If they want it, they’ll take it: Tech isn’t winning its fight against car thieves

After years of decline, car theft is up in the United States despite automaker security technology advances. Car thieves are relentless. If they want your car they’re going to get it. Professional car theft rings account for the greatest number of stolen cars, typically packing cars in container ships bound for overseas destinations where they’ll sell for much more than in the U.S.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) both track vehicle theft. According to the FBI’s 2015 Uniform Crime Report (UCR), vehicle theft increased by 3.1 percent in 2015 over 2014. The NICB 2015 Hot Spots Vehicle Theft Report shows the metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with the highest vehicle theft rates.

The UCR tallies 707,758 vehicle thefts in 2015. The average dollar loss is also increasing. According to the FBI, a motor vehicle is stolen every 44.6 seconds in the U.S.

Every 6.5 minutes in the U.S. a vehicle is stolen because the owner left the key inside.

Lojack, the company that makes the eponymous Lojack Stolen Vehicle Recovery System, created an infographic that summarizes the FBI’s 2015 stolen vehicle stats. The graphic also shows the FBI’s top 20 MSAs with the highest total auto theft numbers and the NICB’s top 10 theft rate MSAs.

So those are the numbers for 2015. But we wondered if there’s more to the story than just statistics. And what about tech? Aren’t automakers’ advanced security tech making a difference?

To address these questions we spoke with three experts. We spoke separately in phone interviews with Patrick Clancy, VP of Law Enforcement at LoJack Corp., Ivan Blackman, Manager of Vehicle Identification at NICB, and Chris McDonold, the Executive Director of the Maryland Department of State Police Vehicle Theft Prevention Council and Chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Vehicle Crimes Committee.

Not all car thefts are counted

Our experts said the FBI UCR statistics aren’t all-inclusive. In some cases stolen cars are involved in other crimes and aren’t counted. For example, the increasingly common motor vehicle fraud is recorded as fraud, not car theft. Car jackings are recorded as assault. Burglaries and home invasions where cars are also stolen don’t make the list either, but show up in the burglary stats.

McDonold emphasized the growing incidence of cars stolen during burglaries. As it gets harder for thieves to break into cars and just drive them away, the Police Chiefs’ organization hears about more residential burglaries in which the thieves take any car keys they find along with other items. You might think they were after your electronics, which they also took, but they really wanted your car. Thieves either drive the car away at the same time or come back later and take it. If you were away from home with your car, and thieves took a spare key hanging on a hook in the back hall, you might not even realize it was taken — until your car is stolen the next night.

Blackman said because reporting crimes to the FBI isn’t mandatory it’s impossible to know the total number of stolen cars. He also said the greatest source of uncounted stolen cars involve financial fraud.

If they want your car, they’ll take it

Clancy said car theft is no longer a case of reaching under the steering wheel, touching a couple of wires, and driving off. Automotive security tech means thieves either need a key, or some other way to work on the car in order to steal it.

While automakers did what law enforcement wanted them to do, making cars harder to steal, the improvement in security mostly cut out the amateurs. Amateur thieves are often foiled, but professional groups are responsible for the majority of thefts. Organized car theft rings are after the money they get from selling the cars, usually in other countries, and they will adapt new ways to steal cars.

More: BMW smart car becomes a temporary holding cell for thief who allegedly stole it

McDonold told Digital Trends that, in general, new car security is good for three to five years before thieves figure out how to defeat it. Until defeat mechanisms are available, thieves resort to other ways to get control of vehicles than directly attacking in-car security systems.

Note on a chained up Mercedes: “When we want it, we’ll come back and get it.”

For example, when stealing higher end cars, if thieves get access to a car, wherever that might happen legitimately, they look for valet keys that can unlock, start, and drive cars away. Owners often store valet keys in glove boxes or consoles and they’re unlikely to be missed. Clancy also mentioned a run on Land Rovers in the midwest, where an organized group of thieves disconnected the high-end SUV’s drive train in the driveway at night, pulled the vehicle onto a flatbed, and took it away.

Clancy told a story of a woman in the South who was determined to prevent thieves from taking her new Mercedes-Benz, which she parked in front of her condo. She bought a heavy chain and padlock. Each night she attached the chain to the front of the car and locked it. One morning she awoke to find her car turned around, with the chain and padlock intact and attached to the rear of the car. She found a note on the windshield that read, “When we want it, we’ll come back and get it.”

