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The best Amazon Prime Day deals you can still grab

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Prime Day, Column, Gadgets, Wirecutter | No Comments
Makula Dunbar
Contributor

Makula Dunbar is a writer with Wirecutter.

Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions. Read Wirecutter’s continuously updated list of deals here.

Amazon Prime Day this year, despite its slow start, broke records and boosted the fortunes of its competitors. And now that it’s over, we found some deals you can still take advantage of.

Asus ROG Swift PG279Q 27 Inch

Street Price: $740; Deal Price: $690

A new low price on our gaming monitor pick for Nvidia graphics card users. While it only beats our previous low by a few bucks, this monitor has been stubborn about sticking to $740.

The Asus ROG Swift PG279Q 27 Inch is our G-Sync pick in our guide to the best gaming monitors. David Murphy wrote, “Our pick had the best contrast ratio and lowest measured black levels among our finalists, which helps bring out detail in movies and games; it has all the input connections you need, as well as a built-in USB 3.0 hub; and it’s incredibly adjustable.”

AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable (15 foot)

Street Price: $11; Deal Price: $7

At $7 for a 15 foot cable, this is a new low price. We haven’t seen any discount for this particular size since 2017 and the street price typically sticks to $11.

The AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable is the top pick in our guide to cheap, great HDMI cables. “The AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable is a no-frills HDMI cable, but with HDMI, frills aren’t necessary,” Geoffrey Morrison wrote. “The cable is sturdily built and works with any video signal of today (and probably ones into the near future). Both the 3- and 15-foot lengths passed all our tests, including HDR tests.”

DJI Spark Fly More Combo

Street Price: $550; Deal Price: $500

Down to $500 in all available colors, this is a solid drop from a typical price of $550 for the DJI Spark Fly More Combo, a bundle that includes the Spark, controller, extra battery and other accessories.

The DJI Spark is our entry-level pick for drone photography in our guide to the best drones. “If all you want is something to capture aerial footage on occasion for personal use and social-media sharing, you can save several hundred dollars by getting the DJI Spark,” Mike Perlman wrote. “Despite weighing half as much as the Mavic and folding up to about the size of your hand, it has all the important features you need from a video drone: 1080p video recording, image and flight stabilization, collision-avoidance technology and an included controller, and smart-flight modes like ActiveTrack (tracks and follows a subject) and gesture controls all come standard.”

Lutron Caséta (2 of our top in-wall wireless light switch and dimmer pick + control hub + 2 remotes)

Street Price: $160; Deal Price: $120

If you’re looking for a Lutron Caséta starter kit this is a good deal on one that includes two switches, one bridge and two remotes. Usually priced at $160, the price drops to $120 at checkout, this matches the lowest price we’ve seen.

The Lutron Caséta Wireless In-Wall Dimmer and the Lutron Caséta Smart Bridge are the top picks in our guide to the best in-wall wireless light switch and dimmer. Rachel Cericola wrote, “After spending more than 30 hours swapping out switches, flipping switches, programming timers, and talking to experts, we’ve decided that the Lutron Caséta Wireless In-Wall Dimmer is the best wireless in-wall dimmer switch for most people. It’s phase-adaptive, so it can work with any lighting load; it’s the easiest to physically install; and like the other eight units we tested, it features straightforward remote control and scheduling.”

Philips Hue White A19 4-Pack 60W

Street Price: $50; Deal Price: $40

For those of you who want a set of smart LED light bulbs but don’t want or need the added price for color, a 4-pack of 60W Philips Hue bulbs is an excellent deal matching the previous lowest price on the white variant of our top pick for best smart LED light bulbs.

“Setting up Hue lights requires a few simple steps, much like any other smart-home device. The gateway connects to your home router or network switch via a wired Ethernet port,” Grant Clauser wrote. “This connects the system to your network and allows you to control the lights with a smartphone or tablet connected wirelessly to the same network.”

Q Acoustics 3020

Street Price: $270; Deal Price: $243

At $243 from a street price of $270, this is the lowest price we’ve seen for a pair of Q Acoustics 3020 in either the American Walnut finish or graphite color. These colors are typically priced lower than the black and white colors, but if you absolutely must have either of those, they are also down to the lowest price we’ve seen at $289 from $320.

The Q Acoustics 3020 is the top pick in our guide to the best bookshelf speakers for most stereos. “The Q Acoustics 3020 pair reproduces music of all genres with great detail and clarity on a wide soundstage. Despite each speaker’s compact size, the set delivers both strong bass and accurate vocals,” Chris Heinonen wrote. “These speakers are efficient, too, which means they can play louder with less-powerful receivers and amplifiers. The compact, rounded-corner design comes in four finishes to help this set fit in with a wider variety of decors.”

Roku Streaming Stick

Street Price: $45; Deal Price: $35

Recently we’ve been seeing a lot of price fluctuations between $40 and $50, so it’s nice to see this media streaming device down to a new low price of $35. Prior to this deal the best price we’ve seen is $39.

The Roku Streaming Stick is the runner-up pick (if you don’t need 4K) in our guide to the best media streaming devices. Chris Heinonen wrote, “If you don’t need to stream UltraHD 4K content, the Roku Streaming Stick is the best option available today. It is almost identical to the Streaming Stick+, but supports only 1080p resolution and doesn’t have the external Wi-Fi antenna. If you know you aren’t going to get a 4K TV in the future, or are just looking to upgrade an existing 1080p TV or projector, it offers the same content selection, search, and performance of our main pick.”

