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 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 fifteen 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.
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.
Gather around, campers, and hear a tale as old as time.
Remember the HTC Dream? The Evo 4G? The Google Nexus One? What about the Touch Diamond? All amazing devices. The HTC of 2018 is not the HTC that made these industry-leading devices. That company is gone.
HTC started as a white label device maker giving carriers an option to sell devices branded with their name. The company also had a line of HTC-branded connected PDAs that competed in the nascent smartphone market. BlackBerry, or Research in Motion as it was called until 2013, ruled this phone segment, but starting around 2007 HTC began making inroads thanks to innovated touch devices that ran Windows Mobile 6.0.
In 2008 HTC introduced the Touch line with the Touch Diamond, Touch Pro, Touch 3G and Touch HD. These were stunning devices for the time. They were fast, loaded with big, user swappable batteries and microSD card slots. The Touch Pro even had a front-facing camera for video calls.
HTC overlayed a custom skin onto Windows Mobile making it a bit more palatable for the general user. At that time, Windows Mobile was competing with BlackBerry’s operating system and Nokia’s Symbian. None was fantastic, but Windows Mobile was by far the most daunting for new users. HTC did the best thing it could do and developed a smart skin that gave the phone a lot of features that would still be considered modern.
In 2008 HTC released the first Android device with Google. Called the HTC Dream or G1, the device was far from perfect. But the same could be said about the iPhone. This first Android phone set the stage for future wins from HTC, too. The company quickly followed up with the Hero, Droid Incredible, Evo 4G and, in 2010, the amazing Google Nexus One.
After the G1, HTC started skinning Android in the same fashion as it did Windows Mobile. It cannot be overstated how important this was for the adoption of Android. HTC’s user interface made Android usable and attractive. HTC helped make Android a serious competitor to Apple’s iOS.
In 2010 and 2011, Google turned to Samsung to make the second and third flagship Nexus phones. It was around this time Samsung started cranking out Android phones, and HTC couldn’t keep up. That’s not to say HTC didn’t make a go for it. The company kept releasing top-tier phones: the One X in 2012, the One Max in 2013 and the One (M8) in 2014. But it didn’t matter. Samsung had taken up the Android standard and was charging forward, leaving HTC, Sony and LG to pick from the scraps.
At the end of 2010, HTC was the leading smartphone vendor in the United States. In 2014 it trailed Apple, Samsung and LG with around a 6 percent market share in the U.S. In 2017 HTC captured 2.3 percent of smartphone subscribers and now in 2018, some reports peg HTC with less than a half percent of the smartphone market.
Google purchased a large chunk of HTC’s smartphone design talent in 2017 for $1.1 billion. The deal transferred more than 2,000 employees under Google’s tutelage. They will likely be charged with working on Google’s line of Pixel devices. It’s a smart move. This HTC team was responsible for releasing amazing devices that no one bought. But that’s not entirely their fault. Outside forces are to blame. HTC never stopped making top-tier devices.
The HTC of today is primarily focused on the Vive product line. And that’s a smart play. The HTC Vive is one of the best virtual reality platforms available. But HTC has been here before. Hopefully, it learned something from its mistakes in smartphones.
Several years ago Google X engineer Max Braun published a medium post on a smart mirror he made and now he’s back with a new version that’s smaller and smarter. This is a smart mirror I can get behind though I still find smart mirrors completely frivolous.
He published his project on Medium where he explains the process and the parts a person would need to build their own. This isn’t a project for everyone, but Max gives enough instructions that most enterprising builders should be able to hack something similar together.
I recently reviewed a smart mirror and found it a bit silly but still useful. Ideally, like in Max’s smart mirrors, the software is passive and always available. Users shouldn’t have to think about interacting with the devices; the right information should be displayed automatically. It’s a balancing act.
At this point, smart mirrors are little more than Android tablets placed behind a two-way mirror. Retail models are expensive to be buy and hardly worth it since a person’s phone or voice assistant can probably provide the same information. After all, how many devices does a person really need to tell them the weather forecast?
