Amazon

Amazon and Zynga partner on Word Pop, a Words with Friends spinoff created for Alexa

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, Apps, game, Gaming, words with friends, Zynga | No Comments

Zynga’s popular game, Words with Friends, is coming to Alexa. The new voice-powered game will be known as Word Pop, and — sorry — you can’t actually play it with friends right now, even though the game lives within Zynga’s broader Words with Friends franchise. Instead, the new Alexa voice game is viewed as a complement to Zynga’s multiplayer version. It’s a place where players can sharpen their word-building skills, no friends required.

To launch Word Pop, you’ll say “Alexa, open Word Pop” on any Alexa device to get started.

In the game, Alexa will challenge the players to create as many words as possible from a six-letter bank, through a series of one-minute sessions. During this time, players must say or spell as many words as they can, while earning points for both the number and length of the words they find.

On Alexa devices with a screen, like the Echo Show, there will also be a visual component where players will see their letter banks and completed words. Arguably, the game is better this way as it allows you to view the letters and combinations much like you can on a mobile device or computer. Without the screen, the game will prove much more challenging — though that may appeal to some Words with Friends experts.

The companies characterize their teaming up on the new title as a “partnership,” where both Amazon and Zynga’s teams worked together to build the game. However, there isn’t currently a revenue-sharing situation, we understand, as the game is free and doesn’t offer in-app purchases. (Of course, if the title proves popular enough, the companies could likely revisit that decision.)

In the meantime, however, the companies see the opportunity to build their respective brands. Zynga can generate interest in its aging, cross-platform Words with Friends franchise by way of the new Alexa skill, while Amazon gets to introduce the idea of Alexa gaming to consumers via a well-known industry brand and popular game that users will already know how to play.

“I’m thrilled that by adding Word Pop to the Words With Friends family, players will be able to test and improve their word skills, making them even better Words With Friends players,” said Bernard Kim, president of Publishing at Zynga, in a statement. “The beauty of Words With Friends is that even after ten years, we’re still discovering new ways for the franchise to bring joy to players around the world. We’re dedicated to experimenting with services such as Alexa and game modes like Word Pop, which gives players a familiar, yet novel experience.”

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The Sonos Arc is an outstanding soundbar, on its own or with friends

Posted by | AirPlay, Alexa, Amazon, Assistant, connected speaker, Gadgets, Google, hardware, HDMI, LG, oled, play:1, play:3, Reviews, smart speakers, Sonos, soundbar, Speaker, TC, wireless speaker, wireless technology | No Comments

Sonos has been releasing new hardware at a remarkably consistent and frequent pace the past couple of years, and what’s even more impressive is that these new releases are consistently excellent performers. The new Sonos Arc soundbar definitely fits that pattern, delivering the company’s best ever home theater sound device with performance that should convert even diehard 5.1 traditionalists.

Basics

The Sonos Arc is a soundbar that’s designed to integrate wirelessly with your Sonos home audio system, as well as accepting audio from your TV or A/V receiver via HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC). Just about every modern TV should have at least one HDMI ARC port, and basically that just means that in addition to acting as a standard HDMI input for video sources, it can also offer audio output to a connected speaker or stereo system.

The Arc also comes with an HDMI to optical digital audio adapter in case your setup lacks ARC support (if a TV doesn’t have that, it almost surely has a TOSLINK digital audio output port) to cover all the bases. It also works as a wireless speaker that connects via Sonos’ dedicated mesh networking tech to other Sonos speakers you may have, so that it’s one more addressable multiroom speaker in a whole home wireless audio setup.

Arc can also be combined with other Sonos speakers, including the Sonos Sub, as well as Sonos One, One SL, Play:1 and others for setting up a more complete wireless 5.1 setup with a subwoofer and two rears. That’s an optional enhancement, however, and not necessary to take advantage of the Sonos Arc’s excellent virtual surround rendering, which with this new hardware also includes Dolby Atmos surround sound encoding for the first time on a Sonos soundbar.

Design

The Sonos Arc really comes from the modern design pedigree that Sonos has put into its hardware releases since the debut of the Sonos One, which means monoblock coloring (in either black or white), smooth lines and rounded hole grill designs that look a lot more contemporary than the contrast color grills on the Play:1 for example.

Arc looks like a spiritual successor to the Sonos Beam, the first Sonos soundbar to feature a built-in mic and support for virtual voice assistants including Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. But it’s also a lot larger than the Sonos Beam at 45″ long — much more like the Sonos Playbar and Playbase that marked the company’s entry into the category.

For a sense of how long it is, it runs almost the full length of my LG 65″ C7 OLED TV. It’s also a bit taller than the Sonos Beam, coming in at 3.4″. For my use, that was still short enough that it doesn’t obscure any of the TV’s display when it’s sitting on a TV bench in front of the television from my regular viewing angle, but your mileage may vary, and if you had a similar setup with the Beam, just note that you’ll need a bit more clearance with the Arc.

The larger size isn’t just for show — it helps Sonos deliver much better sound vs. the lower-priced Beam. Inside the Arc, there are 11 drivers, including two upward-facing ones, and two that face out either end of the long cylindrical soundbar. The end effect of all of these drivers, and the true distance separation that’s made possible by its long profile, is much more effective left/right/rear sound separation.

On the back, there’s a vent bar that provides additional sound quality improvements and holds the mounting outlets for attaching the Arc to a compatible wall mount. Either wall-mounted or resting atop furniture, the Arc is an attractive piece of hardware, and with just two cables required to run to power and the TV, it’s a minimal solution to home theater clutter that should mesh well with most home decor.

Performance

I mentioned this briefly above, but it’s amazing what the Sonos Arc can accomplish in terms of sound separation and virtual surround immersion with just a single speaker. It’s easily the best sound rendering I’ve experienced from a Sonos soundbar, and likely the best audio quality from a soundbar I’ve heard, period.

