Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

I’m a huge fan of single board computers, especially if they’re small enough to swallow. That’s why I like the Tomu. This teeny-tiny ARM processor essentially interfaces with your computer via the USB port and contains two LEDs and two buttons. Once it’s plugged in the little computer can simulate a hard drive or mouse, send MIDI data, and even blink quickly.

The Tomu runs the Silicon Labs Happy Gecko EFM32HG309 and can also act as a Universal 2nd Factor security token. It is completely open source and all the code is on their GitHub.

I bought one for $30 and messed with it for a few hours. The programs are very simple and you can load in various tools including a clever little mouse mover – maybe to simulate mouse usage for an app – and a little app that blinks the lights quickly. Otherwise you can use it to turn your USB hub into an on-off switch for your computer. It’s definitely not a fully fledged computer – there are limited I/O options, obviously – but it’s a cute little tool for those who want to do a little open source computing.

One problem? It’s really, really small. I’d do more work on mine but I already lost it while I was clearing off a desk so I could see it better. So it goes.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

Hot on the heels of the wonderful NES.party comes Haukur Rosinkranz’s SNES.party, a site that lets you play Super Nintendo with all your buds.

Rosinkranz is Icelandic but lives in Berlin now. He made NES.party a year ago while experimenting with WebRTC and WebSockets and he updated his software to support the SNES.

“The reason I made it was simply because I discovered how advanced the RTC implementation in Chrome had become and wanted to do something with it,” he said. “When I discovered that it’s possible to take a video element and stream it over the network I just knew I had to do something cool with this and I came up with the idea of streaming emulators.”

He said it took him six months to build the app and a month to add NES support.

“It’s hard to say how long it took because I basically created my own framework for web applications that need realtime communication between one or more participants,” he said. He is a freelance programmer.

It’s a clever hack that could add a little fun to your otherwise dismal day. Feel like a little Link to the Past? Pop over here and let’s play!

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

The BitFi crypto wallet was supposed to be unhackable and none other than famous weirdo John McAfee claimed that the device – essentially an Android-based mini tablet – would withstand any attack. Spoiler alert: it couldn’t.

First, a bit of background. The $120 device launched at the beginning of this month to much fanfare. It consisted of a device that McAfee claimed contained no software or storage and was instead a standalone wallet similar to the Trezor. The website featured a bold claim by McAfee himself, one that would give a normal security researcher pause:

Further, the company offered a bug bounty that seems to be slowly being eroded by outside forces. They asked hackers to pull coins off of a specially prepared $10 wallet, a move that is uncommon in the world of bug bounties. They wrote:

We deposit coins into a Bitfi wallet
If you wish to participate in the bounty program, you will purchase a Bitfi wallet that is preloaded with coins for just an additional $10 (the reason for the charge is because we need to ensure serious inquiries only)
If you successfully extract the coins and empty the wallet, this would be considered a successful hack
You can then keep the coins and Bitfi will make a payment to you of $250,000
Please note that we grant anyone who participates in this bounty permission to use all possible attack vectors, including our servers, nodes, and our infrastructure

Hackers began attacking the device immediately, eventually hacking it to find the passphrase used to move crypto in and out of the the wallet. In a detailed set of Tweets, security researchers Andrew Tierney and Alan Woodward began finding holes by attacking the operating system itself. However, this did not match the bounty to the letter, claimed BitFi, even though they did not actually ship any bounty-ready devices.

Then, to add insult injury, the company earned a Pwnies award at security conference Defcon. The award was given for worst vendor response. As hackers began dismantling the device, BitFi went on the defensive, consistently claiming that their device was secure. And the hackers had a field day. One hacker, 15-year-old Saleem Rashid, was able to play Doom on the device.

The hacks kept coming. McAfee, for his part, kept refusing to accept the hacks as genuine.

Unfortunately, the latest hack may have just fulfilled all of BitFi’s requirements. Rashid and Tierney have been able to pull cash out of the wallet by hacking the passphrase, a primary requirement for the bounty. “We have sent the seed and phrase from the device to another server, it just gets sent using netcat, nothing fancy.” Tierney said. “We believe all conditions have been met.”

