All posts in “Gadgets”

Nintendo nabs two-thirds of monthly game hardware sales thanks to Switch


Nintendo has managed to lead the industry in video game hardware sales – by a wide margin – for September, which is a very promising sign going into the holiday shopping season. The Nintendo Switch helped this immensely, leading the industry as the top-selling console for the third straight month, and the fifth month overall since its introduction seven months ago.

Switch’s U.S. sales have now topped 2 million units, which is great considering that the Wii U sold all of 6.23 million units across North America during its entire time on the market. Nintendo Switch’s success was also bolstered by continuing 3DS device family sales, as well as Super NES Classic Edition sales, both of which helped it not only lead, but essentially dominate the video game hardware market.

Nintendo Switch is moving into some high-profile software releases for Switch that should help it gain even more consumer traction, including Super Mario Odyssey, which lands on October 27 and which has been widely praised by early players and critics, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which, despite being a port of a game that’s now nearly six years old, will still no doubt be a popular download.

Nintendo also just released a software update for the Nintendo Switch that allows data transfer between consoles, including saves, and I can confirm that this works as advertised from personal experience. It’s also added the ability to save and share video clips from certain games, which could help raise the hype factor around high-profile releases. Also, and again from personal experience, this console has basically had just a ton of great releases thus far, which makes me very excited about its future.

Amazon’s original Echo gets a much-needed upgrade

With a good software-driven product, the hardware is almost inconsequential. After the unboxing and the setup, it just sort of fades into the scenery. That was always the case with Amazon’s original Echo, but even as Alexa continues to do all of the hard work, the grandaddy of smart speakers was in dire need of an update.

It’s been nearly two full years since the first Echo was made available to Amazon Prime subscribers. In that time, the company added six new members to the Echo family (seven if you count the Tap, which Amazon kind of, sort of does) — and in the case of the Echo Dot, did one full product refresh. Google entered the space in a big way with Home, and both Apple and Microsoft have their own takes arriving by year’s end.

While it’s true that Amazon’s products have rarely been about the hardware itself, the original Echo was long overdue for a rethink, as devices like the Dot started blowing past it on the company’s Top Seller charts. Announced at an event at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters last month, the all-new Echo finds Amazon looking to remain competitive in the field it pioneered.

The new Echo is more compact than the original. It’s also better looking, with five swappable shells designed to help it better blend in with its surroundings. The sound has been improved this time out, finally embracing the “speaker” part of the smart speaker category. Perhaps most importantly, however, it’s cheap. At $100, the new Echo is a full $80 cheaper than its predecessor — and $30 less than its closest competitor, Google Home.

It’s Amazon doing what Amazon does best: undercutting the competition.

Undercover Echo

Rumors started circulating about a new Echo a few months back. The line was long overdue for an update, the competition was intensifying and Amazon appeared to be working its way through the last of its Echo back stock. At the time, leaks positioned the product as a HomePod competitor, a high-end device with a new design and premium audio positioned to compete against Apple’s $349 Siri speaker.

Of course, ultra-premium has never really been Amazon’s speed. The Echo’s populist approach has always been a big part of its appeal — a fact the Dot’s $50 price tag really drove home. Alexa users are primarily interested in finding an affordable way to make the smart assistant a part of their home, so the new Echo splits the difference on pricing, while delivering some additional hardware perks that help it stand apart from the best-selling Dot.

It also splits the difference on sizing. The company has shaved about four inches off the original Echo, bringing it down to just a hair under six inches, with a footprint roughly the size of a pint glass (albeit without the tapered sides). It’s not nearly as compact as the Dot, but you’ve got to have a little height to thing if you want to get anything out of those on-board speakers.

The top of the Echo has the same button layout as the second-gen Dot, including volume up and down and Action, which does a variety of different things, including waking the Echo, turning off times and enabling WiFi setup mode. And, perhaps, most importantly, there’s the Microphone Off button, which allows a little extra privacy. Tapping that will turn the LED ring around the perimeter a bright, unmistakable red.