Stereo sound field testing shows that audio tracks really well left-to-right, and the Dolby Atmos support really shows its benefits when you have content that offers it. Speech intelligibility is also really fantastic on the soundbar alone, whereas with the Beam, I’ve found that it can suffer in some situations unless you have a Sonos Sub added to your system to take care of the low end frequencies and allow the soundbar to produce better clarity on the high end.

The Arc definitely benefits from pairing it with a Sonos Sub and other Sonos speakers acting as rears, but the soundbar on its own is a much better performer than anything Sonos has previously offered, in case you’re looking to save some money or you just want to focus on the most minimal sound setup possible that isn’t just terrible built-in TV speakers.

Sonos has also included a microphone on the Arc, which allows you to use it with either Alexa or Google Assistant to play music, turn on the TV and do plenty more. It’s a great feature that’s optional if you’d rather leave the mic off or not connect any assistants, but for me it’s perfectly suited to a device that essentially sits at the center of the living room experience. The mic seems very able to pick up commands even in a large room when you’re quite far away from it, so it could be the only voice-enabled smart speaker you require in even a large open-concept living/dining/kitchen space.

The Arc also acts as an Apple AirPlay 2 speaker out of the box. For minimalists, this is yet another selling point, since it means you can use it wirelessly with an Apple TV mounted to the back of your TV, for instance — ridding yourself of one more wire if you want. It’s also super easy to stream any music or audio from your phone to the Arc as a result, even without opening up the Sonos app.

The updated Sonos app

Speaking of that app, the Sonos Arc is exclusively compatible with Sonos’ new, forthcoming mobile app, which arrives on June 8. This app will live alongside the existing one, which will continue to be available in order to support older, legacy Sonos hardware that won’t work with the more modern version.

This new Sonos app, which I used as a beta during the testing period for the Sonos Arc, is not as dramatic a change as I was expecting. The app definitely offers a better, cleaner and more modern interface, but everything is still located pretty much where you’d expect it to be if you were a user of the existing version. Most of the changes are probably happening under the hood, where the app is presumably designed to work with the more modern chipsets, higher memory and updated wireless technology of more recently released Sonos speakers and accessories.

Long story short, the new app is a pleasant, fresh take on a familiar control system that seems both more performant and aesthetically better suited to modern Sonos speakers like the Arc. Even in beta, it didn’t give me any problems during my two weeks testing the Arc, and worked perfectly with all my services and voice assistants.

Bottom line

The Sonos Arc is definitely a premium soundbar, with a $799 price tag and great audio quality to match. It’s a fantastic successor to the Playbar and Playbase that exceeds both of those in every regard, and a great companion to the Beam, which means Sonos’ home theater lineup now offers excellent options for a range of budgets.

If you want the best, most versatile and well-designed wireless soundbar available, the Sonos Arc is the speaker for you.

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How to upgrade your at-home videoconference setup: Lighting edition

Posted by | Amazon, Gadgets, hardware, lighting, mobile device, Philips, TC, Video, videoconferencing | No Comments

In this installment of our ongoing series around making the most of your at-home video setup, we’re going to focus on one of the most important, but least well-understood or implemented parts of the equation: Lighting. While it isn’t actually something that requires a lot of training, expertise or even equipment to get right, it’s probably the number-one culprit for subpar video quality on most conference calls — and it can mean the difference between looking like someone who knows what they talk about, and someone who might not inspire too much confidence on seminars, speaking gigs and remote broadcast appearances.

Basics

You can make a very big improvement in your lighting with just a little work, and without spending any money. The secret is all in being aware of your surroundings and optimizing your camera placement relative to any light sources that might be present. Consider not only any ceiling lights or lamps in your room, but also natural light sources like windows.

Ideally, you should position yourself so that the source of brightest light is positioned behind your camera (and above it, if possible). You should also make sure that there aren’t any strong competing light sources behind you that might blow out the image. If you have a large window and it’s daytime, face the window with your back to a wall, for instance. And if you have a movable light or an overhead lamp, either move it so it’s behind and above your computer facing you, or move yourself if possible to achieve the same effect with a fixed-position light fixture, like a ceiling pendant.

Ideally, any bright light source should be positioned behind and slightly above your camera for best results

Even if the light seems aggressively bright to you, it should make for an even, clear image on your webcam. Even though most webcams have auto-balancing software features that attempt to produce the best results regardless of lighting, they can only do so much, and especially lower-end camera hardware, like the webcam built into MacBooks, will benefit greatly from some physical lighting position optimization.

This is an example of what not to do: Having a bright light source behind you will make your face hard to see, and the background blown out

Simple ways to level-up

The best way to step up beyond the basics is to learn some of the fundamentals of good video lighting. Again, this doesn’t necessarily require any purchases — it could be as simple as taking what you already have and using it in creative ways.

Beyond just the above advice about putting your strongest light source behind your camera pointed toward your face, you can get a little more sophisticated by adopting the principles of two- and three-point lighting. You don’t need special lights to make this work — you just need to use what you have available and place them for optimal effect.

  • Two-point lighting

A very basic, but effective video lighting setup involves positioning not just one, but two lights pointed toward your face behind, or parallel with your camera. Instead of putting them directly in line with your face; however, for maximum effect you can place them to either side, and angle them in toward you.

A simple representation of how to position lights for a proper two-point video lighting setup

Note that if you can, it’s best to make one of these two lights brighter than the other. This will provide a subtle bit of shadow and depth to the lighting on your face, resulting in a more pleasing and professional look. As mentioned, it doesn’t really matter what kind of light you use, but it’s best to try to make sure that both are the same temperature (for ordinary household bulbs, how “soft,” “bright” or “warm” they are), and if your lights are less powerful, try to position them closer in.

