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Main article: Reviews

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Topics from 1 to 10 | in all: 363

Can America ever rebuild its neighborhoods and communities?

01:16 | 10 November

We talk a lot about startup ecosystems around these parts, and for good reason. Strong ecosystems have great reservoirs of talent congregated close together, a culture built around helping one another on ambitious projects, and sufficient risk capital to ensure that interesting projects have the resources to get underway.

Strip off the ecosystem layer though, and you are left with the actual, physical manifestation of a city or region — its housing, its transportation and mobility options, and its infrastructure. And if Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity is any indication, a whole heck of a swath of America has little hope of ever tapping into the modern knowledge economy or creating the kind of sustainable growth that builds “Strong Towns.”

Across the country, Marohn sees evidence of what he dubs a “Municipal Ponzi scheme.” Cities — armed with economic development dollars and consultants galore — focus their energies and budgets on new housing subdivisions as well as far-flung, auto-dependent office parks and strip malls, all the while ignoring the long-term debt, maintenance costs, and municipal burdens they are transferring to future generations of residents. “The growth creates an illusion of wealth, a broad, cultural misperception that the growing community is become [sic] stronger and more prosperous. Instead, with each new development, they become increasingly more insolvent,” the author writes.

He provides a multitude of examples, but few are as striking as that of Lafayette, Louisiana:

As one example, the city of Lafayette, Louisiana, had 5 feet of pipe per person in 1949. By 2015, that had grown to 50 feet, an increase of 1,000%. They had 2.4 fire hydrants per 1,000 people in 1949, but by 2015, they had 51.3. This is a 2,140% increase. Over the same period, median household income in Lafayette grew just 160% from an inflation-adjusted $27,700 to $45,000. And if national trends hold locally in Lafayette, which they almost certainly do, household savings decreased while personal debt skyrocketed. Lafayette grew its liabilities thousands of times over in service of a theory of national growth, yet its families are poorer.

The author contextualizes just how weird the modern American suburb and community is in the grand sweep of human history, where co-location, walkability, and human-scale density weren’t just norms, but necessities. The lack of thoughtful, dynamic planning that allows cities to adapt and evolve over time eventually comes to tear at the vitality of the town itself. “Only the richest country in the world could build so much and make such poor use of it.”

Marohn has spent decades in urban planning and also runs Strong Towns, a non-profit advocacy organization that tries to create more sustainable cities by attempting to guide the urban planning conversation toward better models of adaptable growth. He brings an authority to the topic that is heartening, and the book is absolutely on the right vector on how to start to think about urban planning going forward.

In addition to his discussions around municipal finance, he makes the critical connections between urban planning and some of the most pressing challenges facing America today. He notes how the disintegration of tight-knit communities has exacerbated issues like drug abuse and mental health, and how the focus on big-box retail development has undermined smaller-scale entrepreneurship.

Even more heartening in some ways is that the solutions are seemingly so easy. For example, one is to simply account for the true, long-term costs of infrastructure and economic development dollars, properly accounting for “value per acre.”

Yet, the flaws in the book are manifold, and I couldn’t help but shake my head on numerous occasions at the extent to which movements to improve urban planning always seem to shudder on the weight of reality.

Nowhere are those flaws more glaring than over the actual preferences of the residents of these cities themselves. As anyone who lives in San Francisco or Palo Alto understands, there is a serious contingent of NIMBYs who consistently vote against housing and density regardless of its effects on inequality or urban quality. Kim-Mai Cutler wrote one of the definitive pieces on this topic five years ago right here at TechCrunch, and yet, all these years later, the same dynamics still animates local politics in California and across the world.

The prescriptions offered in Strong Towns are not only correct, they are almost incontestable. “Instead of prioritizing maintenance based on condition or age, cities must prioritize based on financial productivity,” Marohn writes. Public dollars should be spent on the highest-impact maintenance projects. Who is really against that?

But, people are, as evidenced by city council meetings all across the United States and the simple ground truth that cities don’t spend their dollars wisely. Whether your issue is housing, or climate change, or economic development, or inequality, the reality is that residents vote, and their voices are heard. That leads to Marohn writing:

As a voter, as a property owner within a municipal corporation, as a person living cooperatively with my neighbors in a community, I can respect that some people prefer development styles that are financially ruinous to my city. My local government should not feel any obligation to provide those options, particularly at the price points people expect.

Yet, what should one do if 70-80% of a city’s voters literally want to jump off the proverbial cliff?

Ultimately, should cities be responsive to their own voters? If San Francisco refuses to build more transit-oriented development and in the process exacerbates the climate change literally setting the Bay Area on fire, shouldn’t the damn voters burn straight to the ground?

Marohn, who talks over several pages of his political evolution from Republican to complex libertarian communalist, never faithfully addresses this core problem with the Strong Towns thesis, or indeed, the entire activism around urban politics today. “American culture spends a lot of time debating what should be done, but hardly any time discussing who should make the decision,” he writes. But we do — we did — discuss who makes the decisions, and our political systems actively respond to those decision-makers: local voters.

American towns are in a perilous state – and that is precisely what people demanded and received. Marohn criticizes the planning profession for its lack of municipal sustainability, but seemingly is willing to substitute one group of far-flung experts with another to override the locals, presumably just with a different (better?) set of values.

In the final analysis, Strong Towns the book gets the fundamentals right. But will it change minds? I’m doubtful. It certainly doesn’t offer a clear guidebook on how local leaders can start to educate their neighbors and build the kinds of voter blocs required to get local, democratic change on these issues. Ultimately, the book feels like a smaller footnote to the worthy work of Strong Towns the organization, which ultimately will drive the activity needed to build change on these issues.

 


0

Week in Review: Airbnb is just the beginning

00:00 | 10 November

Hey everyone. Thank you for welcoming me into you inbox yet again.

I got some awesome responses to the #DeleteLinkedIn newsletter last week, a few dozen emails (some of them angry) and plenty of tweets. Looking forward to chatting with some of you soon. On that note, I’m currently in China for a TechCrunch event that we’re having in Shenzhen and will be taking some time offline to travel a bit so I won’t be arriving in your inboxes the next two weeks. Week in Review will be back in your inboxes the weekend after Thanksgiving so you’ll have to savor this newsletter until then.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.


The big story

If there’s been a collective theme to some of the tech backlash of the past couple years, it’s been an evolving vision towards platform responsibility.

Social media platforms have earned the lion’s share of this discussion to date. This has largely been due to the political landscape and gripes with both liberals and conservatives for how the site handles content policing. The prevailing libertarian view that tech platforms weren’t responsible for what was enabled by their platforms has fallen out of vogue.

What continues to surprise me is how little accountability or expectations there still seems to be for marketplace platforms. Speech is a crucial part of the internet, but so is buying and selling and it shocks me how big some startups have been able to get without delivering some basic buyer protections.

http://www.twitter.com/lucasmtny/1190027153099952128?s=20

Through some great investigations from the Wall Street Journal, we’ve seen how fast and loose Amazon has been playing with third-party sellers getting free reign on the site. There have been countless stories of scammers infiltrating sites like Airbnb and eBay and operating in grey areas that allow them to rip off buyers. Last week, a reporter at Vice delivered a scathing deep dive into a scam she fell victim to on Airbnb’s platform.

