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Many smart home device makers still won’t say if they give your data to the government

23:00 | 11 December

A year ago, we asked some of the most prominent smart home device makers if they have given customer data to governments. The results were mixed.

The big three smart home device makers — Amazon, Facebook and Google (which includes Nest) — all disclosed in their transparency reports if and when governments demand customer data. Apple said it didn’t need a report, as the data it collects was anonymized.

As for the rest, none had published their government data-demand figures.

In the year that’s past, the smart home market has grown rapidly, but the remaining device makers have made little to no progress on disclosing their figures. And in some cases, it got worse.

Smart home and other internet-connected devices may be convenient and accessible, but they collect vast amounts of information on you and your home. Smart locks know when someone enters your house, and smart doorbells can capture their face. Smart TVs know which programs you watch and some smart speakers know what you’re interested in. Many smart devices collect data when they’re not in use — and some collect data points you may not even think about, like your wireless network information, for example — and send them back to the manufacturers, ostensibly to make the gadgets — and your home — smarter.

Because the data is stored in the cloud by the devices manufacturers, law enforcement and government agencies can demand those companies turn over that data to solve crimes.

But as the amount of data collection increases, companies are not being transparent about the data demands they receive. All we have are anecdotal reports — and there are plenty: Police obtained Amazon Echo data to help solve a murder; Fitbit turned over data that was used to charge a man with murder; Samsung helped catch a sex predator who watched child abuse imagery; Nest gave up surveillance footage to help jail gang members; and recent reporting on Amazon-owned Ring shows close links between the smart home device maker and law enforcement.

Here’s what we found.

Smart lock and doorbell maker August gave the exact same statement as last year, that it “does not currently have a transparency report and we have never received any National Security Letters or orders for user content or non-content information under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).” But August spokesperson Stephanie Ng would not comment on the number of non-national security requests — subpoenas, warrants and court orders — that the company has received, only that it complies with “all laws” when it receives a legal demand.

Roomba maker iRobot said, as it did last year, that it has “not received” any government demands for data. “iRobot does not plan to issue a transparency report at this time,” but it may consider publishing a report “should iRobot receive a government request for customer data.”

Arlo, a former Netgear smart home division that spun out in 2018, did not respond to a request for comment. Netgear, which still has some smart home technology, said it does “not publicly disclose a transparency report.”

Amazon-owned Ring, whose cooperation with law enforcement has drawn ire from lawmakers and faced questions over its ability to protect users’ privacy, said last year it planned to release a transparency report in the future, but did not say when. This time around, Ring spokesperson Yassi Shahmiri would not comment and stopped responding to repeated follow-up emails.

Honeywell spokesperson Megan McGovern would not comment and referred questions to Resideo, the smart home division Honeywell spun out a year ago. Resideo’s Bruce Anderson did not comment.

And just as last year, Samsung, a maker of smart devices and internet-connected televisions and other appliances, also did not respond to a request for comment.

On the whole, the companies’ responses were largely the same as last year.

But smart switch and sensor maker Ecobee, which last year promised to publish a transparency report “at the end of 2018,” did not follow through with its promise. When we asked why, Ecobee spokesperson Kristen Johnson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Based on the best available data, August, iRobot, Ring and the rest of the smart home device makers have hundreds of millions of users and customers around the world, with the potential to give governments vast troves of data — and users and customers are none the wiser.

Transparency reports may not be perfect, and some are less transparent than others. But if big companies — even after bruising headlines and claims of co-operation with surveillance states — disclose their figures, there’s little excuse for the smaller companies.

This time around, some companies fared better than their rivals. But for anyone mindful of their privacy, you can — and should — expect better.

 


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Apple: Use only our special cloth to clean the $1,000 coating on our $5,000 Pro Display

17:53 | 11 December

If you thought the saga of the $7,000 Apple Pro Display XDR couldn’t get any more ridiculous, prepare yourself for the proverbial cherry on top: The company insists that you only use the single special cleaning cloth that comes with the monitor. If you lose it, you’re advised to order another.

Apple, already under fire from longtime users for the ever-increasing price of its products, attracted considerable ire and ridicule when it announced the high-end monitor in June. Of course there are many expensive displays out there — it was more the fact that Apple was selling the display for $5,000, the stand separately for $999, and an optional “nano-texture” coating for an additional grand.