  • Three-point lighting

Similar to two-point lighting, but with a third light added positioned somewhere behind you. This extra light is used in broadcast interview lighting setups to provide a slight halo effect on the subject, which further helps separate you from the background, and provides a bit more depth and professional look. Ideally, you’d place this out of frame of your camera (you don’t want a big, bright light shining right into the lens) and off to the side, as indicated in the diagram below.

In a three-point lighting setup, you add a third light behind you to provide a bit more subject separation and pop

If you’re looking to improve the flexibility of this kind of setup, a simple way to do that is by using light sources with Philips Hue bulbs. They can let you tune the temperature and brightness of your lights, together or individually, to get the most out of this kind of arrangement. Modern Hue bulbs might produce some weird flickering effects on your video depending on what framerate you’re using, but if you output your video at 30fps, that should address any problems there.

Go pro

All lights can be used to improve your video lighting setup, but dedicated video lights will provide the best results. If you really plan on doing a bunch of video calls, virtual talks and streaming, you should consider investing in some purpose-built hardware to get even better results.

At the entry level, there are plenty of offerings on Amazon that work well and offer good value, including full lighting kits like this one from Neewer that offers everything you need for a two-point lighting setup in one package. These might seem intimidating if you’re new to lighting, but they’re extremely easy to set up, and really only require that you learn a bit about light temperature (as measured in kelvins) and how that affects the image output on your video capture device.

If you’re willing to invest a bit more money, you can get some better quality lights that include additional features, including Wi-Fi connectivity and remote control. The best all-around video lights for home studio use that I’ve found are Elgato’s Key Lights. These come in two variants, Key Light and Key Light Air, which retail for $199.99 and $129.99, respectively. The Key Light is larger, offers brighter maximum output, and comes with a sturdier, heavy-duty clamp mount for attaching to tables and desks. The Key Light Air is smaller, more portable, puts out less light at max settings and comes with a tabletop stand with a weighted base.

Both versions of the Key Light offer light that you can tune form very warm white (2900K) to bright white (7000K) and connect to your Wi-Fi network for remote control, either from your computer or your mobile device. They easily work together with Elgato’s Stream Deck for hardware controls, too, and have highly adjustable brightness and plenty of mounting options — especially with extra accessories like the Multi-Mount extension kit.

With plenty of standard tripod mounts on each Key Light, high-quality durable construction and connected control features, these lights are the easiest to make work in whatever space you have available. The quality of the light they put out is also excellent, and they’re great for lighting pros and newbies alike as it’s very easy to tune them as needed to produce the effect you want.

Accent your space

Beyond subject lighting, you can look at different kinds of accent lighting to make your overall home studio more visually interesting or appealing. Again, there are a number of options here, but if you’re looking for something that also complements your home furnishings and won’t make your house look too much like a studio set, check out some of the more advanced versions of Hue’s connected lighting system.

The Hue Play light bar is a great accent light, for instance. You can pick up a two-pack, which includes two of the full-color connected RGB lights. You’ll need a Hue hub for these to work, but you can also get a starter pack that includes two lights and the hub if you don’t have one yet. I like these because you can easily hide them behind cushions, chairs or other furniture. They provide awesome uplight effects on light-colored walls, especially if you get rid of other ambient light (beyond your main video lights).

To really amplify the effect, consider pairing these with something one the Philips Hue Signe floor or table lamps. The Signe series is a long LED light mounted to a weighted base that provides strong, even accent light with any color you choose. You can sync these with other Hue lights for a consistent look, or mix and max colors for different dynamic effects.

On video, this helps with subject/background separation, and just looks a lot more polished than a standard background, especially when paired with defocused effects when you’re using better-quality cameras. As a side benefit, these lights can be synced to movie and video playback for when you’re consuming video, instead of producing it, for really cool home theater effects.

If you’re satisfied with your lighting setup but are still looking for other pointers, check out our original guide, as well as our deep dive on microphones for better audio quality.

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How to create the best at-home videoconferencing setup, for every budget

Posted by | Amazon, articles, Bluetooth, driver, Gadgets, hardware, HDMI, Laptop, Logitech, microphone, Microsoft, microsoft windows, operating system, operating systems, Philips, RØDE, smartphones, Sony, TC, technology, telecommunications, Teleconferencing, usb, video conferencing, webcam, wi-fi, wireless earbuds | No Comments

Your life probably involves a lot more videoconferencing now than it did a few weeks ago – even if it already did involve a lot. That’s not likely going to change anytime soon, so why not make the most of it? The average MacBook webcam can technically get the job done, but it’s far from impressive. There are a number of ways to up your game, however – by spending either just a little or a whole lot. Whether you’re just looking to improve your daily virtual stand-up, gearing up for presenting at a virtual conference, or planning a new video podcast, here’s some advice about what to do to make the most of what you’ve got, or what to get if you really want to maximize your video and audio quality.

Level 0

Turn on a light and put it in the right place

One of the easiest things you can do to improve the look of your video is to simply turn on any light you have handy and position it behind the camera shining on your face. That might mean moving a lamp, or moving your computer if all your available lights are in a fixed position, but it can make a dramatic difference. Check out these examples below, screen grabbed from my Microsoft Surface Book 2 (which actually has a pretty good built-in video camera, as far as built-in video cameras go).

The image above is without any light beyond the room’s ceiling lights on, and the image below is turning on a lamp and positioning it directed on my face from above and behind the Surface Book. It’s enough of a change to make it look less like I got caught by surprise with my video on, and more like I actually am attending a meeting I’m supposed to take part in.