Project Fi, Google’s wireless service, is getting support for a number of new phones today. Until now, if you wanted to switch to Fi, the only officially supported phones were Google’s own Pixel and Pixel 2 phones, the Nexus 5X and 6P, as well as the Moto X4 and its Android One variant. Today, Google is adding to this list the Moto G6, as well as LG’s G7 ThinQ and V35 ThinQ phones.
Since Google’s network is a bit different from its competitors, thanks to Fi’s ability to switch between the networks of T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular to provide users access to the strongest signal in a given area, the company has always taken a very strict approach as to which phones it officially supported.
If you want to make the switch to Fi, which also recently introduced its own take on its competitors’ flat-rate plans, then the 32GB version of the 5.7-inch Moto G6 is now available for $199 (discounted from $249). The two LG phones will be coming to Fi next month for their standard retail prices of $899 for the V35 and $749 for the G7. While Google isn’t offering any major outright discount for the LG phones, those who pre-order one will get a $50 Fi credit.
It’s worth noting that the V35, LG’s new six-inch flagship phone, only launched today and is essentially a G7 with more RAM, a different display and larger battery. The phone was originally rumored to be an AT&T exclusive, but I guess we can put that idea to rest now.
Both the G7 and Moto G6 have generally received favorable reviews. Google also currently offers the Moto X4 for a heavily discounted $249, but that still makes the G6 the most affordable option for Fi. This may create a bit of confusion for potential users, though, as those are quite similar and it’s hard to figure out which one to pick (just like choosing between the G7 and V35). At the same time, though, it’s nice to see Google add more options for its Project Fi customers.
The Amazon Echo and Google Home are amazing devices and both have advantages over the other. In my home, we use the Amazon Echo and have them around the house and outside. I have the original in the living room, a Dot in bedrooms, my office and outside, a Tap in my woodworking workshop and Spots in the kids’ room (with tape over the camera). They’re great devices, but far from perfect. They’re missing several key features and the Google Home is missing the same things, too.
I polled the TechCrunch staff. The following are the features we would like to see in the next generation of these devices.
If you’re on desktop, click the “start here” button to the right. If you’re on mobile web, just scroll down. If you are reading this from anywhere else (Google News, Yahoo, etc), click here to jump into the slideshow.
Have A Look At What The Future Has in Store From The Google I/O 2018 keynote (in 14 minutes)
The Google I/O 2018 keynote had a bunch of major announcements about Android P, Google Assistant, and more. Here’s the most important news to know…
Smart Compose in Gmail
This is a nifty new feature in Gmail that uses machine learning to not just predict words users plan to type, but entire phrases. And we’re not just talking about simple predictions like addresses, but entire phrases that are suggested based on context and user history. The feature will roll out to users in the next month.
Google Photos AI features
Google Photos is getting a ton of new features based on artificial intelligence and machine learning. For example, Google Photos can take an old restored black and white photo and not just convert it to color, but convert it to realistic color and touch it up in the process.
Google Assistant voices
The original Google Assistant voice was named Holly, and it was based on actual recordings. Moving forward, Google Assistant will get six new voices… including John Legend! Google is using WaveNet to make voices more realistic, and it hopes to ultimately perfect all accents and languages around the world. Google Assistant will support 30 different languages by the end of 2018.
Google is making a ton of upgrades to Google Assistant revolving around natural conversation. For one, conversations can continue following an initial wake command (“Hey Google”). The new feature is called continued conversation and it’ll be available in the coming weeks.
Multiple Actions support is coming to Google Assistant as well, allowing Google Assistant to handle multiple commands at one time.
Another new feature called “Pretty Please” will help young children learn politeness by responding with positive reinforcement when children say please. The feature will roll out later this year.
New visual canvas for Google Assistant
The first Smart Displays will be released in July, powered by Google Assistant. In order to power the experiences provided by Smart Displays, Google had to whip up a new visual interface for Assistant.
Also of note, Google Assistant’s visual UI is getting an overhaul on mobile devices as well in 2018.
Swiping up in the Google app will show a snapshot of the user’s entire day courtesy of Google Assistant. The new UI is coming to Android this summer and to iOS later this year.
Using text to speech, deep learning, AI, and more, Google Assistant can be a real assistant. In a demo at I/O 2018, Google Assistant made a real call to a hair salon and had a back and forth conversation with an employee, ultimately booking an actual woman’s haircut appointment in the time span requested by the user.