This week, Airbnb announced that by next year they are pledging to verify all of their listings, something that seems more than a little overdue. Standing behind the properties being booked on their platform was seemingly the last box to check before driving to the IPO hoop.

More from our story:

Airbnb  properties will soon be verified for accuracy of photos, addresses, listing details, cleanliness, safety and basic home amenities, according to a company-wide email sent by Airbnb co-founder and chief executive officer Brian Chesky on Wednesday.

Airbnb is just another highly valued startup that has been trying to take the past of least resistance to outsized future value. Verifying properties is a difficult issue to brace. Sellers are certainly not the only scammers on Airbnb, and buyers abusing this new system is a guarantee. But keeping both sides in some sort of satisfaction equilibrium is Airbnb’s messy, god-given task.

Airbnb has garnered more grumblings than most due to bad customer experiences, but it’s just a harbinger of what comes next. 2020 being a presidential election year in the U.S. means that the public might still be too busy with lambasting Zuckerberg to give marketplaces their due watchful eye in the near term, but the bell is tolling for these marketplaces and it’d be wise for them to pay attention to the writing on the wall.

Send me feedback
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lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

GettyImages 1005682070 1

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Twitter’s Saudi Arabian infiltration
    One of the wilder stories this week was how Saudi Arabia reportedly lifted sensitive contact info from Twitter via employees at the company that they paid off. There’s a lot in this saga and while Twitter seems to have done most things right, it is a pretty nightmarish scenario.
  • T-Mobile and Sprint get hitched
    The telecom marriage of two of the United States top four carriers cleared its last major hurdle as the FCC gave the deal its blessing. There’s still some residual legal hurdles for the two to wrap up in good faith, but this deal is done.
  • Adobe makes good on a promise
    The promises of tablet computing have always been a little ambitious in terms of timing, but Photoshop is finally arriving on the iPad and with that, one decade-long wish list item has been realized.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. California isn’t happy with Zuckerberg:
    [California accuses Facebook of ignoring subpoenas in state’s Cambridge Analytica investigation]
  2. Google’s board is investigating some executive impropriety:
    [Alphabet’s board is investigating execs over claims of sexual harassment and other misconduct]

Disrupt Berlin

DISRUPT SF 530X350 V2 berlin

It’s hard to believe it’s already that time of the year again, but we just announced the agenda for Disrupt Berlin and we’ve got some all-stars making their way to the stage. I’ll be there this year, get some tickets and come say hey!

Sign up for more newsletters in your inbox (including this one) here.

 


0

Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure is a silly, gentle way to shape up

19:33 | 2 November

Nintendo has a long history when it comes to exercise-driven games. I’m dating myself, but I can say I remember playing Track & Field on NES with the Power Pad. How far we’ve come! Ring Fit Adventure is a full-body workout for grown-ups, but fun, gentle, and ridiculous enough to forget it’s exercise.

The game and accessories were announced in September, coming as a complete surprise even considering Nintendo’s constant but hit-and-miss attempts at keeping its players healthy. What really threw people off was that this game actually looked like… a game. And so it is!

Ring Fit Adventure has you, the unnamed and (naturally) mute protagonist, journeying through a series of worlds and levels chasing after Dragaux, a swole dragon who’s infecting the land with… something. Maybe he’s not wiping down the equipment afterwards. Come on, man.

Playing with these virtual versions of the controllers gives you a real feel for how solid the motion detection is.

Anyway, you do this by using the Joy-Cons in a new and strange form: the Ring-Con and leg strap. The latter is pretty self-explanatory, but the ring must be explained. It’s a thick plastic resistance ring that you squeeze from the edges or pull apart. It detects how hard you’re squeezing it through the other Joy-Con, which slots into the top. (The strap and ring grips are washable, by the way.)

The two controllers combined can detect all kinds of movements, from squats and leg lifts to rotations, presses, balancing, and yoga poses. You’ll need them all if you’re going to progress in the game.

Each level is a path that you travel down by actually jogging in real life (or high stepping if you’re in goo), while using the Ring-Con to interact with the environment. Aim and squeeze to send out a puff of air that opens a door or propels you over an obstacle, or pull it apart to suck in distant coins. Press it against your abs to crush rocks, do squats to open chests — you get the idea.

ringfit1

I haven’t gotten this one yet, but it looks handy. I could use a stronger arm-based multi-monster attack.

Of course you encounter enemies as well, which you dispatch with a variety of exercises targeting different muscle groups. Do a few arm presses over your head for some basic damage, or hit multiple enemies with some hip rotations. Each exercise has you do a number of reps, which turn into damage, before defending against enemy attacks with an “Ab Guard.”

The ring and leg strap seem almost magical in their ability to track your motion in all kinds of ways, though some are no doubt only inferred or fudged (as when you lift the leg without the strap). A missed motion happened so rarely over thousands of them that I ceased to think at all about it, which is about the highest compliment you can give a control method like this. Yet it’s also forgiving enough that you won’t feel the need to get everything right down the millimeter. You can even check your pulse by putting your thumb on the IR sensor of the right Joy-Con. Who knew?

As you progress, you unlock new exercises with different uses or colors — and you soon are able to fight more strategically by matching muscle group coloring (red is arms, purple legs, etc) with enemies of the same type. It’s hardly Fire Emblem, but it’s also a lot more than anyone has every really expected from a fitness game.

The red guys are like, “yeah… do him first.”

In fact, so much care and polish has clearly gone into this whole operation that’s it’s frequently surprising; there are so many things that could have been phoned in an not a single one is. The exercises are thoughtfully selected and explained in a friendly manner; the monsters and environments show great attention to detail. There’s no punishment for failure except restarting a level — the first time I “died,” I expected a little sass from my chatty companion, Ring, but it just popped me back to the map with nary a word.

Throughout is a feeling of acceptance and opportunity rather than pressure to perform. You can quit at any time and it doesn’t chide you for abandoning your quest or not burning enough calories. If you decide not to do the warm-up stretch, Tabb just says “OK!” and moves on. When you perform a move, it’s either “good” or “great,” or it reminds you of the form and you can try again. Whenever you start, you can change the difficulty, which I believe is reps, damage, and other soft counts, since it can’t increase the resistance of the Ring-Con.

dragaux

Seems familiar…

There’s no pressure to change your body and no gendered expectations; Your exercise demonstration model/avatar, Tabb, is conspicuously androgynous. Your character is a pretty cut specimen of your preferred gender, to be sure. And Dragaux himself is a sort of parody of oblivious, musclebound gym bunnies (“He’s working out while planning his next workout,” the game announced one time as he skipped an attack to do some bicep curls). But even he, Ring mentions at one point, used to be very insecure about his body. Importantly, there’s nothing about the game that feels targeted to getting a certain type of person a certain type of fit.

I’m not a trainer or fitness expert, but so far the variety of exercises also feels solid. It’s all very low-impact stuff, and because it’s resistance ring and body weight only, there’s a sort of core-strengthening yoga style to it all. This isn’t about getting ripped, but you’ll be surprised how sore you are after taking down a few enemies with a proper-form chair pose.