Be aware of what’s behind you

It’s definitely too much to ask to set dress your surroundings for every video call you jump on, but it is worth taking a second to spot check what’s visible in the frame. Ideally, you can find a spot where the background is fairly minimal, with some organized decor visible. Close doors that are in frame, and try not to film in front of an uncovered window. And if you’re living in a pandemic-induced mess of clutter, just shovel the clutter until it’s out of frame.

Know your system sound settings

Get to know where the input volume settings are for your device and operating system. It’s not usually much of an issue, because most apps and systems set pretty sensible defaults, but if you’re also doing something unusual like sitting further away from your laptop to try to fit a second person in frame, then you might want to turn up the input audio slider to make sure anyone listening can actually hear what you have to say.

It’s probably controllable directly in whatever app you’re using, but on Macs, also try going to System Preferences > Sound > Input to check if the level is directly controllable for the device you’re using, and if tweaking that produces the result you’re looking for.

Level 1

Get an external webcam

The built-in webcam on most notebooks and all-in-ones isn’t going to be great, and you can almost always improve things by buying a dedicated webcam instead. Right now, it might be hard to find them in stock, since a lot of people have the same need for a boost in videoconferencing quality all at the same time. But if you can get your hands on even a budget upgrade option like the Logitech C922 Pro Stream 1080p webcam I used for the clip below, it should help with sharpness, low light performance, color and more.

Get a basic USB mic

Dedicated external mics are another way to quickly give your setup a big boost for relatively low cost. In the clip above, I used the popular Samson Meteor USB mic, which has built-in legs and dedicated volume/mute controls. This mic includes everything you need, and should work instantly when you plug it in via USB, and it produces great sound that’s ideal for vocals.

Get some headphones

Headphones of any kind will make your video calls and conferences better, since it minimizes the chance of echo from your mic picking up the audio from your own speakers. Big over ears models are good for sound quality, while earbuds make for less obvious headwear in your actual video image.

Level 2

Use a dedicated camera and an HDMI-to-USB interface

If you already have a standalone camera, including just about any consumer pocket camera with HDMI out capabilities, then it’s worth looking into picking up an HDMI-to-USB video capture interface in order to convert it into a much higher quality webcam. In the clip below I’m using the Sony RX100 VII, which is definitely at the high end of the consumer pocket camera market, but there are a range of options that should give you nearly the same level of quality, including the older RX100 models from Sony .

When looking for an HDMI interface, make sure that they advertise that it works with videoconferencing apps like Zoom, Hangouts and Skype on Mac and Windows without any software required: This means that they likely have UVC capabilities, which means those operating systems will recognize them as webcams without any driver downloads or special apps required out of the box. These are also in higher demand due to COVID-19, so the Elgato Cam Link 4K I used here probably isn’t in ready stock anywhere. Instead, look to alternatives like the IOGear Video Capture Adapter or the Magewell USB 3.0 Capture device, or potentially consider upgrading to a dedicated live broadcast deck like the Blackmagic ATEM Mini I’ll talk more about below.

Get a wired lav mic

A simple wired lavalier (lav) microphone is a great way to upgrade your audio game, and it doesn’t even need to cost that much. You can get a wired lav that performs decently well for as little as $20 on Amazon, and you can use a USB version for connecting directly to your computer even if you don’t have a 3.5mm input port. Rode’s Lavalier GO is a great mid-range option that also works well with the Wireless GO transmitter and receiver kit I mention in the next section. The main limitation of this is that depending on cord length, you could be pretty limited in terms of your range of motion while using one.

Get multiple lights and position them effectively

Lighting is a rabbit hole that ends up going very deep, but getting a couple of lights that you can move to where you need them most is a good, inexpensive way to get started. Amazon offers a wide range of lighting kits that fit the bill, or you can even do pretty well with just a couple of Philips Hue lights in gooseneck lamps positioned correctly and adjusted to the right temperature and brightness.

Level 3

Use an interchangeable lens camera and a fast lens

The next step up from a decent compact camera is one that features interchangeable lenses. This allows you to add a nice, fast prime lens with a high maximum aperture (aka a low ‘f’ number’) to get that defocused background look. This provides natural-looking separation of you, the subject, from whatever is behind you, and provides a cinematic feel that will wow colleagues in your monthly all-hands.

Get a wireless lav mic

A lav mic is great, but a wireless lav mic is even better. It means you don’t need to worry about hitting the end of your cable, or getting it tangled in other cables in your workspace, and it can provide more flexibility in terms of what audio interfaces you use to actually get your sound into the computer, too. A great option here is the RODE Wireless GO, which can work on its own or in tandem with a mic like the RODE Lavalier GO for great, flexible sound.

Use in-ear monitors

You still want to be using headphones at this stage, but the best kind to use really are in-ear monitors that do their best to disappear out of sight. You can get some dedicated broadcast-style monitors like those Shure makes, or you can spring for a really good pair of Bluetooth headphones with low latency and the latest version of Bluetooth. Apple’s AirPods Pro is a great option, as are the Bang & Olfusen E8 fully wireless earbuds, which I’ve used extensively without any noticeable lag.

Use 3-point lighting

At this stage, it’s really time to just go ahead and get serious about lighting. The best balance in terms of optimizing specifically for streaming, videoconferencing and anything else your’e doing from your desk, basically, is to pick up at least two of Elgato’s Key Lights or Key Light Airs.

These are LED panel lights with built-in diffusers that don’t have a steep learning curve, and that come with very sturdy articulating tube mounts with desk clamps, and that connect to Wi-Fi for control via smartphones or desktop applications. You can adjust their temperature, meaning you can make them either more ‘blue’ or more ‘orange’ depending on your needs, as well as tweak their brightness.

Using three of these, you can set up a standard 3-point lighting setup which are ideal for interviews or people speaking directly into a camera – aka just about every virtual conference/meeting/event/webinar use you can think of.