Just wait till you see how much the Mac Pro that goes with it costs.

 

Technically it’s not actually a “coating” but an extremely small-scale etching of the surface that supposedly produces improved image quality without some of the drawbacks of a full-matte coating. “Typical matte displays have a coating added to their surface that scatters light. However, these coatings lower contrast while producing unwanted haze and sparkle,” the product description reads. Not so with nano-texture.

Unfortunately, the unique nature of the glass necessitates special care when cleaning.

“Use only the dry polishing cloth that comes with your display,” reads the support page How to clean your Apple Pro Display XDR. “Never use any other cloths to clean the nano-texture glass. If you lose the included polishing cloth, you can contact Apple to order a replacement polishing cloth.” (No price is listed, so I’ve asked Apple for more information.)

Obviously if you’re cleaning an expensive screen you don’t want to do it with Windex and wadded-up newspaper. But it’s not clear what differentiates Apple’s cloth from an ordinary microfiber wipe.

Do the nano-scale ridges shred ordinary mortal cloth and get fibers caught in their interstices? Can the nano-texture be damaged by anything of insufficient softness?

Apple seems to be presuming a certain amount of courage on the part of consumers, who must pay a great deal for something that not only provides an uncertain benefit (even Apple admits that the display without the coating is “engineered for extremely low reflectivity”) but seems susceptible to damage from even the lightest mishandling.

No doubt the Pro Display XDR is a beautiful display, and naturally only those who feel it is worth the price will buy one. But no one likes to have to baby their gadgets, and Apple’s devices have also gotten more fragile and less readily repairable. The company’s special cloth may be a small, even silly thing, but it’s part of a large and worrying trend.

 


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Scaled Robotics keeps an autonomous eye on busy construction sites

16:16 | 11 December

Buildings under construction are a maze of half-completed structures, gantries, stacked materials, and busy workers — tracking what’s going on can be a nightmare. Scaled Robotics has designed a robot that can navigate this chaos and produce 3D progress maps in minutes, precise enough to detect that a beam is just a centimeter or two off.

Bottlenecks in construction aren’t limited to manpower and materials. Understanding exactly what’s been done and what needs doing is a critical part of completing a project in good time, but it’s the kind of painstaking work that requires special training and equipment. Or, as Scaled Robotics showed today at TC Disrupt Berlin 2019, specially trained equipment.

The team has created a robot that trundles autonomously around construction sites, using a 360-degree camera and custom lidar system to systematically document its surroundings. An object recognition system allows it to tell the difference between a constructed wall and a piece of sheet rock leaned against it, between a staircase and temporary stairs for electric work, and so on.

By comparing this to a source CAD model of the building, it can paint a very precise picture of the progress being made. They’ve built a special computer vision model that’s suited to the task of sorting obstructions from the constructions and identifying everything in between.

All this information goes into a software backend where the supervisors can check things like which pieces are in place on which floor, whether they have been placed within the required tolerances, or if there are safety issues like too much detritus on the ground in work areas. But it’s not all about making the suits happy.

“It’s not just about getting management to buy in, you need the guy who’s going to use it every day to buy in. So we’ve made a conscious effort to fit seamlessly into what they do, and they love that aspect of it,” explained co-founder Bharath Sankaran. “You don’t need a computer scientist in the room. Issues get flagged in the morning, and that’s a coffee conversation – here’s the problem, bam, let’s go take a look at it.”

Scaled Robotics

The robot can make its rounds faster than a couple humans with measuring tapes and clipboards, certainly, but also someone equipped with a stationary laser ranging device that they carry from room to room. An advantage of simultaneous location and ranging (SLAM) tech is that it measures from multiple points of view over time, building a highly accurate and rich model of the environment.

The data is assembled automatically but the robot can be either autonomous or manually controlled — in developing it, they’ve brought the weight down from about 70 kilograms to 20, meaning it can be carried easily from floor to floor if necessary (or take the elevator); and simple joystick controls mean anyone can drive it.

A trio of pilot projects concluded this year and have resulted in paid pilots next year, which is of course a promising development.

Interestingly, the team found that construction companies were using outdated information and often more or less assumed they had done everything in the meantime correctly.