If you don’t want to play the adventure mode, there are minigames to collect and short workouts you can customize. Honestly some of these would make better party games than half the stuff on 1-2-Switch.

As I’ve been playing the game and discussing it with friends, I found myself wanting more out of the game side. I’m hoping Ring Fit Adventure will be a success so that Nintendo will green light a new, deeper version with more complex RPG elements. Sure, you can change your outfit here for a little extra defense or whatnot, but I want to take this concept further — I know the fundamentals are sound, so I’d like to see them built on.

[gallery ids="1907223,1907228,1907230,1907231,1907227,1907232,1907234"]

It feels like until now there have been few ways to really gamify fitness, except the most elementary, like step tracking. The two separate motion controllers and the smart ways they’re used to track a variety of exercises really feel like an opportunity to do something bigger. Plus once people have bought the accessories, they’re much more likely to buy matching software.

My main criticisms would be that it’s a bit limiting at the beginning. There’s no choice to, for example, prioritize or deprioritize a certain type of exercise. I could probably stand to jog more and do arm stuff less, and I dreaded having to resort to squats for the first few worlds. And the constant instruction on how and when to do everything can be wearing — it would be nice to be able to set some things to “expert mode” and skip the tutorials.

The game and accessories will set you back $80. If you consider it simply as buying a game, it’s an expensive gimmick. But I don’t think that’s the way to think about it. The target audience here is people who likely don’t have a gym membership, something that can cost $50-$100 a month. As a fun and effective fitness tool that does what it sets out to do and does so in a praiseworthy way, I think $80 is a very reasonable asking price.

 


0

The GoPro MAX is the ultimate pocketable travel vlogging camera

19:36 | 31 October

GoPro’s first foray into the 360-degree action was the GoPro Fusion, and while it was a strong first offering, the new GoPro MAX ($499) is a very different – and much improved – immersive action camera that has a lot to offer experienced videographers and voices alike. To be sure, the MAX has trade-offs, but taken together, it presents arguably the best overall combination of features and value for travel and adventure vloggers who don’t want to break the bank or haul a huge amount of kit while they get out and explore.

It’s hip to be square

The new GoPro MAX’s form factor is both familiar and different for fans of the company’s Hero line. It’s almost like you stacked two Heros on top of each other, with a square box instead of a small rectangle as a result. The design helps accommodate both the dual optics that GoPro uses to achieve its 360-degree capture, as well as the built-in touchscreen display that can be used as a selfie viewfinder, too, when operating in Hero mode.

The ruggedized case can survive submersion in water up to 16 feet deep, and it’s splash proof as well. There are additional protective lenses for the two dome-shamed cameras in the box, as well, which GoPro advises you use in potentially messy environments to protect the optics. Both front and back sides of the camera also feature grills for microphones, which can capture 360 immersive audio when the camera is operating in 360 mode, or act as truly impressive directional shotgun mics when vlogging or working in Hero mode.

GoPro MAX 3Like the new Hero 8, the MAX has built-in GoPro accessory mounts, that fold out of the body on the bottom. This ensure you won’t have to pack the MAX in an external cage to attach it to the wide range of available GoPro mounts that exist out there, cutting down on bulk and the amount of stuff you need to pack when you take it out on the road.

The rubberized coating ensures you can keep a firm grip on the camera when you’re using it without any accessories, and GoPro’s easy to access and prominently placed external buttons mean that you can control shutter and power while you’re using it in even the messiest circumstances. Removable batteries mean you can charge and keep a few on hand to ensure you don’t miss an opportunity to get some great footage.

360 or not to 360

The MAX is a very capable 360-degree camera, on par with some of the best in the market. It handles stitching automatically, and when paired with the MAX Grip + Tripod, it’ll even get rid of any awkward stitch lines where you’re gripping the camera. Using their software, you can then use the 360 footage to create a lot of compelling effects during edits, including panning and transitioning between views, zooming in and out, and basically pulling off final edits that you wouldn’t even be able to get with a few different cameras and shooters all going at once.

That said, there are some limits to the 360 shooting: You can see where GoPro’s software has stitched together its two wide angle captures to achieve the effect, for instance, even if only slightly. And while the tools that GoPro provides for stringing together edits are surprisingly user-friendly, you will need to spend some time with it in order to make the most of the tools available – novices can easily create somewhat disorienting cuts before they get there bearings.

The beauty of the MAX, however, is that 360 is just one of the capabilities it offers – and in fact, that provides the basis for much more interesting things that most users will get plenty more value out of. Foremost among these is HyperSmooth, which, when combined with MAX’s exclusive horizon levelling feature, makes for some of the smoothest, best quality stabilized video footage you can get with any camera without a gimbal.

By default, horizon levelling on the MAX will work in both landscape and portrait modes, and switch between those orientations when you turn the camera 90 degrees. But if you lock the orientation to landscape, you can rotate the MAX freely and the horizon stays level, with footage staying smooth and stable – to an almost spooky degree.

There can sometimes be a slightly noticeable fuzziness when you pivot from one orientation to the other in captured footage, but it’s barely detectable, and it only happens if you rotate fully 90 degrees. Otherwise, the horizon stays look and footage stays smooth, regardless of how much movement, bounce or jitters you have holding the camera. It’s amazing, and should be experienced in person to truly appreciate how much tech went into this.

The perfect run-and-gun mix

That is one reason that this is the camera you want with you when you’re out and about. But it’s not all the MAX offers in this regard. GoPro has made use of the 360 capture to implement so-called ‘Digital Lenses,’ which change the field of view, and adjust distortion to get at final results that can really change the look and feel of the video you capture. There’s a new ‘Narrow’ mode that’s even more constrained than the typical ‘Linear’ mode GoPro offers, and a new Max SuperView mode that pushes wide beyond previous limits for a really dramatic look.

Because the camera is capturing 360 content at 6K, you don’t get 4K resolution when it’s cropped down to Hero mode. But you do get up to 1440p as well as 1080p options, which are plenty for most vlogging and travel log purposes. This is one area where there’s a compromise to be made in exchange for some of the flexibility and convenience you get from the MAX, but in my opinion it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

As mentioned, you also get a ruggedized camera that can even snorkel with you in the MAX 360, as well as a selfie screen and highly capable microphones built-in (in the video above you’ll notice that there is some deterioration in sound when it detects water). It really seems like GoPro did everything they could to ensure that if you wanted to, you could easily just grab the MAX and get out there, without worrying about packing any accessories beyond maybe their Shorty tripod or that MAX grip I mentioned.

GoPro MAX 2Bottom Line

GoPro’s Fusion was a compelling camera for a specific set of users, but the MAX feels like it might be flipping the script on the whole GoPro lineup. In short, the MAX seems like a great default option for anyone new to action cameras or looking for a comprehensive all-arounder that’s easy to learn, but becomes more powerful in time.

The MAX’s amazing stabilization is also probably better suited to vlogging and social video than it is to the actual action camera set, because it’s so smooth and refined. You can alter to what extent it triggers, of course, but overall MAX just seems like a device that can do magic with its built in software for aspiring content creators who would rather leave the DSLR and the gimbal at one – or who never thought to pick one up in the first place.

