All posts in “Technology”

Sales of PCs just grew for the first time in six years

Don’t look now, but the PC might not be dead. According to Gartner, collector of marketshare and industry metrics, worldwide shipments of personal computers just experienced the first year-over-year growth since 2012. Shipments totaled 62.1 million units, which is a 1.4 percent increase from the same time period in 2017. The report states “experienced some growth compared with a year ago” but goes on to caution declaring the PC industry as in recovery just yet.

The top five PC vendors all experienced growth with Lenovo seeing the largest gains of 10.5% — though that could be from Lenovo completing a joint venture with Fujitsu. HP grew 6.1%, Dell 9.5%, Apple 3% and Acer 3.1%. All good signs for an industry long thought stagnate. This report excludes Chromebooks from its data. PC vendors experienced growth without the help of Chromebooks, which are the latest challenger to the notebook computer.

Gartner points to the business market as the source of the increased demand. The consumer market, it states, is still decreasing as consumers increasing use mobile devices. Yet growth in the business sector will not last, it says.

“In the business segment, PC momentum will weaken in two years when the replacement peak for Windows 10 passes.” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner said in the report. “PC vendors should look for ways to maintain growth in the business market as the Windows 10 upgrade cycle tails off.”

Consumers will likely continue, for the most part, to keep a computer around but since the web is the new desktop, the upgrade cycle for a causal user will keep getting longer. As long as a home has a computer that can run Chrome, that’s likely good enough for most people.

Researchers find that filters don’t prevent porn

In a paper entitled Internet Filtering and Adolescent Exposure to Online Sexual Material, Oxford Internet Institute researchers Victoria Nash and Andrew Przybylski found that Internet filters rarely work to keep adolescents away from online porn.

“It’s important to consider the efficacy of Internet filtering,” said Dr, Nash. “Internet filtering tools are expensive to develop and maintain, and can easily ‘underblock’ due to the constant development of new ways of sharing content. Additionally, there are concerns about human rights violations – filtering can lead to ‘overblocking’, where young people are not able to access legitimate health and relationship information.”

This research follows the controversial news that the UK government was exploring a country-wide porn filter, a product that will most likely fail. The UK would join countries around the world who filter the public Internet for religious or political reasons.

The bottom line? Filters are expensive and they don’t work.

Given these substantial costs and limitations, it is noteworthy that there is little consistent evidence that filtering is effective at shielding young people from online sexual material. A pair of studies reporting on data collected in 2005, before the rise of smartphones and tablets, provides tentative evidence that Internet filtering might reduce the relative risk of young people countering sexual material. A more recent study, analyzing data collected a decade after these papers, provided strong evidence that caregivers’ use of Internet filtering technologies did not reduce children’s exposure to a range of aversive online experiences including, but not limited to, encountering sexual content that made them feel uncomfortable.21 Given studies on this topic are few in number and the findings are decidedly mixed, the evidence base supporting the widespread use of Internet filtering is currently weak.

The researchers “found that Internet filtering tools are ineffective and in most cases [and] were an insignificant factor in whether young people had seen explicit sexual content.”

The study’s most interesting finding was that between 17 and 77 households “would need to use Internet filtering tools in order to prevent a single young person from accessing sexual content” and even then a filter “showed no statistically or practically significant protective effects.”

The study looked at 9,352 male and 9,357 female subjects from the EU and the UK and found that almost 50 percent of the subjects had some sort of Internet filter at home. Regardless of the filters installed subjects still saw approximately the same amount of porn.

“Many caregivers and policy makers consider Internet filters a useful technology for keeping young people safe online. Although this position might make intuitive sense, there is little empirical evidence that Internet filters provide an effective means to limit children’s and adolescents’ exposure to online sexual material. There are nontrivial economic, informational, and human rights costs associated with filtering that need to be balanced against any observed benefits,” wrote the researchers. “Given this, it is critical to know possible benefits can be balanced against their costs. Our studies were conducted to test this proposition, and our findings indicated that filtering does not play a practically significant protective role.”

Given the popularity – and lucrative nature – of filtering software this news should encourage parents and caregivers to look more closely and how and why they are filtering their home Internet. Ultimately, they might find, supervision is more important than software.

You can now stream to your Sonos devices via AirPlay 2

Newer Sonos devices and “rooms” now appear as AirPlay 2-compatible devices, allowing you to stream audio to them via Apple devices. The solution is a long time coming for Sonos which promised AirPlay 2 support in October.

You can stream to Sonos One, Sonos Beam, Playbase, and Play:5 speakers and ask Siri to play music on various speakers (“Hey Siri, play some hip-hop in the kitchen.”) The feature should roll out to current speakers this month.

I tried a beta version and it worked as advertised. A set of speakers including a Beam and a Sub in my family room showed up as a single speaker and a Sonos One in the kitchen showed up as another. I was able to stream music and podcasts to either one.

Given the ease with which you can now stream to nearly every device from every device it’s clear that whole-home audio is progressing rapidly. As we noted before Sonos is facing tough competition but little tricks like this one help it stay in the race.

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 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 fifteen 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.

Netflix tests new price increase strategy for ‘Ultra’ subscription plan

The tests could spell out another new pricing model change for all Netflix users
The tests could spell out another new pricing model change for all Netflix users

Image: Guillaume Payen/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Netflix price changes are always controversial. But luckily, it looks like the streaming company’s latest strategy for getting more money out of users won’t affect most of us (for now).

The streaming giant confirmed to CNET that it has been testing out a new tier for its pricing models for select users in Europe: a €16.99 per month “Ultra” subscription plan, which would provide exclusive access to HDR (high dynamic range) content.

“We continuously test new things at Netflix and these tests typically vary in length of time,” Netflix spokeswoman Smita Saran told CNET. “In this case, we are testing slightly different price points and features to better understand how consumers value Netflix.”

The pricing tiers previously offered by Netflix focused on allowing users to stream on multiple screens at once. The $7.99 Basic plan allows streaming on only one screen, the $10.99 Standard allows two, and the $13.99 Premium offers four.

The current subscription plans and their features in the U.S.

The current subscription plans and their features in the U.S.

Right now, there are reports of a few different versions of the new pricing model. One would offer the Ultra without affecting the already established plans. But Phonearena.com and Cordcutting.com are seeing some promotional materials that reduce the number of screens for Premium from four to two, and Standard to only one screen.

Netflix’s statement was clear in stating that these Ultra pricing tests are just that — a test, instead of a permanent model for all users. “Not all Netflix subscribers will see the test and the company may not ever offer the specific price points or features being tested,” Saran said.

The variations in the test pricing models suggests that Netflix is right now trying gauge how valuable the HDR feature is to current users.

Italian promotional material for new 'Ultra' price tier reduces features for other subscription plans

Italian promotional material for new ‘Ultra’ price tier reduces features for other subscription plans

But you might still be wondering what the HDR feature offered in Ultra even means.

While still a relatively new and pricey improvement to TV image quality, HDR can be seen as to the difference between standard and high definition. And like the evolution of HD, many are predicting HDR will one day inevitably become as ubiquitous as HD.

Right now, though, HDR is mostly seen as a costly and inessential new feature reserved for those who can afford to become early adopters. As Endgadet proposes, this marks a shift in Netflix’s strategy for getting more money out of its existing 125 million existing users. Rather than just charge everyone a little more, it appears to instead be targeting affluent users for this extra feature.

But then again, this could set a precedent for a future where HDR is considered the standard image quality for all TVs.

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