When listening for a command, the ring lights up blue, as always — though, the Echo is always listening, of course, lying in wait for its wake word. Conversations are sent to Amazon’s servers in encrypted form, “including a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word,” according to a statement the company offered up to us earlier this year. But a safe rule of thumb is, if you don’t want what you’re saying sent to the cloud, turn the microphone off.

On the bottom is a small hole you push a finger through to remove the case, of which there are a half-dozen available at the moment, including three fabric colors (black, gray and off-white), two faux wood colors and a shiny silver cover. The swappable cases were a smart move for Amazon — the novelty of owning an Echo-style device has worn off slightly in recent years and many users likely want a product that mostly blends into the background.

The unit Amazon sent along came with the heather gray fabric case, which, as one coworker quickly pointed out, looks as though it’s drawn some pretty direct inspiration from Google’s Home/Pixel design language. Whatever the case, the options here are definitely better for most homes than the RadioShack-style black plastic design of the original Echo.

Sound system

In the past year, sound quality has become a much bigger priority for smart speakers. There’s the HomePod, of course, and the Google Home Max — both of which are being positioned as speakers first, with a smart assistant built in. There’s also been a recent deluge of third-party manufacturers like Sonos, Sony and Harman building their own premium systems, featuring Alexa and Google Assistant.

The new Echo is not that. The sound is definitely improved over the earlier model, but for the time being, the company seems to content to let those third parties do heavy lifting when it comes to building audio-first systems. That, after all, would mean a marked increase in sticker price, making the standard Echo prohibitively expensive for many users.

The addition of the 2.5-inch woofer and 0.6-inch tweeter (same as on the new Echo Plus) means the Echo’s not bad for a $99 speaker. It gets reasonably loud — I had it on a max volume for a bit in the office, and it was distracting but not deafening (sorry coworkers). It’s about the quality you’d expect from a cheap, portable Bluetooth speaker.

It’s good for listening to music or podcasts while washing the dishes or cleaning the apartment, but I wouldn’t want it to be my main home speaker. I’d take something like the similarly priced JBL Charge 3 for that purpose, any day of the week. The good news on that front is that, in addition to multi-room audio through other Echos, the device can be paired to another Bluetooth speaker during setup and features an auxiliary out jack on the back.

Amazon’s standard seven microphone array is back, as, of course, is its far-field tech, which allows different Echos to work in tandem, defaulting to the unit closest to the person speaking. Amazon’s got the microphone down. It was able to recognize my hushed tones from around 20 feet away. Though playing music loudly does impact its ability to hear well, cutting that range by about half in my testing.

Mad skills

Amazon has had a steady march of new skills since releasing the first Echo back in 2014. Earlier this year, the company announced that it had topped the 25,000 mark. Of course, it’s a pretty broad spectrum, as far as usefulness is concerned. Some are pretty game changing for the line. Calling is a big one, letting the device ring other Echos or smartphones. Ditto for voice recognition — Amazon was a bit late to the game on that, but the ability to distinguish speaking voices is a big deal for Echo homes with multiple residents.

Alexa is about to get a big connected home overhaul, as well, bringing new controls to the app and the addition of Routines, which lets users customize multiple features into scenes like “morning” and “evening.” Neither were actually available at the time of testing, but both will be rolling out soon, as the company looks to become an increasingly important presence in the smart home category. In fact, that’s essentially the Echo Plus’ raison d’etre, which is basically the new Echo, only with easier smart home on-boarded (and an additional $50 price tag).

Increased competition from Google, et al. has been a great driver for the line. The new Echo is pretty much exactly what it should be: it’s smaller, better looking and has improved audio, all while staying under $100. The space is only going to continue to heat up over the next several years, and Google is certainly giving Amazon a run for its money with an extremely capable system and far better mobile distribution.

But the line is still synonymous with smart speakers, and Alexa gets more and more capable with each day. It’s not as affordable as the Echo Dot/Home Mini or as flashy as the HomePod/Home Max, but the new $99 Echo is going to sell like hotcakes this holiday season.

