Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

I have to hand it to 8BitDo. At first I thought they were just opportunistically hawking cheap hunks of plastic in an era of unparalleled nostalgia for retro games, but… well, who am I kidding? That’s exactly what they’re doing. But they’re doing it well. And these new DIY kits are the latest sign that they actually understand their most obsessive customers.

While you can of course purchase fully formed controllers and adapters from the company that let your retro consoles ride the wireless wave of the future, not everyone is ready to part with their original hardware.

I, for example, have had my Super Nintendo for 25 years or so — its yellowing, cracked bulk and controllers, all-over stains and teeth marks compelling all my guests to make an early exit. I consider it part of my place’s unique charm, but more importantly I’m used to the way these controllers feel and look — they’re mine.

8BitDo understands me, along with the rest of the wretches out there who can’t part with the originals out of some twisted concept of loyalty or authenticity. So they’re giving us the option to replace the controllers’ aging guts with a fresh new board equipped with wireless connectivity, making it a healthy hybrid of the past and present.

If you’re the type (as I am) that worries that a modern controller will break in ways that an SNES controller would find laughable, if it could laugh, then this will likely strike your fancy. All you do is take apart your gamepad (if you can stand to do so), pull out the original PCB (and save it, of course), and pop in the new one.

You’ll be using more or less all the same parts as these famously durable controllers came with (check out this teardown). The way the buttons feel shouldn’t change at all, since the mechanical parts aren’t being replaced, just the electronics that they activate. It runs on a rechargeable battery inside that you recharge with an unfortunately proprietary cable that comes with the kit.

If you’re worried about latency… don’t be. On these old consoles, control latency is already like an order of magnitude higher than a complete wireless packet round trip, so you shouldn’t notice any lag.

You will, however, need to pick up a Bluetooth adapter if you want to use this on your original console — but if you want to use the controller with a wireless-equipped setup like your computer, it should work flawlessly.

If you buy it and don’t like it, you can just slot the original PCB back into its spot and no harm is done!

There are conversion kits for the NES and SNES, the new Classic Editions of both, and the Sega Mega Drive. At $20 each it’s hardly a big investment, and the reversible nature of the mod makes it low risk. And hey, you might learn something about that controller of yours. Or find a desiccated spider inside.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Brian Heater

When reviewing hardware, it’s important to integrate it into your life as much as possible. If you can, swap it in for your existing devices for a few days or a week, to really get an idea of what it’s like to use it day to day.

There are certain nuances you can only discover through this approach. Of course, that’s easier said than done in most cases. Switching between phones and computers every week isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds, especially when juggling multiple operating systems.

As a MacBook Pro owner, however, this one was a fair bit easier. In fact, there’s very little changed here from an aesthetic standpoint, and beyond the quieter keyboard and Siri integration, there’s not a lot that’s immediately apparent in the 2018 MacBook Pro refresh for me. That’s because I’m not the target demographic for the update. I write words for a living. There are large portions of my job that I could tackle pretty easily on an Apple IIe (please no one tell the IT department).

This upgrade is for a different class of user entirely: the creative professional. These are the people long assumed to be the core user base for the Mac ecosystem. Sure, they only account for around 15 percent of Mac users, according to the company’s estimates, but they’re the people who use the machines to make art. And as such, it’s precisely the group of influencers the company needs to court.

In recent years, however, some vocal critics have accused the company of taking that key demo for granted. Apple has seemed more focused on a populist approach to its technology. The simplification of pro software like Final Cut X and the seeming abandonment of the Mac Pro have been regarded as exhibits A and B.

For the first time in recent memory, the company has serious competition for the hearts and minds of creative pros, including Microsoft, which has made the category a focus with its high-end Surface line.

But the last two years have seen Apple fighting back. The company was uncharacteristically open about the status of the Mac Pro line, which has been undergoing a fundamental rethink. In the meantime, it released the iMac Pro and added a bunch of new features to macOS aimed firmly at that category.

The new MacBook Pro continues that trend; the form factor remains the same, and the changes are largely under the hood. But these are in fact extremely powerful machines but around the premise that, in 2018, one shouldn’t have to compromise power in order to go portable. Well, maybe a little — but in those cases where you need some intense graphical processing, there’s always an external GPU, which makes the machine capable of VR and other process-intensive tasks.