 


0

Amazon Echo Buds review

16:17 | 29 October

It’s a wonder that Echo Buds didn’t arrive sooner. Earbuds (I still can’t write “hearables” without cringing a bit) are the clearest path to making Alexa work outside of the home. Amazon, after all, has been unable to crack the smartphone category. Half a decade later, the Fire Phone is little more than a historical curiosity, while Google and Apple have had massive mobile footprints to spread their smart assistants. 

Amazon has dabbled in mobile, with a downloadable Alexa app and Fire Tablet functionality. Last year, the company announced the Alexa Mobile Accessory Kit, which is designed to bring the AI to more devices. Certainly it makes sense as a third-party partner for companies that don’t have the resources or desire to develop their own assistant. The latest Fitbit Versa might be the best example of such an alliance.

From a pure user experience standpoint, however, headphones are the most logical conduit. They’re positioned closest to the mouth for voice commands via microphone and, obviously, offer a direct route into the ear for Alexa responses. In waiting to see how the market shakes out, the company has ceded potential market share.

DSCF8408

There’s a lot about the Echo Buds that would have made them an excellent addition to the category two or three years ago. But the category is among the fastest moving in consumer electronics. Samsung, Sony and Apple/Beats all have excellent offerings, and Amazon opening up Alexa to hardware companies has all but assured that third-party products from companies will eclipse the Echo Buds shortly.

The company does get some things right on its first go. If there’s one thing the Echo Buds really have going for them, it’s customization. For the earbuds themselves, that means not only the customary replaceable silicone tips, but also wings to help them stay in place in the ear. I’ve never been a fan of the hard plastic wings, but the soft silicone covers that slip over the buds are a nice touch.

They’re available in three sizes, so you should be able to find a decent fit. Once everything is in place, the buds should form a nice seal to keep sound in and unwanted ambient noise out. For my money, though, the PowerBeats Pro are still the best on the market when it comes to fit. The over-the-ear design keeps them from straining your ears after an extended period. Amazon’s solution is fairly elegant, as well.

The rest of the customization — and just about everything else, for that matter — is done in the app. Without its own operating system, the Echo Buds don’t have quite the same out of the box pairing experience as first-party Apple or Android headphones. That said, once you’ve downloaded the app, pairing is painless. For those who have other Echo devices, there’s probably something to be said for having all of your Echo devices in a single spot.

DSCF8411

From here, you can customize the touch gestures. By default, a double tap on the left or right ear toggles between active noise reduction (not full-on cancelation) and pass-through modes, while pressing and holding fires up Alexa. The nice thing about this is the ability to reduce accidental triggers. That’s probably my biggest complaint with the Galaxy Buds — the slightest adjustment triggers the touch. The app also offers a built-in equalizer, with sliders for bass, mid and treble, along with a five-level slider for the pass-through ambient mode.

The sound isn’t bad for the price, once you’ve got a nice seal and a the settings to your liking. Sony’s spring to mind both for the quality of the audio and the active noise canceling, but they’re priced at nearly double Amazon’s. I suppose we’ll be able to compare it to Apple’s in the near future, but again, pricing is a major consideration. I like the idea of pass through mode more than the actual implementation. The concept is a nice one — the ability to let in your surroundings. The ambient sound feature leans a little too heavily on the microphones. I wouldn’t recommend having it anywhere above a one out of four. Things like an AC unit were amplified to a point that was overwhelming.

DSCF8414

Alexa, meanwhile, is still very much a home assistant, but Amazon should be building upon that as it makes a more aggressive push. This early implementation was a little buggy in the first go. Asking for the news, Alexa had trouble connecting to NPR, and instead just gave me the weather. Trying to get the assistant to fire up noise reduction with my took a couple of goes, but in both cases, I eventually got them to work. On a whole, however, the microphone did a good job recognizing commands. 

The design of the buds themselves is fairly generic, but that’s perfectly fine. The charging case, meanwhile, is a pretty reasonable size, somewhere between the AirPods’ little dental floss case and the massive PowerBeats Pros. It’s small enough to carry around in your pocket — one of my biggest issues with Beats’ otherwise terrific earbuds. The materials are certainly on the cheap size, and the inclusion of a microUSB slot in 2019 certainly gives the industry of a company working hard to keep prices down. 

At $130, they’re priced $30 less than the standard AirPods 2. Amazon would have done well to go all in on pricing here — $99 would have been a really solid sweet spot for the company — well below other premium earbuds. That’s still a decent premium over off-brand buds, but a familiar name — and assistant — would surely carry some weight with Amazon shoppers. And given that much of the market has settled at between $150 and $250, they’re a downright deal by comparison. 

DSCF8416

Amazon will almost certainly sell plenty, and knowing Amazon, we may see some decent discounts around the holidays. And hey, with Apple’s recent announcement of $249 AirPod Pros, that $130 price tag just got a whole lot more appealing.

 


0

NVIDIA’s new Shield TV wins the Android TV market with amazing 4K upscaling

15:00 | 28 October

NVIDIA has a new family of Android TV-based streaming devices, as tipped early via a couple of leaks from online stores. The new NVIDIA Shield TV ($149) and Shield TV Pro ($199) replace the existing Shield TV generation of hardware, which debuted in 2017. Both new Shields offer new Tegra X1+ processors, which outperform the predecessor chip by about 25 percent, and make possible one of this Shield’s new highlight features: AI-powered 3K up-conversion for HD content.

Both Shield TV and Shield TV Pro also support Dolby Vision HDR content, as well as Dolby Atmos surround sound. The differences between the two devices center mainly around physical design, with the Shield TV adopting a cylindrical tube design, and the Shield TV Pro looking more like its predecessor (basically a small set-top box form factor). The Shield TV Pro also gets more RAM (3GB vs. 2GB), more storage (16GB vs 8GB) the ability to transcode 1080p streams when acting as a Plex Media Server, support for the SmartThings Link to turn it into a SmartThings smart home hub and advanced Android gaming support, along with two USB 3.0 ports.

Shield TV Review

Nvidia Shield TV 4I’ve been using the Shield TV for around a week now, and this is definitely a worthwhile upgrade for anyone looking to get the best possible experience available in an Android TV home theater device. NVIDIA has clearly done a lot to survey the market, look at everything that’s come out in the two years since it last updated this hardware, and delivery generational improvements that help it stand out from the crowd in meaningful ways.

Android TV now ships on a lot of smart TVs, and there have been many generations of Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices introduced since we last saw a new Shield from NVIDIA – all of which adds up to needing to really do something special to ask for $149.99 from consumers to invest in a new dedicated streaming media box. NVIDIA has always delivered a lot of value for the upfront cost of their streaming hardware, with consistent updates over the life of the devices that add plenty of new features and improvements. But this new hardware packs in some excellent features not possible with software alone, and that are also unique when you look across the options available in this category.

AI Upscaling

Chief among the additions NVIDIA has made here is the AI upscaling made possible with the new Tegra X1+ chip. You might have heard of ‘upscaling’ before, and you might even think that your TV already handles that well. But what you probably don’t know is that often content from streaming media sources doesn’t actually get upscaled by your TV, which means if you have a 4K display but are often watching YouTube or other services with large quantities of non-4K content, you might not be getting the most out of your hardware.

