours of battery life — a puny amount for something that you’re supposed to wear all day long. If they could charge while you’re wearing them, you’d be able to treat your fitness band or smartwatch just like a regular wristwatch.

The best part: It’s not pie-in-the-sky dreaming. It’s coming soon.

This is nutty: Kind Bars are full of fat but healthy?

— The FDA wants the fatty Kind Bars to stop pretending they’re healthy. But Kind says the fat in its bars is healthy.

In a response to a scathing warning letter from the FDA made public this week, the maker of Kind Bars says it is working to correct its mislabeled products that contain the words “healthy,” “plus,” “no trans fats,” “antioxidant-rich,” and “good source of fiber.”

Kind admitted that its labels did not meet the FDA’s standards. But the company also contested the the agency’s narrow definition of “healthy.” Kind noted that the key ingredient in its snack bars is nuts — a naturally fatty food that nutritionists believe is nevertheless good for you.

“Nuts … contain nutritious fats that exceed the amount allowed under the FDA’s standard,” the company said in a blog post. “This is similar to other foods that do not meet the standard for use of the term healthy, but are generally considered to be good for you like avocados, salmon and eggs.”

Nuts are high in nutritious unsaturated fats, which, when eaten instead of refined carbohydrates and sugar, can lower cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

At the same time, nuts are also high in the less-nutritious saturated variety of fat.

The FDA requires that for a food item to be labeled “healthy,” it must contain less than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving. Four varieties of Kind Bars, including Fruit & Nut Almond & Apricot, Almond & Coconut, Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew + Antioxidants and the Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein bar contain more than 2.5 grams of saturated fat, despite being labeled “healthy.”

In its warning letter, the FDA also knocked Kind Bars for using the terms “plus” and “antioxidant-rich” when they do not contain enough nutrients to satisfy those labels.

The FDA took issue with Kind using terms like “good source of fiber” and “no trans fats,” because they imply that the bars are healthy. Even if those claims are true, which they are, Kind is not allowed to put those lables on its bars without qualifying that the bars are high in fat.

Kind Bars were also reprimanded for putting a P.O. Box on its labels instead of a physical address. Companies can only do that if they are listed in the phone book.

The violations are “significant,” according to the FDA. If Kind doesn’t comply with the changes, the FDA could take them off store shelves.

Kind said it is working with the FDA and “moving quickly to comply with its request.” The company also said that it is reviewing all of its labels — even those that aren’t subject to the FDA’s warning letter. But Kind has no plans to change its ingredients.

“We couldn’t be more proud of our snack foods and their nutritional benefits,” the company said. “While we make these updates to our packaging and our website, please know that our recipes will stay the same.”

Is the iPad doomed?

— Tablet sales are “crashing,” says Best Buy’s CEO! IPad sales are sinking fast! Is this the beginning of the end for the tablet?

Easy, there, tiger. Tablets are still popular and sales are growing — 11% last quarter, to be precise, according to tech consultancy IDC.

Still, that’s a far cry from two years ago, when tablets were growing at a 60% clip. Meanwhile, the iPad has been in the doldrums, posting a 9% sales decline last quarter, which was preceded by a 16% slump the quarter before that.

So what’s going wrong? There are three big obstacles facing the market that are impacting demand for tablets: Smartphones are getting bigger, tablets last a while and businesses aren’t buying them.

Smartphones are getting bigger. Like, seriously huge. Samsung’s popular Galaxy S5 has a 5.1-inch screen. Its Galaxy Note smartphone has a 5.5-inch screen, and Apple is expected to release an iPhone 6 of the same size this fall. Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet is just 1.5 inches bigger.

Who needs a tablet when you’re already carrying one around in your pocket?

Tablets last a while. Unlike smartphones, there’s not much incentive to buy a new tablet every two years.

Most people buy unsubsidized, Wi-Fi-only tablets without a contract from their wireless carrier. And there really isn’t that much difference between Apple’s new iPad Air and the original iPad that came out four years ago.

“Once you have a tablet of a certain generation, it’s not clear that you have to move on to the next generation,” Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly told Re/Code.

Businesses aren’t buying tablets. PCs are everywhere in corporations, but tablets are harder to come by. Corporate IT departments are notoriously slow at adopting new technologies, and security remains a concern.

But that also means there’s a huge growth opportunity.

Apple and IBM announced a partnership earlier this month aimed at solving the corporate tablet problem. Apple will deliver iPads to IBM, which will load them with industry-specific apps for businesses in the banking, health care, insurance, retail, travel and transportation sectors.

That’s why analysts think tablets could get a second wind later this year.

“We believe that stronger commercial demand for tablets in the second half of 2014 will help the market grow,” said Jean Philippe Bouchard, IDC’s research director for tablets. “We will see more enterprise-specific offerings, as illustrated by the Apple and IBM partnership, come to market.”

So the tablet’s not dead. It’s just resting.

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The hidden 17% tax: Your cell phone bill

— Your wireless carrier isn’t the only one pocketing money when you pay your cell phone bill.

Local, state and federal governments, 911 systems and even school districts tack on taxes and surcharges to your wireless bill that end up costing American cell phone customers an extra 17.2%, on average, according to the Tax Foundation. That’s up from 16.3% fifteen months ago.

For consumers accustomed to single-digit sales taxes, these double-digit fees can appear unusually burdensome. But unlike sales, income or property taxes, wireless taxes remain largely hidden — tacked on to the end of your monthly wireless bill and often ignored.

They shouldn’t be. A $60 cell phone bill actually costs the average customer $70.32.

In Nebraska, which has the country’s highest wireless tax rate, customers would pay $74.69 each month for a $60 cell phone bill. That’s $10 per month more than customers in Oregon would spend for the same services. Oregon has the nation’s lowest wireless tax rate.

“The problem with taxes on wireless is so many different jurisdictions impose taxes and fees,” said Scott Drenkard, an economist with the Tax Foundation.

A wireless customer who lives in New York, for instance, could have up to 12 different taxes and surcharges show up on his or her wireless bill.

High wireless taxes date back to the “Ma Bell” days of AT&T, when few Americans had cell phones and various governments saw wireless surcharges as a way to support expensive services, such as rural telephone infrastructure build-outs. Every American today pays 5.82% of their cell phone bill to the federal Universal Service Fund, which originally paid for those rural phone services.

Some opponents to the current wireless tax structure argue that states, cities and other districts see cell phone bills as an undercover way to dodge the political fallout of raising other taxes.

“Wireless taxes have long been a fairly frictionless way for states and cities to get revenue,” said Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs at telecom industry association CTIA. “It used to be a tax on the wealthy, but now that most people have cell phones, it’s hard to say it’s just targeting the rich now.”

Even living in a state with no sales tax doesn’t save you from having to pay high taxes on your cell phone bill. Sales-tax-free Alaska has a higher-than-average 17.9% tax rate on wireless services, thanks in large part to its hefty 6%, state-imposed Universal Service Fund tax to support rural telephone services.

People in a high-tax state bordering a state with low fees can’t escape by buying a phone across the border. The Mobile Telecommunications Sourcing Act of 2002 demands that taxes be levied at the address that the cell phone company determines to be a customer’s “place of primary use.” So if you live in Washington — the state with the nation’s second-highest wireless tax rate — it doesn’t necessarily pay to buy your next phone in Oregon, which has the lowest rate in the country.

Relief probably isn’t coming any time soon, but wireless taxes may soon stop spiking. Two versions of a “Wireless Tax Fairness Act” that are floating around Congress have garnered bipartisan support. Though the act wouldn’t lower taxes, it would place a moratorium on raising them.

“What needs to happen is an overhaul of this poorly thought-out tax policy,” Carpenter said. “But before you can fix it, you have to stop digging the hole.”

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