Level 4

Get an HDMI broadcast switcher deck

HDMI-USB capture devices do a fine job turning most cameras into webcams, but if you really want to give yourself a range of options, you can upgrade to a broadcast switching interface like the Blackmagic ATEM Mini. Released last year, the ATEM Mini packs in a lot of features that previously were basically only available to video pros, and provides them in an easy-to-use form factor with a price that’s actually astounding given how much this thing can really do.

On its own paired with a good camera, the ATEM Mini can add a lot to your video capabilities, including allowing you to tee up still graphics, and switch to computer input to show videos, work live in graphics apps, demonstrate code or run a presentation. You can set up picture-in-picture views, put up lower thirds and even fade-to-black using a hardware button dedicated to that purpose.

But if you really want to make the most of the ATEM Mini, you can add a second or even a third and fourth camera to the mix. For most uses, this is probably way too much camera – there are only so many angles one can get of a single person talking, in the end. But if you get creative with camera placement and subjects, it’s a fun and interesting way to break up a stream, especially if you’re doing something longer like giving a speech or extended presentation. The newer ATEM Mini Pro is just starting to ship, and offers built-in recording and streaming as well.

Use a broadcast-quality shotgun mic

The ATEM Mini has two dedicated audio inputs that really give you a lot of flexibility on that front, too. Attaching one to the output on an iPod touch, for instance, could let you use that device as a handy soundboard for cueing up intro and title music, plus sound effects. And this also means you can route sound from a high-quality mic, provided you have the right interface.

For top level streaming quality, with minimal sacrifices required in terms of video, I recommend going to a good, broadcast-quality shotgun mic. The Rode VideoMic NTG is a good entry-level option that has flexibility when it comes to also being mountable on-camera, but something like the Rode NTG3m mounted to a boom arm and placed out of frame with the mic end angled down towards your mouth, is going to provide the best possible results.

Add accent lighting

You’ve got your 3-point lighting – but as I said, lighting is a nearly endless rabbit hole. Accent lighting can really help push the professionalism of your video even further, and it’s also pretty easy and to set up using readily available equipment. Philips Hue is probably my favorite way to add a little more vitality to any scene, and if you’re already a Hue user you can make do with just about any of their color bulbs. Recent releases from Philips like the Hue Play Smart LED Light Bars are essentially tailor made for this use, and you can daisy chain up to three on one power adapter to create awesome accent wall lighting effects.

All of this is, of course, not at all necessary for basic video conferencing, virtual hangouts and meetings. But if you think that remote video is going to be a bigger part of our lives going forward, even as we return to some kind of normalcy in the wake of COVID-19, then it’s worth considering what elements of your system to upgrade based on your budget and needs, and hopefully this article provides some guidance.

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Xiaomi spinoff POCO’s F2 Pro undercuts Android rivals with low price and flagship features

Posted by | Amazon, Android, Asia, hardware, Mobile, POCO, Qualcomm, smartphones, Sony, Xiaomi | No Comments

POCO, a brand that spun out of Chinese electronics giant Xiaomi earlier this year, today launched the POCO F2 Pro smartphone as it continues its new journey as an independent firm.

The POCO F2 Pro, like its two-year-old sleeper hit predecessor Pocophone F1 smartphone, punches above its price class. It features an all-screen 6.67-inch full-HD+ AMOLED display (with 2400×1080 pixels), in-screen fingerprint scanner, support for 5G, quad-core rear camera setup and a pop-up front camera that quietly tucks away when not in use. It also features a 3.5mm headphone jack.

The smartphone comes in two variants: one with 6GB of RAM and 128GB internal storage that is priced at €499 (roughly $540), and the other that features 8GB of RAM and 256GB internal storage that costs €599 (roughly $650).

Both the variants run Android 10 and are going on sale globally starting Tuesday through Gearbest and Aliexpress e-commerce sites. POCO said it will soon begin selling the POCO F2 Pro on Amazon, Lazada and Shopee among other e-commerce sites, including its official website.

The dual-SIM card-supported smartphone, a popular feature in several Asian markets, is powered by Qualcomm’s flagship octa-core Snapdragon 865 processor, coupled with Adreno 650GPU. POCO F2 Pro also sports what the company claims to be the largest vapor chamber in any smartphone to support LiquidCool, a technology that keeps the device cool even when a user is playing high-end games such as Fortnite and PUBG.

A total score of 589,983.

CPU Benchmark score of 184,817.

GFXbench Manhattan 4.0 benchmark score of 40.

Yes, the #POCOF2Pro is simply #PowerfullyCool! pic.twitter.com/KgyHJt2dI4

— POCO (@POCOGlobal) May 12, 2020

On the camera front, the POCO F2 Pro features a 64MP Sony IMX686 sensor, which serves as the primary camera, with a 13MP ultra wide-angle lens, a 5MP macro and one 2MP depth sensor. The pop-up camera, which serves as the selfie sensor, is a 20MP lens. The rear camera setup is capable of recording videos in 8K resolution at 24fps, and 4K in 60fps.

The POCO F2 Pro, which comes in Neon Blue, Electric Purple, Cyber Grey, Phantom White, houses a 4,700mAh battery with support for fast charging, and ships with a 33W charger in the box.

POCO listed a number of additional features that other flagship Android smartphones offer, such as support for HDR10+, display brightness of 500 nits, Corning Gorilla Glass 5 that protects the screen and an IR blaster. But its display lacks support for 120Hz refresh rate — as seen on OnePlus 8T Pro that makes viewing experience extra smooth.

POCO F2 Pro is the second smartphone from the company since it spun out of Xiaomi earlier this year. The company’s first product, called Pocophone F1, launched in 2018 and was well received by the market.

At the time of the launch, Xiaomi executives said they had big plans for the POCO brand but never launched anything afterward. During the period the company also saw a big departure when Jai Mani, a senior product executive, left the firm. Earlier this year, the company launched the mid-range POCO X2 smartphone in India.

