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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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This enthusiast’s keyboard and trackball used to launch nuclear missiles

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There’s no telling what you’ll find on eBay—like an old keyboard and trackball originally dedicated to firing off nuclear missiles.

As detailed Tuesday by YouTube channel Pointless Tinkering, an enthusiast bought the keyboard off eBay simply because it “looked awesome” and had “some interesting buttons” saying things like “TRANSMIT,” “ABORT,” and “INITIATE.”

The keyboard and trackball were part of a larger control system for a nuclear missile silo command center. More specifically, the peripherals were part of a console used to launch Minuteman III missiles in the ’80s as part of the US Air Force’s Rapid Execution and Combat Targeting (REACT) program.

As explained by the Cold War history site Nuclear Companion and cited by Pointless Tinkering, “There is one stunning difference between REACT and the old Command Data Buffer (CDB). While the CDB had two separated workstations, in REACT, both crew are side by side. In other words, they operate in a single console with keyboard and trackball included.”

The keyboard has reed switches, which use magnets to actuate. Other parts include an Intel MD82510/B chip as a serial controller, an Intel 8051-family microcontroller, and RS422 communication chips.

After grabbing the keyboard and trackball from eBay and learning about their history, the enthusiast went to work, armed with tools like an Arduino Pro Micro (which eventually got fried) and a programmer for the microcontroller, which he acquired through Dromeda Research. He also repaired the trackball that stopped working after purchase and got both the keyboard and trackball to work with modern computers with a USB port.

“All that reverse engineering led to me creating this little interface, which has the Arduino Micro, which can emulate a mouse and a keyboard,” the owner said. There’s even custom software for the keyboard.

Of course, there’s no RGB lighting, but some keys actually do have LEDs.

Not quite RGB.

Pointless Tinkering also highlighted a “BIT key” that seems to reset the keyboard.

According to the video, both the keyboard and trackball work like regular PC peripherals, save for the Ctrl, Alt, and down keys, making the Nuclear Keyboard, as the video dubbed it, “very hard to use as a normal, daily driver keyboard.”

Pointless Tinkering said he would try to address any issues that pop up in a follow-up video. Despite its flaws, the Nuclear Keyboard is still a fascinating testament to the power of old tech and fresh minds.

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Luna Display lets you wirelessly use a Mac as second Windows monitor

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Enlarge / A 24-inch iMac used as display for a Windows 11-based Lenovo Thinkpad.

Sometimes you just need more screen space. You can always buy a portable monitor, but what if you could just use the systems already in your home—whether they run Windows or macOS?

Luna Display is a product by Astropad that lets you turn an iPad into a wireless second display. The $130 offering uses a dongle and works with Windows PCs and Macs. Its “headless” mode turns the iPad into the main display for a Mac Mini or Mac Pro.

Luna Display’s 5.1 update, announced this week, adds even more possibilities. The dongle can now be used with any Apple machine—not just an iPad—to provide a second display for your Windows PC or Mac.

An iMac used as wireless display for a MacBook.
Enlarge / An iMac used as wireless display for a MacBook.

You’re not limited to Apple’s desktops or laptops, either; Luna Display now supports adding a 4K or 5K screen to your PC as a second display. That means you could attach the 24-inch iMac with a 4.5K (4480×2520) resolution or a 27-inch iMac with a 5K (5120×2880) resolution to your Windows or Mac PC.

There are some caveats, though. If you plan to connect a 4K or 5K Mac, the machine has to be running at least macOS Big Sur. Any 5K screen connected to your Windows PC will be limited to a 30 Hz refresh rate, which is half the refreshes per second than what’s typical (60 Hz). If you’re using a Mac with Big Sur or later, the refresh rate is increased to 45 Hz. And if you’re “only” connecting a 4K screen, your refresh rate will be 60 Hz, whether the display is connected to a Windows or Apple system.

Other additions with the Luna Display 5.1 update include support for Apple’s Magic Keyboard and trackpad with a Luna Display-connected iPad. Again, this feature works whether the iPad is connected to a Mac or PC.

Note that to use Luna Display in general, you must have a system with Windows 10 64-bit, Build 1809 or later, or macOS 10.11 El Capitan or later as your main PC. The iPad must run iOS 12.1 or later, and you need either 802.11n Wi-Fi or an Ethernet connection.

With Apple and Windows historically living in such separate camps, it’s nice to see a product bring more platform agnosticism for those who aren’t completely committed to one side.

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Microsoft restores individual “default browser” setting in Windows 11 preview

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Aurich Lawson

It’s been a rough week for Microsoft’s Edge browser in the court of public opinion as users grumbled about the addition of a controversial “buy now, pay later” financing feature and another layer of pop-up messages that tries to dissuade users from installing Google Chrome. But Microsoft isn’t totally unresponsive to user criticism when it comes to Edge—the latest Dev channel Windows Insider build of Windows 11 restores a button in the Settings app for setting your default browser, something that existed in Windows 10 but is missing from the current stable version of Windows 11.

The change, originally spotted by developer Rafael Rivera, adds the default browser button to the top of the Settings app when you navigate to any browser in the “Default apps” section. The button automatically changes the default app for opening http, https, .htm, and .html files and links instead of making users change each of these associations manually (or relying on browser makers to build that capability into their browsers themselves).

For all the other file types that Microsoft Edge can handle, including PDFs, SVG files, and others, you’ll still need to change those associations manually and one at a time. But this is already how the default browser button worked in Windows 10, so it at least represents a reversion to the pre-Windows 11 status quo rather than a new hurdle to jump over.

Features being tested in the Dev channel builds of Windows are usually destined for the operating system’s next major servicing update, which for Windows 11 will happen sometime in the fall of 2022. Recent builds have begun to address some common complaints about Windows 11’s user interface changes, including tweaks to the Start menu and taskbar.

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