“Right now decisions are being made on data that’s maybe a month old,” said co-founder Stuart Maggs. “We can probably cover 2000 square meters in 40 minutes. One of the first times we took data on a site, they were completely convinced everything they’d done was perfect. We put the data in front of them and they found out there was a structural wall just missing, and it had been missing for 4 weeks.”

The company uses a service-based business model, providing the robot and software on a monthly basis, with prices rising with square footage. That saves the construction company the trouble of actually buying, certifying, and maintaining an unfamiliar new robotic system.

Scaled Robotics

But the founders emphasized that tracking progress is only the first hint of what can be done with this kind of accurate, timely data.

“The big picture version of where this is going is that this is the visual wiki for everything related to your construction site. You just click and you see everything that’s relevant,” said Sankaran. “Then you can provide other ancillary products, like health and safety stuff, where is storage space on site, predicting whether the project is on schedule.”

“At the moment, what you’re seeing is about looking at one moment in time and diagnosing it as quickly as possible,” said Maggs. “But it will also be about tracking that over time: We can find patterns within that construction process. That data feeds that back into their processes, so it goes from a reactive workflow to a proactive one.”

“As the product evolves you start unwrapping, like an onion, the different layers of functionality,” said Sankaran.

The company has come this far on $1 million of seed funding, but is hot on the track of more. Perhaps more importantly, its partnerships with construction giant PERI and Autodesk, which has helped push digital construction tools, may make it a familiar presence at building sites around the world soon.

 


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‘Plundervolt’ attack breaches chip security with a shock to the system

21:01 | 10 December

Today’s devices have been secured against innumerable software attacks, but a new exploit called Plundervolt uses distinctly physical means to compromise a chip’s security. By fiddling with the actual amount of electricity being fed to the chip, an attacker can trick it into giving up its innermost secrets.

It should be noted at the outset that while this is not a flaw on the scale of Meltdown or Spectre, it is a powerful and unique one and may lead to changes in how chips are designed.

There are two important things to know in order to understand how Plundervolt works.

The first is simply that chips these days have very precise and complex rules as to how much power they draw at any given time. They don’t just run at full power 24/7; that would drain your battery and produce a lot of heat. So part of designing an efficient chip is making sure that for a given task, the processor is given exactly the amount of power it needs — no more, no less.

The second is that Intel’s chips, like many others now, have what’s called a secure enclave, a special quarantined area of the chip where important things like cryptographic processes take place. The enclave (here called SGX) is inaccessible to normal processes, so even if the computer is thoroughly hacked, the attacker can’t access the data inside.

The creators of Plundervolt were intrigued by recent work by curious security researchers who had, through reverse engineering, discovered the hidden channels by which Intel chips manage their own power.

Hidden, but not inaccessible, it turns out. If you have control over the operating system, which many attacks exist to provide, you can get at these “Model-Specific Registers,” which control chip voltage, and can tweak them to your heart’s content.

Modern processors are so carefully tuned, however, that such tweak will generally just cause the chip to malfunction. The trick is to tweak it just enough to cause the exact kind of malfunction you expect. And because the entire process takes place within the chip itself, protections against outside influence are ineffective.

The Plundervolt attack does just this, using the hidden registers to very slightly change the voltage going to the chip at the exact moment that the secure enclave is executing an important task. By doing so they can induce predictable faults inside SGX, and by means of these carefully controlled failures cause it and related processes to expose privileged information. It can even be performed remotely, though of course full access to the OS is a prerequisite.

In a way it’s a very primitive attack, essentially giving the chip a whack at the right time to make it spit out something good, like it’s a gumball machine. But of course it’s actually quite sophisticated, since the whack is an electrical manipulation on the scale of millivolts, which needs to be applied at exactly the right microsecond.

The researchers explain that this can be mitigated by Intel, but only through updates at the BIOS and microcode level — the kind of thing that many users will never bother to go through with. Fortunately for important systems there will be a way to verify that the exploit has been patched when establishing a trusted connection with another device.

Intel, for its part, downplayed the seriousness of the attack. “We are aware of publications by various academic researchers that have come up with some interesting names for this class of issues, including “VoltJockey” and “Plundervolt,” it wrote in a blog post acknowledging the existence of the exploit. “We are not aware of any of these issues being used in the wild, but as always, we recommend installing security updates as soon as possible.”

