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Google’s smart home sell looks cluttered and incoherent – TechCrunch

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If any aliens or technology ingenues were trying to understand what on earth a ‘smart home’ is yesterday, via Google’s latest own-brand hardware launch event, they’d have come away with a pretty confused and incoherent picture.

The company’s presenters attempted to sketch a vision of gadget-enabled domestic bliss but the effect was rather closer to described clutter-bordering-on-chaos, with existing connected devices being blamed (by Google) for causing homeowners’ device usability and control headaches — which thus necessitated another new type of ‘hub’ device which was now being unveiled, slated and priced to fix problems of the smart home’s own making.

Meet the ‘Made by Google’ Home Hub.

Buy into the smart home, the smart consumer might think, and you’re going to be stuck shelling out again and again — just to keep on top of managing an ever-expanding gaggle of high maintenance devices.

Which does sound quite a lot like throwing good money after bad. Unless you’re a true believer in the concept of gadget-enabled push-button convenience — and the perpetually dangled claim that smart home nirvana really is just around the corner. One additional device at a time. Er, and thanks to AI!

Yesterday, at Google’s event, there didn’t seem to be any danger of nirvana though.

Not unless paying $150 for a small screen lodged inside a speaker is your idea of heaven. (i.e. after you’ve shelled out for all the other connected devices that will form the spokes chained to this control screen.)

A small tablet that, let us be clear, is defined by its limitations: No standard web browser, no camera… No, it’s not supposed to be an entertainment device in its own right.

It’s literally just supposed to sit there and be a visual control panel — with the usual also-accessible-on-any-connected-device type of content like traffic, weather and recipes. So $150 for a remote control doesn’t sound quite so cheap now does it?

The hub doubling as a digital photo frame when not in active use — which Google made much of — isn’t some kind of ‘magic pixie’ sales dust either. Call it screensaver 2.0.

A fridge also does much the same with a few magnets and bits of paper. Just add your own imagination.

During the presentation, Google made a point of stressing that the ‘evolving’ smart home it was showing wasn’t just about iterating on the hardware front — claiming its Google’s AI software is hard at work in the background, hand-in-glove with all these devices, to really ‘drive the vision forward’.

But if the best example it can find to talk up is AI auto-picking which photos to display on a digital photo frame — at the same time as asking consumers to shell out $150 for a discrete control hub to manually manage all this IoT — that seems, well, underwhelming to say the least. If not downright contradictory.

Google also made a point of referencing concerns it said it’s heard from a large majority of users that they’re feeling overwhelmed by too much technology, saying: “We want to make sure you’re in control of your digital well-being.”

Yet it said this at an event where it literally unboxed yet another clutch of connected, demanding, function-duplicating devices — that are also still, let’s be clear, just as hungry for your data — including the aforementioned tablet-faced speaker (which Google somehow tried to claim would help people “disconnect” from all their smart home tech — so, basically, ‘buy this device so you can use devices less’… ); a ChromeOS tablet that transforms into a laptop via a snap-on keyboard; and 2x versions of its new high end smartphone, the Pixel 3.

There was even a wireless charging Pixel Stand that props the phone up in a hub-style control position. (Oh and Google didn’t even have time to mention it during the cluttered presentation but there’s this Disney co-branded Mickey Mouse-eared speaker for kids, presumably).

What’s the average consumer supposed to make of all this incestuously overlapping, wallet-badgering hardware?!

Smartphones at least have clarity of purpose — by being efficiently multi-purposed.

Increasingly powerful all-in-ones that let you do more with less and don’t even require you to buy a new one every year vs the smart home’s increasingly high maintenance and expensive (in money and attention terms) sprawl, duplication and clutter. And that’s without even considering the security risks and privacy nightmare.

The two technology concepts really couldn’t be further apart.

If you value both your time and your money the smartphone is the one — the only one — to buy into.

Whereas the smart home clearly needs A LOT of finessing — if it’s to ever live up to the hyped claims of ‘seamless convenience’.

Or, well, a total rebranding.