This is not a feature that will roll out anytime soon, but it’s something Google is working hard to develop for both business and consumers. An initial version of the service that will call businesses to get store hours will roll out in the coming weeks, and the data collected will allow Google to update open and close hours under company profiles online.
Here’s a demo video:
TOP NEWS IN TEXT
[ARTICLE BELOW CITED FROM BGR.COM ]Google News is getting an overhaul that focuses on highlighting quality journalism. The revamp will make it easier for users to keep up with the news by showing a briefing at the top with five important stories. Local news will be highlighted as well, and the Google News app will constantly evolve and learn a user’s preferences as he or she uses the app.
Videos from YouTube and elsewhere will be showcased more prominently, and a new feature called Newscasts are like Instagram stories, but for news.
The refreshed Google News will also take steps to help users understand the full scope of a story, showcasing a variety of sources and formats. The new feature, which is called “Full Coverage,” will also help by providing related stories, background, timelines of key related events, and more.
Finally, a new Newsstand section lets users follow specific publications, and they can even subscribe to paid news services right inside the app. Paid subscriptions will make content available not just in the Google News app, but on the publisher’s website and elsewhere as well.
The updated Google News app is rolling out on the web, iOS, and Android beginning today, and it will be completely rolled out by the end of next week.
Google had already released the first build of Android P for developers, but on Tuesday the company discussed a number of new Android P features that fall into three core categories.
Google partnered with DeepMind to create a feature called Adaptive Battery. It uses machine learning to determine which apps you use frequently and which ones you use only sporadically, and it restricts background processes for seldom used apps in order to save battery live.
Another new feature called Adaptive Brightness learns a user’s brightness preferences in different ambient lighting scenarios to improve auto-brightness settings.
App Actions is a new feature in Android P that predicts actions based on a user’s usage patterns. It helps users get to their next task more quickly. For example, if you search for a movie in Google, you might get an App Action that offers to open Fandango so you can buy tickets.
Slices is another new feature that allows developers to take a small piece of their apps — or “slice” — that can be rendered in different places. For example, a Google search for hotels might open a slice from Booking.com that lets users begin the booking process without leaving the search screen. Think of it as a widget, but inside another app instead of on the home screen.
Google wants to help technology fade to the background so that it gets out of the user’s way.
First, Android P’s navigation has been overhauled. Swipe up on a small home button at the bottom and a new app switcher will open. Swipe up again and the app drawer will open. The new app switcher is now horizontal, and it looks a lot like the iPhone app switcher in iOS 11.
Also appreciated is a new rotation button that lets users choose which apps can auto-rotate and which ones cannot.
Android P brings some important changes to Android that focus on wellbeing.
There’s a new dashboard that shows users exactly how their spent their day on their phone. It’ll show you which apps you use and for how long, and it provides other important info as well. Controls will be available to help users limit the amount of time they spend in certain apps.
An enhanced Do Not Disturb mode will stop visual notifications as well as audio notifications and vibrations. There’s also a new “shush” feature that automatically enables Do Not Disturb when a phone is turned face down on a table. Important contacts will still be able to call even when the new Do Not Disturb mode is enabled.
There’s also a new wind-down mode that fades the display to grayscale when someone uses his or her phone late at night before bed.
Google announced a new Android P Beta program just like Apple’s public iOS beta program. It allows end users to try Android P on their phones beginning today.
A new “For You” tab in Google Maps shows you new businesses in your area as well as restaurants that are trending around you. Google also added a new “Your Match” score to display the likelihood of you liking a new restaurant based on your historical ratings.
Have trouble choosing a restaurant when you go out in a group? A long-press on any restaurant will add it to a new short list, and you can then share that list with friends. They can add other options, and the group can then choose a restaurant from the group list.
These new features will roll out to Maps this summer.
A bit further down the road, Google is working on a fascinating new feature that combines computer vision courtesy of the camera with Google Maps Street View to create an AR experience in Google Maps.
Google Lens is also coming to additional devices in the coming weeks, and there are new features coming as well.
