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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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iOS 15.5 and macOS 12.4 bring updates to Podcasts, digital payments, and more

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Enlarge / Apple’s Studio Display received a firmware update today to improve its webcam performance.

Andrew Cunningham

Apple released new software updates for all of its platforms on Tuesday. That includes the following:

  • iOS 15.5 for iPhones and the iPod touch
  • iPadOS 15.5 for iPads
  • macOS 12.4 for Macs
  • watchOS 8.6 for the Apple Watch
  • tvOS 15.5 for the Apple TV
  • HomePod Software 15.5 for HomePods
  • Studio Display Firmware 15.5 for the Studio Display
  • Swift Playgrounds 4.1 for iPad and Mac

These are almost certainly the last updates before the company’s annual developer conference, which is scheduled to kick off on June 6. Among other things, Apple will announce iOS and iPadOS 16, macOS 13, and watchOS 9 at the conference, but those updates won’t arrive until later this year.

iOS 15.5

Today’s iOS update offers just enough new user-facing features to earn that 15.x label instead of 15.x.x, which is usually reserved for bug fixes and the like.

All told, though, it’s a small update. The built-in Podcasts app gets “a new setting to limit episodes stored on your Mac and automatically delete older ones.”

And 15.5 allows the iPhone to be used as a point-of-sale device without any additional hardware, as reported in February.

Previously, vendors like farmer’s market stalls and home repair services used iPhones with attached add-on hardware from companies like Stripe to receive payments.

Now the iPhone doesn’t need those attachments; Stripe works just fine with an iPhone fresh out of the box.

Additionally, iOS 15.5 brings safety features in the Messages app meant to prevent children from being exposed to inappropriate content in the following new countries:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • New Zealand
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

macOS 12.4

On the macOS side, Apple names just two user-facing changes in its release notes. It adds support for Studio Display Firmware Update 15.5 (which claims to improve webcam performance on Apple’s new monitor), and the built-in Podcasts app gets the same new feature that iOS did.

However, macOS 12.4 includes more than 50 security updates under the hood, according to Apple’s support documentation.

watchOS 8.6

watchOS 8.6 is a relatively minor update. It expands some of the Watch’s health features—namely irregular heart rhythm detection and the ECG—to Apple Watch users in Mexico.

Other updates

Studio Display Firmware 15.5 attempts to address some user complaints about the monitor’s webcam quality. Apple hasn’t shared any details about what’s in the HomePod firmware update or tvOS 15.5.

There’s also Swift Playgrounds 4.1 for Mac and iPad. It’s not an OS update, but it landed around the same time. It allows users to use Playgrounds to build apps with SwiftUI on the Mac, and it deepens App Store Connect integration for publishing apps, among other things.

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Google backtracks on legacy GSuite account shutdown, won’t take user emails

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Enlarge / An artist’s rendering of Google’s current reputation.

Google finally launched a solution for people with “legacy” GSuite Google accounts. After initially threatening to shut down free GSuite accounts if users didn’t start paying for the service, Google has completely backed off. Once users jump through some sign-up hoops, Google will allow their ~16-year-old accounts to continue functioning. You’ll even get to keep your email address.

The saga so far, if you haven’t been following, is that Google has a custom-domain user account service, currently called “Google Workspace” and previously called “G Suite” and “Google Apps.” The service is mostly a normal Google account that lets you use an email that ends in your custom domain name rather than “@gmail.com.” Today this service is aimed at businesses and costs money each month, but that was not always the case. From 2006 to 2012, custom domain Google accounts were free and were even pitched at families as a geeky way to have an online Google identity.

In January, some bean counter at Google apparently noticed this tiny group of longtime users was technically getting a paid service for free and decided this was unacceptable. Google posted an announcement in January declaring these people “Legacy GSuite users” and basically told them, ‘Pay up or lose your account.’ These users signed up for a free Google service and stored data on it for as long as 16 years, and there were no indications it would ever be charged. Google held this decade-plus of user data hostage, telling users to start paying business rates for Workspace or face an account shutdown.

A week later, after the inevitable public outcry, Google relented somewhat and said it would vaguely, eventually provide “an option for you to move your non-Google Workspace paid content and most of your data to a no-cost option.” Being told you’ll be able to keep “most of your data” that you’ve been accumulating for 16 years is a rather alarming statement. Google’s one bit of specifics in January was that “this new option won’t include premium features like custom email,” so you’d have to stop hosting your email with Google, and you’d presumably have to go through some wild Google account conversion process. It then let these users anxiously flap in the wind, with no further details, for six months.

