Google’s smart home sell looks cluttered and incoherent

Google’s smart home sell looks cluttered and incoherent
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?

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Here are all the details on the new Pixel 3, Pixel Slate, Pixel Stand, and Home Hub

Here are all the details on the new Pixel 3, Pixel Slate, Pixel Stand, and Home Hub
At a special event in New York City, Google announced some of its latest, flagship hardware devices. During the hour-long press conference Google executives and product managers took the wraps off the company’s latest products and explained their features. Chief among the lot is the Pixel 3, Google’s latest flagship Android device. Like the Pixel 2 before it, the Pixel 3’s main feature is its stellar camera but there’s a lot more magic packed inside the svelte frame.
Pixel 3

Contrary to some earlier renders, the third version of Google’s Android flagship (spotted by 9 to 5 Google) does boast a sizable notch up top, in keeping with earlier images of the larger XL. Makes sense, after all, Google went out of its way to boast about notch functionality when it introduced Pie, the latest version of its mobile OS.
The device is available for preorder today and will start shipping October 18, starting at $799. The larger XL starts at $899, still putting the product at less than the latest flagships from Apple and Samsung.
Pixel Slate

The device looks pretty much exactly like the leaks lead us to believe — it’s a premium slate with a keyboard cover that doubles as a stand. It also features a touch pad, which gives it the edge over products like Samsung’s most recent Galaxy Tab. There’s also a matching Google Pen, which appears to more or less be the same product announced around the Pixel Book, albeit with a darker paint job to match the new product.
The product starts at $599, plus $199 for the keyboard and $99 for the new dark Pen. All three are shipping at some point later this year.
Home Hub

The device looks like an Android tablet mounted on top of a speaker — which ought to address the backward firing sound, which is one of the largest design flaws of the recently introduced Echo Show 2. The speaker fabric comes in a number of different colors, in keeping with the rest of the Pixel/Home products, including the new Aqua.
When not in use, the product doubles as a smart picture frame, using albums from Google Photos. A new Live Albums, which auto updates, based on the people you choose. So you can, say, select your significant others and it will create a gallery based on that person. Sweet and also potentially creepy. Machine learning, meanwhile, will automatically filter out all of the lousy shots.
The Home Hub is up for pre-order today for a very reasonable $149. In fact, the device actually seems like a bit of a loss leader for the company in an attempt to hook people into the Google Assistant ecosystem. It will start shipping October 22.
Pixel Stand

The Pixel Stand is basically a sleek little round dock for your phone. While it can obviously charge your phone, what’s maybe more interesting is that when you put your phone into the cradle, it looks like it’ll start a new notifications view that’s not unlike what you’d see on a smart display. It costs $79.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Review: The Marshall Woburn II packs modern sound, retro look

Review: The Marshall Woburn II packs modern sound, retro look
Marshall speakers stand out. That’s why I dig them. From the company’s headphones to its speakers, the audio is warm and full just like the classic design suggests.
The company today is announcing revisions across its lines. The new versions of the Action ($249), Stanmore ($349) and Woburn Bluetooth ($499) speakers now feature Bluetooth 5.0, an upgraded digital signal processor and a slightly re-worked look.
Marshall also announced a new version of the Minor wireless in-ear headphones. The wireless headphones were among the company’s first products and the updated version now features Bluetooth 5.0 aptX connectivity, new 14.2 mm drivers and 12 hours of battery life. Marshall also says the redesigned model will stay in place better than the original model.
It’s important to note that the company behind these Marshall speakers and headphones is different from the company that makes the iconic guitar amp though there is collaboration. The Marshall brand is used by Zound Industries, which also operates Ubanears.
The models produced by Zound Industries stay true to the Marshall brand. I’ve used several of the products since the company launched and I’m pleased to report that this new generation packs the magic of previous models.
The company sent me the new Woburn II speaker (pictured above) and it’s a lovely speaker. This is the largest speaker in the company’s line. It’s imposing and, in Reddit-speak, an absolute unit. It’s over a foot tall and weighs just under 20 lbs.
The speaker easily fills a room. The sound is warm and inviting.