NVIDIA has addressed this with on-device 4K upscaling, which is powered by on-device machine intelligence that has been trained on a deep neural network to turn both 720p and 1080p signals into much sharper, 4K-equivalent images. Having used this on a variety of content, including media streamed from YouTube, non-4K Netflix content and stuff from Plex, I can attest to its ability to produce visibly sharper images that look great, especially on my LG C8-series OLED 4K TV.

The Shield TV’s tech is trained on popular movies and TV shows, and so does a remarkably good job of guessing what the 4K version of the HD image it’s looking at should properly look like. Considering that there’s a ton of content out there that hasn’t been made available in 4K, despite now a lot of TVs supporting that resolution, this is a big advantage for NVIDIA, and again one that they uniquely offer among their peers.

Dolby Everything

These new Shields also support Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, across more services than anything else out there on the market right now. These HDR and surround sound modes really do offer the best audio-visual experience you can get, provided you have TVs and audio output equipment that supports them, but what you might not know is that even on other streaming hardware that technically support these standards, they might not be supported across all services.

Shield TV supports Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos across Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Vudu and Movies Anywhere, so you should be getting the most out of these technologies, too. I asked about the forthcoming Apple TV+ service, which is rolling out to Roku devices, for instance, but NVIDIA didn’t have any news to share just yet – it does seem like it’s a good idea to stay tuned on that front, however.

Like AI Upscaling, Dolby support across everything might not seem like a big competitive advantage, but it’s absolutely a decision tipping factor for people who are looking for the best possible A/V experience in a home streaming device.

New and Improved Remote

Nvidia Shield TV 5NVIDIA is shipping the new Shield TVs with a brand new redesigned remote in the box. There’s a dedicated ‘Netflix’ button, which is a nice touch, but the remote overall is just an improvement over both Shield remotes past, and other competing remotes, in every way. It’s powered by AAA batteries (included) and it has a new pyramid-shaped body design that makes it easier and more pleasant to hold.

There are also lots of new buttons! Yes, NVIDIA actually put buttons on their remote control – what a novel concept! Whereas the remote from the last generation seemed to be adopting a lot of the questionable choices Apple has long been making on their remotes, this one feels like it’s made with humans in mind, with dedicated play/pause, back, forward, volume and other buttons. A wealth of buttons.

This remote also has automatic backlighting, which will serve you well when using it in a darkened room. Because of the bulkier body design, it also stands on its end, and there’s a lost remote finding function, too. Chalk up a win for human-centric design with this remote, it’s a joy to use.

Simple physical design

The design of the device is not flashy, but it is smart. There’s an Ethernet port, a power connector, an HDMI port and a micro SD card slot, dividing across both ends of the tube. This makes it perfect for placing behind a console or media bench, on the ground or next to your other power cables.

[gallery ids="1904249,1904250,1904246"]

It still provides hardwired connectivity options in case you do things like in-home game streaming or GeForce NOW cloud gaming, and it offers expandable storage via the microSD slot.

Bottom Line

NVIDIA’s new Shield is a great option for anyone looking for a versatile streaming device, with access to all of Google’s Play Store apps for Android TV, and support for the latest AV standards. It’s real bonus advantage is that AI upscaling, however, which is something that NVIDIA is uniquely poised to do well, and which goes a long way in making that $149.99 price point seem like a tremendous value.

SHIELD TV Family

 


0

Week in Review: You break it, you buy it

16:00 | 27 October

Hey everyone. Thank you for welcoming me into you inbox yet again.

Last week, I talked about Zuckerberg’s quest to tell us that Facebook has governing principles when he’s really just building the stairs one step at a time.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.


The big story

Plenty of ink has been spilled on WeWork and SoftBank and WeWork’s Adam Neumann, and yet it still feels like not nearly enough people are talking about it.

The startup’s post-S1 saga has just been just so messy that it’s understandable one could only grab a sneaking glance of headlines before having to look way.

One reason everyone is talking about it because Neumann’s maneuverings have created an anthology of sketchy founder dealings that’s nearly cartoon villain worthy. He’s got the eccentricities of Jack Dorsey, the frattiness of Evan Spiegel and the “change the world” delusions of Elizabeth Holmes. Critiques of WeWork weren’t all that sparse preceding its S-1, and yet many of venture capital’s talking heads had some kind of founder-friendly admiration for someone that seemed to had bent the world’s heftiest venture capital fund to his will.

It’s far beyond the pleasantries now, what happens to WeWork could deeply shape how late-stage venture capital operates. SoftBank was raising the second vision fund just as WeWork’s shit hit the fan and now it’s the fund’s deepest embarrassment and a financial commitment they’ve poured $18.5 billion into. If WeWork craters, that second vision could fall far short of its aspirations. Plenty of Silicon Valley’s investors would be happy to see control shift to more even-handed institutional forces who did not have capital commands that could set terms with a glance. Nevertheless, there are an awful lot of unicorns that have depended on SoftBank’s growth capital up to this point who would be in danger of being left high and dry.

At this point, SoftBank’s sunk costs have led the desperate fund to go all-in on a sans-Neumann WeWork. They will have to shape the business on their own. They enabled Neumann and now they are left with the task of reverse engineering a disaster into a great turnaround story.

Send me feedback
on Twitter 
 or email
lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Testifies Before The House Financial Services Committee

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Extra! Extra!
    Facebook is getting into the news game once again, paying publishers and building an Apple News-like product called Facebook News that is determined to give America access to trusted news. Facebook is doing great fresh out of the gate by giving Breitbart the distinction as a trusted news source. Kudos, Mark. What could go wrong?
  • Netflix keeps racking up the bills
    Hit TV shows don’t feel like they should be as expensive as building a quantum computer and yet Netflix’s hefty original content spending is still chugging along. The streaming company announced this week they’re raising $2 billion in debt to fund its next efforts, which may or may not include another 14 seasons of Stranger Things.
  • Antitrust attorneys general
    This week was another rough one for Facebook, a New York antitrust investigation picked up the support of a whole lot of other states as the probe seeks out anticompetitive practices. There are now 47 attorneys general taking part.

facebook newspaper dollars

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. Facebook is still publisher enemy #1:
    [Why the Facebook News Tab shouldn’t be trusted]
  2. Google’s emoji puritanism:
    [Google’s Play Store is giving an age rating finger to Fleksy, a Gboard rival]

Disrupt Berlin

DISRUPT SF 530X350 V2 berlin

It’s hard to believe it’s already that time of the year again, but we just announced the agenda for Disrupt Berlin and we’ve got some all-stars making their way to the stage. I’ll be there this year, get some tickets and come say hey!

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0

Pixel 4 review: Google ups its camera game

16:00 | 21 October

Google’s first-party hardware has always been a drop in the bucket of global smartphone sales. Pixel devices have managed to crack the top five in the U.S. and Western Europe, but otherwise represent less than 1% of the overall market. It’s true, of course, that the company got a late start, largely watching on the sidelines as companies like Samsung and Huawei shipped millions of Android devices.

Earlier this year, Google admitted that it was feeling the squeeze of slowing smartphone sales along with the rest of the industry. During Alphabet’s Q1 earnings call, CEO Sundar Pichai noted that poor hardware numbers were a reflection of “pressure in the premium smartphone industry.”