The end state of this crypto mess? BitFi did what most hacked crypto companies do: double down on the threats. In a recently deleted Tweet they made it clear that they were not to be messed with:

The researchers, however, may still have the last laugh.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

Fossil’s Q watch line is an interesting foray by a traditional fashion watchmaker into the wearable world. Their latest additions to the line, the Fossil Q Venture HR and Fossil Q Explorist HR, add a great deal of Android Wear functionality to a watch that is reminiscent of Fossil’s earlier, simpler watches. In other words, these are some nice, low-cost smartwatches for the fitness fan.

The original Q watches included a clever hybrid model with analog face and step counter. As the company expanded into wearables, however, they went Android Wear route and created a number of lower-powered touchscreen watches. Now, thanks to a new chipset, Fossil is able to add a great deal more functionality in a nice package. The Venture and the Explorist adds untethered GPS, NFC, heart rate, and 24-hour battery life. It also includes an altimeter and gyroscope sensor.

The new watches start at $255 and run the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 chip, an optimized chipset for fitness watches.

The watch comes in multiple styles and with multiple bands and features 36 different faces including health and fitness-focused faces for the physically ambitious. The watch also allows you to pay with Google Pay – Apple Pay isn’t supported – and you can store content on the watch for runs or walks. It also tracks swims and is waterproof. The Venture and Explorist are 40mm and 45mm respectively and the straps are interchangeable. While they’re no $10,000 Swiss masterpiece, these things look – and work – pretty good.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Natasha Lomas

A look back at the past decade of consumer technology use in the UK has shone a light on changing gadget habits, underlining how Brits have gone from being smartphone dabblers back in 2008 when a top-of-the-range smartphone cost ~£500 to true addicts in today’s £1k+ premium smartphone era.

The report also highlights what seems to be, at times, a conflicted relationship between Brits and the Internet.

While nine in ten people in the UK have home access to the Internet, here in 2018, some web users report feeling being online is a time-sink or a constraint on their freedom.

But even more said they feel lost or bored without it.

Over the past decade the Internet looks to have consolidated its grip on the spacetime that boredom occupied for the less connected generations that came before.

The overview comes via regulator Ofcom’s 2018 Communications Market report. The full report commenting on key market developments in the country’s communications sector is a meaty, stat and chart-filled read.

The regulator has also produced a 30-slide interactive version this year.

Commenting on the report findings in a statement, Ian Macrae, Ofcom’s director of market intelligence, said: “Over the last decade, people’s lives have been transformed by the rise of the smartphone, together with better access to the Internet and new services. Whether it’s working flexibly, keeping up with current affairs or shopping online, we can do more on the move than ever before.

“But while people appreciate their smartphone as their constant companion, some are finding themselves feeling overloaded when online, or frustrated when they’re not.”

We’ve pulled out some highlights from the report below…

  • Less than a fifth (17%) of UK citizens owned a smartphone a decade ago; the figure now stands at 78% — and a full 95% of 16-24 year-olds. So, yeah, kids don’t get called digital natives for nothin’
  • People in the UK check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day. (‘Digital wellbeing’ tools clearly have their work cut out to kick against this grain… )
  • Ofcom found that two in five adults (40%) first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up (rising to 65% of the under 35s). While around a third (37%) of adults check their phones five minutes before lights out (again rising to 60% of under-35s). Shame it didn’t also ask how well people are sleeping
  • Contrary to a decade ago, most UK citizens say they need and expect a constant Internet connection wherever they go. Two thirds of adults (64%) say it’s an essential part of their life. One in five adults (19%) say they spend more than 40 hours a week online, up from 5% just over ten years ago
  • Three quarters (74%) of people say being online keeps them close to friends and family. Two fifths (41%) say it enables them to work more flexibly

Smartphone screen addicts, much?

  • Seventy-two per cent of adults say their smartphone is their most important device for accessing the Internet; 71% say they never turn off their phone; and 78% say they could not live without it
  • Ofcom found the amount of time Brits spend making phone calls from mobiles has fallen for the first time — using a mobile for phone calls is only considered important by 75% of smartphone users vs 92% who consider web browsing on a smartphone to be important (and indeed the proportion of people accessing the Internet on their mobile has increased from 20% almost a decade ago to 72% in 2018)
  • The average amount of time spent online on a smartphone is 2 hours 28 minutes per day. This rises to 3 hours 14 minutes among 18-24s

Social and emotional friction, plus the generation gap…

  • On the irritation front, three quarters of people (76%) find it annoying when someone is listening to music, watching videos or playing games loudly on public transport; while an impressive 81% object to people using their phone during meal times
  • TV is another matter though. The majority (53%) of adults say they are usually on their phone while watching TV with others. There’s a generation gap related to social acceptance of this though: With a majority (62%) of people over the age of 55 thinking it’s unacceptable — dropping to just two in ten (21%) among those aged 18-34
  • Ofcom also found that significant numbers of people saying the online experience has negative effects. Fifteen per cent agree it makes them feel they are always at work, and more than half (54%) admit that connected devices interrupt face-to-face conversations with friends and family — which does offer a useful counterpoint to social media giant’s shiny marketing claims that their platforms ‘connect people’ (the truth is more they both connect & disconnect). While more than two in five (43%) also admit to spending too much time online
  • Around a third of people say they feel either cut off (34%) or lost (29%) without the Internet, and if they can’t get online, 17% say they find it stressful. Half of all UK adults (50%) say their life would be boring if they could not access the Internet 
  • On the flip side, a smaller proportion of UK citizens view a lack of Internet access in a positive light. One in ten says they feel more productive offline (interestingly this rises to 15% for 18-34 year-olds); while 10% say they find it liberating; and 16% feel less distracted

The impact of (multifaceted and increasingly powerful and capable) smartphones can also be seen on some other types of gadgets. Though TV screens continue to compel Brits (possibly because they feel it’s okay to keep using their smartphones while sitting in front of a bigger screen… )

  • Ofcom says ownership of tablets (58% of UK households) and games consoles (44% of UK adults) has plateaued in the last three years
  • Desktop PC ownership has declined majorly over the past decade — from a large majority (69%) of households with access in 2008 to less than a third (28%) in 2018
  • As of 2017, smart TVs were in 42% of households — up from just 5% in 2012
  • Smart speakers weren’t around in 2008 but they’ve now carved out a space in 13% of UK households
  • One in five households (20%) report having some wearable tech (smart watches, fitness trackers). So smart speakers look to be fast catching up with fitness bands

BBC mightier than Amazon

  • BBC website visitor numbers overtook those of Amazon in the UK in 2018. Ofcom found the BBC had the third-highest number of users after Google and Facebook
  • Ofcom also found that six in ten people have used next-day delivery for online purchases, but only three in ten have used same-day delivery in 2018. So most Brits are, seemingly, content to wait until tomorrow for ecommerce purchases — rather than demanding their stuff right now

What else are UK citizens getting up to online? More of a spread of stuff than ever, it would appear…

  • Less general browsing/surfing than last year, though it’s still the most popular reported use for Internet activity (69% saying they’ve done this in the past week vs 80% who reported the same in 2017)
  • Sending and receiving email is also still a big deal — but also on the slide (66% reporting doing this in the past week vs 76% in 2017)
  • Social media use is another popular but slightly less so use-case than last year (50% in 2017 down to 45% in 2018). (Though Twitter bucks the trend with a percentage point usage bump (13% -> 14%) though it’s far less popular overall)
  • Instant messaging frequency also dropped a bit (46% -> 41%)
  • As did TV/video viewing online (40% -> 36%), including for watching short video clips (31% to 28%)
  • Online shopping has also dropped a bit in frequency (48% -> 44%)
  • But accessing news has remained constant (36%)
  • Finding health information has seen marginal slight growth (22% -> 23%); ditto has finding/downloading information for work/college (32% -> 33%); using local council/government services (21% -> 23%); and playing games online/interactively (17% -> 18%)
  • Streaming audio services have got a bit more popular (podcasts, we must presume), with 15% reporting using them in the past week in 2017 up to 19% in 2018. Listening to the radio online is also up (13% -> 15%)
  • However uploading/adding content to the Internet has got a bit less popular, though (17% to 15%)

One more thing: Women in the UK are bigger Internet fans than men.

Perhaps contrary to some people’s expectations, women in the UK spend more time online on average than men across almost all age groups, with the sole exception being the over 55s (where the time difference is pretty marginal)…

Gadgets – TechCrunch Frederic Lardinois

It’s been a week since Lenovo’s Google Assistant-powered smart display went on sale. Slowly but surely, its competitors are launching their versions, too. Today, JBL announced that its $249.95 JBL Link View is now available for pre-order, with an expected ship date of September 3, 2018.

JBL went for a slightly different design than Lenovo (and the upcoming LG WK9), but in terms of functionality, these devices are pretty much the same. The Link View features an 8-inch HD screen; unlike Lenovo’s Smart Display, JBL is not making a larger 10-inch version. It’s got two 10W speakers and the usual support for Bluetooth, as well as Google’s Chromecast protocol.

JBL says the unit is splash proof (IPX4), so you can safely use it to watch YouTube recipe videos in your kitchen. It also offers a 5MP front-facing camera for your video chats and a privacy switch that lets you shut off the camera and microphone.

JBL, Lenovo and LG all announced their Google Assistant smart displays at CES earlier this. Lenovo was the first to actually ship a product, and both the hardware as well as Google’s software received a positive reception. There’s no word on when LG’s WK9 will hit the market.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Matt Burns

Apple released a refreshed MacBook Pro this week and top among the new features is a tweaked keyboard. Apple says its quieter than the last version and in our tests, we agree. But iFixit found something else: thin, silicone barriers that could improve the keyboard’s reliability.

This is big news. Users have long reported the butterfly switch keyboard found in MacBook Pros were less reliable than past models. There are countless reports of dust and lint and crumbs causing keys to stick or fail. Personally, I have not had any issues, but many at TechCrunch have. To date Apple has yet to issue a recall for the keyboard..

iFixit found a thin layer of rubberized material covering the new butterfly mechanism. The repair outlet also points to an Apple patent for this exact technology that’s designed to “prevent and/or alleviate contaminant ingress.”

According to Apple, which held a big media unveiling for new models, the changes to the keyboard were designed to address the loud clickity-clack and not the keyboard’s tendency to get mucked up by dust. And that makes sense, too. If Apple held an event and said “We fixed the keyboards” it would mean Apple was admitting something was wrong with the keyboards. Instead Apple held an event and said “We made the keyboards quieter” admitting the past keyboards were loud, and not faulty.

We just got our review unit and will report back on the keyboard’s reliability after a day or two at the beach. Because science.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Matt Burns

Don’t look now, but the PC might not be dead. According to Gartner, collector of marketshare and industry metrics, worldwide shipments of personal computers just experienced the first year-over-year growth since 2012. Shipments totaled 62.1 million units, which is a 1.4 percent increase from the same time period in 2017. The report states “experienced some growth compared with a year ago” but goes on to caution declaring the PC industry as in recovery just yet.

The top five PC vendors all experienced growth with Lenovo seeing the largest gains of 10.5% — though that could be from Lenovo completing a joint venture with Fujitsu. HP grew 6.1%, Dell 9.5%, Apple 3% and Acer 3.1%. All good signs for an industry long thought stagnate. This report excludes Chromebooks from its data. PC vendors experienced growth without the help of Chromebooks, which are the latest challenger to the notebook computer.

Gartner points to the business market as the source of the increased demand. The consumer market, it states, is still decreasing as consumers increasing use mobile devices. Yet growth in the business sector will not last, it says.

“In the business segment, PC momentum will weaken in two years when the replacement peak for Windows 10 passes.” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner said in the report. “PC vendors should look for ways to maintain growth in the business market as the Windows 10 upgrade cycle tails off.”

Consumers will likely continue, for the most part, to keep a computer around but since the web is the new desktop, the upgrade cycle for a causal user will keep getting longer. As long as a home has a computer that can run Chrome, that’s likely good enough for most people.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

Newer Sonos devices and “rooms” now appear as AirPlay 2-compatible devices, allowing you to stream audio to them via Apple devices. The solution is a long time coming for Sonos which promised AirPlay 2 support in October.

You can stream to Sonos One, Sonos Beam, Playbase, and Play:5 speakers and ask Siri to play music on various speakers (“Hey Siri, play some hip-hop in the kitchen.”) The feature should roll out to current speakers today.

I tried a beta version and it worked as advertised. A set of speakers including a Beam and a Sub in my family room showed up as a single speaker and a Sonos One in the kitchen showed up as another. I was able to stream music and podcasts to either one.

Given the ease with which you can now stream to nearly every device from every device it’s clear that whole-home audio is progressing rapidly. As we noted before Sonos is facing tough competition but little tricks like this one help it stay in the race.

[gallery ids="1671157,1671158"]

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

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.

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

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