POCO executives today shared little plans on what the future holds for the firm, but assured that they are here to stay. “We’re back. It’s been awhile, but we are back,” said Angus Ng, a product marketing manager at POCO.

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Xiaomi launches Mi Commerce in India to boost sales amid lockdown

Posted by | Amazon, Asia, coronavirus, counterpoint, COVID-19, Covid19, eCommerce, Gadgets, Samsung, Walmart, Xiaomi | No Comments

Xiaomi today launched a new e-commerce service in India that allows people in the nation to easily browse and order its handsets and other products from nearby physical retail stores as the Chinese giant rushes to kickstart its sales in its biggest overseas market.

Dubbed Mi Commerce, the service allows people to locate nearby stores that are either run by Xiaomi or those that have tie-ups with the company and browse smartphones, TVs, electric lamps, and a range of other products.

Users can express their “interest” to purchase the selected item through the app that would prompt the retail store to place a confirmation call. The retail store would deliver the item and then process the payment, Xiaomi said. A spokesperson told TechCrunch that Mi Commerce is available only in India currently.

Xiaomi has also launched a WhatsApp Business account that operates on a similar flow. Users can send a message to +91 8861826286 to initiate the conversation with retail stores through Facebook-owned service.

The shift to what is often described in the industry as an online to offline model comes as Xiaomi, like other smartphone vendors, looks to make up its lost sales in recent weeks. India ordered a nationwide lockdown in late March that shut retail shops, and restricted e-commerce firms to only service grocery orders.

According to Hong Kong-headquartered research firm Counterpoint, no smartphone units were sold in India, the world’s second largest smartphone market, in April.

In a call with reporters, Xiaomi executives said they were hopeful that the Indian market would attain at least 80% of its momentum by the end of the year. Counterpoint slashed its smartphone projections for India last month, saying it now expects the market to shrink by 10% this year. Indian smartphone market has consistently grown year-by-year in the last decade.

Mi Commerce would additionally also help potential customers maintain social distance and avoid errands to stores that would otherwise expose them to novel coronavirus.

Xiaomi said it was working with the government for an update on the resumption of smartphone manufacturing plants that are also shut since the lockdown was ordered in March. The company executives said they currently have inventory to meet demand for three to four months.

The Chinese giant is also providing working capital to its retail store partners, it said.

Samsung, which lost the tentpole position in India’s smartphone market to Xiaomi in 2018 and recently the second spot to Vivo, did not respond to TechCrunch’s request for comment on any similar efforts it has made — or not made — in India.

On Monday, e-commerce firms including Amazon and Walmart in India resumed their service for people in more than 80% zip codes in the country. A lockdown would remain in place for another two weeks in India, but New Delhi has eased some restrictions.

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COVID-19 crisis spurs triple-digit growth for refurbishing startup Back Market

Posted by | Amazon, Apple, Back Market, Column, coronavirus, COVID-19, eCommerce, Europe, Extra Crunch, France, Gadgets, grover, Growth, hardware, paris, retail, smartphone, Startups | No Comments
Eva Yoo
Contributor

Eva Yoo is founder of Seek Road, the project wherein she cycles from Seoul to London while interviewing startups on the Silk Road.

While a number of startups have been hard hit by efforts to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, refurbishing firm Back Market is showing increased growth globally.

The Paris -based startup encourages customers to send in their old devices so they can be refurbished and resold into the e-commerce secondhand market. The growth achieved in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis is partly due to increased laptop sales as people seek better devices to work remotely.

For people who are unsure whether refurbished products are reliable, Back Market permits customers to send in old devices, exchange them for newer versions and pay the difference. CEO Thibaud Hug de Larauze said this payback service is currently possible only in France, but starting in Q2, it will be available in other markets.

Founded in 2014, Back Market has raised a total of €48 million in funding over two rounds, most recently a Series B in June 2018. The company is profitable and reportedly still has money to spend from its last funding round.

“We don’t release the gross merchandise volume, but it’s a three-digit growth rate,” Hug de Larauze told TechCrunch. “We saw an increase in demand for laptops, printers and other devices needed for working at home. Demand for refurbished phones is going down as people seek to get the first necessity items, like food for their situation.”

Over the past two weeks, Back Market saw skyrocketing demand from Italy, a nation with a high coronavirus death toll where citizens were warned they would be confined to their homes for four weeks.

Another factor that helped the platform’s growth: Smartphone brands like Apple and Samsung closed their retail stores, a move that turned Back Market into a major supply channel. While offline retailers and carriers are shut down in Europe, Hug de Larauze says Chinese offline retailers and refurbishing factories are starting to get back to work.

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Disney debuts its streaming service in India for $20 a year

Posted by | abc, Amazon, Apps, Asia, Disney Plus, HBO, hooq, Hotstar, india, Media, Mobile, mx player, Netflix, TC | No Comments

Disney+ has arrived in the land of Bollywood. The company on Friday (local time) rolled out its eponymous streaming service in India through Hotstar, a popular on-demand video streamer it picked up as part of the Fox deal.

To court users in India, the largest open entertainment market in Asia, Disney is charging users 1,499 Indian rupees (about $19.5) for a year, the most affordable plan in any of the more than a dozen markets where Disney+ is currently available.

Subscribers of the revamped streaming service, now called Disney+ Hotstar, will get access to Disney Originals in English as well as several local languages, live sporting events, dozens of TV channels, and thousands of movies and shows, including some sourced from HBO, Showtime, ABC and Fox that maintain syndication partnerships with the Indian streaming service. It also maintains partnership with Hooq — at least for now.

Unlike Disney+’s offering in the U.S. and other markets, in India, the service does not support 4K and streams content at nearly a tenth of their bitrate.

Disney+ Hotstar is also offering a cheaper yearly premium tier, priced at Rs 399 (about $5.3), that will offer subscribers access to movies, shows (but not those sourced from aforementioned U.S. networks and studios) and live sporting events; it won’t include Disney Originals.

Access to streaming of sporting events, especially of cricket matches, has helped five-year-old Hotstar become the most popular on-demand video streaming in India. During the cricket tournament Indian Premier League (IPL) last year, the service amassed more than 300 million monthly active users and more than 100 million daily active users.

It also holds the global record for most simultaneous views on a live stream, about 25 million — more than thrice its nearest competitor.

Prior to today’s launch, Hotstar offered its premium plans at 999 Indian rupees, and 365 Indian rupees. Existing subscribers won’t be affected by the price revision for the duration of their current subscription.

The service, run by Indian conglomerate Star India, offers access to about 80% of its catalog at no cost to users. The company monetizes these viewers through ads.

But in recent years, the company has begun to explore ways to turn its users into subscribers. Two years ago, Hotstar stopped offering cricket match streaming to non-paying users.

People familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Hotstar has about 1.5 million paying subscribers, lower than what most industry firms estimate. But that figure is still higher than most of its competitors.

And there are many.

India’s on-demand video market

Disney+ will compete with more than three dozen international and local players in India, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Times Internet’s MX Player (which has over 175 million monthly active users), Zee5, Apple TV+ and Alt Balaji, which has amassed over 27 million subscribers.

“The arrival of Disney+ in India is another case study in the globalization of entertainment in the digital era. For decades, the biggest companies in the world have expanded their reach into different markets. But it’s new, and actually quite profound, that everyone on earth receives the very same version of such a specific cultural product,” Matthew Ball, former head of strategic planning for Amazon Studios, told TechCrunch.

As in some other markets, including the U.S., streaming services have inked deals with telecom networks, TV vendors, cable TV operators and satellite TV players to extend their reach in India.

Most of these streaming services monetize their viewers by selling ads, and those who do charge have kept their premium plans below $3.

Why that figure? That’s the number most industry executives think — by spending years in the Indian market — that people in the country are willing to pay for viewing content. The average of how much an individual pays for cable TV, for instance, in India is also about $3.

“I think everyone is still trying to sort out the right pricing. It’s true the average Indian consumer is used to far lower prices and can’t afford more. However, we need to focus on the consumers likely to buy this, who have the requisite broadband access and income, etc,” said Ball.

Commuters drive along a road past a billboard in Mumbai advertising the Amazon Prime Video online series “The Forgotten Army”. (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP via Getty Images)

At stake is India’s booming on-demand video streaming market that, according to Boston Consulting Group, is estimated to grow to $5 billion from half a billion two years ago.

Hotstar’s hold on India could make it easier for Disney+, which has launched in more than a dozen markets and has amassed over 28 million subscribers.

As the country spends about two more weeks in lockdown that New Delhi ordered last month to curtail the spread of coronavirus, this could also compel many to give Disney+ a try.

On the flip side, if the lockdown is extended, the current season of IPL, which has been postponed until mid-April, might be further delayed or cancelled altogether. Either of those scenarios could hurt the reach of Hotstar, which sees a massive drop in its user base after the conclusion of each cricket tournament.

Disney initially planned to launch its streaming service in India on March 28, the day IPL was supposed to commence. But the company later postponed the launch by six days.

Industry executives told TechCrunch that if IPL is cancelled, it could severely hurt the financials of Hotstar, which clocks more than 50% of its revenue during the 50-odd days of the cricket season.

Some said Disney+’s premier catalog might not be relevant for most of Hotstar’s user base, who seem to care about this streaming service only during the cricket season or to catch up on Indian soap operas.

Hotstar has also received criticism for censoring more content on its platform than any other streaming service in India. Last month, Hotstar blocked from streaming on its platform an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” that was critical of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. YouTube made that segment available without any edits.

John Oliver slammed Hotstar for censoring the episode and noted that the streaming service had additionally edited out parts from his older episodes where he made fun of Disney. In 2017, Hotstar also edited out a segment from Oliver’s show in which he mocked Samsung for the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco. Hotstar and Samsung had a commercial partnership.

Hotstar did not respond to multiple requests for comment in 2017. Hotstar did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the recent controversy.

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Estimote launches wearables for workplace-level contact tracing for COVID-19

Posted by | Amazon, ambient intelligence, Apple, Bluetooth, computer security, contact tracing, coronavirus, COVID-19, estimote, Gadgets, gps, hardware, Internet of Things, manufacturing, mobile devices, science, smartphone, smartphones, Startups, steve cheney, TC, technology, ubiquitous computing, wearable devices, Wearables, world health organization | No Comments

Bluetooth location beacon startup Estimote has adapted its technological expertise to develop a new product designed specifically for curbing the spread of COVID-19. The company created a new range of wearable devices that co-founder Steve Cheney believes can enhance workplace safety for those who have to be co-located at a physical workplace even while social distancing and physical isolation measures are in place.

The devices, called simply the “Proof of Health” wearables, aim to provide contact tracing — in other words, monitoring the potential spread of the coronavirus from person-to-person — at the level of a local workplace facility. The intention is to give employers a way to hopefully maintain a pulse on any possible transmission among their workforces and provide them with the ability to hopefully curtail any local spread before it becomes an outsized risk.

The hardware includes passive GPS location tracking, as well as proximity sensors powered by Bluetooth and ultra-wide-band radio connectivity, a rechargeable battery and built-in LTE. It also includes a manual control to change a wearer’s health status, recording states like certified health, symptomatic and verified infected. When a user updates their state to indicate possible or verified infection, that updates others they’ve been in contact with based on proximity and location-data history. This information is also stored in a health dashboard that provides detailed logs of possible contacts for centralized management. That’s designed for internal use within an organization for now, but Cheney tells me he’s working now to see if there might be a way to collaborate with WHO or other external health organizations to potentially leverage the information for tracing across enterprises and populations, too.