How thieves use tech to steal cars

Stealing codes to shut off alarms and open doors is a common car theft technique. Some cars are stolen directly from dealer lots, but more often from residences.

For example, there are electronic devices that can intercept key codes when used by car owners. A thief could spot a car he wants parked on the street, put a GPS locator device under a fender, wait for the owner to return, and then capture the code when the owner unlocks the car. The thief just waits till the car is parked again, and uses a spoofed key he made while waiting to unlock and drive the car away.

Key blanks are readily available for sale online and from key-making vending machines. Once a thief has a key code, making a new key is easy, either from a vending machine or in some cases inside the unlocked vehicle. Blackman said the easiest way to get the keycode in many cases is to look at the door lock mechanism, because the majority of manufacturers print the key code there. He also said that it takes just 20 seconds to program a key fob plugged into the vehicle’s On Board Diagnostic System (OBDS).

Keyless start systems are a particular concern, especially because many owners leave the fobs or transponders in the car, a convenience owners and for thieves alike. Sometimes, however, thieves don’t want the car, they just want what’s inside, including electronic devices for resale and personal information for identity theft.

Blackman also mentioned rental car theft. Thieves will rent a high end car for a day or two and then return it, leaving behind a concealed tracking device. While they have the car they use a key blank to make a copy of the original. A few days after returning the car, they track the car’s location, and drive it away with the copied key.

Organized car theft groups

Most car theft in the U.S. is by pros working in groups. Sometimes they steal popular cars or trucks for parts, but most often the groups can make much more money shipping the vehicles overseas via container ships.

More: A thief can hack a car security system in minutes with a laptop

Clancy told Digital Trends people are still stealing cars such as 1994 Toyota Camrys and 1996 Honda Accords, often for their parts. The types of vehicles stolen can also vary by region. In Texas, for example, the Ford F-150 is the most commonly stolen vehicle. Occasionally they see a run on Ford Superduty F250 and F350s, which Blackman suspects are being sent overseas. NICB investigates organized groups and rings internationally, and has found that groups often will have the tools and knowledge to steal a specific type of vehicle, making them both organized and specialized.

Container ships

The reason for both the rise in numbers of cars stolen and the average costs, all three experts agreed, is the demand for high end cars overseas. Many groups steal and send cars overseas via container ships, usually either re-plating vehicles with stolen license plates or re-vending them, which involves changing all the identifying numbers on the vehicles.

Ports are more concerned about the dangers of what could be coming into the U.S. than going out. So even though container sniffer technologies and container weighing can detect some containers that carry stolen cars, only a very small percent are checked.

Often the containers will be labeled as carrying household goods to pay lower import fees at the destination, as well as avoiding detection. Clancy said one group would put two cars in a container and then fill the rest of the space with bags of dog food.

Clancy also told Digital Trends the story of a recent bust involving a LoJack device in a stolen car. When law enforcement found the car, it was one of forty high end cars packed in containers, all in a lot near a container broker waiting to be shipped to Hong Kong. McDonold said it typically takes three weeks to process a car to be shipped by container. and that interval is the best chance for a recovery. If the car is shipped out, chances of recovery are minimal.

Car fraud

All three experts agreed that financial fraud involving vehicles, again often perpetrated by organized gangs, is a huge and growing factor in car theft, although it’s usually reported as fraud. Thieves will go to a dealership with stolen IDs and sometimes buy two or three high end cars or SUVs at once, not haggling price at all.

Most car theft in the U.S. is by pros working in groups.

The thieves use stolen identities to finance the vehicles, and when they leave immediately drive them to a port city to prepare for shipment out of the country. It can take finance companies up to 45 days to realize they have bad loans, and by that time the vehicles have likely already been resold on another continent. The finance companies first go after the victims of identity theft, but it doesn’t take long for all involved to realize what happened.

McDonald said increasing online vehicle sales and leasing are also subject to financial fraud by car theft gangs.

Another type of vehicle-related financial fraud is “owner give-ups.” Whether because a car needs costly repairs, gas prices have gone way up, job loss, or other financial difficulty, owners ditch or hide a car somewhere and claim it was stolen to collect the insurance payout and stop making payments. Often cars that were really abandoned by owners are found burned or buried. If a used car is found burned that hasn’t been stripped for parts, Blackman said that’s usually a good sign it was an owner give-up.