The ‘creatively chaotic & experimental gadget lovers’ home would be a more honest and realistic sell for now — and the foreseeable future.

Instead Google made a pitch for what it dubbed the “thoughtful home”. Even as it pushed a button to pull up a motorised pedestal on which stood clustered another bunch of charge-requiring electronics that no one really needs — in the hopes that consumers will nonetheless spend their time and money assimilating redundant devices into busy domestic routines. Or else find storage space in already overflowing drawers.

The various iterations of ‘smart’ in-home devices in the market illustrate exactly how experimental the entire  concept remains.

Just this week, Facebook waded in with a swivelling tablet stuck on a smart speaker topped with a camera which, frankly speaking, looks like something you’d find in a prison warden’s office.

Google, meanwhile, has housed speakers in all sorts of physical forms, quite a few of which resemble restroom scent dispensers — what could it be trying to distract people from noticing?

And Amazon now has so many Echo devices it’s almost impossible to keep up. It’s as if the ecommerce giant is just dropping stones down a well to see if it can make a splash.

During the smart home bits of Google’s own-brand hardware pitch, the company’s parade of presenters often sounded like they were going through robotic motions, failing to muster anything more than baseline enthusiasm.

And failing to dispel a strengthening sense that the smart home is almost pure marketing, and that sticking update-requiring, wired in and/or wireless devices with variously overlapping purposes all over the domestic place is the very last way to help technology-saturated consumers achieve anything close to ‘disconnected well-being’.

Incremental convenience might be possible, perhaps — depending on which and how few smart home devices you buy; for what specific purpose/s; and then likely only sporadically, until the next problematic update topples the careful interplay of kit and utility. But the idea that the smart home equals thoughtful domestic bliss for families seems farcical.

All this updatable hardware inevitably injects new responsibilities and complexities into home life, with the conjoined power to shift family dynamics and relationships — based on things like who has access to and control over devices (and any content generated); whose jobs it is to fix things and any problems caused when stuff inevitably goes wrong (e.g. a device breakdown OR an AI-generated snafu like the ‘wrong’ photo being auto-displayed in a communal area); and who will step up to own and resolve any disputes that arise as a result of all the Internet connected bits being increasingly intertwined in people’s lives, willingly or otherwise.

Hey Google, is there an AI to manage all that yet?

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The 6 Best Apple Black Friday Deals 2021

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Apple doesn’t typically like to associate itself with the madness of Black Friday, but if you know where to look, you can pick up some helpful discounts on many of the company’s hottest devices. This year, Apple itself is dipping a toe in the deal pool itself by offering Apple Gift Cards with select devices on its own online store. If you go that route, note that Apple says it’ll send the credit to your email address within 24 hours from the time your purchase ships or is available for pickup.

Below are the most worthwhile Apple deals we’re seeing as of this writing.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Our Black Friday Coverage

Apple's AirPods Pro.
Enlarge / Apple’s AirPods Pro.

Apple AirPods Pro for $170 ($205) at Amazon

or receive a $50 Apple Gift Card with purchase of AirPods Pro from Apple

We’ve recommended the AirPods Pro a number of times in past buying guides. While the noise-canceling earphones briefly fell as low as $159 earlier this week, this is still one of our favorite audio deals for Black Friday and roughly $20-30 off the Pro’s usual street price. Either way, the Pro’s noise cancelation and sound pass-through modes are effective at drowning out or letting in the ambiance of your surroundings, and their balanced sound is among the best in the segment.

If you prefer the open-back feel of the eartip-less AirPods, meanwhile, Apple is selling the second- and new third-gen models of those with a $25 digital gift card.

It’s also worth noting that the Studio Buds from Apple subsidiary Beats are on sale for a new low of $100, which is roughly $40 off their street price. This lightweight true wireless pairs shares many (but not all) of the same benefits you’d get from a pair of full-on AirPods, and they work more handily with Android devices, though their noise cancellation isn’t as strong. We gave them mostly positive marks in our review earlier this year.

The Apple Watch SE is the best low-cost alternative to the Series 7.