Lens can now understand words, and you can copy and paste words on a sign or a piece of paper to the phone’s clipboard. You can also get context — for example, Google Lens can see a dish on a menu and tell you the ingredients.
A new shopping features let you point your camera at an item to get prices and reviews. And finally, Google Lens now works in real time to constant scan items in the camera frame to give information and, soon, to overlay live results on items in your camera’s view.
BONUS: Waymo self-driving taxi service
Waymo is the only company that currently has a fleet of fully self-driving cars with no driver needed in the driver’s seat. On Tuesday, Waymo announced a new self-driving taxi service that will soon launch in Phoenix, Arizona. Customers will be able to hail autonomous cars with no one in the driver’s seat, and use those self-driving cars to travel to any local destination. The service will launch before the end of 2018.
How did you find Microsoft Build yesterday? We don’t really have time for your answer because Google I/O is already here! Google is kicking off its annual developer conference today. As usual, there will be a consumer keynote with major new products in the morning, and a developer-centric keynote in the afternoon.
The conference starts at 10 AM Pacific Time (1 PM on the East Cost, 6 PM in London, 7 PM in Paris) and you can watch the live stream right here on this page. The developer keynote will be at 12:45 PM Pacific Time.
Rumor has it that Google is about to share more details about Android P, the next major release of its Android platform. But you can also expect some Google Assistant and Google Home news, some virtual reality news and maybe even some Wear OS news. We have a team on the ground ready to cover the event, so don’t forget to read TechCrunch to get our take on today’s news.
The whole-home wireless craze peaked and waned last year with the rise of Orbi, Eero, Google WiFi, and Linksys’ Velop. These routers use mesh technology to blanket your home in soft, velvety Wi-Fi, ensuring that everything from the front camera/lamp to the Wi-Fi-connected grill in the back yard are connected to the Internet. I’ve tested a number of these so far and have settled on Orbi as the best of the bunch but the original tri-band Velop was excellent and this dual-band model – a cheaper but still speedy whole home solution – has maintained quality and value and holds the crown for the cheapest – and best – mesh network you can buy.
This new mesh kit, the Velop AC3900, costs $299 and is slightly smaller than the original AC4400, a tri-band solution that started at $349 for three units. Considering most routers hover around the $100 mark with some falling as low as $20, it was a hard sell and the story manufacturers told – your Wi-Fi was insufficient for your home and you needed multiple little routers instead of one in the living room – didn’t quite resonate. Linksys reacted to this by releasing this smaller, cheaper model onto a single-router world.
The result is the AC3900, a shorter, smaller device that can hide in your home (as long as its near an electrical outlet) or sit out as a high-design techno-tchotchke. The Velop can blanket up to 4,500 square feet and even act as a wired router for standalone devices. Setup is as easy as pulling a single unit out of the box and connecting to it while running the Linksys app. You can then add more units throughout the home.
The AC3900 devices are a few inches shorter than the AC4400 and they are missing a few of the high-end bells and whistles of the original models. First, these routers have less memory than the original models, with system memory halving from the original 512MB down to 256MB and internal Flash memory falling from 4GB to 256MB. The router also supports only two simultaneous bands while the original model supported three simultaneous bands. In practice I saw solid performance out of both models with the AC3900 maxing out at about 900Mbps internal network speeds which equates to some excellent Internet speeds when the entire system is working. Interestingly, you can also ask your voice assistants to turn on or off Velop’s guest network, a cute feature for when visitors come over.
The real question most people have regarding these whole home solutions is whether they work and whether they’re worth it. Most of them, except for a few exceptions I discovered in my trials, work very, very well. Velop is easy to set up – you just place it in a room and press a button – and once it’s installed you’ll throw away all of your other routers. For years I placed a single router in my living room and used some Apple Airports and wireline networking to connect things up to my attic. Now with mesh networking I get a solid signal throughout the house and even in the back yard.
The AC3900 comes with three units and costs the same as Linksys’ dual-unit AC4400. While the AC4400 are ostensibly better I would argue that the AC3900 is about the same and the added benefit of an extra unit makes the whole-home Internet even more widespread. Mesh routers are the way to go and this is a great way to try them out.