How to protect your vehicle

When we asked about the best way to protect vehicles from theft, McDonald said the only sure way is to put your vehicle inside a brick building with no windows or doors. Otherwise, they’re fair game.

He also spoke about human error, saying they still see a lot of folks leaving keys in car. McDonald said one of eight car thefts is a “freebie” because keys or fobs were left inside. He also reported that thefts with keys are up 31 percent since 2013. So McDonold’s best advice is the same you’ve heard before but still matters. Lock your car and take your keys.

More: LoJack reveals the high-tech tricks thieves use to steal connected cars

Blackman’s NICB promotes a four-layered approach to protecting your car from theft: Common sense, warning devices, immobilizing devices, and tracking devices.

Use common sense and park in well-lit spots, close all doors and windows securely, take your keys, and lock the car. Warning devices include audible alarms, steering column collars, and combo steering wheel/brake pedal locks.

Immobilizing devices such as smart keys, fuse cut-offs, kill switches, and starter, ignition, or fuel disablers all increase the likelihood thieves will move on to the next car. Finally, tracking devices such as Lojack that combine GPS and wireless technologies to allow remote vehicle monitoring can often help law enforcement find your vehicle quickly after the theft is reported.

Lojack’s Clancy said they are working with many dealerships to install Lojack systems in every vehicle on the lot. Doing so not only helps prevent dealer lot theft, but also gives the eventual owners protection.

The take-away about car theft? If thieves really want your car, they’ll take it. You can, however, take steps to lessen your vulnerability, starting with locking your car and keeping your keys and fobs with you.

Snapchat’s new marketing video doubles as a guide to the app for newbies

Why it matters to you

Snapchat has never offered much in the way of tips on how to use its app. But that’s changing now it has to explain its product to investors, meaning its opening up like never before.

Snapchat is popular but still a pain to navigate for new users — and even some of its hardcore fans don’t know it as well as they think they do.

If you’re having trouble discerning stories from geofilters, help is at hand in the form of the official product guide from Snapchat parent company Snap Inc. However, the newly released clip isn’t actually aimed at users, which is odd seeing as it provides a solid step-by-step overview to the app. Instead, the video is for potential investors Snapchat is hoping will help it raise an estimated $3 billion when it goes public next month. You can view the clip, along with its other presentational roadshow items, here.

More: Ping Pong is the new video messaging app from startup Musical.ly

The company also recently provided a handy breakdown of its various functions in its initial public offering filing. But the colourful, close to 9-minute video is even better. It’s not just a marketing gimmick either, the clip is the closest the secretive company has ever come to officially explaining its product. Until now, it kept a cool distance, leaving it up to its (predominantly) young user base to figure out all of its weird and wonderful features.

The clip takes you through seven key sections relating to the app and the features they contain, including “camera,” “making a snap,” “creative tools,” “sending a snap,” “adding friends,” “chat,” “storytelling,” and “Memories.” The video’s minimal style sees an animated hand guide the viewer through each function. Not only does the explainer help you to understand what the most important aspects of the app are, but also shows you what its icons mean, and how its touch gestures work.

Before you know it you’ll have your own Bitmoji, be chatting with friends, and sharing stories on a regular basis. Alongside the product overview, Snap has also released two other videos geared toward investors, among them a 35-minute clip that lays down its history, future goals, and internal workings.

HTC plans to exit the low-end smartphone market in 2017

Why it matters to you

HTC’s canning most, if not all, of its affordable smartphone line. If your heart’s set on an HTC phone this year, you’ll have to spend big bucks.

HTC has apparently had it with low-cost, low-margin smartphones. That’s according to company boss Chia-Lin Chang, who revealed during the company fourth-quarter earnings call that the company would focus most of its future efforts on pricier flagships like the U Ultra and U Play.

Chang described the market as “ultra-competitive,” a factor she blamed on the company’s failure to turn a profit this quarter. In the final quarter of last year, HTC took in $722 million and recorded an operating loss of $117 million, a minor improvement from Q3 2016’s loss of $133 million.

More: HTC smartphone VR headset coming by end of the year

HTC says it’s going to drop cheap phones from its 2017 lineup. In their place, it plans to release six to seven high-margin smartphones.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time the company’s pledged to refocus its manufacturing efforts on high-end devices. In 2012, the firm announced that it would only focus on “top-tier phones,” a strategy which it subsequently relaxed.