The new Pros top out at a bank-breaking $6,699, presenting a healthy jump over the highest-end models money could buy last year. For the rest of us, however, the starting price remains the same, at $1,799 for the 13-inch and $2,399 for the 15.

Keys to quiet

There’s a lot going on here. First, as many pointed out in the initial announcement, Apple didn’t alter the fundamentals here — they just made the loud typing a bit quieter. That was a surprise to many, given everything that’s happened on that front over the last several months. After all, if the company was going to go out of its way to update the technology, wasn’t a fundamental rethink in order here?

A couple of things. First, things (and lawsuits) didn’t really start getting hot and heavy on that front until recently. The first major class-action suit was filed back in May. Hardware iteration happens slowly, especially with a massive company that supports so many users. After all, you want to get things right — especially when correcting a known issue. A couple of months is hardly sufficient lead time.

Old keyboard

Second, Apple says the actual instances of real keyboard failure are a small minority. I’m inclined to believe that’s the case, though the internet certainly has the tendency to amplify these kinds of things. But still, there seems a reasonable possibility that some bigger fix is in the works.

The company will also point out that, in spite of pushback, many users like the new keyboards. Based on the multiple threads of discussion we had after the news was announced, I can tell you that this is anecdotally true among the TechCrunch staff.

Things got better with gen two, and I’ve certainly become more used to typing on it. I still didn’t love it at first, but I’d say I’m pretty much keyboard-agnostic at this point. I did have an issue with one key not working, but it was nothing a blast of canned air couldn’t fix. Another reason to always keep some lying around.

New keyboard

Along with the mechanics, the key travel is the same. So if you had issues with the typing being too shallow for your liking, sorry, you’re out of luck here. An early teardown points to a thin, silicone membrane sitting on top of the keyboard switch that serves to help protect the undercarriage from spills, food particles and the like. I once got a small piece of something stuck under there once, and it hampered movement entirely.

In my case, it was nothing that a blast of canned air couldn’t fix (we don’t all have one lying around, but we really should), but clearly not everyone has been so lucky on that front. It seems as though the muffling of the sound and the extra sense of tactile pushback was a happy accident of a kind here, but hey, we’ll take it.

Here’s a longish thing we wrote after getting our hands on the system. We enlisted Anthony Ha, TechCrunch’s Loud Typing World Champion five years running (they tried to recruit him out of college, but the allure of writing about VCs was too strong) to try it out. Even with Anthony downright punishing the keys, the result was noticeable.

The new keys aren’t silent, but they’re a lot less likely to get you kicked out of the library. There’s not a huge difference between the actual decibel levels between the two, but the older model’s more staccato typewriter clacking sound has become more dull and less harsh on the ears, which likely makes it sound that much quieter.

Another tidbit here for people who focused on such things: The keys’ cap color is ever-so-slightly lighter than the last. I thought I was going crazy at first, but there you go. I mean, I still think I’m losing my mind, but for non-keyboard-related reasons.

About those specs

Apple didn’t splurge on the specs with the review unit it sent along. The model sports:

  • 2.9 GHz Intel Core i9
  • 32 GB of DDR4 memory
  • Radeon Pro 560X
  • 4TB of storage

Configured on Apple’s site, that will run you a cool $6,669 — about the same as the monthly rent on a studio apartment in San Francisco from what I understand. It’s worth noting here that it’s the SSD storage that really pushes the cost into the stratosphere. That’s an additional $3,200 over the default 512GB.

Again, 4TB is probably overkill for the vast majority of users. All of the above configurations are really, but they’re there if you want/need them. Apple was able to push memory up to 32GB courtesy of finally introducing DDR4 to the MacBook. That move does come with a hit to the battery life, however, so the company went ahead and increased the battery size to offset that hit.

The company says the laptop gets around 10 hours of use in its testing. I admittedly put it through something a bit more rigorous than standardized testing when incorporating it into my daily usage, recording a podcast on Skype, listening to music while working/browsing the web (it’s part of my job, I swear) and got a few hours less than that.