The Woburn II features a ported design which helps create the rich sound. Bass is deep though doesn’t pound. Mid-tones are lovely and the highs are perfectly balanced. If they’re not, there are nobs mounted on the top to adjust the tones.
I find the Woburn a great speaker at any volume. Turn it down and the sound still feels as complex as it does at normal listen volumes. Crank the speaker to 10, drop the treble a bit, and the speaker will shake walls.
Don’t be scared by the imposing size. The Woburn II can party, but it is seemingly just as happy to spend the evening in, playing some Iron and Wine.
Sadly, the Woburn II lacks some of the magic of the original Woburn. The new version does not have an optical input and the power switch is a soft switch. It’s just for looks. The first Woburn had a two position switch. Click one way to turn on and click the other to turn off. It was an analog experience. This time around the speakers retain the switch, but the switch is different. It’s artificial and might as well be a power button. When pressed forward, the switch turns on the speaker and then snaps back to its original position. The clicking it gone. I know that seems like a silly thing to complain about but that switch was part of the Marshall experience. It felt authentic and now it feels artificial.
Like past models, the speaker is covered in a vinyl-like material and the front of the speaker is covered in fabric. Don’t touch this fabric. It stains. The review sample sent to me came with stains already on the fabric.
The Woburn II is a fantastic speaker with a timeless look. At $499 it’s pricy but produces sound above its price-point rivals. I expect the same performance out of updated Action II and Stanmore II speakers. These speakers are worthy of the Marshall name.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Devialet unveils an ambitious new speaker

Devialet unveils an ambitious new speaker
French speaker maker Devialet is arguably manufacturing some of the best sounding all-in-one speakers on the market, but they’ve always been too expensive for the average customer. With the Phantom Reactor, the company is releasing a cheaper speaker that still sounds great.
At $999 (or €990/£990), Devialet is going for a wider audience of music fans who have enough disposable income to look beyond your average Bluetooth speaker.
But pricing is just part of the story. The Phantom Reactor is also much more compact than the original Phantom. It is four times smaller and weighs 10 pounds. It’s still quite heavy, so you won’t be able to pack it in your suitcase when you’re flying for vacation.
But you can now put it on a shelf, unplug it and move it to the kitchen, etc. In other words, you no longer have to dedicate an entire table to your Devialet speaker. And as you saw in the photos, it definitely looks like a Devialet speaker with its egg-shaped design, but much smaller.

Fortunately, the company tried to compromise as little as possible when it comes to sound. Devialet has worked for three years on this speaker to produce the same sound quality in a smaller package. “We had to reinvent everything to release this product,” co-founder and CTO Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel told me.
When it comes to specifications, the Phantom Reactor features a tiny touch panel at the top to control the speaker. It connects to your phone or computer using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AirPlay, Spotify Connect or UPnP. There’s also an audio jack. Chromecast Audio support as well as the ability to pair multiple speakers will come later with an update (you probably can already use multiple speakers with AirPlay 2 though).
There’s no microphone and Devialet doesn’t plan to support voice assistants on its devices directly. “We are completely focused on sound quality. We want to be platform agnostic with Apple, Amazon or Google. Our idea is that we want to make our speakers compatible with all the protocols from those companies — but our business is sound quality,” CEO Franck Lebouchard told me (former CEO Quentin Sannié wasn’t around during our meeting).
If you’re into voice assistants, you can always find a workaround. For instance, you can buy an Amazon Echo Dot and plug it to your Phantom Reactor. Let’s see if the company adds HomeKit support and other smart home features in the coming months.
Given that Sonos has taken a U-turn and integrated Amazon Alexa into its flagship speaker, I pushed a bit more on this front. “We have no plan today because it would involve a lot of effort to interact with Reactor to do your shopping. In the end, we’ll never be as good as Amazon,” Lebouchard said.

So the Phantom Reactor is just a damn good speaker, nothing else. “There’s zero background noise, zero saturation and zero distorsion,” Lebouchard said. And just like other Devialet speakers, it’s incredibly loud for the size of the speaker. During my fairly limited listening session, it sounded awesome.
It takes advantage of Devialet’s patent portfolio, including its unique sound amplification technology, a mathematical model that lets you push the speaker to its physical limits and the iconic piston-powered woofers.
But Devialet isn’t just a speaker manufacturer. The company has licensed its technology to other companies, such as Sky in the U.K. A couple of years ago, the company wanted to put a “Sound powered by Devialet” sticker on all your electronics products, from your TV to the speakers in your car.
“Phantom was the first step to make our technology accessible,” Lebouchard said. “Phantom reaches tens of thousands of people today. We’ve crossed a big milestone with the Sky Soundbox and we now reach hundreds of thousands of people.” And with the Phantom Reactor, the company hopes to reach even more customers.
The company told me that Devialet will follow all options. There will be new in-house Devialet products as well as more licensing deals. Lebouchard gave me a ‘no comment’ on the Freebox rumors though.
The Phantom Reactor will be manufactured in France near Fontainebleau. The company has built a brand new factory and expects to produce a speaker every 49 seconds.
There will be two versions of the Phantom Reactor, a 600W model for $999/€990/£990 and a 900W model for $1,299/€1,290/£1,290. Pre-orders start tomorrow and the speaker will be available in many consumer electronics stores (also on Amazon) on October 24th.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths
In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.
The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.
“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.
The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.
Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.
Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.
Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.
On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.
Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.
Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