Generally speaking, it’s a well-founded approach. Take Chinese smartphone maker Huawei’s recent earnings, for example: According to analysts at the International Data Corporation (IDC), high-end phones accounted for around 57.2 percent of its smartphone shipments in the third quarter of 2016.

More: HTC wants U! Everything you need to know about the HTC U Ultra and U Play

But for HTC in particular, it’s a risky move. The Taiwanese smartphone maker will release its first 2017 flagship, the U Ultra, in Europe with a global release to follow soon after. But it has yet to secure a launch partnership with a U.S. carrier, meaning that it’ll retail at the carrier-unlocked priced of $750 and up.

And the competition won’t sit around waiting. Late last year, new estimates showed that Apple took 103.6 percent of the profits from all smartphone sales in the third quarter of 2016. By comparison, Samsung captured just .09 percent.

HTC may have better luck in other markets. During an earnings call with investors, the company announced that it will introduce a mobile VR headset by the end of 2017 “designed to work with the U Ultra.” Last year, HTC split off its virtual reality business into a separate entity and announced Vive X Accelerator, a $100 million incubator with the mission of investing resources in promising VR games and experiences. More recently, it announced a $10 billion VR Venture Capital Alliance and launched Viveport, a VR-focused storefront, on mobile devices.

LG V30: News and rumors

Why it matters to you

LG’s V-series phones are just as much of a flagship device as the G-series phones, and the rumored V30 promises to be the most powerful yet.

LG’s V-series smartphones have evolved into the company’s flagships, more so than the G-series hardware, due to interesting unique features and often stronger processors. The last model, the V20, only arrived in late 2016 so isn’t due for replacement just yet, but rumors of a so-called V30 are already starting to spread.

Here’s what we think we know about the LG V30 already.

Processing power

It’s almost certain the LG G6 will use the Snapdragon 821 processor, due to supply problems with the newer Snapdragon 835; but the situation may change for the V30, which is likely to arrive much later in the year. A rumor published on the Chinese social media site Weibo says the V30 will have the Snapdragon 835 inside, along with 6GB of RAM.

More: Everything we think we know about the LG G6

Audio performance

LG pushed the audio experience hard on the V20, which featured the world’s first Quad DAC in a smartphone, and special tuning from B&O on the international models. The V30 may also get some special treatment. The same Weibo source claiming the V30 will get the Snapdragon 835, also says an improved version of the DAC previously used in the V20 will feature in the new model.

This makes sense, as LG has announced an upgraded Quad DAC for the forthcoming LG G6 already, which may eventually also find its way into the V30. Whether it will be updated even further isn’t known at this early stage.

Secondary display

Since the V10, LG has used a second display above the main screen to provide additional information on the V-series phones. While it’s expected to remain a feature of the V30, its functions may be different. Twitter-based phone leaker @evleaks said he had seen an early render of the V30, and that the “ticker” screen would be different to the current versions. He didn’t elaborate on how, but did clarify that the secondary screen would remain, just in a potentially different capacity, rather than be removed.

Release date and availability

LG announced the V20 in September 2016, so a sequel is highly unlikely to arrive before the same time in 2017. At the moment, it’s only being rumored for the second half of 2017. LG made the decision to restrict sales of the V20 to South Korea, the U.S. and certain other international regions, but shunned the United Kingdom. It has a chance to rectify its oversight with the V30.

Nothing about the LG V30 is official yet, so treat all the information here as speculation and subject to change. We’ll continue to keep you updated with all the rumors.

So, Barbie’s a Hologram Now. Oh, and She Responds to Your Voice

Mattel introduced its first Barbie doll way back in 1959, and she’s found herself at the center of cultural controversy ever since. To her credit, she keeps adapting to the times.

Today she is actually several Barbies, a gang of dolls more diverse and less infuriating in terms of body proportions. And she’s enjoyed an enviable career path, with stints as an astronaut, a sk8erthe president and vice president of the United States, and a rapper, among other things. Now, at age 58, Barbie is a hologram. And I don’t mean one of Jem’s backup singers.

Hello Barbie Hologram is a small box containing an animated projection of Barbie that responds to voice commands. It combines motion-capture animation with Amazon Echo-style voice interactions, and it arrives in stores later this year.