As for performance, Apple’s not messing around here. Running Geekbench 4 (a popular PC benchmark), I got an impressive 5540 on the single core and 233345 with the multi core test. Geekbench got similar — if slightly lower — results in its own tests on the high-end. Here’s founder John Poole on the findings:

For the 15-inch models, single-core performance is up 12-15%, and multi-core performance is up 39-46%. Since the underlying processor architecture hasn’t significantly changed between the 2017 and 2018 models, the increases in performance are due to higher Turbo Boost frequencies, more cores, and DDR4 memory.

The 2018 MacBook Pro is the most substantial upgrade (at least regarding performance) since the introduction of quad-core processors in the 2011 MacBook Pro.

Taken together, that represents a significant upgrade from last year’s model. Individual performance will vary depending on a lot of different topics, but there’s no doubt these are powerful machines.

Hey, Siri

The addition of hands-free Siri functionality didn’t get a lot of play here, but it’s an important one — if not for the computer itself, then for Apple’s broader ambitions. Like Google’s play, Siri was mobile first.

But Apple’s assistant has always been about building a broader ecosystem of contextual search that can help the company tailor its offerings to individual user needs. We saw this manifest itself last year with the addition of HomePod, a typically Apple high-end approach to the insanely popular world of smart speakers.

The assistant has actually been available on macOS since Sierra (10.12) rolled out back in late 2016. This, however, marks the first time hands-free voice interaction has been available on the desktop. Apple says it was the T2, introduced on the iMac Pro, which allowed for the capability — just one of an extremely long list of features the company has offloaded on the proprietary chip.

Like other key features, Siri is enabled during setup. If you’re the sort who sticks masking tape over your webcam, you can also simply opt out of having the MacBook’s microphones listening in for the wake word. And you can always untick the “Listen for ‘Hey Siri’” box in Settings.

Setup is more or less the same as on iOS. You’ll be prompted to speak a couple of phrases to train the AI on your voice. Device interaction functions similarly as other assistant hardware ecosystems. The moment you say, “Hey, Siri,” your iPhone/Mac/HomePod, et al. communicate with one prioritize either the device the heard the query the best (likely the closest) or was most recently used.

I ended up disabling the feature on my phone in order to test it on the desktop, because there were too many instances of the phone picking it up or having Siri pop up on both at once and then disappearing on the one that was de-prioritized. When the feature was switched off the phone, however, its desktop counterpart was plenty responsive.

All of this leads to a key question: Is a desktop smart assistant ultimately very useful? The primary driver of voice functionality is the ability free up your hands from having to type. Presumably, however, you’ve already got your hands at or near the keyboard if you’re close enough for Siri to hear you.

Multitasking seems to be the primary use-case here. Say you’re typing and want to know the weather or find movie times, you can definitely do that. Ditto for sports scores — it took a query or two, but “did the A’s win yesterday?” got me the answer I wanted, with a conversation reply, “the Athletics eked out a win over the Giants in the Bay Bridge Series by a score of 4 to 3 yesterday.”

Hey Siri, a win is a win, okay?

Multimedia functionality, which seems like one of the most logical applications, is still limited here. Siri will find and play things in Apple Music, but ask her to play something on Spotify and that’s a no-go — you’ll get an Apple Music link and Wikipedia entry instead. Siri knows which side her bread is buttered on. Ask her to play a movie and she’ll confess that she can’t do that.

More functionality is surely on the way. For now, however, Siri on the desktop is more a nice addition than necessary feature.

Toning it down

Like Siri, True Tone is opt-in during the setup process. You can toggle it on and off at the beginning, which I suggest, just so you know what you’re getting yourselves into. And like Siri you can always go back into settings later to adjust if it’s not to your liking. Clicking Option and the Touch Bar bright icon will get you there, as well.

The effect, which debuted on the iPad Pro (and rolled out to other new iOS devices) utilizes a light sensor (new for the Mac) to determine the ambient color and brightness of its surroundings. It’s a sort of more sophisticated version of the brightness detection Apple computers have had on board for some time now.

If you’ve ever fiddled with a camera (even the one on your phone in most cases), you recognize the importance of white balance. That’s the thing that turns objects weird colors when you step into different lighting settings. It’s a key to perceiving contrast getting lifelike reproductions of images. I have two 15-inch MacBooks in front of me right now (that’s just how I roll), and it’s like night and day. You’ve got no idea how blue the screen you’ve been staring at is until you see it up against another True Tone-enabled display.