Fujifilm X-T2

Street Price: $1500; Deal Price: $1,100

The high-end Fujifilm camera we recommend is down to a new low price of $1,100 from a street price of $1,500. The deal is for the black color and only the body without a lens. Prior to this sale the lowest price we’ve seen is $1,400, although there were some deals around Black Friday for the camera with a lens.

The Fujifilm X-T2 is the top pick for experienced shooters and pros in our guide to the best Fujifilm cameras. Amadou Diallo wrote, “The Fujifilm X-T2 represents a significant investment into your photography, and that’s before you even consider adding any of Fujifilm’s well-regarded lenses. But its sensor outperforms what you get in many DSLRs, providing impressively detailed images in even very dark lighting conditions.”

ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet

Street Price: $190; Deal Price: $130 w/ code AMUZISNW

Use the code AMUZISNW to get this price. It’s the lowest price we’ve seen so far, and only $8 more than our top pick, but with 30 percent more mAh/charge.

The ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet is our runner-up pick for laptop charging in our guide to the best portable AC battery pack. “If our top pick is unavailable or you need a little more power to keep a larger laptop going, get the ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet,” Mark Smirniotis wrote. “It has the same 85 W output as the Jackery PowerBar, so it can power the same types of laptops and electronics, but with an extra 25 percent capacity, this ChargeTech model will last a bit longer—handy if you’re frequently on long-haul flights or working in the field.”

littleBits Rule Your Room Kit

Street Price: $80; Deal Price: $40

Down to $40 when typically it’s priced around $85, this is an all-time low price for this electronics kit. Prior to this deal the lowest price we’ve seen is $56. We doubt this deal will last more than a few days, at most, so don’t wait — grab it at this low price if you know a would-be inventor.

The littleBits Rule Your Room Kit is the upgrade pick in our guide to the best electronics kits for kids and beginners. “Kids can create a piggy-bank alarm, a catapult, or an invention of their own using modular pieces that snap together magnetically. Each project takes more time and produces a more satisfying, practical device than those in the other kits we tested,” Signe Brewster wrote. “The Rule Your Room Kit comes with the fewest pieces and sample projects among our field of competitors, but because littleBits encourages the incorporation of everyday items into the projects, the kit feels like it offers more possibilities than other kits of similar size.”

Acton Blink Lite

Street Price: $225; Deal Price: $200

Back down to $200, this is a nice deal on this recommended electric skateboard. The Acton Blink Lite is our budget pick for lighter riders in our guide to the best electric skateboard. If you’re a sub-180-pound rider who isn’t looking to spend a ton, this is a good opportunity to save some cash. While the street price has dropped in recent months, it’s still a solid discount.

“The Acton Blink Lite may not be the most powerful board around, but it’s a phenomenal value considering its price, and it would be a good gift for the young skater in your life,” Jack Smith wrote. “But despite the lack in power, we found riding the Blink Lite to be a blast, largely due to its nimble mini-cruiser design and small size. It’s also significantly cheaper than most other boards available.”

Because great deals don’t just happen on Prime Day, sign up for our daily deals email and we’ll send you the best deals we find every weekday. Also, deals change all the time, and some of these may have expired. To see an updated list of current deals, please go here.

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When in Rome is the first Alexa-powered board game

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, arkansas, Gadgets, Rome, TC, voice technology | No Comments

Years ago, in the heyday of home video, I played a board games that used VHS tapes and electronic parts to help spur the action along. From Candy Land VCR to Captain Power, game makers were doing the best they could with a new technology. Now, thanks to Alexa, they can try something even cooler — board games that talk back.

The first company to try this is Sensible Object. Their new game, When in Rome, is a family board game that pits two teams against each other in a race to travel the world. The game itself consists of a board and a few colored pieces; the real magic comes from Alexa. You start the game by enabling the When in Rome skill, then you start the game. Alexa then prompts you with questions as you tool around the board.

The rules are simple because Alexa does most of the work. The game describes how to set up the board and gets you started, then you just trigger it with your voice as you play.

The company’s first game, Beasts of Balance, was another clever hybrid of AR and real-life board-game action. Both games are a bit gimmicky and a bit high-tech — you won’t be able to play these in a cozy beach house without internet, for example — but it’s a fun departure from the norm.

Like the VCR games of yore, When in Rome depends on a new technology to find a new way to have fun. It’s a clever addition to the standard board-game fare and our family had a good time playing it. While it’s not as timeless as a bit of Connect 4 or Risk, it’s a great addition to the board-games shelf and a cool use of voice technology in gaming.

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Snapchat code reveals team-up with Amazon for ‘Camera Search’

Posted by | Amazon, Apps, eCommerce, Mobile, Snap, snap inc, Snap Store, Snapchat, Snapchat Search, Social, TC | No Comments

Snapchat is building a visual product search feature, codenamed “Eagle,” that delivers users to Amazon’s listings. Buried inside the code of Snapchat’s Android app is an unreleased “Visual Search” feature where you “Press and hold to identify an object, song, barcode, and more! This works by sending data to Amazon, Shazam, and other partners.” Once an object or barcode has been scanned you can “See all results at Amazon.”

Visual product search could make Snapchat’s camera a more general purpose tool for seeing and navigating the world, rather than just a social media maker. It could differentiate Snapchat from Instagram, whose clone of Snapchat Stories now has more than twice the users and a six times faster gro

wth rate than the original. And if Snapchat has worked out an affiliate referrals deal with Amazon, it could open a new revenue stream. That’s something Snap Inc. direly needs after posting a $385 million loss last quarter and missing revenue estimates by $14 million.