So how does it work? A screen in the top of the box projects an image of Barbie onto a translucent wedge, which reflects it so she appears to float in mid-air. The toy uses a 2-D projection of a 3-D animation, which limits what you see. You can’t view Barbie in three dimensions from the side, for example, and if you peer through the box from the back, you don’t see her at all.

The wake phrase “Hello Barbie” brings the tiny sprite to life. You can ask Barbie to change her appearance, switch outfits, set an alarm, act as a nightlight, or get down with her bad self while you bump Run the Jewels 3. Can you choreograph her dance routines? Of course. Can you add things to your calendar? Yup. If you ask Barbie the weather when it’s raining, do holographic cats and dogs fall from the sky? Yes.

That web-connected mic raises the same privacy concerns as the Amazon Echo. But Mattel insists that, unlike the Echo and Google Home, Barbie doesn’t save recordings to its servers. And the holo-box uses 256-bit encryption to shuttle voice queries to the cloud in a system designed to meet Federal Trade Commission’s requirements outlined in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule. That means letting parents or guardians see all the data the system collects. Mattel expects official COPPA certification by the time the toy ships in late summer.

Mattel_NYTF_TA.jpg

PullString developed the underlying “multimedia chatbot” tech. The same folks also built the voice-control features for the cool Hello Barbie Dreamhouse. Hopefully, this holographic assistant won’t experience the same problems.  Connectivity issues plagued the mini-mansion during the holidays, and the toy greeted many kids with a mysterious “Error Code 18” message whenever they asked it to do something.

The only prototype of the Hello Barbie Hologram appears in Mattel’s booth at the American International Toy Fair in New York, but it’s merely a representation of the toy’s size, holographic display, and animation. It doesn’t have voice-control features activated, so Mattel showed a big-screen canned demo of how holo-Barbie will respond to spoken commands.

A lot of work remains to be done before Hello Barbie Hologram is ready for her closeup. No word yet on the price, but Mattel says it’ll be less than $300.

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The Asus Zenfone 3 Go could be the budget phone to beat at MWC 2017

Why it matters to you

There are a ton of budget phones out there, but they’re not all worth buying. The Asus Zenfone 3 Go is shaping up to be one that is.

The budget-friendly Asus Zenfone Go was one of the most popular devices in the Zenfone 2 lineup, and now it looks like Asus wants to replicate that success. According to recent rumors, the Zenfone 3 Go will be announced before the launch of the Zenfone 4, and it may well make an appearance at MWC 2017.

The report comes from NotebookItalia, and it suggests that the device will be relatively decent, although that will largely depend on the price point. For example, the phone will feature a 5-inch 720p display, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 processor, and 2GB of RAM. That’s not bad when you consider the MediaTek chipset the original Zenfone Go used.

More: Asus may reveal a refreshed ZenBook Flip UX300-Series 2-in-1 in late February

On top of those specs, we should also expect a 13MP rear-facing camera and a 5MP front-facing camera, which certainly isn’t a bad combination.

When it comes to design, there are a few leaked images to go off. The images show that the device will feature a similar metal build to the Asus Zenfone 3, though the new device will be a little more simplistic with a smaller camera module that’s moved to the upper left hand corner of the phone’s back, and a basic Asus logo in the middle.

While pricing for the phone is reported to sit at around $160, that obviously remains to be seen. If true, however, the phone could give the likes of the Huawei P8 Lite a run for its money.

The new phone could be useful for Asus in maintaining the Zenfone momentum it has built over the years. That’s especially true if the new device proves to be as popular as the original Zenfone Go — although only time will tell if that ends up happening.

We’ll update this article as soon as we hear more about the Asus Zenfone 3 Go.

The newest Barbie is a smart doll you can’t touch

Over her nearly 60-year life, Barbie has taken on many forms, but she’s never been a hologram.

Now, though, she is having a truly out-of-body experience, showing up in her first holographic figure, Hello Barbie Hologram. Barbie parent company Mattel unveiled the semi-translucent and chatty AI figure, which lives inside a pink plastic box, on Friday at the New York Toy Fair.