Plundervolt is one of a variety of attacks that have emerged recently taking advantage of the ways that computing hardware has evolved over the last few years. Increased efficiency usually means increased complexity, which means increased surface area for non-traditional attacks like this.

The researchers who discovered and documented Plundervolt hail from the UK’s University of Birmingham, Graz University of Technology in Austria, and KU Leuven in Belgium. They are presenting their paper at IEEE S&P 2020.

 


0

North ending production of current Focals smart glasses to focus on Focals 2.0

16:00 | 10 December

Smart glasses maker North announced today that it will be ending production of its first-generation Focals glasses, which it brought to market for consumers last year. The company says it will instead shift its focus to Focals 2.0, a next-generation version of the product, which it says will ship starting in 2020.

Focals are North’s first product since rebranding the company from Thalmic Labs and pivoting from building smart gesture control hardware to glasses with a built-in heads-up display and smartphone connectivity. CEO and founder Stephen Lake told me in a prior interview that the company realized in developing its Myo gesture control armband that it was actually more pressing to develop the next major shift in computing platform before tackling interface devices for said platforms, hence the switch.

Focals 2.0 will be “at a completely different level” and “the most advanced smart glasses ever made,” Lake said in a press release announcing the new generation device. In terms of how exactly it’ll improve on the original, North isn’t sharing much but it has said that its made the 2.0 version both lighter and “sleeker,” and that it’ll offer a much sharper, “10x improved” built-in display.

North began selling its Focals smart glasses via physical showrooms that it opened first in Brooklyn and Toronto. These, in addition to a number of pop-up showroom locations that toured across North America, provided in-person try-ons and fittings for the smart glasses, which must be tailor-fit for individual users in order to properly display content from their supported applications. More recently, North also added a Showroom app for iOS devices, that included custom sizing powered by more recent iPhone front-facing depth sensing camera hardware.

North’s first-generation Focals smart glasses.

To date, North hasn’t revealed any sales figures for its initial Focals device, but the company did reduce the price of the glasses form $999 to just under $600 (without prescription) relatively soon after launch. Their cost, combined with the requirement for an in-person fitting prior to purchase (until the introduction of the Showroom app) and certain gaps in the product feature set like an inability to support iMessage on iOS natively, all point to initial sales being relatively low volume, however.

To North’s credit, Focals are the first smart glasses hardware that manage to have a relatively inconspicuous look. Despite somewhat thicker than average arms on either side where the battery, projection and computing components are housed, Focals resemble thick acrylic plastic frames of the kind popularized by Warby Parker and other standard glasses makers.

With version 2.0, it sounds like Focals will be making even more progress in developing a design that hews closely to standard glasses. One of the issues also cited by some users with the first-generation product was a relatively fuzzy image produced by the built-in projector, which required specific calibration to remain in focus, and it sounds like they’re addressing that, too.

The Focals successor will still have an uphill battle when it comes to achieving mass appeal, however. It’s unlikely that cost will be significantly reduced, though any progress it can make on that front will definitely help. And it still either requires non-glasses wearers to opt for regularly donning specs, or for standard glasses wearers to be within the acceptable prescription range supported by the hardware, and to be willing to spend a bit more for connected glasses features.

The company says the reason it’s ending Focals 1.0 production is to focus on the 2.0 rollout, but it’s not a great sign that there will be a pause in between the two generations in terms of availability. Through its two iterations as a company, Thalmic Labs and now North have not had the best track record in terms of developing hardware that has been a success with potential customers – Focals 2.0, whenever they do arrive, will have a lot to prove in terms of iterating enough to drive significant demand.

 


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In a first, Amazon launches a battery-powered portable Echo speaker in India

08:11 | 4 December

After launching nearly a dozen Echo speaker models in India in two years, Amazon said on Wednesday it is adding one more to the mix that addresses one of the most requested features from customers in the nation: Portability.

The e-commerce giant today unveiled the Echo Input Portable Smart Speaker Edition, a new variant in the lineup that includes a built-in battery. The 4,800mAh enclosed battery will offer up to 10 hours of continuous music playing or up to 11 hours of stand-by life, the company said.