The only thing you really need to know about these units is that they work. Whether you’re dropping a bunch of Netgear Orbis around your house or starting up a Google Wifi unit, mesh networks make your wireless experience much better. Linksys, to their credit, just made that experience a little cheaper.
Google’s two smart speaker products — the Google Home and Google Home Mini — and its Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL smartphones are now available in India following a launch event in the country.
The devices are priced at Rs 9,999 ($154), and Rs 4,499 ($69), respectively, and Google confirmed that they are available for purchase online via Flipkart and offline through over 750 retailer stores, including Reliance Digital, Croma and Bajaj Electronics.
The Google smart speakers don’t cater to India’s multitude of local languages at this point, but the U.S. company said that they do understand “distinctly” India voices and “will respond to you with uniquely Indian contexts,” such as answering questions about local sport, cooking or TV shows.
For a limited time, Google is incentivizing early customers who will get six months of Google Play Music alongside offers for local streaming services Saavn and Gaana when they buy the Home or Home Mini.
The vastness that makes the Amazon rainforest so diverse and fertile also makes it extremely difficult to protect. Rainforest Connection is a project started back in 2014 that used solar powered second-hand phones as listening stations that could alert authorities to sounds of illegal logging. And applying machine learning has supercharged the network’s capabilities.
The original idea is still in play: modern smartphones are powerful and versatile tools, and work well as wireless sound detectors. But as founder Topher White explained in an interview, the approach is limited to what you can get the phones to detect.
Originally, he said, the phones just listened for certain harmonics indicating, for example, a chainsaw. But bringing machine learning into the mix wrings much more out of the audio stream.
“Now we’re talking about detecting species, gunshots, voices, things that are more subtle,” he said. “And these models can improve over time. We can go back into years of recordings to figure out what patterns we can pull out of this. We’re turning this into a big data problem.”
White said he realized early on that the phones couldn’t do that kind of calculation, though — even if their efficiency-focused CPUs could do it, the effort would probably drain the battery. So he began working with Google’s TensorFlow platform to perform the training and integration of new data in the cloud.
Google also helped produce a nice little documentary about one situation where Guardians could help native populations deter loggers and poachers:
That’s in the Amazon, obviously, but Rainforest Connection has also set up stations in Cameroon and Sumatra, with others on the way.
Machine learning models are particularly good at finding patterns in noisy data that sound logical but defy easy identification through other means.
For instance, White said, “We should be able to detect animals that don’t make sounds. Jaguars might not always be vocalizing, but the animals around them are, birds and things.” The presence of a big cat then, might be easier to detect by listening for alarmed bird calls than for its near-silent movement through the forest.
The listening stations can be placed as far as 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) from the nearest cell tower. And since a device can detect chainsaws a kilometer away and some species half a kilometer away, it’s not like they need to be on every tree.
But, as you may know, the Amazon is rather a big forest. He wants more people to get involved, especially students. White partnered with Google to launch a pilot program where kids can build their own “Guardian,” as the augmented phone kits are called. When I talked with him it was moments before one such workshop in LA.
Topher White and students at one of the Guardian building workshops.
“We’ve already done three schools and I think a couple hundred students, plus three more in about half an hour,” he told me. “And all these devices will be deployed in the Amazon over the next three weeks. On Earth day they’ll be able to see them, and download to app to stream the sounds. It’s to show these kids that what they do can have an immediate effect.”
“An important part is making it inclusive, proving these things can be built by anyone in the world, and showing how anyone can access the data and do something cool with it. You don’t need to be a data scientist to do it,” he continued.
Getting more people involved is the key to the project, and to that end Rainforest Connection is working on a few new tricks. One is an app you’ll be able to download this summer “where people can put their phone on their windowsill and get alerts when there’s a species in the back yard.”
The other is a more public API; currently only partners like companies and researchers can access it. But with a little help all the streams from the many online Guardians will be available for anyone to listen to, monitor, and analyze. But that’s all contingent on having money.
“If we want to keep this program going, we need to find some funding,” White said. “We’re looking at grants and at corporate sponsorship — it’s a great way to get kids involved too, in both technology and ecology.”
Donations help, but partnerships with hardware makers and local businesses are more valuable. Want to join up? You can get at Rainforest Connection here.