This is far from Barbie’s first brush with AI. Mattel introduced Hello Barbie artificial intelligence inside a physical Barbie doll in 2015. She was a particularly powerful digital assistant, engaging in conversations about interests, favorite foods and telling jokes. A year later, the AI showed up in Barbie’s first smart home, The Hello Barbie Dreamhouse, where, using voice commands, you could ask the house to give Barbie a ride on the elevator and customize the lights.

Unlike previous Hello Barbie AI’s, Hello Barbie Hologram is designed to be a true digital assistant and will engage on the trigger words “Hello Barbie.” The AI offers speech recognition and is designed to answer questions about the weather, news and is ready to do “anything a digital assistant can do,” a Mattel representative said.

As we approached Hello Barbie Hologram, it was quite clear that she isn’t a true hologram. What we were seeing, a Mattel exec told us was a prototype using “just an effect, there are no lasers.” I could clearly see a 4-inch tall hologram-like Barbie dancing in the box, but it looks like a projection against a diagonal piece of semi-translucent glass. The final product will also be a faked hologram without lasers. To demonstrate Hello Barbie Hologram’s capabilities, they had us shift our gaze to a giant box on display next to the little box.

Out of the darkness emerged a person-sized Barbie hologram, which used the same technology to display as the smaller prototype. While much of the interaction between the Mattel spokesperson and the holographic Barbie appeared to be scripted (at one point, the hologram didn’t even wait for the spokesperson to finish her line), it was also clear how a child might engage with their night-stand-dwelling personal assistant.

When asked “What’s the weather in Malibu today?” the holographic Barbie walked over to a window that suddenly appeared, looked out, gave us a weather report and added that it was perfect flip-flop weather.  A child can even use Hello Barbie Hologram to set reminders. When asked to do this, the hologram takes out her virtual phone and makes a note.

Hello Barbie Hologram is also just as diverse as real-life Barbie, and Mattel demonstrated how, with voice commands, you can change Barbie’s skin tone, ethnicity and body type.

They also showed how Hello Barbie Hologram could act as a sort of playmate, dancing on command and, yes, even dabbing.

Having a Wi-Fi-connected always-listening digital assistant in your child’s bedroom might be cause for concern, and Barbie is no stranger to controversy. In 2015, watchdog groups took Mattel to task for the way it was handling the audio recordings it used to interpret and answer queries. At the time, Mattel told the Washington Post they were “committed to safety and security, and Hello Barbie conforms to applicable government standards.” They also made it clear to Mashable that they expected children to turn off Hello Barbie when not in use. This time around, the company does not plan to store any of the conversations with Hello Barbie Hologram.

The Hello Barbie Hologram assistant, though is intended to stay on and listen for “Hello Barbie.” Mattel wasn’t clear on how long Hello Barbie Hologram will listen before she turns off.

“We are still exploring how long the listening window will be to provide the optimum conversational experience for kids,” the Mattel rep said, adding that Hello Barbie Hologram is not always listening.

But that leads us to wonder how the hologram can hear the trigger phrase. In addition, nothing will be sent to the cloud unless it’s preceded by “Hello Barbie,” according to Mattel. Hello Barbie Hologram relies on PullStrong for its AI, natural language processing and IoT connectivity to, according to Mattel, “create a safe, cloud-based platform for girls.” They will also use 256-bit encryption for all the data the AI does manage.

Parents, who set up Hello Barbie Hologram via an app, will have some customization control, but it’s too early to say if they will be able to set a listening schedule (for example, “Stop listening or responding after 8 p.m.”). Mattel says parents can turn the device off at any time via the power switch.

Hello Barbie Hologram will ship this fall. Pricing has yet to be set.

Ride ’em, Barbie

The Barbie Dream line is also expanding in the physical realm with a new animatronic horse naturally called Hello Dream Horse. 

Large enough for a typical Barbie doll to ride, the white stallion with a long-flowing golden mane can walk and even dance on its own to three different songs. The Dream Horse, which you get to name, features realistic horse sounds and can even fake eat plastic carrots (you hear a chewing sound). It’s also touch- and voice-sensitive (ask the horse if it’s having fun and it will nod its plastic head). 

Hello Dream Horse has attitude.

Hello Dream Horse has attitude.

Image: Lili Sams/mashable

That mane is insane.

That mane is insane.

Image: lili sams/mashable

We got a quick demonstration in which a few things became immediately evident: Dream Horse doesn’t move all that smoothly and it lacks any kind of visual sensors to keep it from galloping off a table. 