For a majority of us, it’s a nice feature, but for photographers, video producers and designers who rely on a MacBook for their work, it’s a much bigger deal. As recently published support documents point out, the feature will also work with a handful of secondary displays, including Apple’s own, and LG’s Ultrafine 4K and 5K.

Upgrade time?

I’m staring at my now 2017 MacBook Pro as I type this. It’s always tough to compete with the latest and greatest, especially when it’s been specked out like crazy. I’m going to miss the quieter keyboard and True Tone display, for sure. Hands-free Siri, I can really take or leave at the moment based on current functionality.

But I’m not ready for upgrade just yet. For a majority of users, the upgrades on the high end will mostly amount to overkill. Thankfully, however, the low-end price points remain the same at $1,799 and $2,399 for the 13- and 15-inch, respectively.

Those who expect a lot more from their machines will no doubt be excited to see what these laptops can do. The new MacBooks aren’t a fundamental rethink by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re a welcome acknowledgment that the company still considers creative pros a key part of its DNA.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

It’s going to be an exciting year for photographers — finally — as both Canon and Nikon are reportedly planning full-frame mirrorless cameras for debut before the end of 2018. It’s good news for consumers, because it means that both companies have been investing heavily in the next phase of digital photography, and that competition in the mirrorless world is about to heat up.

Photography is a difficult space right now because smartphones have been eating up the low-end and increasingly the mid-range market. Point-and-shoots are effectively extinct, and DSLRs are reserved for serious shooters — though those occupying the middle ground, such as Fujifilm with its lively X series and Olympus with its PENs and OM-Ds, have been prospering modestly.

Mirrorless cameras, which basically do away with the bulky mechanical bits of a single-lens reflex camera but have virtually no drawbacks from their absence, allow for a more compact camera that still seriously outperforms phones.

They seem quite clearly to be a big part of the future of photography, which is why every company has been investing heavily into the technology. Early results weren’t great, and it was clear that Canon and Nikon in particular have had their priorities divided: DSLR sales have been dropping, but flagship full-frame (that is, with sensors the size of 35mm film) DSLRs still represented the best of the camera world, embraced especially by professionals.

But inroads have been made, especially by Sony and Fujifilm, into even that professional space. The Alpha and X-Pro series have shown that mirrorless cameras can perform at least as well as DSLRs, and boy are they easier to carry around.

So, faced with either innovating and cannibalizing their own sales, or allowing competitors to eat their lunch, Canon and Nikon have chosen to do the former… after a couple years of the latter, anyway. We’ve seen the early results from Canon in the form of the mid-range M50, but it seems Nikon has kept theirs under wraps.

Canon Rumors and Nikon Rumors report that the companies both plan to sell full-frame mirrorless cameras by the end of the year — in Nikon’s case maybe even by the end of the month.

Going full-frame means several things:

  • They believe their mirrorless systems are good enough to compete with SLRs at a professional level
  • They believe professionals are ready to make the transition to mirrorless
  • They are ready to do so themselves, cannibalizing and eventually winding down SLR sales

That last point is likely the scariest for them. These are companies that have been making SLR cameras for the better part of a century — it’s not just part of their core competency but key to their identity as camera makers. This is essentially a point of no return for them. Sure, SLRs will stick around for a while longer, but sooner or later the burden of improving and manufacturing them as sales decline and mirrorless systems take over will prove too much.

What about the cameras themselves? There are supposedly two from each company. Nikon’s have lots of rumored details, the most important of which are that there will be one high and one low megapixel model, in-body stabilization (allows for smaller lenses), a new lens mount, and naturally an electronic viewfinder. Less is known (or rumored anyhow) about the Canons, but they will likely share many of these characteristics.

Don’t expect a lower cost to accompany this shift. These cameras will likely cost in the $2,500-$4,000 range, just like the SLRs they’re replacing.

This is also a chance to really go to town on the features and shooting experience; both companies need to make a big impression, not just with the customers they’ve lost to rival systems but to their own loyal shooters. So there may be other major changes, such as to the interface, layout, and so on. Expect lots of digital integration like wireless tethering as well — better than the junk they’ve been foisting on us for the last few years.