How to save your free GSuite account

In May, Google finally told these users what would happen to their accounts. The new support page says, “For individuals and families using your account for non-commercial purposes, you can continue using the G Suite legacy free edition and opt out of the transition to Google Workspace.” The link for that is here or in your GSuite admin panel. You’ll need to confirm that your GSuite account is for personal use, and not business use, because businesses are still expected to pay for Workspace. If you already bent to Google’s will and started paying for Workspace because of the January announcement, Google says you should contact support.

That bottom
Enlarge / That bottom “Personal use” button is what you want.

Lee Hutchinson

The biggest news from this latest announcement is that Google has decided against taking people’s custom email away. A second support page says, “You can continue using your custom domain with Gmail, retain access to no-cost Google services such as Google Drive and Google Meet, and keep your purchases and data.” It now sounds like there will be no changes to your account, provided you click through the “self-transition” screen before the deadline.

The deadline to opt out of an account shutdown, which has changed several times now, is June 27, 2022. If you don’t complete this opt out by June 27, you will be automatically billed for Workspace. If you don’t have a card on file and don’t opt out, your account will be suspended on August 1 and shut down.

The automatic enrollment and billing, without explicit user consent, is one of the wilder parts of this story. If you don’t closely follow the tech news scene, there’s a good chance you won’t know this is coming, and you will either suddenly be billed without your consent or find that your Google account has suddenly stopped working.

For a company whose key business pillar is convincing users to store vast amounts of data, playing games like this is a bizarre decision. At least it came to a reasonable conclusion.

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Testing shows AMD’s FSR 2.0 can even help lowly Intel integrated GPUs

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Intel

There are two things to like about version 2.0 of AMD’s FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) upscaling tech, which finally began appearing in actual games late last week. The most important is that the quality of the upscaled image is dramatically better than in FSR version 1.0. The second is that FSR 2.0 is compatible with all kinds of GPUs, including not just AMD’s but older GeForce GPUs that aren’t compatible with Nvidia’s proprietary deep learning super sampling (DLSS).

New testing from Tom’s Hardware has also revealed another unlikely beneficiary: Intel’s recent integrated GPUs. Using an Iris Xe laptop GPU in a Core i7-1165G7, FSR 2.0 was able to bump the average frame rates in a 720p version of Deathloop by around 16%, nudging it from just under 30 fps to just over 30 fps and helping to offset the low resolution with its built-in anti-aliasing. Not bad for a nearly two-year-old laptop GPU playing a demanding modern game.

There are caveats, some of which apply to all upscaling technologies and some that are specific to Intel’s GPUs. FSR 2.0 and DLSS are generally good enough to let you bump up your resolution or quality settings a bit while maintaining a playable frame rate. They can also make borderline-unplayable games playable, and they can help you squeeze a little more life out of your current GPU if you don’t want (or can’t afford) to spring for an upgrade.

But upscaling also isn’t magical—the integrated GPU in a 10th-generation Intel Ice Lake CPU got nowhere near playable frame rates in Deathloop without FSR 2.0, and the low-double-digit performance improvement from FSR didn’t get it over that 30 fps line. Both Intel GPUs also showed lots of graphical corruption in most of the test runs, though this was inconsistent and could be fixed in future driver updates.

Wider, manufacturer-agnostic hardware compatibility could eventually help AMD accomplish with FSR what it did with FreeSync adaptive sync technology a few years ago. Nvidia’s G-Sync was technically superior, but it required more expensive monitors with an additional hardware module installed, and it only worked with Nvidia GPUs. FreeSync wasn’t as good initially, but it piggybacked on standard DisplayPort features that made it easier and cheaper to implement. A few years later, Nvidia enabled FreeSync support in its drivers, and today, FreeSync is by far the more prevalent of the two technologies.

Game developers could choose to support FSR 2.0 over Nvidia’s DLSS for the same reason: It provides good-enough results that cover a much broader range of GPU hardware from multiple manufacturers. AMD isn’t alone in trying to define a more widely compatible standard for high-quality upscaling, though—Intel’s upcoming XeSS standard can also be used with Intel, Nvidia, or AMD GPUs. DLSS support is also fairly entrenched, with relatively wide support across a long list of modern games.

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