Even so, it’s probably the most active toy horse Mattel has ever created for Barbie. It also arrives this fall and will list for $99.99.

Barbie becomes a hologram version of herself


Yes, after pulling herself out of her 1950’s rut as a swimsuit model to become everything from a doctor, lawyer, computer scientist, astronaut and even the president of the United States, Barbie has now become a 3D-animated hologram that can serve up the weather on command.

As first reported in Wired, The Hello Barbie Hologram debuted at the New York Toy Fair this week. And like the original Hello Barbie doll, her laser-beamed character combines motion-capture animation with peppy, Amazon Echo-like answers to your child’s questions.

Need an alarm? Hello Barbie. Want a nightlight? Hello Barbie. Want to remind your child to brush their teeth? Hello Barbie Hologram does that, too. Just turn her on with the wake phrase “Hello Barbie” to get her to do your bidding.

In other words, the supposed symbol for girls who “can do anything” really can become anything, including a personified bot.

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Isn’t that a bit…sexist? Some may balk at the suggestion a holographic female doll bot serving up answers is somehow creating a gender imbalance. After all, you may say, it’s just a doll combined with some cool technology. But, from what we know so far, there’s no hologram Ken version and robots and artificial intelligence programs are often designated as female, particularly if they fulfill a subservient role. Helping you mind your schedule and answering questions about the weather fall neatly into that category.

It also undermines Barbie as a real person. She’s a hologram assistant.

You’d think Mattel would be mindful here of how the latest version of Barbie may come across to impressionable young girls, given its many other missteps — including and especially in its foray into tech. We’ve written before about Barbie’s foibles as a hilariously bad computer engineer who seemed to break everything she touched and didn’t know how to code.

Barbie has also been criticized for maintaining unrealistic bodily proportions and putting a heavy emphasis on her appearance throughout the years. Some might say the Hello Barbie Hologram contributes in this regard, as well, by allowing anyone to change the look of the hologram by voice command.

Mattel has tried to counter some of its past criticisms with its “Imagine the Possibilities” advertising campaign last year, which shows a bunch of little girls doing grown ups’ jobs. The final caption of the advertisement reads, “When a girl plays with Barbie, she imagines everything she can become.”

Tough to say what a Barbie hologram would help a little girl imagine becoming, but hopefully it does not further engender the stereotype that women are meant to be assistants to everyone else. Mattel may want to consider adding a Ken doll hologram or letting little girls learn how to program skills into the hologram in the future.

There’s also the question of privacy and security. Amazon Echo is always listening and, as it says in its FAQ, records a fraction of a second before you say the wake word “Alexa.” Is Barbie now doing the same, right in your child’s bedroom? Mattel insists that, unlike Amazon, Barbie is not recording and uploading conversations to its servers. It also says Hello Barbie is heavily encrypted, meeting the Federal Trade Commission’s requirements as outlined in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule.

Hello Barbie Hologram is just a prototype for now, and it’s not clear when it might be available for consumers. We also don’t know the cost of the doll yet, but it will likely fall on the pricier end, as these newer tech-focused toys tend to do. But, according to Mattel, it will likely be less than $300 when the hologram makes her debut.

Featured Image: Mattel

Cravin’ a Shavin’? We Review 4 Electric Razors for Men

Beards are all the rage right now, but for the baby-faced, facial hair just looks wrong. Photos of my misguided mid-’90s goatee back this up. But just because you might want a hairless chin doesn’t mean you want bother of shaving with a razor. Solution: The electric razor, Jacob Schick’s 1923 invention and the morning savior of many a lazy man.

I’ve used electrics exclusively for more than a decade. While the core technology hasn’t changed much in that time, the products have. With more sophisticated cutting elements, LCD readouts, and—best of all—countertop stations that charge the razor and clean it with replaceable tubs of alcohol-based solution, an electric is more convenient than ever.

I checked out four high-end electrics that comprise the bulk of the market. Here’s, ahem, the buzz.

Braun Series 9 9295cc

Braun’s foil shavers have been the luxe offering in the electric razor world for years, and the Series 9 ($325) is the company’s top of the line. This is a classic foil shaver that relies on a thin piece of perforated metal; hairs get caught in the tiny holes and lopped off by vibrating blades underneath.

