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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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Google will soon default to blurring explicit image search results

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Enlarge / Google’s new “Blur” setting for SafeSearch will soon be the default, blurring explicit images unless you’re logged in and over 18.

Aurich Lawson

Google has debuted a new default SafeSearch setting, somewhere between “on” and “off,” that automatically blurs explicit images in search results for most people.

In a blog post timed to Safer Internet Day, Google outlined a number of measures it plans to implement to “protect democracies worldwide,” secure high-risk individuals, improve password management, and protect credit card numbers. Tucked into a series of small-to-medium announcements is a notable change to search results, Google’s second core product after advertising.

A new setting, rolling out “in the coming months,” “will blur explicit imagery if it appears in Search results when SafeSearch filtering isn’t turned on,” writes Google’s Jen Fitzpatrick, senior vice president of Core Systems & Experiences. “This setting will be the new default for people who don’t already have the SafeSearch filter turned on, with the option to adjust settings at any time.”

Google’s explanatory image (seen above) shows someone logged in and searching for images of “Injury.” A notice shows that “Google turned on SafeSearch blurring,” which “blurs explicit images in your search results.” One of the example image results—”Dismounted Complex Blast Injury (DCBI)” from ResearchGate—is indeed quite explicit, as far as human viscera and musculature goes. Google provides one last check if you click on that blurred image: “This image may contain explicit content. SafeSearch blurring is on.”

Explicit images, such as the "blast injury" shown in Google's example, will be blurred by default in Google search images, unless a user is over 18, signs in, and turns it off.
Enlarge / Explicit images, such as the “blast injury” shown in Google’s example, will be blurred by default in Google search images, unless a user is over 18, signs in, and turns it off.

If you click “View image,” you see life’s frail nature. If you click “Manage setting,” you can choose between three settings: Filter (where explicit results don’t show up at all), Blur (where both blurring and are-you-sure clicks occur), and Off (where you see “all relevant results, even if they’re explicit”).

Signed-in users under the age of 18 automatically have SafeSearch enabled, blocking content including “pornography, violence, and gore.” With this change, Google will automatically be blurring explicit content for everybody using Google who doesn’t log in, stay logged in, and specifically ask to show it instead. It’s a way to prevent children from getting access to explicit images, but also, notably, a means of ensuring people are logged in to Google if they’re looking for something… very specific. An incognito window, it seems, just won’t do.

Google turned on SafeSearch as its default for under-18 users in August 2021, having been pressured by Congress to better protect children across its services, including search and YouTube.

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OnePlus takes on the iPad with the OnePlus Pad

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Android tablets are on their way back, and one of Android’s biggest manufacturers (we’re talking about OnePlus parent company BBK) is bringing an Android tablet to the US for the first time. Say hello to the OnePlus Pad, an 11.61-inch tablet with an optional keyboard and stylus. We don’t know how much it costs, so don’t ask. There’s also no hard release date, but preorders start in April.

What we do know are the specs. The 11.61-inch display is a 144 Hz LCD, with a resolution of 2800×2000. That’s an aspect ratio of 7:5, or a bit wider than a 4:3 display, which OnePlus claims is a “book-like” aspect ratio. The SoC is a MediaTek Dimensity 9000. That’s a rarity in the US, but it’s basically a generic ARM design for 2022 flagship phones, with one 3.05 GHz ARM Cortex X2 CPU, three A710 CPUs, and four A510 CPUs. It’s a 4 nm chip with an ARM Mali-G710 MC10. You also get 8GB of RAM (there’s an option for 12GB), 128GB of UFS 3.1 storage, and a 9510 mAh battery. This is not in the super-flagship tablet territory and should (hopefully) come with an affordable price tag.

As always, OnePlus’ trademark quick-charging is here, and it’s 67 W. On a tiny phone battery, that kind of charging will usually take a phone from 0-100 in around a half hour, but with a big tablet battery, a full charge still takes “just over 60 minutes.” In the fine print, OnePlus actually gives a warning against any repair attempts, saying, “The battery has been especially encrypted for safety purposes. Please go to an official OnePlus service center to repair your battery or get a genuine replacement battery.” I’ve never heard of a battery being “encrypted” before, but I think they mean there is a serial number check in the firmware somewhere and that it will presumably refuse to work if you replace it. As for the possibility of an “official OnePlus service center” actually existing, there is a business finder on the OnePlus India website, but not one in the US, so it’s looking like mail-in service only.

The tablet is made up of an aluminum unibody that weighs 555 g. The sides are rounded over, which should make it feel comfortable to hold. It comes with four speakers, a USB-C port on the right side, and a set of three pogo pins on the bottom for the keyboard. The back has a circular camera bump that makes it look like a close cousin of the OnePlus 11, and it holds a single 13 MP camera. We also hope you like green, because that appears to be the only color.

There’s no fingerprint sensor at all. There is a cutout that looks like it might be a fingerprint sensor, but we guess that’s just a radio signal window. There’s also no GPS listed on the spec sheet. We know next to nothing about the “OnePlus Magnetic Keyboard” and “OnePlus Stylo” pen. The keyboard has a small trackpad that supports swiping. The pen has a 2 ms response time, which sounds pretty good. That’s about it. Presumably we’ll know more in April.

Listing image by OnePlus

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Report: Sonos’ next flagship speaker will be the spatial audio-focused Era 300

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Enlarge / Sonos One smart speaker.

Sonos will release a new flagship speaker “in the coming months,” according to a report Monday from The Verge. The publication said this will be called the Era 300 and that Sonos is prioritizing the device’s spatial audio capabilities.

The Verge claimed that Sonos is aiming for the Era 300 to be its most accurate speaker yet. It pointed to a heightened focus on making Dolby Atmos content shine, as well as improving music using spatial audio. According to The Verge, the Era 300 will be a “multidirectional speaker built to get the most from spatial audio” by way of a “completely re-architected acoustic design.”

We don’t have deeper details, like specs or pricing. However, Wi-Fi 6 and a USB-C port are apparently “likely,” and Bluetooth support is also possible. According to The Verge, Sonos has at least looked into including all these features on the Era 300.

The Verge first started reporting about the Era 300, codenamed Optimo 2, in August. This week, it identified more evidence of the speaker’s development in the form of two recent documents from TV mount-maker Sanus that name the Era 300.

In August, The Verge, citing “early, work-in-progress images” it reportedly viewed, said that Sonos’ upcoming flagship speaker would include “an arsenal of drivers, including several that fire in different directions from beneath the shell between the front speaker grille and backplate.” It also suggested a more beefed-up product, with twice the RAM and eight times the flash memory as the highest-specced Sonos speaker today.

The Verge also claimed this week that Sonos is working on a lower-priced Era 100, suggesting that it could include Dolby Atmos support and serve as a follow-up to the Sonos One, which has a $179 MSRP as of writing.

Should the Era 300 truly debut soon, it will face competition from Apple’s recent $299, full-sized HomePod revival, which supports spatial audio with Dolby Atmos with Apple apps and Apple TV 4K. Besides superior audio quality, a new Sonos flagship could score points with shoppers by playing better with non-Apple devices, such as by including Bluetooth and by besting the Apple speaker’s Wi-Fi 4 support.

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