Introduced at I/O, the Pixel 3a was an attempt to augment disappointing sales numbers with the introduction of a budget-tier device. With a starting price of $399, the device seemingly went over as intended. The 3a, coupled with more carrier partners, helped effectively double year over year growth for the line. Given all of this, it seems like a pretty safe bet that the six-month Pixel/Pixela cycle will continue, going forward.

Of course, the addition of a mid-range device adds more onus for the company to differentiate the flagship. With a starting price of $799, the Pixel 4 certainly isn’t expensive by modern flagship standards. But Google certainly needs to present enough distinguishing features to justify a $400 price gulf between devices — especially as the company disclosed software upgrades introduced on flagship devices will soon make their way onto their cheaper counterparts.

Indeed, the much-rumored and oft-leaked devices bring some key changes to the line. The company has finally given in and added a dual-camera setup to both premium models, along with an upgraded 90Hz display, face unlock, radar-based gestures and a whole bunch of additional software features.

The truth is that the Pixel has always occupied a strange place in the smartphone world. As the successor to Google’s Nexus partnerships, the product can be regarded as a showcase for Android’s most compelling features. But gone are the days of leading the pack with the latest version of the operating system. The fact that OnePlus devices already have Android 10 means Google’s going head to head against another reasonably price manufacturer of quality handsets.

google pixel 4 009

The Pixel line steps up a bit on the design side to distinguish the product from the “a” line. Google’s phones have never been as flashy as Samsung’s or Apple’s, and that’s still the case here, but a new dual-sided glass design (Gorilla Glass 5 on both), coupled with a metal band, does step up the premium feel a bit. The product is also a bit heavier and thicker than the 3, lending some heft to the device.

There are three colors now: black, white and a poppy “Oh So Orange,” which is available in limited quantities here in the U.S. The color power button continues to be a nice touch, lending a little character to the staid black and white devices. While the screen gets a nice update to 90Hz OLED, Google still has no interest in the world of notches or hole punches. Rather, it’s keeping pretty sizable bezels on the top and bottom.

The Pixel 4 gets a bit of a screen size boost from 5.5 to 5.7 inches, with an increase of a single pixel per inch, while the Pixel 4 XL stays put at 6.4 inches (with a PPI increase of 522 to 537). The dual front-facing camera has been ditched this time out, instead opting for the single eight megapixel, similar to what you’ll find on the 3a.

Storage hasn’t changed, with both 64 and 128GB options for both models; RAM has been bumped up to a default 6GB from 4GB last time out. The processor, too, is the latest and greatest from Qualcomm, bumping from a Snapdragon 845 to an 855. Interestingly, however, the batteries have actually been downgraded.

google pixel 4 013

The 4 and 4 XL sport a 2,800 and 3,700mAh, respectively. That should be augmented a bit by new battery-saving features introduced in Android 10, but even still, that’s not the direction you want to see these things going.

The camera is, in a word, great. Truth be told, I’ve been using it to shoot photos for the site since I got the phone last week. This Google Nest Mini review, Amazon Echo review and Virgin Galactic space suit news were all shot on the Pixel 4. The phone isn’t yet a “leave your DSLR at home” proposition, of course, but damn if it can’t take a fantastic photo in less than ideal and mixed light with minimal futzing around.

There’s no doubt that this represents a small but important shift in philosophy for Google. After multiple generations of suggesting that software solutions could do more than enough heavy lifting on image processing, the company’s finally bit the bullet and embraced a second camera. Sometimes forward progress means abandoning past stances. Remember when the company dug its heels in on keeping the headphone jack, only to drop it the following year?

google pixel 4 010

The addition of a second camera isn’t subtle, either. In fact, it’s hard to miss. Google’s adopted a familiar square configuration on the rear of the device. That’s just how phones look now, I suppose. Honestly, it’s fine once you conquer a bit of trypophobia, with a pair of lenses aligned horizontally and a sensor up top and flash on bottom — as one of last week’s presenters half joked, “we hope you’ll use it as a flash light.”

google pixel 4 008

That, of course, is a reference to the Pixel’s stellar low-light capabilities. It’s been a welcome feature, in an age where most smartphone users continue to overuse their flashes, completely throwing off the photo in the process. Perhaps the continued improvements will finally break that impulse in people — though I’m not really getting my hopes up on that front. Old habits, etc.

The 4 and 4 XL have the same camera set up, adopting the 12.2-megapixel (wide angle) lens from their predecessors and adding a 16-megapixel (telephoto) into the mix. I noted some excitement about the setup in my write-up. That’s not because the two-camera setup presents anything remarkable — certainly not in this area of three, four and five-camera flagships. It’s more about the groundwork that Google has laid out in the generations leading up to this device.

00100trPORTRAIT 00100 BURST20191016105119747 COVER 1

Essentially it comes down to this: Look at what the company has been able to accomplish using software and machine learning with a single camera setup. Now add a second telephoto camera into the mix. See, Super High Res Zoom is pretty impressive, all told. But if you really want a tighter shot without degrading the image in the process, optical zoom is still very much the way to go.

There’s a strong case to be made that the Pixel 4’s camera is the best in class. The pictures speak for themselves. The aforementioned TechCrunch shots were done with little or no manual adjustments or post-processing. Google offers on-screen adjustments, like the new dual-exposure control, which lets you manually adjust brightness and shadow brightness on the fly. Honestly, though, I find the best way to test these cameras is to use them the way most buyers will: by pointing and shooting.

[gallery ids="1900084,1900086,1900087,1900088,1900090,1900091,1900092"]

The fact is that a majority of people who buy these handsets won’t be doing much fiddling with the settings. As such, it’s very much on handset makers to ensure that users get the best photograph by default, regardless of conditions. Once again, software is doing much of the heavy lifting. Super Res Zoom works well in tandem with the new lens, while Live HDR+ does a better job approximating how the image will ultimately look once fully processed. Portrait mode shots look great, and the device is capable of capturing them at variable depths, meaning you don’t have to stand a specific distance from the subject to take advantage of the well-done artificial bokeh.

Our video producer, Veanne, who is admittedly a far better photographer than I can ever hope to be, tested out the camera for the weekend. 

[gallery ids="1900045,1900046,1900047,1900048,1900049,1900050,1900051,1900052"]

Although Veanne was mostly impressed by the Pixel 4’s camera and photo editing capabilities, here are three major gripes.

“Digital zoom is garbage.”

Google Pixel 4 digital zoom is garbage

 

“In low lighting situations, you lose ambiance. Saturday evening’s intimate, warmly lit dinner looked like a cafeteria meal.”

Pixel 4 camera sample

 

“Bright images in low lighting gives you the impression that the moving objects would be in focus as well. That is not the case.”

Other additions round out the experience, including “Frequent Faces,” which learns the faces of subjects you frequently photograph. Once again, the company is quick to point out that the feature is both off by default and all of the processing happens on the device. Turning it off also deletes all of the saved information. Social features have been improved, as well, with quick access to third-party platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.