The Apple Watch SE is the best low-cost alternative to the Series 7.

Apple

Apple Watch SE for $219 ($279) at Amazon, Target, Best Buy

or receive a $50 Apple Gift Card with purchase of Apple Watch SE from Apple

The Apple Watch Series 7 tops our list as the best smartwatch you can buy, but the Apple Watch SE is the next best option. Neither of these is the best fitness tracker available, but they both offer more than 50 different activity-tracking modes, ranging from dancing to e-biking and everything in between. The real draw here is watchOS’s wide app compatibility, which brings most, if not all, popular smartwatch apps right to your wrist. Though it lacks the always-on display and more advanced health features (electrocardiogram (ECG) support, blood oxygen monitoring) of the Series 7, the Apple Watch SE’s GPS, optional LTE, and music storage still makes it a device you can confidently use to leave your phone at home.

This deal brings the best price we’ve seen for the SE outright, while Apple’s gift card deal brings effectively the same discount. Sadly, we’ve yet to see any major deals on the Series 7 as of this writing.

Apple

AirPods Max for $440 ($550) at Amazon

or receive a $75 Apple Gift Card with purchase of AirPods Max from Apple

This is the $10 off the lowest price we’ve clocked for the impressive Apple AirPods Max. They briefly fell as low as $429 earlier this week, but this is still a good $50 or so off their normal street price and more than $100 off their MSRP.

Either way, the Max’s best-in-class noise cancelation, full-bodied sound, swanky design, and intuitive controls make them a joy to use. Just note that, like all AirPods, they’re best used with an iPhone or MacBook. Their lack of a dedicated power button can sometimes be annoying as well. We gave a fuller breakdown of the AirPods Max in our best headphone deals roundup.

Samuel Axon

MacBook Air (2020) for $850 ($1000) at Amazon, Best Buy

or receive a $100 Apple Gift Card with purchase of MacBook or Mac Mini

We may get an updated model next year, but the 2020 MacBook Air is perennially lauded for its speedy M1 chip, fantastic battery life, light weight, and thin profile. This deal covers the entry-level configuration with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, so it’s not a workhorse, but it should be alright for more general usage, which is where the Air excels anyway.

Student discounts can often take $100 off, but this deal dips even further to net an extra $50 in your pocket. We’ve only seen this config drop lower a couple of times in the past. If Amazon and Best Buy run out of stock, Apple’s $100 Gift Card offer is nice, though only $20-30 lower than the notebook’s typical going rate on Amazon.

The Apple iPad Pro.
Enlarge / The Apple iPad Pro.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch 128 GB for $999 ($1100) at Amazon, Best Buy

or receive a $100 Apple Gift Card with purchase of iPad Pro 11-inch or 12.9-inch

The iPad Pro is billed as a laptop replacement by Apple, and although iPadOS’ limitations still make that claim a stretch, the Pro’s speed and storage capacities aren’t too far off from a MacBook. Discounts get $50 deeper for any storage over 256 GB (512 GB, 1 TB, 2 TB). Still, the iPad Pro is a luxurious tablet and great complementary devices for work, school, art, or leisure. Some Apple accessories, like Apple Pencils and iPad keyboard covers, are also being offered with up to $50 Apple Gift Cards.

The new Apple TV 4K.
Enlarge / The new Apple TV 4K.

Apple

$50 Apple Gift Card with purchase of Apple TV 4K ($180) or Apple TV HD ($150) from Apple

The Apple TV is far from the best value on the 4K streaming device market, but if money is no object, it supports almost every major streaming service, works with Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision HDR content, and has a relatively easy-to-navigate user interface that doesn’t stuff you with as many ads as cheaper streamers. A redesigned remote control has made things much easier, too. Most notably, if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, it’ll fit right in, as it’ll let you easily mirror content from your Mac, iPad, or iPhone to the TV.

The Apple TV is still expensive compared to the latest Google Chromecast—our favorite affordable streaming stick, which is currently on sale for $40—but if you know you’ll use Apple’s $50 gift card, this deal will effectively represent the best price we’ve tracked. Outright discounts on the newest streamer have been rare otherwise.