Will this reverse the tide of smartphones taking over the photography world? No, but it’s heartening to see these rather inertia-bound companies finally embrace the future. I love SLRs, and I plan to shoot on them forever in one way or another, but as an occasional serious photographer I’ll be glad to give these new systems a try.

I’ve asked both companies about the rumors, but I doubt they’ll comment. On the other hand, if the rumors are true, we won’t have long to wait before they turn into facts.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Lasers! Everybody loves them, everybody wants them. But outside a few niche applications they have failed to live up to the destructive potential that Saturday morning cartoons taught us all to expect. In defiance of this failure, a company in China claims to have produced a “laser AK-47” that can burn targets in a fraction of a second from half a mile away. But skepticism is still warranted.

The weapon, dubbed the ZKZM-500, is described by the South China Morning Post as being about the size and weight of an ordinary assault rifle, but capable of firing hundreds of shots, each of which can cause “instant carbonization” of human skin.

“The pain will be beyond endurance,” added one of the researchers.

Now, there are a few red flags here. First is the simple fact that the weapon is only described and not demonstrated. Second is that what is described sounds incompatible with physics.

Laser weaponry capable of real harm has eluded the eager boffins of the world’s militaries for several reasons, none of which sound like they’ve been addressed in this research, which is long on bombast but short, at least in the SCMP article, on substance.

First there is the problem of power. Lasers of relatively low power can damage eyes easily because our eyes are among the most sensitive optical instruments ever developed on Earth. But such a laser may prove incapable of even popping a balloon. That’s because the destruction in the eye is due to an overload of light on a light-sensitive medium, while destruction of a physical body (be it a human body or, say, a missile) is due to heat.

Existing large-scale laser weapons systems powered by parallel arrays of batteries struggle to create meaningful heat damage unless trained on targets for a matter of seconds. And the power required to set a person aflame instantly from half a mile away is truly huge. Let’s just do a little napkin math here.

The article says that the gun is powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, the same in principle as those in your phone (though no doubt bigger). And it is said to be capable of a thousand two-second shots, amounting to two thousand seconds, or about half an hour total. A single laser “shot” of the magnitude tested by airborne and vehicle systems is on the order of tens of kilowatts, and those have trouble causing serious damage, which is why they’ve been all but abandoned by those developing them.

Let’s just pretend they work for a second, at those power levels — they use chemical batteries to power them, since they need to be emptied far faster than lithium ion batteries will safely discharge. But let’s say even then that we could use lithium ion batteries. The Tesla Powerwall is a useful comparator: it provides a few kilowatts of power and stores a few kilowatt-hours. And… it weighs more than 200 pounds.

There’s just no way that a laser powered by a lithium-ion battery that a person could carry would be capable of producing the kind of heat described at point blank range, let alone at 800 meters.

That’s because of attenuation. Lasers, unlike bullets, scatter as they progress, making them weaker and weaker. Attenuation is non-trivial at anything beyond, say, a few dozen meters. By the time you get out to 800, the air and water the beam has traveled through enough to reduce it a fraction of its original power.

Of course there are lasers that can fire from Earth to space and vice versa — but they’re not trying to fry protestors; all that matters is that a few photons arrive at the destination and are intelligible as a signal.

I’m not saying there will never be laser weapons. But I do feel confident in saying that this prototype, ostensibly ready for mass production and deployment among China’s anti-terrorist forces, is bunk. As much as I enjoy the idea of laser rifles, the idea of one that weighs a handful of pounds and fires hundreds of instantly skin-searing shots is just plain infeasible today.

The laser project is supposedly taking place at the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Hopefully they give a real-world demonstration of the device soon and put me to shame.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Sarah Perez

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. [Update: following publication, Amazon announced it’s adding support for Spotify on the Kids Edition, with the option to toggle on or off the filter. Hooray! This should roll out in early July.]

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.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

For many of us, clean, drinkable water comes right out the tap. But for billions it’s not that simple, and all over the world researchers are looking into ways to fix that. Today brings work from Berkeley, where a team is working on a water-harvesting apparatus that requires no power and can produce water even in the dry air of the desert. Hey, if a cactus can do it, why can’t we?