Google keeps pushing out improvements to Lens, as well. This time out, language translation, document scanning and text copy and pasting can be performed with a quick tap. Currently the language translation is still a bit limited, with only support for English, Spanish, German, Hindi and Japanese. More will be “rolling out soon,” per the company.

google pixel 4 003

Gestures is a strange one. I’m far from the first to note that Google is far from the first to attempt the feature. The LG G8 ThinQ is probably the most recent prominent example of a company attempting to use gestures as a way to differentiate themselves. To date, I’ve not seen a good implementation of the technology — certainly not one I could ever see myself actually using day to day.

The truth is, no matter how interesting or innovative a feature is, people aren’t going to adopt it if it doesn’t work as advertised. LG’s implementation was a pretty big disappointment.

Simply put, the Pixel’s gestures are not that. They’re better in that, well, they work, pretty much as advertised. This is because the underlying technology is different. Rather than relying on cameras like other systems, the handset uses Project Soli, a long-promised system that utilizes a miniature radar chip to detect far more precise movement.

Soli does, indeed work, but the precision is going to vary a good deal from user to user. The thing is, simply detecting movement isn’t enough. Soli also needs to distinguish intention. That means the system is designed to weed out accidental gestures of the manner we’re likely making all the time around our phones. That means the system appears to be calibrated to bigger, intentional movements.

picka 2

That can be a little annoying for things like advancing tracks. I don’t think there are all that many instances where waving one’s hands across a device Obi-Wan Kenobi-style is really saving all that much time or effort versus touching a screen. If, however, Google was able to customize the experience to the individual over time using machine learning, it could be a legitimately handy feature.

That brings us to the next important point: functionality. So you’ve got this neat new piece of tiny radar that you’re sticking inside your phone. You say it’s low energy and more private than a camera. Awesome! So, how do you suggest I, you know, use it?

There are three key ways, at the moment:

  • Music playback
  • Alarm Silencing
  • Waving at Pokémon

The first two are reasonably useful. The primary use case I can think of are when, say, your phone is sitting in front of you at your desk. Like mine is, with me, right now. Swiping my hand left to right a few inches above the device advances the track. Right to left goes a track back. The movements need to be deliberate, from one end of the device to the other.

And then there’s the phenomenon of “Pokémon Wave Hello.” It’s not really correct to call the title a game, exactly. It’s little more than a way of showcasing Motion Sense — albeit an extremely delightful way.

You might have caught a glimpse of it at the keynote the other day. It came and went pretty quickly. Suddenly Pikachu was waving at the audience, appearing out of nowhere like so many wild Snorlaxes. Just as quickly, he was gone.

[gallery ids="1900104,1900106,1900107,1900108,1900109,1900110,1900111,1900112,1900113,1900114,1900115,1900116,1900117"]

More than anything, it’s a showcase title for the technology. A series of five Pokémon, beginning with Pikachu, appear demanding you interact with them through a series of waves. It’s simple, it’s silly and you’ll finish the whole thing in about three minutes. That’s not really the point, though. Pokémon Wave Hello exists to:

  1. Get you used to gestures.
  2. Demonstrate functionality beyond simple features. Gaming, AR — down the road, these things could ultimately find fun and innovative ways to integrate Soli.

For now, however, use is extremely limited. There are some fun little bits, including dynamic wallpaper that reacts to movement. The screen also glows subtly when detecting you — a nice little touch (there’s a similar effect for Assistant, as well).

Perhaps most practical, however, is the fact that the phone can detect when you’re reaching for it and begin the unlocking process. That makes the already fast new Face Unlock feature ever faster. Google ditched the fingerprint reader this time around, opting for neither a physical sensor nor in-screen reader. Probably for the best on the latter front, given the pretty glaring security woes Samsung experienced last week when a British woman accidentally spoofed the reader with a $3 screen protector. Yeeesh.

There are some nice security precautions on here. Chief among them is the fact that the unlock is done entirely on-device. All of the info is saved and processed on the phone’s Titan M chip, meaning it doesn’t get sent up to the cloud. That both makes it a speedier process and means Google won’t be sharing your face data with its other services — a fact Google felt necessary to point out, for obvious reasons.

For a select few of us, at least, Recorder feels like a legitimate game changer. And its ease of use and efficacy should be leaving startups like Otter.ai quaking at its potential, especially if/when Google opts to bring it to other Android handsets and iOS.

I was initially unimpressed by the app upon trying it out at last week’s launch event. It struggles to isolate audio in noisy environments — likely as much of a hardware as software constraint. One on one and it’s far better, though attempting to, say, record audio from a computer can still use some work.

google pixel 4 004

Open the app and hit record and you’ll see a waveform pop up. The line is blue when detecting speech and gray when hearing other sounds. Tap the Transcript button and you’ll see the speech populate the page in real time. From there you can save it with a title and tag the location.

The app will automatically tag keywords and make everything else searchable for easy access. In its first version, it already completely blows Apple’s Voice Memos out of the water. There’s no comparison, really. It’s in a different league. Ditto for other apps I’ve used over the years, like Voice Record.

Speaking to the product, the recording was still a little hit or miss. It’s not perfect — no AI I’ve encountered is. But it’s pretty good. I’d certainly recommend going back over the text before doing anything with it. Like Otter and other voice apps, you can play back the audio as it highlights words, karaoke-style.

The text can be saved to Google Drive, but can’t be edited in app yet. Audio can be exported, but not as a combined file. The punctuation leaves something to be desired and Recorder is not yet able to distinguish individual voices. These are all things a number of standalone services offer, along with a web-based platform. That means that none of them are out of business yet, but if I was running any of them, I’d be pretty nervous right about now.

As someone who does interviews for a living, however, I’m pretty excited by the potential here. I can definitely see Recorder become one of my most used work apps, especially after some of the aforementioned kinks get ironed out in the next version. As for those who don’t do this for a living, usefulness is probably a bit limited, though there are plenty of other potential uses, like school lecturers.

google pixel 4 005

The Pixel continues to distinguish itself through software updates and camera features. There are nice additions throughout that set it apart from the six-month-old 3a, as well, including a more premium design and new 90Hz display. At $799, the price is definitely a vast improvement over competitors like Samsung and Apple, while retaining flagship specs.

The Pixel 4 doesn’t exactly address what Google wants the Pixel to be, going forward. The Pixel 3a was confirmation that users were looking for a far cheaper barrier of entry. The Pixel 4, on the other hand, is priced above OnePlus’s excellent devices. Nor is the product truly premium from a design perspective.

It’s unclear what the future will look like as Google works to address the shifting smartphone landscape. In the meantime, however, the future looks bright for camera imaging, and Google remains a driving force on that front.

 


0

Week in Review: The web’s free speech conundrum

19:21 | 20 October

Hey everyone. Thank you for welcoming me into you inbox yet again.

Last week, I talked about the eternal dumbness of the smart home and how Google had a big chance to lay out their vision this past week. Guess what? They did not, instead we got a new more expensive Google Wifi that falls under the Nest brand as well as a Google Mini that can be wall-mounted…

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.


The big story

Zuckerberg had an interesting week, delivering a very rehearsed keynote that was neither in front of Congress or an audience of developers at F8. He spoke at Georgetown on the topic of free speech and Facebook’s brand of capitalism.