TechCrunch was tipped off to the hidden Snapchat code by app researcher Ishan Agarwal. His tips have previously led to TechCrunch scoops about Instagram’s video calling, soundtracks, Focus portrait mode and QR Nametags features that were all later officially launched. Amazon didn’t respond to a press inquiry before publishing time, and it’s unclear if its actively involved in the development of Snapchat visual search or just a destination for its results. Snap already sells its Spetacles v2 camera glasses on Amazon — the only place beyond its own site. Snap Inc. gave TechCrunch a “no comment,” about visual search but the company’s code tells the story.

Snapchat first dabbled in understanding the world around you with its Shazam integration back in 2016 that lets you tap and hold to identify a song playing nearby, check it out on Shazam, send it to a friend or follow the artist on Snapchat. Project Eagle builds on this audio search feature to offer visual search through a similar interface and set of partnerships. The ability to identify purchaseable objects or scan barcodes could turn Snapchat, which some view as a teen toy, into more of a utility.

What’s inside Snapchat’s Eagle eye

Snapchat’s code doesn’t explain exactly how the Project Eagle feature will work, but in the newest version of Snapchat it was renamed as “Camera Search.” If you remember, Snap used another animal name, “Cheetah”, as the secret word for its big redesign. The app’s code lists the ability to surface “sellers” and “reviews,” “Copy URL” of a product and “Share” or “Send Product” to friends — likely via Snap messages or Snapchat Stories. In characteristic cool kid teenspeak, an error message for “product not found” reads “Bummer, we didn’t catch that!”

Eagle’s visual search may be connected to Snapchat’s “context cards,” which debuted late last year and pull up business contact info, restaurant reservations, movie tickets, Ubers or Lyfts and more. Surfacing within Snapchat a context card of details about ownable objects might be the first step to getting users to buy them… and advertisers to pay Snap to promote them. It’s easy to imagine context cards being accessible for products tagged in Snap Ads as well as scanned through visual search. And Snap already has in-app shopping.

Snapchat’s Camera Search could become a direct competitor for Pinterest’s Lens, which identifies objects and brings up related content. Pinterest has evolved the product, embedding it inside the apps of retailers like Target. Beyond shopping, Camera Search could let Snapchat users find Stories that contain the same object they’re snapping.

Being able to recognize what you’re seeing makes Snapchat more fun, but it’s also a new way of navigating reality. In mid-2017 Snapchat launched World Lenses that map the surfaces of your surroundings so you can place 3D animated objects like its Dancing Hotdog mascot alongside real people in real places. Snapchat also released a machine vision-powered search feature last year that compiles Stories of user-submitted Snaps featuring your chosen keyword, like videos with “puppies” or “fireworks,” even if the captions don’t mention them.

Pinterest’s Lens visual search feature

Snapchat was so interested in visual search that this year, it reportedly held early-stage acquisition talks with machine vision startup Blippar. The talks fell through with the U.K. augmented reality company that has raised at least $99 million for its own visual search feature, but which recently began to implode due to low usage and financing trouble. Snap Inc. might have been hoping to jumpstart its Camera Search efforts.

Snap calls itself a camera company, after all. But with the weak sales of its mediocre v1 Spectacles, the well-reviewed v2 failing to break into the cultural zeitgeist and no other hardware products on the market, Snap may need to redefine what exactly that tag line means. Visual search could frame Snapchat as more of a sensor than just a camera. With its popular use for rapid-fire selfie messaging, it’s already the lens through which some teens see the world. Soon, Snap could be ready to train its eagle eye on purchases, not just faces.

In related Snapchat news:

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Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, Apple, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Ben Einstein, computing, echo, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, ring, smart speaker, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, Spotify, steel, TC, technology | No Comments

In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.

The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.

“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.

The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.

Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.

Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.

Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.

On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.

Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.

Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

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Apple’s Shortcuts will flip the switch on Siri’s potential

Posted by | Amazon, Android, app-store, Apple, apple inc, apple tv, Apple Watch, Apps, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Column, computing, Craig Federighi, Google, google now, iOS, iPad, iPhone, iTunes, mobile devices, operating system, screen time, siri, Software, virtual assistant | No Comments
Matthew Cassinelli
Contributor

Matthew Cassinelli is a former member of the Workflow team and works as an independent writer and consultant. He previously worked as a data analyst for VaynerMedia.

At WWDC, Apple pitched Shortcuts as a way to ”take advantage of the power of apps” and ”expose quick actions to Siri.” These will be suggested by the OS, can be given unique voice commands, and will even be customizable with a dedicated Shortcuts app.

But since this new feature won’t let Siri interpret everything, many have been lamenting that Siri didn’t get much better — and is still lacking compared to Google Assistant or Amazon Echo.

But to ignore Shortcuts would be missing out on the bigger picture. Apple’s strengths have always been the device ecosystem and the apps that run on them.

With Shortcuts, both play a major role in how Siri will prove to be a truly useful assistant and not just a digital voice to talk to.

Your Apple devices just got better

For many, voice assistants are a nice-to-have, but not a need-to-have.

It’s undeniably convenient to get facts by speaking to the air, turning on the lights without lifting a finger, or triggering a timer or text message – but so far, studies have shown people don’t use much more than these on a regular basis.

People don’t often do more than that because the assistants aren’t really ready for complex tasks yet, and when your assistant is limited to tasks inside your home or commands spoken inton your phone, the drawbacks prevent you from going deep.