“Portability has been one of the most requested features in India,” said Miriam Daniel, VP of Alexa Devices. “You want to be able to carry Alexa with you from room to room within your homes. So we have designed something just for you.”

The battery-powered Echo model, designed exclusively for India, is priced at 5,999 Indian rupees ($84). Users can currently purchase it at an introductory price of 4,999 Indian rupees ($70) and the device will begin shipping on December 18.

Other than the built-in battery pack, the new speaker model offers an identical set of features as other Echo variants. (There is an array of four LEDs that light up when a user taps the power button to show battery level.)

More to follow…

 


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‘Carpentry Compiler’ turns 3D models to instructions on how to build them

04:04 | 3 December

Even to an experienced carpenter, it may not be obvious what the best way is to build a structure they’ve designed. A new digital tool, Carpentry Compiler, provides a way forward, converting the shapes of the structure to a step-by-step guide on how to produce them. It could help your next carpentry project get off the screen and into the shop.

“If you think of both design and fabrication as programs, you can use methods from programming languages to solve problems in carpentry, which is really cool,” said project lead Adriana Schulz from the University of Washington’s computer science department, in a news release.

It sounds a bit detached from the sawdust and sweat of hands-on woodworking, but they don’t say “measure twice, cut once” for nothing. Carpentry is a cerebral process more than a physical one, and smart, efficient solutions tend to replace ones that are merely well made.

What Carpentry Compiler does is codify the rules that govern design and carpentry, for example what materials are available, what tools can do, and so on, and use those to create a solution (in terms of cuts and joins) to a problem (how to turn boards into a treehouse).

Users design in a familiar 3D model interface, as many already do, creating the desired structure out of various shapes that they can modify, divide, pierce, attach, and so on. The program then takes those shapes and determines the best way to create them from your existing stock, with the tools you have — which you can select from a list.

Need to make the roof of your treehouse but only have 2x4s? It’ll provide a recipe with that restriction. Got some plywood sheets? It’ll use those, and the leftovers contribute to the base so there’s less waste. By evaluating lots and lots of variations on how this might be accomplished, the program arrives at what it believes are the best options, and presents multiple solutions.

“If you want to make a bookcase, it will give you multiple plans to make it,” said Schulz. “One might use less material. Another one might be more precise because it uses a more precise tool. And a third one is faster, but it uses more material. All these plans make the same bookcase, but they are not identical in terms of cost. These are examples of tradeoffs that a designer could explore.”

A 24-inch 2×4 gets cut at 16 inches at a 30-degree angle.

That’s really the same kind of thing that goes on inside a woodworker’s brain: I could use that fresh sheet to make this part, and it would be easy, or I could cut those shapes from either corner and it would leave room in the middle, but that’ll be kind of a pain… That sort of thing. It can also optimize for spatial elements, if for example you wanted to pack the parts in a box, or for cost if you wanted to shave a few bucks off the project.

Eventually the user is provided with a set of instructions specific to their set of tools. And the carpenters themselves act as the “processor,” executing operations, like “cut at this angle,” on real-world materials. In Carpenter Compiler, computer programs you!

The team presented their work at SIGGRAPH Asia last month. You can read more about the project (and learn how you can try it yourself) at its webpage.

 


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The UniFi Dream Machine router is a great entry point for networking nerds

23:01 | 2 December

A few weeks ago, Ubiquiti unveiled the UniFi Dream Machine, an all-in-one networking device that combines a router, a switch with four Ethernet ports and a Wi-Fi access point for $299. It has what Ubiquiti calls an integrated cloud key that lets you control your network.

I’ve been using the UniFi Dream Machine on my home network for the past couple of weeks, so consider this a review of the device.

Ubiquiti is a well-known networking brand. Most people are familiar with the company’s access points — those rounded antennas that you can find around schools, companies and public spaces.

But the upfront investment has always been a bit steep for personal use cases and even small companies. The UniFi Dream Machine sits perfectly in between professional gears and consumer devices. It represents a huge upgrade is you’re using the router with Wi-Fi capabilities provided by your internet service provider.

Rebundling UniFi devices

Ubiquiti has a range of routers under the AmpliFi brand for consumers who are looking for a plug-and-play solution. The company recently announced a new device with great specifications if you don’t want to mess around with networking settings.