The Google Home Mini is here to get you hooked on Google Assistant

Image: mashable/Karissa Bell

If last year’s Google Home was the speaker that proved Google Assistant is worthy Amazon competitor, the Google Home Mini is the one that will get people hooked.

The smaller Google Home has all the same smarts as its larger counterparts, but at less than half the price. It’s difficult to see how that doesn’t shake out as a win for Google.

Functionally, the $49 Google Home Mini is very similar to the original Google Home. The disc-shaped speaker is covered in cloth similar to what’s on the base of the larger model.

The Home Mini comes in just three colors: chalk, charcoal, and coral. And, unlike the bigger Google Home speakers, there’s no way to swap out the color, which would have been nice, but at less than fifty bucks it’s hard to complain. Even with the limited colors, I still very much prefer Google’s unassuming design to Amazon’s hunks of black plastic.

 Underneath the cloth are four LEDs that light up when you say “OK Google.” There are also touch controls, though they aren’t immediately obvious — tap on the right or left side of the speaker to turn the volume up or down. Initially, you could also long press in the center to activate the Assistant, though Google disabled the feature after reports that some Google Home Minis were constantly recording.

Image: mashable/karissa bell

It’s not clear if Google will add that functionality back, but it doesn’t really matter because you’re going to end up talking to the speaker much more than you will touch it. 

I was pleasantly surprised that, despite its smaller size, the Google Home Mini was not only surprisingly powerful, but that its mics were consistently able to pick up my voice even when I was far away or music was playing. In fact, as far as I could tell, its voice recognition was just as good as what’s on my original Google Home.

There are some tradeoffs, though: The Home Mini doesn’t sound as good as the $129 full-sized Google Home, and it doesn’t even come close to the booming $399 Google Home Max. But it doesn’t sound bad, and certainly not any worse than the Echo Dot

Image: mashable/karissa bell

Like the Echo Dot, you do have the option to connect the Home Mini to a nicer speaker — provided it’s Chromecast-enabled (unlike the Echo Dot, it doesn’t have an aux hookup for connecting to third-party speakers). And the speaker will also work with Chromecast-enabled TVs, which is super convenient.

Google Home critics like to point out that Google’s developer ecosystem is still pretty far behind Alexa’s skillset, which now has more than 15,000 skills. But the reality is most people probably aren’t going to use more than a handful of apps, and Google is doing a pretty good job of bringing the major players onboard. Unless you have a lot of smart home gadgets not yet supported by Google, chances are Google is more than able to handle what you need — even more so if you’re already at all entrenched in Google’s ecosystem of gadgets and services. 

And that really gets at why Google stands to do so well with the Home Mini: It’s never been easier (or cheaper) to go all in on the its Assistant.

There’s a reason, after all, that Amazon’s Echo Dot is its most popular speaker: It’s small, connects to speakers you already own, and it’s super cheap. By that measure, the Google Home Mini checks all the boxes and then some.

Google Home Mini

The Good

Google Assistant still blows Alexa out of the water Design that will actually look good on your counter

The Bad

No aux jack Limited color options

The Bottom Line

The Google Home Mini is everything that’s great about Google Home at a fraction of the cost.

Romeo Power unveils its first consumer power packs

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Romeo Power has just announced what looks to be the mobile charging device of my dreams.

Its wand-shaped “Saber,” using the company’s proprietary power management technology, is a compact little charger that seems ideal for keeping my three-year-old, busted-up MacBook running when I’m on the go.

My computer shuts down within five minutes if it’s separated from an outlet, which means I can’t reap the only benefit of my blogging existence… working from anywhere (Malibu beaches, I’m looking at you).

At least, that was the case until I saw my Romeo (power pack that is).

The company was founded by engineers and designers from SpaceX, Tesla, Samsung, Apple and Amazon, and the personal power pack they designed uses the same technology the company has raised $30 million to roll out for electric vehicles and stationary battery packs.

“Saber is like having a wall socket in your pocket,” touts Dion Isselhardt, the company’s chief design officer and the former senior director of design at Samsung’s Strategy and Innovation Center.