If you prefer Alexa, you get more devices, better reliability, and a breadth of skills, but there’s not a great phone or tablet experience you can use alongside your Echo. If you prefer to have Google’s Assistant everywhere, you must be all in on the Android and Home ecosystem to get the full experience too.

Plus, with either option, there are privacy concerns baked into how both work on a fundamental level – over the web.

In Apple’s ecosystem, you have Siri on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods, HomePod, CarPlay, and any Mac. Add in Shortcuts on each of those devices (except Mac, but they still have Automator) and suddenly you have a plethora of places to execute these all your commands entirely by voice.

Each accessory that Apple users own will get upgraded, giving Siri new ways to fulfill the 10 billion and counting requests people make each month (according to Craig Federighi’s statement on-stage at WWDC).

But even more important than all the places where you can use your assistant is how – with Shortcuts, Siri gets even better with each new app that people download. There’s the other key difference: the App Store.

Actions are the most important part of your apps

iOS has always had a vibrant community of developers who create powerful, top-notch applications that push the system to its limits and take advantage of the ever-increasing power these mobile devices have.

Shortcuts opens up those capabilities to Siri – every action you take in an app can be shared out with Siri, letting people interact right there inline or using only their voice, with the app running everything smoothly in the background.

Plus, the functional approach that Apple is taking with Siri creates new opportunities for developers provide utility to people instead of requiring their attention. The suggestions feature of Shortcuts rewards “acceleration”, showing the apps that provide the most time savings and use for the user more often.

This opens the door to more specialized types of apps that don’t necessarily have to grow a huge audience and serve them ads – if you can make something that helps people, Shortcuts can help them use your app more than ever before (and without as much effort). Developers can make a great experience for when people visit the app, but also focus on actually doing something useful too.

This isn’t a virtual assistant that lives in the cloud, but a digital helper that can pair up with the apps uniquely taking advantage of Apple’s hardware and software capabilities to truly improve your use of the device.

In the most groan-inducing way possible, “there’s an app for that” is back and more important than ever. Not only are apps the centerpiece of the Siri experience, but it’s their capabilities that extend Siri’s – the better the apps you have, the better Siri can be.

Control is at your fingertips

Importantly, Siri gets all of this Shortcuts power while keeping the control in each person’s hands.

All of the information provided to the system is securely passed along by individual apps – if something doesn’t look right, you can just delete the corresponding app and the information is gone.

Siri will make recommendations based on activities deemed relevant by the apps themselves as well, so over-active suggestions shouldn’t be common (unless you’re way too active in some apps, in which case they added Screen Time for you too).

Each of the voice commands is custom per user as well, so people can ignore their apps suggestions and set up the phrases to their own liking. This means nothing is already “taken” because somebody signed up for the skill first (unless you’ve already used it yourself, of course).

Also, Shortcuts don’t require the web to work – the voice triggers might not work, but the suggestions and Shortcuts app give you a place to use your assistant voicelessly. And importantly, Shortcuts can use the full power of the web when they need to.

This user-centric approach paired with the technical aspects of how Shortcuts works gives Apple’s assistant a leg up for any consumers who find privacy important. Essentially, Apple devices are only listening for “Hey Siri”, then the available Siri domains + your own custom trigger phrases.

Without exposing your information to the world or teaching a robot to understand everything, Apple gave Siri a slew of capabilities that in many ways can’t be matched. With Shortcuts, it’s the apps, the operating system, and the variety of hardware that will make Siri uniquely qualified come this fall.

Plus, the Shortcuts app will provide a deeper experience for those who want to chain together actions and customize their own shortcuts.

There’s lots more under the hood to experiment with, but this will allow anyone to tweak & prod their Siri commands until they have a small army of custom assistant tasks at the ready.

Hey Siri, let’s get started

Siri doesn’t know all, Can’t perform any task you bestow upon it, and won’t make somewhat uncanny phone calls on your behalf.

But instead of spending time conversing with a somewhat faked “artificial intelligence”, Shortcuts will help people use Siri as an actual digital assistant – a computer to help them get things done better than they might’ve otherwise.

With Siri’s new skills extendeding to each of your Apple products (except for Apple TV and the Mac, but maybe one day?), every new device you get and every new app you download can reveal another way to take advantage of what this technology can offer.

This broadening of Siri may take some time to get used to – it will be about finding the right place for it in your life.

As you go about your apps, you’ll start seeing and using suggestions. You’ll set up a few voice commands, then you’ll do something like kick off a truly useful shortcut from your Apple Watch without your phone connected and you’ll realize the potential.

This is a real digital assistant, your apps know how to work with it, and it’s already on many of your Apple devices. Now, it’s time to actually make use of it.

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Hands on with the Echo Dots Kids Edition

Posted by | Amazon, children, echo dot, family, Gadgets, hardware, kids, parents, TC | No Comments

Earlier this year, Amazon introduced an Echo Dot for kids, with its $80 Echo Dot Kids Edition device, which comes in your choice of a red, blue, or green protective case. The idea is to market a version of Amazon’s existing Dot hardware to families by bundling it with an existing subscription service, and by throwing in a few extra features – like having Alexa encourage kids to say “please” when making their demands, for example.

The device makes sense in a couple of scenarios – for helicopter parents who want to fully lock down an Echo device before putting it in a kid’s room, and for those who were in the market for a FreeTime Unlimited subscription anyway.

I’ve been testing out an Echo Dot Kids Edition, and ran into some challenges which I thought I’d share. This is not a hardware review – I’m sure you can find those elsewhere. 

Music Filtering

As a parent of an 8-year old myself, I’ve realized it’s too difficult to keep her from ever hearing bad words – especially in music, TV and movies – so I’ve just explained to her that while she will sometimes hear those words, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to say them. (We have a similar rule about art – sometimes people will be nude in paintings, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to walk around naked all the time.)

Surprisingly, I’ve been able to establish a level of shame around adult and inappropriate content to the point that she will confess to me when she hears it on places like YouTube. She will even turn it off without my instruction! I have a good kid, I guess.

But I understand some parents will only want kids to access the sanitized version of songs – especially if their children are still in the preschool years, or have a tendency to seek out explicit content because they’re little monsters.

Amazon FreeTime would be a good option in that case, but there are some caveats.

For starters, if you plan on using the explicit language filter on songs the Echo Dot plays, then you’re stuck with Amazon Music. While the Echo Dot itself can play music from a variety of services, including on-demand offerings from Pandora and Spotify, you can’t use these services when the explicit filter is enabled as “music services that do not support this filter will be blocked,” Amazon explains.

We’re a Spotify household, so that means my child’s favorite bedtime music playlist became unavailable when we swapped out her existing Echo Dot for the Kids Edition which had the explicit filter enabled.

Above: Parent Dashboard? Where? Maybe a link would help?

You can disable the explicit filter from the Parent Dashboard, but this option is inconveniently available just via the web. When you dig around in the Alexa app – which is where you’d think these controls would be found, there’s only a FreeTime On/Off toggle switch and instructions to “Go to the Parent Dashboard to see activity, manage time limits, and add content.”

It’s not even hyperlinked!

You have to just know the dashboard’s URL is parents.amazon.com. (And not www.parents.amazon.com, by the way. That doesn’t work.)

Then to actually disable the filter, it’s several more steps.

You’ll click the gear icon next to the child’s name, click on “Echo Dot Kids Edition” under “Alexa Settings,” then click “Manage Music.” Here, you can turn the switch on or off.

If you don’t have a subscription music service, the Echo Dot Kids Edition also ships with access to ad-free kid-safe stations on iHeartRadio Family.

Whitelisting Alexa skills…well, some skills!

Another issue with the way FreeTime works with Alexa, is that it’s not clear that nearly everything your child accesses on the device has to be whitelisted.

This leads to a confusing first-time user workflow.

Likely, you’ll start by browsing in the Alexa app’s Skills section or the Skills Store on the web to find some appropriate kid-friendly skills for your child to try. For example, I found and enabled a skill called “Math Facts – Math Practice for Kids.”

But when I instructed “Alexa, open Math Facts,” she responded, “I can’t do that.”

She didn’t say why.

As I hadn’t used FreeTime in quite a while, it didn’t occur to me that each Alexa skill would have to be toggled on – just like the third-party apps, videos, books and audiobooks the child has access to that didn’t ship with FreeTime Unlimited itself.

Instead, I mistakenly assumed that skills from the “Kids” section of the Skills store would just work.

Again, you’ll have to know to go to parents.amazon.com to toggle things on.

And again, the process for doing so is too many clicks deep in the user interface to be immediately obvious to newcomers. (You click the gear by the kid’s name, then “Add Content” – not “Echo Dot Kids Edition” as you might think! Then, on the “Add Content” screen, click over to the “Alexa Skills” tab and toggle on the skills you want the child to use.)

The issue with this system is that it prevents Echo Dot Kids Edition users – kids and adults alike – from discovering and enabling skills by voice. And it adds an unnecessary step by forcing parents to toggle skills on.

After all, if the parents are the ones signing in when visiting the Skills store in-app or on the web, that means they’re the ones choosing to enable the Skills, too.

And if they’re enabling a skill from Kids section, one would assume it’s for their kids to use on their device!

The problem, largely, is that FreeTime isn’t really integrated with the Alexa app. All of this – from explicit content filters to whitelisting skills to turning on or off calling, messaging and drop-ins – should be managed from within the Alexa app, not from a separate website.

Amazon obviously did minimal integration work in order to sell parents a pricier Echo Dot.

To make matters more confusing is the fact that Amazon has partnered with some kids skill publishers, similar to how it partnered with other content providers for apps and movies. That means there’s a list of skills that don’t appear in your Parent Dashboard that also don’t require whitelisting.

This includes: Disney Stories, Loud House Challenge, No Way That’s True, Funny Fill In, Spongebob Challenge, Weird but True, Name that Animal, This or That, Word world, Ben ten, Classroom thirteen, Batman Adventures, and Climb the Beanstalk.

But it’s confusing that you can immediately use these skills, and not others clearly meant for kids. You end up feeling like you did something wrong when some skills don’t work, before you figure out this whole whitelisting system.

In addition, it’s not clear that these “Premium” skills come with the FreeTime subscription – most are not available in the Skills store. If your FreeTime subscription expires, it seems you’ll lose access to these, as well.

Overall, the FreeTime experience for Echo feels disjointed, and there’s a steep learning curve for new users.

Your FreeTime Unlimited 1-year Subscription

It’s also frustrating that there’s no information on the FreeTime Parents dashboard about the nature of your subscription.

You can’t confirm that you’re currently subscribed to the paid product known as FreeTime Unlimited. You can’t see when that subscription expires, or when your first free year is up. It’s unclear if you’ll just be charged, or when that will take place. And there’s no toggle to turn the subscription off if you decide you no longer need it.

Instead, you can only “modify” which credit card you use with Amazon’s 1-click. Seriously. That’s it.

Above: want to manage your subscription?

Below: hahaha, good luck with that!

I still don’t know where to turn this subscription off – I guess the option to disable it doesn’t even appear until your free year is up? (Even clicking on “FreeTime Unlimited” from Amazon.com’s subscription management page routes you back to this useless Parent dashboard page for managing your 1-Click settings.)

So, ask me in a year, maybe?

That said, if you are in the market for both a FreeTime Unlimited subscription and an Echo Dot, you may as well buy the Kids Edition.

FreeTime Unlimited works on Fire tablets, Android devices, Kindle, and as of this month, iOS devices, providing access to over 15,000 kid-safe apps, games, videos, books and educational content. On Amazon devices, parents can also set screen time limits and educational goals.

The service by itself is $2.99 per month for Prime members (for one profile) or $4.99 per month for non-members. It’s more if you buy the Family subscription. Meanwhile, the regular 2nd gen Echo Dot is currently $49.99. So you’re basically looking at $50 + $36/year for FreeTime Unlimited if you bought these things separately as a Prime member.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition comes with one year of FreeTime Unlimited and is $79.99. So you’re saving a tiny bit there. Plus, you can always turn FreeTime off on the device, if you’d rather just use the kids Echo Dot as a regular Echo Dot – while still getting a free year of FreeTime for another device, like the kid’s iPad.

Still, watch out because Echo Dot often goes on sale – and probably will be on sale again for Prime Day this summer. Depending on the price cut it gets, it may not be worth it to buy the bundle.

Other Perks

There are other perks that Amazon tries to use to sell the Echo Dot Kids Edition to families, but the most notable is “Magic Word.”

This feature turns on when FreeTime is enabled, and thanks kids for saying “please” when they speak to Alexa. Yes, that seems like a small thing but it was something that a lot of parents were upset about. They thought kids were learning bad manners by barking commands at Alexa.

I don’t know about that. My kid seems to understand that we say “please” and “thank you” to people, but Alexa doesn’t get her feelings hurt by being told to “play Taylor Swift.” But to each their own!

This feature will thrill some parents, I’m sure.

Parents can also use FreeTime to pause the device or configure a bedtime so kids don’t stay up talking to Alexa, but honestly, LET ‘EM.

It’s far better than when they stall bedtime by badgering you for that extra glass of water, one more blanket, turn on that light, now crack the door…a little more…a little less…Honestly, escaping the kid’s room at bedtime is an art form.

If Alexa can keep them busy and less afraid of the dark, I’m calling it a win.

FreeTime with the Echo Dot Kids Edition also lets you set up “Character Alarms” – meaning, kids can configure Alexa to wake them up with an alarm click featuring characters from brands like Disney and Nickelodeon.

This is hilarious to me.

Because if you have a kid in the preschool to tween age range who actually requires an alarm clock to wake up in the morning instead of getting up at the crack of dawn (or maybe one who has gone through years of training so they DON’T ALSO WAKE YOU UP AT THE CRACK OF DAWN OH MY GOD) – then, I guess, um, enjoy character alarms?

I’m sorry, let me stop laughing….Hold on.

I’m sure somebody needs this.

Sorry for laughing. But please explain how you’ve taught your children to sleep in? Do they go to bed at a decent hour too? No seriously, email me. I have no idea.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition can also work as a household intercom, but so do regular Echo devices.

You can turn off voice purchasing on the Kids Edition, but you can do that on regular devices, too (despite what Amazon’s comparison chart says.)

Plus, kids can now control smart home devices with the Echo Dot Kids Edition – a feature that shamefully wasn’t available at launch, but is now.

And that cute protective case? Well, a regular Echo Dot is actually pretty sturdy. We’ve dropped ours probably a dozen times from dresser to floor (uncarpeted!) with no issues.

I like how Amazon tries to sell the case, though:


I guess if your kid plans to do CHEMISTRY EXPERIMENTS by the Echo Dot, you may need this.

In reality, the case is just cute – and can help the Echo better match the kid’s room.

The Echo Kids Edition, overall, is not a must-have device. You’ll have more flexibility with a regular Echo and a little old-school parenting.

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The Sonos Beam is the soundbar evolved

Posted by | Amazon, Android, apple music, Assistant, consumer electronics, Entertainment, film, Gadgets, Google, HDMI, home audio, loudspeaker, Pandora, Reviews, Sonos, sound systems, Speaker, Spotify, Surround Sound, tablet computer, TC, technology | No Comments

Sonos has always gone its own way. The speaker manufacturer dedicated itself to network-connected speakers before there were home networks and they sold a tablet-like remote control before there were tablets. Their surround sound systems install quickly and run seamlessly. You can buy a few speakers, tap a few buttons and have 5.1 sound in less time than it takes to pull a traditional home audio system out of its shipping box.

This latest model is an addition to the Sonos line and is sold alongside the Playbase — a lumpen soundbar designed to sit directly underneath TVs not attached to the wall — and the Playbar, a traditionally styled soundbar that preceded the Beam. Both products had all of the Sonos highlights — great sound, amazing interfaces and easy setup — but the Base had too much surface area for more elegant installations and the Bar was too long while still sporting an aesthetic that harkened back to 2008 Crutchfield catalogs.

The $399 Beam is Sonos’ answer to that, and it is more than just a pretty box. The speaker includes Alexa — and promises Google Assistant support — and it improves your TV sound immensely. Designed as an add-on to your current TV, it can stand alone or connect with the Sonos subwoofer and a few satellite surround speakers for a true surround sound experience. It truly shines alone, however, thanks to its small size and more than acceptable audio range.