But if you’re reading this, chances are you know that UniFi products offer some customizations that you think are lacking in consumer products.

Switching from an all-in-one networking device to a UniFi system has always been a bit complicated. The company has broken down the networking stack into different devices to offer you more control.

It means that you have to buy a Security Gateway (a router, the “brain” of the network), a switch (just like a power strip, but for Ethernet ports) and an access point (a Wi-Fi antenna). On top of that, a UniFi cloud key is an essential buy if you want to manage your network with the company’s controller software.

If you’re committed to the UniFi ecosystem, you get a great experience. You can manage each Ethernet port on your switch individually, you can control Wi-Fi settings from anywhere in the world and many, many more things. Ars Technica’s Lee Hutchinson fell down the UniFi rabbit hole and wrote a great story about his experience running professional networking gears at home.

The UniFi Dream Machine takes a different approach. It rebundles all the separate pieces that make a UniFi network come to life. You can buy the $300 UniFi Dream Machine and control every little detail of your network.

Specifications

A few words on the specifications of the UniFi Dream Machine. The pill-shaped device has an integrated security gateway, which lets you run a DHCP server, create firewall policies, take advantage of multiple VLANs and more.

In addition to the WAN port to connect your device to the internet, there are four Gigabit Ethernet ports. As for Wi-Fi, the Dream Machine supports 802.11ac Wave 2 (“Wi-Fi 5”) with a 4×4 MU-MIMO antenna — no Wi-Fi 6 unfortunately.

Behind the scene, the device uses a 1.7GHz ARM Cortex-A57 processor. It has 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage and consumes up to 26W.

Using the Dream Machine

Setting up the UniFi Dream Machine is a great experience. Ideally, you want to plug an Ethernet cable in your ISP-provided router and put it in bridge mode. This way, it’ll act as a dumb modem and let the UniFi Dream Machine do all the hard work.

After downloading the mobile app and turning on the UniFi Dream Machine, you get a popup that mimics the pairing popup of the AirPods. You can then control your network from that mobile app or use a web browser on your computer.

This is when it gets interesting.

UniFi’s controller software usually lists all the UniFi devices currently running on your network. With the UniFi Dream Machine, you get a single device. But if you expand that device, you can see a list of three separate UniFi components — a gateway, a switch and an AP.

As expected, you can control every little detail of your network. Once again, this isn’t for everyone and you will have to learn a lot of things about networking in order to optimize your setup. But if you’re a digital tinkerer, it’s a breath of fresh air.

The UniFi Dream Machine acts as the DHCP server in my home. I have renamed my devices and assigned fixed IPs to all my device in order to find them more easily. You can see in real time the network they’re using and if they’re getting a good Wi-Fi signal.

I have also configured Cloudflare’s 1.1.1.1 public DNS at the network level.

There are a ton of possibilities if you care about security. I created a guest Wi-Fi network that only lets my friends access the internet. They can browse Twitter and stream Netflix shows without any issue, but they can’t access my computers on the local network.

I also created another Wi-Fi network for IoT devices, such as connected speakers, a printer and a robot vacuum. Connected devices don’t get a lot of security patches and have more vulnerabilities than a computer or a smartphone that you keep up-to-date. I assigned a different VLAN to this Wi-Fi network. VLANs let you create a partitioned network with different sets of rules.

I applied firewall rules to this VLAN so that I can control the devices from my personal devices, but they can’t initiate requests to my devices on their own. This is overkill for most people, but it’s fun that you can do that from UniFi’s controller. More details here.

When it comes to Wi-Fi, everything is customizable and performances have been stellar. I live in a small apartment, but the balcony has always been an issue. I often work from the balcony, and I’ve been using a cheap Wi-Fi extender that I found in a box of gadgets and cables.

I unplugged the Wi-Fi extender and tried to connect to the UniFi Dream Machine. I get better performance, even if I reduce Wi-Fi transmit power to medium.

These are just a few examples of things you can do with the UniFi Dream Machine. I feel like I’m still underusing the device (you can connect via SSH and control everything from the terminal), but I wouldn’t consider going back to an entry-level router with Wi-Fi capabilities.