While there are numerous methods for collecting water from the air, many require power or parts that need to be replaced, what professor Omar Yaghi has developed needs neither.

The secret isn’t some clever solar concentrator or low-friction fan — it’s all about the materials. Yaghi is a chemist, and has created what’s called a metal-organic framework, or MOF, that’s eager both to absorb and release water.

It’s essentially a powder made of tiny crystals in which water molecules get caught as the temperature decreases. Then, when the temperature increases again, the water is released into the air again.

Yaghi demonstrated the process on a small scale last year, but now he and his team have published the results of a larger field test producing real-world amounts of water.

They put together a box about two feet per side with a layer of MOF on top that sits exposed to the air. Every night the temperature drops and the humidity rises, and water is trapped inside the MOF; in the morning, the sun’s heat drives the water from the powder, and it condenses on the box’s sides, kept cool by a sort of hat. The result of a night’s work: 3 ounces of water per pound of MOF used.

That’s not much more than a few sips, but improvements are already on the way. Currently the MOF uses zicronium, but an aluminum-based MOF, already being tested in the lab, will cost 99 percent less and produce twice as much water.

With the new powder and a handful of boxes, a person’s drinking needs are met without using any power or consumable material. Add a mechanism that harvests and stores the water and you’ve got yourself an off-grid potable water solution going.

“There is nothing like this,” Yaghi explained in a Berkeley news release. “It operates at ambient temperature with ambient sunlight, and with no additional energy input you can collect water in the desert. The aluminum MOF is making this practical for water production, because it is cheap.”

He says that there are already commercial products in development. More tests, with mechanical improvements and including the new MOF, are planned for the hottest months of the summer.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Devices like smartphones ought to help people feel safer, but if you’re in real danger the last thing you want to do is pull out your phone, go to your recent contacts and type out a message asking a friend for help. The Women’s Safety XPRIZE just awarded its $1 million prize to one of dozens of companies attempting to make a safety wearable that’s simple and affordable.

The official challenge was to create a device costing less than $40 that can “autonomously and inconspicuously trigger an emergency alert while transmitting information to a network of community responders, all within 90 seconds.”

Anu and Naveen Jain, the entrepreneurs who funded the competition, emphasized the international and very present danger of sexual assault in particular.

“Women’s safety is not just a third world problem; we face it every day in our own country and on our college campuses,” said Naveen Jain in the press release announcing the winner. “It’s not a red state problem or a blue state problem but a national problem.”

“Safety is a fundamental human right and shouldn’t be considered a luxury for women. It is the foundation in achieving gender equality,” added Anu Jain.

Out of dozens of teams that entered, five finalists were chosen in April: Artemis, Leaf Wearables, Nimb & SafeTrek, Saffron and Soterra. All had some variation on a device that either detected or was manually activated during an attack or stressful situation, alerting friends to one’s location.

The winner was Leaf, which had the advantage of having already shipped a product along these lines, the Safer pendant. Like any other Bluetooth accessory, it keeps in touch with your smartphone wirelessly and when you press the button twice your emergency contacts are alerted to your location and need for help. It also records audio, possibly providing evidence later or a deterrent to harassers who might fear being identified.

It’s not that it’s an original idea — we’ve had various versions of this for some time, and even covered one of the other finalists last year. But they haven’t been quantitatively evaluated or given a platform like this.

“These devices were tested in many conditions by the judges to ensure that they will work in real-life cases where women face dangers today. They were tested in no-connectivity areas, on public transit, in basements of buildings, among other environments,” explained Anu Jain to TechCrunch. “Having the capability to record audio after sending the alert was one of the main differentiators for Leaf Wearables. Their chip design and software was also easy to be integrated into other accessories.”

Hopefully the million dollars and the visibility from winning the prize will help Leaf get its product out to people who need it. The runners-up don’t seem likely to give up on the problem, either. And it seems like the devices will only get better and cheaper — not that this will change the world on its own.

“Prices will come down as the sensor prices drop. In many countries it will require community support to be built,” continued Jain. “These technologies can act as a deterrent but in the long term culture of violence again women must change.”