These are intended to come in a number of different form factors: the pebble-like version that exists today, which can be clipped to a lanyard for wearing and displaying around a person’s neck; a wrist-worn version with an integrated adjustable strap; and a card format that’s more compact for carrying and could work alongside traditional security badges often used for facility access control. The pebble-like design is already in production and 2,000 will be deployed now, with a plan to ramp production for as many as 10,000 more in the near future using the company’s Poland-based manufacturing resources.

Estimote has been building programmable sensor tech for enterprises for nearly a decade and has worked with large global companies, including Apple and Amazon . Cheney tells me that he quickly recognized the need for the application of this technology to the unique problems presented by the pandemic, but Estimote was already 18 months into developing it for other uses, including in hospitality industries for employee safety/panic button deployment.

“This stack has been in full production for 18 months,” he said via message. “We can program all wearables remotely (they’re LTE connected). Say a factory deploys this — we write an app to the wearable remotely. This is programmable IoT.

“Who knew the virus would require proof of health vis-a-vis location diagnostics tech,” he added.

Many have proposed technology-based solutions for contact tracing, including leveraging existing data gathered by smartphones and consumer applications to chart transmission. But those efforts also have considerable privacy implications, and require use of a smartphone — something Cheney says isn’t really viable for accurate workplace tracking in high-traffic environments. By creating a dedicated wearable, Cheney says that Estimote can help employers avoid doing something “invasive” with their workforce, since it’s instead tied to a fit-for-purpose device with data shared only with their employers, and it’s in a form factor they can remove and have some control over. Mobile devices also can’t do nearly as fine-grained tracking with indoor environments as dedicated hardware can manage, he says.

And contact tracing at this hyperlocal level won’t necessarily just provide employers with early warning signs for curbing the spread earlier and more thoroughly than they would otherwise. In fact, larger-scale contact tracing fed by sensor data could inform new and improved strategies for COVID-19 response.

“Typically, contact tracing relies on the memory of individuals, or some high-level assumptions (for example, the shift someone worked),” said Brianna Vechhio-Pagán of John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab via a statement. “New technologies can now track interactions within a transmissible, or ~6-foot range, thus reducing the error introduced by other methods. By combining very dense contact tracing data from Bluetooth and UWB signals with information about infection status and symptoms, we may discover new and improved ways to keep patients and staff safe.”

With the ultimate duration of measures like physical distancing essentially up-in-the-air, and some predictions indicating they’ll continue for many months, even if they vary in terms of severity, solutions like Estimote’s could become essential to keeping essential services and businesses operating while also doing the utmost to protect the health and safety of the workers incurring those risks. More far-reaching measures might be needed, too, including general-public-connected, contact-tracing programs, and efforts like this one should help inform the design and development of those.

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In a significant change, Apple customers can now buy or rent titles directly in the Prime Video app

Posted by | Amazon, Apple, Apps, Media, Mobile, prime video, rentals, TC, Video | No Comments

A recent update from Amazon has made it easier for Apple customers to buy or rent movies from its Prime Video app. Before, customers using the Prime Video app from an iOS device or Apple TV would have to first purchase or rent the movie elsewhere — like through the Amazon website or a Prime Video app on another device, such as the Fire TV, Roku or an Android device. Now, Prime Video users can make the purchase directly through the app instead.

The changes weren’t formally announced, but quickly spotted once live.

Amazon declined to comment, but confirmed to TechCrunch the feature is live now for customers in the U.S., U.K. and Germany.

The change makes it possible for Prime Video users to rent or buy hundreds of thousands of titles from Amazon’s video catalog. This includes new release movies, TV shows, classic movies, award-winning series, Oscar-nominated films and more.

This is supported on a majority of Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch running iOS/iPadOS 12.2 or higher, as well as Apple TV HD and Apple TV 4K.

Amazon for years has prevented users from directly purchasing movies and TV shows from the Prime Video app on Apple devices. That’s because Apple requires a 30% cut of all in-app purchases taking place on its platform. To avoid fees, many apps — including not only Amazon, but also Netflix, Tinder, Spotify and others — have bypassed the major app platforms’ fees at times by redirecting users to a website.

Since the news broke, many have questioned if Amazon had some sort of deal with Apple that was making the change possible — especially because it didn’t raise the cost of rentals or subscriptions to cover a 30% cut.

As it turns out, it sort of does.

Apple tells TechCrunch it offers a program aimed at supporting subscription video entertainment providers.

“Apple has an established program for premium subscription video entertainment providers to offer a variety of customer benefits — including integration with the Apple TV app, AirPlay 2 support, tvOS apps, universal search, Siri support and, where applicable, single or zero sign-on,” an Apple spokesperson said. “On qualifying premium video entertainment apps such as Prime Video, Altice One and Canal+, customers have the option to buy or rent movies and TV shows using the payment method tied to their existing video subscription,” the spokesperson noted.

It remains to be seen if Amazon will extend Apple the same courtesy on its Fire TV platform, by allowing Apple customers to rent or buy movies directly in the Apple TV app there.

Amazon’s adoption of this program is notable, as it comes at a time when Apple is under increased scrutiny for alleged anti-competitive behaviors — particularly those against companies with a rival product or service — like Prime Video is to Apple TV+, or Fire TV is to Apple TV, for example.

Amazon called attention to the new feature in its Prime Video app, which now alerts you upon first launch that “Movie night just got better” in a full-screen pop-up. It also advertises the easier option for direct purchases through a home screen banner.

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