To use the Beam you bring up an iOS or Android app to display your Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and Pandora accounts (this is a small sampling; Sonos supports more). You select a song or playlist and start listening. Then, when you want to watch TV, the speaker automatically flips to TV mode — including speech enhancement features that actually work — when the TV is turned on. An included tuning system turns your phone into a scanner that improves the room audio automatically.

The range is limited by the Beam’s size and shape and there is very little natural bass coming out of this thing. However, in terms of range, the Beam is just fine. It can play an action movie with a bit of thump and then go on to play some light jazz or pop. I’ve had some surprisingly revelatory sessions with the Beam when listening to classic rock and more modern fare and it’s very usable as a home audio center.

The Beam is two feet long and three inches tall. It comes in black or white and is very unobtrusive in any home theater setup. Interestingly, the product supports HDMI-ARC aka HDMI Audio Return Channel. This standard, introduced in TVs made in the past five years, allows the TV to automatically output audio and manage volume controls via a single HDMI cable. What this means, however, is you’re going to have a bad time if you don’t have HDMI-ARC.

Sonos includes an adapter that can also accept optical audio output, but setup requires you to turn off your TV speakers and route all the sound to the optical out. This is a bit of a mess, and if you don’t have either of those outputs — HDMI-ARC or optical — then you’re probably in need of a new TV. That said, HDMI-ARC is a bit jarring for first timers, but Sonos is sure that enough TVs support it that they can use it instead of optical-only.

The Beam doesn’t compete directly with other “smart” speakers like the HomePod. It is very specifically a consumer electronics device, even though it supports AirPlay 2 and Alexa. Sonos makes speakers, and good ones at that, and that goal has always been front and center. While other speakers may offer a more fully featured sound in a much smaller package, the Beam offers both great TV audio and great music playback for less than any other higher end soundbar. Whole room audio does get expensive — about $1,200 for a Sub and two satellites — but you can simply add on pieces as you go. One thing, however, is clear: Sonos has always been the best wireless speaker for the money and the Beam is another win for the scrappy and innovative speaker company.

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Anker Mars II projector promises solid summer fun

Posted by | Amazon, Android, AV, Bluetooth, bluetooth speaker, chromecast, computing, DLP, Gadgets, HDMI, Netflix, smartphones, TC, wi-fi | No Comments

Anker, a popular if battery and cable company, recently announced the Mars II projector under its Nebula brand. The company, which primarily sells via Amazon, is expanding out of batteries and cables and is now creating audio and other portable AV gear. This compact, battery-powered DLP projector is their latest creation and it has found a place of honor at our family barbecues.

The projector is actually an Android 7.1 device stuffed into a case about as big as a Bluetooth speaker. A physical lens cap slides down and turns on the system and you control everything from he included remote or the buttons on the top of the device. You can also download an app that mimics a mouse and keyboard for choosing videos and information entry. It projects at a maximum of 300 lumens and projects at 720p. You can also connect an HDMI device like a game console or stick in a USB drive full of videos to view on the fly.

Again, the real benefit here is the ability to stream from various apps. I have YouTube, Netflix, Plex, and other apps installed and you can install almost any other Android app you can imagine. It has speakers built in and you can cast to it via Miracast but you cannot insert a Chromecast.

If all you want to do is throw up a little Santa Clarita Diet or Ice Age on a sheet in the back yard, this thing is perfect. Because the brightness is fairly low you need solid twilight or a partially dark room to get a good picture. However, the picture is good enough and it would also make a great presentation device for a closed, dark conference room. Because of its small size and battery life – four hours on a charge – it makes for a great alternative to a full-sized projector or even a standard TV.

At $539 the Mars II is priced on par with other 720p projectors. The primary use case – connecting a computer or console via HDMI – works quite well but streaming user experience is a bit of a mixed bag. Because Anker didn’t modify the Android installation much further than adding a few default apps, some apps require a mouse to use and others can be controlled via the arrow keys on the remote or body of the device. This means that some apps – like Plex, for example – let you pick a video via the arrow keys but require you to press the “mouse” button to begin simulating a mouse cursor on the screen. It’s a bit frustrating, especially in poor lighting conditions.

One of the interesting features is the automatic focus system. Instead of fiddling with a knob or slider, you simply point this at a surface and the system projects a bullseye focus ring until the picture is in focus. The focus changes any time you move the device and sometimes it gets caught up if the screen or projector are moving. However in most cases it works perfectly fine.

Like most portable projectors you aren’t buying the Mars II to watch 4K video in 5.1 surround sound. You buy it to offer an alternative to sitting on the couch and watching a movie. That means this is great for on-the-road business presentations, campouts, outdoor movie viewing, and sleepovers. It is cheap and portable enough to be almost disposable and it’s not as heavy and hot as other, larger devices. In short, it can go anywhere, show anything, and works really well. Anker also makes the Mars, a more expensive 1080p device, but this one works just fine for about $400 less – a big drop in just about a year of brisk sales. It’s nice to see a good, low-cost manufacturer dabble in the world of complex consumer electronics and come up with a product that is truly useful and fun.

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Ring’s $199 security system will finally ship next month

Posted by | Amazon, Gadgets, home security, ring, TC | No Comments

Way back in October of last year, Ring announced “Ring Protect” — a modular, no contract, DIY home security system.