Gadgets – TechCrunch Anthony Ha

While crowdfunding company Indiegogo has been running a pilot program in China for the past couple of years, it’s now building on those efforts with the launch of the Indiegogo China Global Fast-Track Program.

CEO David Mandelbrot is in Shenzhen, China this week to announce the program, which is designed to help Chinese entrepreneurs reach a global audience. In an email, he told me:

The China Pilot Program is officially out of pilot phase — today, we are officially launching the Indiegogo Global Fast Track. During the pilot phase, the team experimented with different ways to help service Chinese brands and manufacturers who were looking to launch products overseas. After helping companies raise over $100 million and launch over 3,000 China-based projects over two years time, the team has finalized its new suite of services.

Those services include guidance around crowdfunding and marketing in the United States and other countries, access to a network of more than 65 service providers (including retailers and marketing firms, as well as Indiegogo’s manufacturing partner Arrow Electronics and shipping partner Ingram Micro) and Chinese-to-English consultation with bilingual staff.

Even while in the pilot phase, Indiegogo has had some success stories in helping Chinese companies launch globally. For example, Bluetooth headphone company crazybaby raised more than $4 million across three campaigns.

Mandelbrot said Indiegogo also has opened a satellite office in the Tencent incubator in Shenzhen — a manufacturing hub that’s become a hub for hardware startups, too.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

While hose-toting drones may be a fantasy, hose-powered robo-dragons (or robotic hose-dragons — however you like it) are very much a reality. This strange but potentially useful robot from Japanese researchers could snake into the windows of burning buildings, blasting everything around it with the powerful jets of water it uses to maneuver itself.

Yes, it’s a real thing: created by Tohoku University and Hachinohe College, the DragonFireFighter was presented last month at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

It works on the same principle your hose does when you turn it on and it starts flapping around everywhere. Essentially your hose is acting as a simple jet: the force of the water being blasted out pushes the hose itself in the opposite direction. So what if the hose had several nozzles, pointing in several directions, that could be opened and closed independently?

Well, you’d have a robotic hose-dragon. And we do.

The DragonFireFighter has a nozzle-covered sort of “head” and what can only be called a “neck.” The water pressure from the hose is diverted into numerous outlets on both in order to create a stable position that can be adjusted more or less at will.

It requires a bit of human intervention to go forwards, but as you can see several jets are pushing it that direction already, presumably at this point for stability and rigidity purposes. If the operators had a little more line to give it, it seems to me it could zoom out quite a bit further than where it was permitted to in the video.

For now it may be more effective to just direct all that water pressure into the window, but one can certainly imagine situations where something like this would be useful.

DragonFireFighter was also displayed at the International Fire and Disaster Prevention Exhibition in Tokyo.

One last thing. I really have to give credit where credit’s due: I couldn’t possibly outdo IEEE Spectrum’s headline, “Firefighting Robot Snake Flies on Jets of Water.”

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Apple TV, still definitely not a hobby, has some new features being added as it grows. Tim Cook mentioned there are 50 percent more users now than there were last year, and no doubt they’ll be happy with the addition of Dolby Atmos audio and some nice sign-on streamlining.

Apple TV is now the only streaming player to be both Dolby Atmos and Vision certified. Assuming you’ve got a 4K HDR-capable TV, it could be nice to have, as iTunes boasts the biggest selection of content for those — but because hardly anyone does, it’s more of an aspirational feature at present.

There are more than 100 video channels now after the addition of several live news and sports ones. In France, Apple TV will be the exclusive provider of Canal+, and in Switzerland, Apple has partnered with Salt for a similar exclusive. And Charter Spectrum will also be coming to Apple TV later this year, so around 50 million people will be able to watch their normal cable content through the device. Finally!

Helpfully, many of these apps won’t require a separate log-in, including Charter Spectrum — as any smart TV user or cable cutter knows, managing these logons can be incredibly annoying. So a single sign-on (or zero sign-on, in some cases) will be a boon.

It is unclear what this means for those of us who share passwords between friends and family. Possibly not good.

If you’re a TV background video aficionado, you’ll also be interested in the new orbital video of Earth that can be displayed while nothing else is going on. It’s exclusive to Apple.