The Sonos Beam is the soundbar evolved

The Sonos Beam is the soundbar evolved
Sonos has always gone its own way. The speaker manufacturer dedicated itself to network-connected speakers before there were home networks and they sold a tablet-like remote control before there were tablets. Their surround sound systems install quickly and run seamlessly. You can buy a few speakers, tap a few buttons and have 5.1 sound in less time than it takes to pull a traditional home audio system out of its shipping box.

This latest model is an addition to the Sonos line and is sold alongside the Playbase — a lumpen soundbar designed to sit directly underneath TVs not attached to the wall — and the Playbar, a traditionally styled soundbar that preceded the Beam. Both products had all of the Sonos highlights — great sound, amazing interfaces and easy setup — but the Base had too much surface area for more elegant installations and the Bar was too long while still sporting an aesthetic that harkened back to 2008 Crutchfield catalogs.
The $399 Beam is Sonos’ answer to that, and it is more than just a pretty box. The speaker includes Alexa — and promises Google Assistant support — and it improves your TV sound immensely. Designed as an add-on to your current TV, it can stand alone or connect with the Sonos subwoofer and a few satellite surround speakers for a true surround sound experience. It truly shines alone, however, thanks to its small size and more than acceptable audio range.
To use the Beam you bring up an iOS or Android app to display your Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and Pandora accounts (this is a small sampling; Sonos supports more). You select a song or playlist and start listening. Then, when you want to watch TV, the speaker automatically flips to TV mode — including speech enhancement features that actually work — when the TV is turned on. An included tuning system turns your phone into a scanner that improves the room audio automatically.
The range is limited by the Beam’s size and shape and there is very little natural bass coming out of this thing. However, in terms of range, the Beam is just fine. It can play an action movie with a bit of thump and then go on to play some light jazz or pop. I’ve had some surprisingly revelatory sessions with the Beam when listening to classic rock and more modern fare and it’s very usable as a home audio center.
The Beam is two feet long and three inches tall. It comes in black or white and is very unobtrusive in any home theater setup. Interestingly, the product supports HDMI-ARC aka HDMI Audio Return Channel. This standard, introduced in TVs made in the past five years, allows the TV to automatically output audio and manage volume controls via a single HDMI cable. What this means, however, is you’re going to have a bad time if you don’t have HDMI-ARC.
Sonos includes an adapter that can also accept optical audio output, but setup requires you to turn off your TV speakers and route all the sound to the optical out. This is a bit of a mess, and if you don’t have either of those outputs — HDMI-ARC or optical — then you’re probably in need of a new TV. That said, HDMI-ARC is a bit jarring for first timers, but Sonos is sure that enough TVs support it that they can use it instead of optical-only.
The Beam doesn’t compete directly with other “smart” speakers like the HomePod. It is very specifically a consumer electronics device, even though it supports AirPlay 2 and Alexa. Sonos makes speakers, and good ones at that, and that goal has always been front and center. While other speakers may offer a more fully featured sound in a much smaller package, the Beam offers both great TV audio and great music playback for less than any other higher end soundbar. Whole room audio does get expensive — about $1,200 for a Sub and two satellites — but you can simply add on pieces as you go. One thing, however, is clear: Sonos has always been the best wireless speaker for the money and the Beam is another win for the scrappy and innovative speaker company.


Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Devialet is getting a new CEO

Devialet is getting a new CEO
 Employees of French startup Devialet just learned this morning that they would get a new CEO. Co-founder and (former) CEO Quentin Sannié is going to focus on the long-term vision, while Franck Lebouchard is joining the company to become CEO.
While the board of the company elected Lebouchard as CEO on Friday, this change has been in the works for months. Lebouchard has worked at McKinsey… Read More

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch