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The best and worst gadgets of 2018 – TechCrunch

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There were countless gadgets released in 2018. It’s the end of the year, so Brian and I rounded up the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

Some where great! Like the Oculus Go. Or the Google Home Hub. But some were junk, like the revived Palm or PlayStation Classic.

CES 2019 is a few weeks away, where manufacturers will roll out most of their wares for the upcoming year. But most products will not be available for purchase for months. What follows is a list of the best and worst gadgets available going into 2019.

The Best

Google Home Hub

Google took its sweet time bringing an Echo Show competitor to market. When the Home Hub did finally arrive, however, the company lapped the competition. The smart screen splits the size difference between the Echo Spot and Show, with a form factor that fits in much more comfortably in most home decor.

Assistant still sports a much deeper knowledge base than Alexa, and the Hub offers one not so secret weapon: YouTube. Google’s video service is light years ahead of anything Amazon (or anyone, really) currently offers, and the competition shows no sign of catching up.

DJI Osmo Pocket

I wanted to dislike the Osmo Pocket. I mean, $349 for a gimbal with a built-in screen is pretty steep by any measure — especially given the fact that the drone maker has much cheaper and more professional options. After an afternoon with the Pocket, however, I was hooked.

The software takes a little getting used to, but once you’ve mastered it, you’re off to the races, using many of the same tricks you’ll find on the Mavic line. Time-lapse, FaceTrack and the 10 Story Mode templates are all impressive and can help novices capture compelling video from even the most mundane subject matter.

Oculus Go

The most recent wave of VR headsets has been split between two distinct categories. There are the high-end Rift and Vives on one side and the super-low-cost Daydreams and Gear VRs on the other. That leaves consumers in the unenviable position of choosing between emptying the bank account or opting for a sub-par experience.

Oculus’ Go headset arrived this year to split the difference. In a time when virtual reality seems at the tail end of its hype cycle, the $199 device offers the most compelling case for mainstreaming yet.

It’s a solid and financially accessible take on VR that shows that the category may still have a little life left in it yet.

Timbuk2 Never Check Expandable Backpack

Granted, it’s not a gadget per se, but the Never Check is the best backpack I’ve ever owned. I initially picked it up as part of a Gift Guide feature I was writing, and I’ve since totally fallen for the thing.

As someone who spends nearly half of his time on the road these days, the bag’s big volume and surprisingly slim profile have been a life saver. It’s followed me to a Hong Kong hostel and a Nigerian hotel, jammed full of all the tech I need to do my job.

It’s also unassuming enough to be your day to day bag. Just zip up one of those waterproof zippers to compress its footprint.

Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2

Like most nerds, I have more keyboards than friends. In 2018 I gave mechanical keyboards a chance. Now, at the end of the year, I’m typing on a Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2. It’s lovely.

This keyboard features Topre capacitive 45G switches. What does that mean? When typing, these switches provide a nice balance of smooth action and tactile feel. There are a handful of mechanical switches available, and after trying most of them, this switch feels the best to me. The Topre capacitive switch is available in a handful of keyboards, but I like the Happy Hacking Keyboard the best.

The HHK has been around in various forms since 1996, and this latest version retains a lot of the charm, including dip switches. Everyone loves dip switches. This version works well with Macs, has two USB ports and is compact enough someone could throw it into a bag. Starting just last month, the keyboard is available in the U.S. through Fujitsu, so buyers don’t have to deal with potentially shady importers.

The Worst

Palm

The Palm is the kind of device you really want to like. And I tried. Hell, I took the thing to Africa with me in hopes that I’d be able to give it some second life as an MP3 player. But it fell short even on that front.

This secondary smartphone is a device in search of a problem, appealing to an impossibly thin slice of consumer demographics. It’s definitely adorable, but the ideal consumer has to have the need and money for a second display, no smartwatch and an existing Verizon contract. Even then, the product has some glaring flaws, from more complex user issues to simple stupid things, like a lack of volume buttons.

It’s easy to forgive a lot with a fairly well-designed first-generation product, but it’s hard to see where the newly reborn company goes from here. Palm, meet face.

Red Hydrogen One

Where to start? How about the price? Red’s first foray into the smartphone space starts at $1,293 (or $1,595 if you want to upgrade your aluminum to titanium). That price will get you a middling phone with an admittedly fascinating gimmick.

After what seemed like years of teasers, the Hydrogen One finally appeared in October, sporting a big, metal design and Rambo-style serrated edges. The display’s the thing here, sporting a “nano-photonic” design that looks a bit like a moving version of those holographic baseball cards we had as kids.

I showed it to a number of folks during my testing period, and all found it initially interesting, then invariably asked “why?” I’m still having trouble coming up with the answer on that one. Oh, and a few told me they became a touch nauseous looking at it. Can’t win ’em all, I guess.

Facebook Portal

“Why?” is really the overarching question in all of these worst devices. It’s not as if the Portal was a bad product. The design of the thing is actually pretty solid — certainly it looks a lot nicer than the Echo Show. And while it was initially lacking in features, Facebook has made up for that a bit with a recent software update.

The heart of the question is more about what Portal brings to the table that the Echo Show or Google Home Hub don’t. It would have to be something pretty massive to justify bringing a Facebook-branded piece of hardware into one’s living room, especially in light of all of the privacy concerns the social media site has dealt with this year. There’s never been a great time for Facebook to launch a product like this, but somehow, now feels like the worst.

Portal delivers some neat tricks, including impressive camera tracking and AR stories, but it mostly feels like a tone-deaf PR nightmare.

PlayStation Classic

1: Half the games are PAL ports and do not run well on U.S. TVs
2: Missing classics like Gran Turismo, Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider
3: Doesn’t include a power adapter
4: Only one suspend point
5: This product makes me angry

 

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Facebook’s next hardware product will be “smart” Ray-Ban glasses

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Enlarge / Don’t get too excited about how well these Ray-Bans go with Gitta Banko’s outfit—we don’t know what Facebook’s new smart glasses will look like, only that they’re made in partnership with the brand and its parent company.

In an earnings conference call on Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told investors that the company’s next hardware launch will be “smart glasses” made in partnership with classic sunglasses vendor Ray-Ban.

Zuckerberg segued into the Ray-Ban announcement following a lengthy discussion of Facebook’s plans for Oculus Quest, its all-in-one virtual reality (VR) platform. Zuckerberg says that social media is the real “killer app” for VR, backing that up with data from Oculus Quest: “The most popular apps on Quest are social, which fits our original thesis [that] virtual reality will be a social platform.”

Zuckerberg intends the as yet unnamed smart glasses to be a stepping stone, not an end goal. He remained cagey about their actual purpose, saying only that the glasses “have their iconic form factor, and [let] you do some pretty neat things,” with no concrete details about what those “neat things” might be.

We do know that the glasses aren’t expected to have integrated display, thanks to reporting from The Verge on their initial announcement in September 2020. Without display capabilities, the Ray-Ban/Facebook glasses seem likely to fall in the same category as Amazon’s Echo Frames or Lucyd Lyte—a mostly normal-looking pair of sunglasses with integrated Bluetooth pairing and directional speakers that we reviewed in March.

Zuckerberg describes the smart glasses as a stepping stone toward not only virtual or augmented reality as we know it, but something he calls the metaverse. “So what is the metaverse? It’s a virtual environment [like] an embodied Internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at. And we believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile Internet.”

After warning that building his vision will require significant investment not only from Facebook itself but from its entire ecosystem of partners, he doubled down on its eventual importance, saying, “In addition to being the next chapter of the Internet, the metaverse is also going to be the next chapter for us as a company.”

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Facebook set a new ad revenue record, despite Apple’s iOS privacy change

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Faebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

For months, Apple and Facebook waged a PR war (with threats of a legal one) over App Tracking Transparency, a change in recent versions of the iPhone’s iOS software that will often limit how advertising-focused apps and companies can monetize iPhone users.

Facebook’s original public predictions about App Tracking Transparency’s effect were apocalyptic. But even though App Tracking Transparency took effect during Facebook’s most recent quarter (Q2 of 2021) the company still posted huge ad revenue growth.

Facebook’s revenue, which is largely driven by the kinds of advertising that Apple’s iOS change undermines, grew 56 percent year-over-year in Q2, beating investor expectations. The company had 1.9 billion daily active users and 2.9 billion monthly active users. It earned $10.12 of revenue per user, on average.

This was the first earnings report Facebook has delivered on a quarter that should show any effects of App Tracking Transparency on the company’s bottom line. Fifty-six percent YOY growth certainly doesn’t look apocalyptic, but CFO David Wehner told investors to expect a less rosy story in the next quarter:

We continue to expect increased ad targeting headwinds in 2021 from regulatory and platform changes, notably the recent iOS updates, which we expect to have a greater impact in the third quarter compared to the second quarter.

Data on user opt-in rates for tracking has varied quite a bit. Some firms put the figure at just 4 percent, but others place opt-in rates as high as around 30 percent. And it likely depends on the app in question. In any case, users who opt in are definitely not the majority; most users are declining to be tracked when prompted. And each user who does is worth a lot less money to Facebook, which makes much of its money leveraging each user’s data to charge advertisers money to microtarget them and other users with similar attributes.

While Facebook’s initial messaging around App Tracking Transparency was combative and dire, Zuckerberg began changing his tune recently. He began to argue that the change could even be good for Facebook in some ways.

As for today, Zuckerberg is dedicating much of his time to describing his vision for the “metaverse,” which he has identified as the new direction for the company. He has described this vision as a mixed reality layer on our lives whereby people can interact with and socialize with one another virtually in new ways, crossing geographic barriers as if they were simply walking from room to room.

But Apple executives have also outlined a somewhat similar longterm vision, albeit with a very different approach in mind. By forcing Facebook to play by different ad-targeting rules, Apple has strengthened its position against the social media company in any coming battle over a future mixed reality computing landscape.

But at least for this quarter, Facebook doesn’t look like it is suffering too badly from the wound.

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Google Play gets mandatory app privacy labels in April 2022

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In iOS 14, Apple added a “privacy” section to the app store, requiring app developers to list the data they collect and how they use it. Google—which was one of the biggest targets of Apple’s privacy nutrition labels and delayed app updates for months to avoid complying with the policy—is now aping the feature for Google Play.

Google posted a demo of what the Google Play “Data privacy & security” section will look like, and it contains everything you’d expect if you’ve looked at the App Store lately. There’s information on what data apps collect, whether or not the apps share the data with third parties, and how the data is stored. Developers can also explain what the data is used for and if data collection is required to use the app. The section also lists whether or not the collected data is encrypted, if the user can delete the data, and if the app follows Google’s “Families” policy (meaning all the usual COPPA stuff).

Google Play’s privacy section will be mandatory for all developers in April 2022, and starting in October, Google says developers can start populating information in the Google Play Console “for review.” Google also says that in April, all apps will need to supply a privacy policy, even if they don’t collect any data. Apps that don’t have an “approved” privacy section by April may have their app updates rejected or their app removed.

Google says, “Developers are responsible for providing accurate and complete information in their safety section.”

All of this information is basically just running on the honor system, and on iOS, developers have already been caught faking their privacy labels.

Listing image by Google Play

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