Targeting prosumers

The UniFi Dream Machine is the networking device I didn’t know I wanted. I’ll never have hundreds of Wi-Fi devices connected to my home network. I don’t need a dozen Ethernet ports. And yet, I want to be in control of my network. If you

Apple’s AirPort Extreme or if you’re a networking nerd, you should consider the UniFi Dream Machine.

Small businesses and shops often make some poor decisions at the beginning of the company. A cheap Wi-Fi router on Amazon doesn’t cut it when your business scales. The Dream Machine can be a good entry point as you’ll be able to build upon that base device.

But if you think you have bigger needs, don’t try to run a big network from a UniFi Dream Machine. Ubiquiti sells some great rackable devices that will give you a lot more flexibility. The UniFi Dream Machine is a constrained machine after all. That’s what makes it both not good enough for enterprise customers and great for prosumers.

 


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Now even the FBI is warning about your smart TV’s security

22:47 | 1 December

If you just bought a smart TV on Black Friday or plan to buy one for Cyber Monday tomorrow, the FBI wants you to know a few things.

Smart TVs are like regular television sets but with an internet connection. With the advent and growth of Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services, most saw internet-connected televisions as a cord-cutter’s dream. But like anything that connects to the internet, it opens up smart TVs to security vulnerabilities and hackers. Not only that, many smart TVs come with a camera and a microphone. But as is the case with most other internet-connected devices, manufacturers often don’t put security as a priority.

That’s the key takeaway from the FBI’s Portland field office, which just ahead of some of the biggest shopping days of the year posted a warning on its website about the risks that smart TVs pose.

“Beyond the risk that your TV manufacturer and app developers may be listening and watching you, that television can also be a gateway for hackers to come into your home. A bad cyber actor may not be able to access your locked-down computer directly, but it is possible that your unsecured TV can give him or her an easy way in the backdoor through your router,” wrote the FBI.

The FBI warned that hackers can take control of your unsecured smart TV and in worst cases, take control of the camera and microphone to watch and listen in.

Active attacks and exploits against smart TVs are rare, but not unheard of. Because every smart TV comes with their manufacturer’s own software and are at the mercy of their often unreliable and irregular security patching schedule, some devices are more vulnerable than others. Earlier this year, hackers showed it was possible to hijack Google’s Chromecast streaming stick and broadcast random videos to thousands of victims.

In fact, some of the biggest exploits targeting smart TVs in recent years were developed by the Central Intelligence Agency, but were stolen and published online by WikiLeaks two years ago.

But as much as the FBI’s warning is responding to genuine fears, arguably one of the bigger issues that should cause as much if not greater concerns are how much tracking data is collected on smart TV owners.

The Washington Post earlier this year found that some of the most popular smart TV makers — including Samsung and LG — collect tons of information about what users are watching in order to help advertisers better target ads against their viewers and to suggest what to watch next, for example. The TV tracking problem became so problematic a few years ago that smart TV maker Vizio had to pay $2.2 million in fines after it was caught secretly collecting customer viewing data. Earlier this year, a separate class action suit related to the tracking again Vizio was allowed to go ahead.

The FBI recommends placing black tape over an unused smart TV camera, keeping your smart TV up-to-date with the latest patches and fixes, and to read the privacy policy to better understand what your smart TV is capable of.

As convenient as it might be, the most secure smart TV might be one that isn’t connected to the internet at all.

 


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Peak Design’s Everyday Backpack Zip and Everyday Backpack V2 are top-notch photo and travel bags

20:11 | 28 November

Peak Design has evolved from a crowdfunded upstart into a trusted accessory brand for photographers everywhere, and this week it introduced updates to its ‘Everyday’ line of backpacks and bags. These new and improved designs offer stuff that impresses anyone who was previously a fan of Peak’s work, and should also win the company brand new fans, based on my testing of the all-new Everyday Backpack Zip 20L and the updated Everyday Backpack V2 30L.

Everyday Backpack Zip 20L

The Everyday Backpack Zip is a brand new product for Peak, taking a lot of inspiration from the Everyday backpack but opting for a full zip closure in place of the MagLatch that it created and introduced on the Everyday line. Opting to go with a zipper instead of the MagLatch means that the Zip backpack doesn’t have the same capacity expandability to allow you to stuff more… stuff… in the top compartment, but it also offers its own benefits depending on your needs.