It was an odd speech, but it was an opportunity for him to speak at length about what he saw as Facebook’s mission in terms of free speech

“These two simple ideas — voice and inclusion — go hand in hand. We’ve seen this throughout history, even if it doesn’t feel that way today. More people being able to share their perspectives has always been necessary to build a more inclusive society. And our mutual commitment to each other — that we hold each others’ right to express our views and be heard above our own desire to always get the outcomes we want — is how we make progress together.

But this view is increasingly being challenged. Some people believe giving more people a voice is driving division rather than bringing us together. More people across the spectrum believe that achieving the political outcomes they think matter is more important than every person having a voice. I think that’s dangerous. Today I want to talk about why, and some important choices we face around free expression.

Throughout history, we’ve seen how being able to use your voice helps people come together. We’ve seen this in the civil rights movement. Frederick Douglass once called free expression “the great moral renovator of society”. He said “slavery cannot tolerate free speech”. Civil rights leaders argued time and again that their protests were protected free expression, and one noted: “nearly all the cases involving the civil rights movement were decided on First Amendment grounds”.

Facebook is in an interesting position here, where they’re tying a moral stance with an economic one. They seem to draw the line at paid ads and paid political speech whereas everything before it was so nuanced. I don’t like that very much.

Unrestricted speech on the internet has been an evolving topic. There’s the very real argument that giving people a megaphone to harass and bully minimizes other people’s ability to have unrestricted speech themselves. Facebook and most of the other major platforms have agreed with this and have put policies in place.

There’s also the situation where someone is threatening or discussing violence or hate speech. Again, Facebook goes further than the law requires and has this firmly in their policies.

If you look at the company’s existing policies that have been put in place over the past few years, you would find plenty of guidelines at odds with sections of Zuck’s speech and yet he seemed to be drawing a big red line here and now, with the only reason being the criticism of Facebook’s ad policy that allowed Donald Trump to pay for and target ads that were ostensibly untrue.

I wrote about the situation in full here and it rings true again after Zuckerberg’s speech. Timing is everything and it’s hard to take this moral stance seriously right now especially.

Send me feedback
on Twitter 
 or email
lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

(Photo by Steve Sands/WireImage)

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Sprint + T-Mobile = official best friends
    The FCC has reportedly decided to let another massive merger go through (after some decent concessions), allowing T-Mobile and Sprint to proceed in their massive telecom merger.
  • Switch sales surge
    Nintendo has already made a major splash with the Switch, but the traction it’s gaining in North America has already eclipsed its last-gen system’s worldwide unit sales. Check out their latest milestone.
  • Justice Dept takes down a massive child exploitation site
    The government infiltrated and clamped down on a massive child exploitation dark web site this week and my colleague Zack has the full rundown.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. $35B lawsuit against FB can move forward:
    [$35 billion face lawsuit against Facebook can proceed]
  2. AOC and Ted criticize Apple:
    [Apple’s China stance makes for strange political alliances as AOC and Ted Cruz slam the company]

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0

Logitech’s MX Master 3 mouse and MX Keys keyboard should be your setup of choice

17:55 | 17 October

Logitech recently introduced a new mouse and keyboard, the MX Master 3 ($99.99) and MX Keys ($99.99) respectively. Both devices borrow a lot from other, older hardware in Logitech’s lineup – but they build on what the company has gotten really right with input devices, and add some great new features to make these easily the best option out there when it comes to this category of peripherals.

Logitech MX Keys

This new keyboard from Logitech inherits a lot from the company’s previous top-of-the-line keyboard aimed at creatives, the Logitech Craft keyboard. It looks and feels a lot like the premium Craft – minus the dial that Logitech placed at the top of that keyboard, which worked with companion software to offer a variety of different controls for a number of different applications.

The Craft’s dial was always a bit of a curiosity, and while probably extremely useful for certain creative workflows where having a tactile dial control makes a lot of sense (for scrubbing a video timeline during editing, for instance), in general the average user probably isn’t going to need or use it much.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 5The MX Keys doesn’t have the Craft’s dial, and it takes up less space on your desk as a result. It also costs $70 less than the Craft, which is probably something most people would rather have than the unique controller. The MX Keys still have excellent key travel and typing feel, like its bigger sibling, and it also has smart backlighting that turns on automatically when your hand approaches the keys – and which you can adjust or turn off to suit your preference, and extend battery life.

MX Keys has a built-in battery that chargers via USB-C, and provides up to 10 days of use on a full charge when using the backlight, or for up to 5 months if you disable the backlight entirely. For connectivity, you get both Bluetooth and Logitech’s USB receiver, which can also connect to other Logitech devices like the MX Master series of mice.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 3The keyboard can connect to up to three devices at once, with dedicated buttons to switch between them. It supports Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS out of the box, and has multi-marked keys to make it easier to transition between operating systems. Plus, when you’re using the MX Keys in tandem with the MX Master 3 or other Logitech mice that support its Flow software, you can transition seamlessly between computers and even operating systems, for doing things like copying and pasting files.

AT $99.99, the MX Keys feels like an incredible value, since it offers very premium-feeling hardware in an attractive package, with a suite of features that’s hard to match in a keyboard from anyone else – including first-party peripherals from Microsoft and Apple .

Logitech MX Master 3

When it comes to mice, there are few companies that can match Logitech’s reputation or record. The MX Master series in particular has won plenty of fans – and for good reason.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 9The MX Master 3 doesn’t re-invent the wheel – except that it literally does, in the case of the scroll wheel. Logitech has introduced a new school wheel with ‘MagSpeed’ technology, that switches automatically between fluid scrolling and more fine-grained, pixel-precise control. The company claims the new design is 90 percent faster and 87 percent more precise than its previous scroll wheel, which is pretty much an impossible claim to verify through standard use. That said, it does feel like a better overall scrolling experience, and the claim that it’s now ‘ultra quiet’ is easy to confirm.

Logitech has also tweaked the shape of the mouse, with a new silhouette it says is better suited to matching the shape of your palm. That new shape is complimented with a new thumb scroll wheel, which has always been a stellar feature of the Master series and which again, does feel better in actual use though it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why. Regardless, it feels better than the Master 2S, and that’s all that really matters.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 10In terms of tracking, Logitech’s Darkfield technology is here to provide effective tracking on virtually all surfaces. It tracks at 4,000 DPI, which is industry-leading for accuracy, and you can adjust sensitivity, scroll direction and other features in Logitech’s desktop software. The MX Master 3 also supports up to three devices at once, and works with Flow to copy and past between different operating systems.

One of the most noteworthy changes on the MX Master 3 is that it gains USB-C for charging, replacing Micro USB, which is fantastic news for owners of modern Macs who want to simplify their cable lives and just stick with one standard where possible. Since that matches up with the USB-C used on the MX Keys, that means you can just use one cable for charging both when needed. The MX Master 3 gets up to 70 days on a full charge, and you can gain 3 hours of use from a fully exhausted battery with just one minute of charging.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 7Bottom line

Logitech has long been a leader in keyboard and mice for very good reason, and the company’s ability to iterate on its existing successes with improvements that are smart and make sense is impressive. The MX Keys is probably the best keyboard within its price range that you can get right now – and better than a lot of more premium-priced hardware. The MX Master 3 is without a doubt the only mouse I’d recommend for most people, especially now that it offers USB-C charging alongside its terrific feature set. Combined, they’re a powerful desktop pair for work, creative and general use.

 


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