After a few delays, a bit of legal drama and Ring being acquired for a billion dollars by Amazon, the alarm is finally about to ship — albeit with a slightly different (better!) name.

Ring Protect has been redubbed as the more intuitive Ring Alarm — a better name if only because competitor Nest has both a security product and a totally different product (a smoke detector) called Nest Protect.

Ring’s base level alarm kit starts at $199, which includes a keypad (for arming/disarming the system), one door/window sensor, a motion detector and a range extender. You’ll probably want to add more components, and, fortunately, they’re relatively cheap: another door sensor, for example, is $20, while the motion detectors are $30.

Nest’s competing security system packs a few tricks that Ring’s doesn’t (Nest combined the door/motion sensors into one, for example, and it’s got a fancy RFID system for PIN-free disarming), but it also costs $200 more… and that’s after a $100 price drop that, presumably not by coincidence, just happened yesterday.

The system doesn’t require any sort of contract — but if you want professional monitoring, it’ll be $10 a month. That’s a pretty good deal, especially because if you’ve got any of Ring’s cameras (like its smart doorbell, or its floodlight cameras), that plan includes unlimited video storage for all of ’em.

Ring says it’s got more products on the way to expand the system, including smoke/carbon monoxide detectors and flood sensors.

Ring’s security system is up for pre-order now and, if all goes as planned, will start shipping on July 4th.

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Tech devices that make for great last-minute gifts for anyone

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, Android, Bluetooth, Column, Gadgets, Garmin, GoPro, gps, jackery, jaybird, nixplay, smartphone, Spotify, usb, Wirecutter | No Comments
Makula Dunbar
Contributor

Makula Dunbar is a writer with Wirecutter.

Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter . When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, it may earn affiliate commissions that support its work.

It should be easy to give a gift. But it can be hard trying to choose which gift to give. That’s especially true with technology, where products tend to be more functional than emotional. Here’s what matters most: finding a present that connects to the recipient, creates a sense of enjoyment, and that they’re actually going to use. Here are five tech gifts that will appeal to almost anyone.

Jaybird X3 Wireless Sport Earbuds

The Jaybird X3 earbuds are designed for working out, but their design and great audio makes them perfect for anyone on the go. The X3’s interchangeable tips and fins offer a highly customizable, comfortable fit. Overall sound is high quality out of the box, but we like that the companion Jaybird app allows a tailored listening experience. Eight hours of playback time means you’ll be set throughout multiple workouts or a full work day.

Amazon Echo (2nd generation) Voice-Controlled Speaker

While there’s more than enough buzz surrounding voice-controlled speakers, they’re not yet considered a standard home item. But we think they’re helpful, and we know that a lot of folks find them incredibly useful for ordering food, listening to audiobooks, streaming music, or controlling their appliances and lighting. Our favorite is the Amazon Echo (2nd generation), which does more (and does it better) than any other current model. It supports a huge list of smart-home devices—including thermostats, light bulbs, and vacuums, and it has a set of skills, including offering custom weather, news and calendar alerts. (Note: If you’re giving one of these devices as a gift, make sure the recipient’s preferred music service is supported; Amazon’s devices, for example, work with its own Prime Music service, as well as Spotify, but not with Apple Music.)

Jackery Bolt USB Battery

A convenient device (which at times doubles as a lifesaver) is a gift that anyone would consider a necessity. We researched more than 300 USB power banks and battery packs and tested 40, naming the Jackery Bolt as our top pick. The Jackery Bolt is made out of aluminum and is the perfect size for carrying around in your bag or pocket every day. It has two connector cables (one Lightning and one MicroUSB), and its 6000 mAh battery has enough power to charge a medium-sized smartphone twice.

Nixplay Seed Digital Photo Frame

The Nixplay Seed digital photo frame is perfect way to keep faraway friends and family members in sight. Since it’s Wi-Fi-enabled, you can be anywhere and use social media platforms, cloud storage, or your smartphone to upload pictures. It’s a great gift because new and old moments can be shared anytime, giving viewers more reasons to touch base with you. It has a high-resolution IPS display that can show images in landscape or portrait orientation. The photo frame’s remote and sensor—which turns the device off when no one’s in the room — lets you choose what you want to see at your convenience. Multiple people can create photo playlists through the Nixplay website, or add pictures to be shown by sending them through email. With 8GB of storage it has the capacity to hold roughly 25,000 smartphone photos.

GoPro Hero5 Black Action Camera

The GoPro Hero5 Black is our top pick for action cameras because it can be used for everyday filming, capturing memories during travel adventures, and is great in environments that aren’t suitable for larger, pricier camera equipment. It doesn’t have a clunky case, but it’s still waterproof. For those who usually place tech integration at the top of their gear list, the GoPro Hero5 Black also has a touchscreen interface and voice-control capabilities. During testing we found its footage to be crisp and clear with accurate color in addition to sound quality that’s worth keeping in professional edits.

Garmin Vivosport Fitness Tracker

If you’re looking for a way to jumpstart your exercise routine and you haven’t picked up a fitness tracker, now’s the time.  We’ve tested 23 fitness trackers over the past three years and think the Garmin Vivosport is the best option. Its built-in GPS, long-lasting battery life and color display set it apart from others. In addition to monitoring your workouts (including strength-training reps), it helps keep tabs on your sleep and stress levels, and is Bluetooth-enabled for IOS and Android integration with streaming music and notifications.

This guide may have been updated by Wirecutter.

Note from Wirecutter: When readers choose to buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn affiliate commissions that support our work.

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