First, there’s price: The Backpack Zip 20L I reviewed will cost you $219.95, which is $40 less than the equivalent Everyday Backpack with the magnetic closure. It’s not a huge gap, but if you’re looking to save a few dollars it’s a good value for what you get. The Zip also comes in a smaller 15L capacity, the smallest size for any of the Everyday Backpacks, and that’s a nice compact bag for anyone with a smaller frame or looking to carry less gear.

The zipper enclosure is also interesting in its own right, allowing you to fully open the back of the bag if you want. By default, there are rigid dividers in the backpack to effectively give it shelves, but should you want to remove these, this makes this the most easily packable Peak backpack in this daypack size range. It’s therefore a great choice for those looking for a backpack to use for purposes other than as a camera bag.

The Everyday Zip also still packs a ton of connection points for you to hook gear to, as well as improved zippers vs. Peak’s original packs. There’s a dedicated laptop sleeve with a tablet pocket that can fit 15″ laptops on the 20L and 13″ laptops on the 15L. The 20L also features the all-new adjustable laptop pocket design that Peak introduced on this generation, which includes an adjustable shelf that lets it more easily hold smaller laptops without them falling all the way to the bottom. It’s also on the standard Backpack V2, and it’s an awesome and easy-to-use quality of life improvement.

Like the Everyday Backpack, the Zip also features a pass-through luggage strap for putting it on a roller while you’re making your way through an airport, and interlocking zipper pulls that can help prevent anyone from quickly tugging open the bag to try to manage a quick pass-by theft. The durable, ripstop fabric exterior is also great for lifetime sustainability.

In terms of capacity, this is a smaller bag but it can still fit a lot of gear – I was able to pack my Sony 70-200 f/2.8 GM, Sony 100-400 f/2.8 GM and my Sony A7R IV with the 24-70 f/2.8 GM attached for instance, though fitting all that in with the requisite accessories is probably too tight a fit and merits moving up to the bigger sizes of the V2.

 

Everyday Backpack V2 30L

The improved Everyday Backpack V2 brings back the MagLatch, with a new design that Peak says is “more ergonomic and sleek.” It definitely stands out less than before, and does seem to be more intuitive to use, which is good news. The sides are again accessible via two zippered compartments (all the zippers are improved and designed for more durability) and the interior is divided by three included velcro, flexible dividers.

The overall look of the Everyday Backpack V2 has been tweaked – and for the better. It was already one of the better looking photo backpacks you could buy, but Peak has made it more rounded this generation, and improved the look of all the seams for a look that just generally projects more quality and attention to detail.

Peak sent the 30L version for me to review, and the capacity difference between it and the 20L Zip allows for packing in way more stuff, including all the various accessories like extra batteries and chargers, mics and more you’re likely to want with you on a dedicated photo or video shoot. I could easily pack the same lens+body combo mentioned above, plus a Mavic Mini and a second Sony A7III body in the 30L.

That height-adjustable laptop sleeve is again present, and makes an even bigger difference on the 30L, since the pocket is deeper to begin with. On my existing V1 Everyday, chasing down the company-issue 13″ MacBook Pro in that cavernous pocket was always a bit like diving deep to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but here it’s really easy and far less likely to give your fingers rug burn.

The shoulder straps on the Everyday V2 are also improved, and they do feel more comfortable based on initial testing. They also now have embedded magnets that connect to the back of the bag when you’re not wearing it, which is actually wonderful for when you’re stowing the bag in an airplane overhead compartment, or putting it through the scanner at the airport security checkpoint. It’s a small detail, but then again Peak’s whole rep is built on it including small details, like the various stowable straps, that remain out of the way until needed and then really deliver awesome convenience.

Bottom Line

Just like the originals, Peak has delivered what are likely the most thoughtful, carefully designed photography backpacks available on the market with their V2 range. The fact that Peak as a company is now also focused on ensuring they can build and deliver their products in a way that has a neutral impact on the climate is just an added benefit of its ability to engineer and deliver high-quality, functional gear.

Peak’s stuff is not for everyone – you can definitely get totally fine photo gear for less money. But it’s a category-leading choice for anyone with the means and a great value if you’re looking for a long-term, modular solution that you can go everywhere with.

 


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