The charger offers 86 watt-hours of power, charges fully in two hours and can recharge most laptops two times. It can charge a tablet two-to-four-times and a phone more than 10 times, the company said.

In outlet-empty, coffee shop-rich cities like Los Angeles, where would-be scribblers would ideally like to spend hours tap-tap-tapping away on the next big screenplay, these chargers could be a blessing (for restaurants and coffee shops… not so much).

The only other battery packs I’ve seen come close are ChargeTech’s, which retail for $249 and are a little bulkier in design. Other battery packs offer a lot of the same charging capabilities, but size and the AC adapter (for Macs) set the ChargeTech and Romeo Power batteries apart (in my book).

The power pack features a Variable AC, USB-C and two USB ports for charging any device that’s less than 90 watts — anything from a drone to DSLR camera to a 15-inch 85-watt MacBook Pro.

The thing can also charge four devices at once with no other accessories required. It clocks in at a fairly hefty 2.2 pounds, but given the power it’s packing, that’s not a large price to pay for the convenience it offers.

As a bonus, the charger is FAA- and TSA-approved, dust proof and water-resistant (I’m looking closer at you, Malibu beaches).

There’s also the battery pack’s power management technology, which recognizes different devices and auto-adjusts output for rapid charging.

The device will come in blue, red, or black and retails for $299 with a pre-order price of $199.

The canaries in a coal mine


I’ve seen startups come and go over the years and I was particularly interested to see what happened to August Smart locks today. The company originally tapped Yves Behar to make a better smart lock, one that would meld with the sensitivities of a certain kind of smart home stylist with the high-concept, high-tech design of the Nest thermostat. The products, while beautiful, were unusable in most situations that you’d want a smart lock. As Matt Burns noted, there’s a reason they were selling the locks in Best Buy and not Home Depot.

Why were they unusable? Because they essentially rethought the way locks would work. Take the deadbolt, for example. The August solution was to replace the outer lock and cylinder with their product, leaving in place the inner knob and all of the deadbolt hardware. It was the ultimate facade. This solution obviously reduced the cost and complexity but also required matching your current deadbolt to the new August actuator or buying a new deadbolt and throwing away the outside cylinder. Further, you were sunk if you wanted to put this thing onto new construction. Finally, unless you added an extra keypad, it was useless for homes with children.

While we’re throwing stones, it’s also interesting to note that the company’s latest product, a smart doorbell, could not be used in old construction. The doorbell was actually a three-by-three-inch box with a camera and button on it. This would never fit in the average home where the doorbell is a half-inch by three-inch rectangle.

In other words, the ideal August customer didn’t exist or instead existed solely in the company’s promotional photographs. They got acquired primarily for their potentially lucrative Wal-Mart contract.

If you watch startups long enough you can see interesting tells. Poor products launched haphazardly? The CEOs are focused on an acquisition or are almost out of money. Red hot hype cycle with loads of interest? Headed for a correction of Biblical proportions. Celebrity investors making the news? The company is sunk. Hot Dog costumes? You probably want to talk to your broker.

Quiet, methodical releases, year-after-year? Things are probably going OK.

In other words when you look at startups of any stripe – from social media apps to fintech to anything else – look at the products. Look at what they’re saying. Look at where they’re selling. I’ve met countless Fitbit investors who still see growth in the cards when the Venn diagram of folks who have a Fitbit has already eclipsed the circle of folks who need one. I’d wager there’s an acquisition in the future of any company that exhibits that sort of behavior. That Fitbit is still standing in a field of dead fitness bands is a testament to their previous dedication to methodical releases, year-after-year. How long that can last is anyone’s guess.

I’m not here to laugh over the corpse of August. I get no pleasure in seeing good ideas die. But it’s clear that with a little careful thought and a lot of attention you can see just where and when the next SV darling will skid off of Highway 1 and into the grass. With August it was obvious. With others – Theranos, for example – it was far less so. But the signs are there, if we heed them.