Our Black Friday Coverage

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9 Best Black Friday Headphones Deals 2021: Top ANC Picks from Sony, Bose & More

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Enlarge / A handful of the wireless noise-canceling headphones we’ve tested in recent months.

Jeff Dunn

Black Friday has started its attack run, which means it’s a good time to be in the market for a new pair of headphones. More specifically, a good set of noise-canceling headphones always seems to be in high demand during the gift-getting season. But if you’re not sure which to buy, let us help you grab a good deal.

I’ve reviewed many wireless noise-canceling pairs for Ars over the past few years, from in-ears to over-ears, and some of the better options I’ve used happen to be on sale during the Black Friday barrage. Below are a handful of these top discounted recommendations, including picks from Sony, Apple, Bose, and more.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Sony's WH-1000XM4 noise-canceling headphones.
Enlarge / Sony’s WH-1000XM4 noise-canceling headphones.

Jeff Dunn

The Best for Most: Sony WH-1000XM4 for $248 ($330) at Amazon, Target, Best Buy

I’ve recommended them in multiple guides and deal posts since they launched last year, but to my ears, Sony’s WH-1000XM4 are still the most well-rounded pair of wireless headphones for most people. This deal has been active for much of the past month, but it matches the lowest price we’ve tracked.

For noise cancelation (ANC), the XM4 do better than most pairs I’ve tested at blocking out lower- and mid-frequency noises like the hum of an air conditioner or the rumble of a jet engine, and they’re unusually effective at reducing higher-pitched sounds like nearby voices. The latter makes them particularly convenient for the office (or home offices with especially chatty housemates). Note that the ANC turns off whenever you take a call, though.

The headphones themselves are comfortable and well-padded, and they don’t clamp down too hard on larger heads (such as my own). They have a professional, if not particularly showy, aesthetic and a durable design that’s flexible and can fold up for easier storage. A useful carrying case comes in the box.

They have a few genuinely useful perks, too. An optional “speak-to-chat” mode in the app can automatically pause your music whenever you start speaking to someone, and a “quick attention” feature momentarily lets you hear ambient noise when you put your hand over an earcup, which can be useful for catching quick announcements. The ambient sound mode performs well, and the headphones can connect to two devices simultaneously.

They aren’t perfect: their sound profile out of the box goes a bit heavier on the bass than some might prefer (though Sony’s companion app has an EQ tool to customize this to be more neutral); their microphone quality is just OK for calls; and they don’t allow you to adjust the strength of their active noise cancelation (ANC)—a feature found on other high-end pairs like Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

I prefer physical control buttons to touch controls, but swiping and tapping on the XM4’s earcups to adjust volume, accept calls, and skip tracks is more reliable than not. Battery life is excellent at more than 30 hours per charge—the specific length will vary depending on how loud you play your music—and the headphones recharge over USB-C. It’s also possible to use them passively through an included cable, though you won’t be able to take calls in that mode.

Apple's AirPods Max noise-canceling headphones.
Enlarge / Apple’s AirPods Max noise-canceling headphones.

Jeff Dunn

A Pricier Upgrade: Apple AirPods Max for $429 ($490) at Amazon

If money is no object, and you’re an iPhone user, the AirPods Max might be a better buy than the WH-1000XM4. They sound better than any other wireless headphones I’ve used to date, even without a customizable EQ tool. There’s a slight bass boost—a trait I personally enjoy—but the sound signature is exceptionally clear, accurate, and detailed. (To be clear, the audio quality of any wireless headphones still can’t match the best wired pairs.)

To my ears, the AirPods Max also do a better job canceling low- and mid-frequency noise than any other headphones I’ve worn. Voices and high-pitched sounds still come through a bit clearer than they would on the Sony XM4, but most everything else is markedly reduced. The ambient sound (or “transparency”) mode is superb as well, making outside noises sound crisp and relatively natural alongside your music.

The headphones have an attractive design and an aluminum finish that’s cool to the touch. They’re heavier, and thus a little less comfortable, than the Sony or Bose pairs in this roundup, but they feel premium. The multi-function “Digital Crown” dial, similar to what you’d see on an Apple Watch, makes controlling volume and playback a breeze. The included mics work well for phone calls, and battery life is decent at a little more than 20 hours per charge. Apple also offers a battery replacement service for $79.

There are a few strange design choices. Oddly, there’s no power button. Instead, you have to put the headphones into an included “case” to activate a low-power mode. I put “case” in scare quotes because it’s barely protective, acting more as an earcup cover than anything else. Apple doesn’t include a 3.5mm cable in the box, either, and even if you pay for an adapter, you won’t be able to listen to music if your battery dies. The Max also can’t connect to multiple devices at once, nor can they fold up. Like all AirPods, they’re best used with other Apple devices. They aren’t as convenient to pair with Android or Windows, and they lack certain settings controls on those platforms.

The AirPods Max are also really expensive, with an MSRP of $549. This Black Friday deal brings them down to the best price we’ve seen, but even then, they’re not cheap, which is why we think the XM4 are close enough in quality to be a much better value. But if you’re an iPhone user, and want the best audio quality and active noise cancelation possible, the AirPods Max should make for a swanky gift.

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Qualcomm exclusivity deal might be keeping Windows from running on other ARM chips

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Microsoft has created versions of Windows 10 and Windows 11 that run on ARM chips, but to date, the company has not been interested in selling Windows on ARM licenses to anyone other than PC builders. The ARM versions of Windows can run on things like the Raspberry Pi or in virtualization apps running on Apple Silicon Macs, but Microsoft doesn’t officially support doing it, and the company has never elaborated as to why.

One possible explanation comes from a report on XDA Developers, which claims that an exclusivity deal with Qualcomm keeps Microsoft from making the ARM versions of Windows more generally available. According to “people familiar with it,” that exclusivity deal is currently “holding back other chip vendors from competing in the space.” The Qualcomm deal is also said to be ending “soon,” though the report isn’t more specific about how soon “soon” is.

This allegation comes a few weeks after Rick Tsai, CEO of ARM chipmaker MediaTek, said on a company earnings call that MediaTek “certainly intend[s]” to run Windows on its chips. Qualcomm, MediaTek, Rockchip, and others are all shipping ARM chips for Chromebooks, in addition to the chips they all provide for Android devices.

Whether this Qualcomm deal exists or not, it is a fact that Microsoft announced the availability of Windows on ARM with Qualcomm’s cooperation back in 2016, and since the first modern ARM Windows systems shipped back in late 2017, they’ve been powered exclusively by Qualcomm chips. This includes the Surface Pro X’s Microsoft SQ1 and SQ2, which are Microsoft-branded but were “developed in partnership with Qualcomm.” An exclusivity deal could be mutually beneficial at first—Qualcomm gets all the design wins for Windows on ARM systems for a few years, and Microsoft gets another chance to build an ecosystem for an ARM version of Windows after a few false starts. But over time, it could also limit the variety of Windows-on-ARM systems or hold back performance through lack of competition.

If Microsoft allows Windows to run on other ARM processors, it could open the door to a virtualized version of Windows on Apple Silicon Macs. The performance penalty for running x86 apps in the ARM versions of Windows would be much less noticeable on Apple systems, because the M1-series chips so thoroughly outstrip the performance of anything Qualcomm has to offer right now.

And that’s what Windows on ARM needs to really succeed—hardware that can do for Windows PCs what the M1 chips have done for Macs. It was a smart bet for Microsoft to build a version of Windows that could run on ARM chips without giving up the app compatibility that keeps so many people tethered to Windows in the first place. But until we can get hardware that can match or beat Intel’s and AMD’s CPU performance while improving on their energy efficiency, the operating system will remain a technical curiosity. The end of this exclusivity deal with Qualcomm, assuming it exists, opens the door for more chipmakers to try to deliver that speed and efficiency.

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