Foil shavers traditionally required dry shaving (so facial hair sticks up more), but most new models like the Series 9 go both ways, thanks primarily to a pair of trimmers between the two foil elements that lift hairs lying flat against the skin. (Improved waterproofing helps too.) That said, bone-dry skin makes the shaver considerably more effective. While my results with wet shaving were just so-so, with dry skin the Series 9 gave me the closest shave in the least amount of time.

Controls are simple. Aside from the power button, a switch (that you will never ever use) lets you lock the head in place rather than letting it pivot freely. An LED indicates the battery and cleanliness level, but since you’ll stow it in the cleaning/charging station each day, it’s not much use either. As with all Brauns, the cleaning system makes a sustained ruckus.

If you want to spend a bit less, the Braun Series 7 ($230 and up) offers a less sophisticated trimmer between the foils and an LCD display instead of the LED, but provides roughly the same result if you’re willing to spend a few extra seconds. Either way, you’ll pay about $80 for replacement foils, which you’ll need every 18 months.
Rating: 8/10

Panasonic ES-LV6N-A

Panasonic takes a direct shot at Braun, offering the ES-LV6N-A for a whopping $350—with no charging/cleaning station included.

The razor looks and feels a lot like the Braun Series 9, the primary difference being that the head swivels in two dimensions instead of just back and forth. Like the Series 9, it also features a switch to lock the head position, and a small display indicating battery and cleanliness status.

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Overall, I saw outstanding results, roughly on par with the Braun. The added swivel didn’t make much of a difference; in fact, I found the oversized shave head a little hard to maneuver in tight spots. As with the Braun, this razor tends to be considerably easier to use when shaving dry. On the plus side, the Panasonic features the best pop-up trimmer of the razors I reviewed.

While it’s a perfectly capable shaver, the lack of a charging/cleaning station is a real buzzkill. To clean the Panasonic, you put soap and water on the shave head, run it for a while, then disassemble the thing to rinse and dry. Charging means plugging it into a dangling cord, all of which clutters your bathroom counter and adds considerable time to your morning ablutions. For $350, Panasonic should provide a butler to take care of that stuff.
Rating: 7/10

Philips Norelco Shaver S9721

Today, Philips Norelco is the primary maker of rotary shavers, which include three blade-studded wheels that spin to lop off stubble. It’s been years since I used a rotary, and I was surprised to find that the technology works much better than I remembered (or expected). While shaving with the Norelco S9721 ($250) did require added time and effort, the results were on par with the Braun.

The razor offers three “comfort settings” that primarily dictate how fast the blades spin. However, I couldn’t get much going with anything other than the fastest setting. Use can use this razor wet or dry, and while the wet method is significantly messier, I found it easier to get a smooth motion going—instructions dictate swirling the Norelco around your face in a series of small circles—on moist skin. The bad news: After several days of use, I noticed significant razor burn on my neck.

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The Norelco includes all the, er, trimmings, including a charging/cleaning station, clipper, and carrying case. Unfortunately, the clipper is a separate attachment, requiring you to yank off the shaver head to use it, further slowing you down. I found the cleaning system comparatively quiet (though for some reason it beeps incessantly), but the cleaning cycle takes over four hours, and there’s no readout to indicate how dirty the blades are. Blades last about 12 months and run $40.

Drawbacks aside, rotaries may work better than a foil for some. Sadly, there’s probably no good way to find out other than to give one a try.
Rating: 6/10

Remington SmartEdge XF8700

Remington makes a wide variety of shavers with foil and rotary designs, all of them targeted at the budget shopper. At $130, the XF8700, a wet/dry shaver, is the most expensive model, with replacement heads costing just $30. While it’s ostensibly a hybrid of foil and rotary tech, in truth the shaver is essentially an entry-level foil model.

As you might expect, you don’t get many frills. There’s no charging or cleaning station, though Remington includes a chintzy plastic stand, which is more than Panasonic offers. The shaving head swivels in one dimension, but it’s not enough to make any real difference, and working with the XF8700 requires a lot of heavy maneuvering.

Wet or dry, the shaver just didn’t get as close as any of the competitors, and it’s louder than the others, too. Ultimately, it’s something you might consider for a kid who must trim his youth-stache once a week. For serious work most men probably would prefer an upgrade.
Rating:5/10

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The Asus Zenfone 3 Go was just leaked online — and it doesn’t look bad

Why it matters to you

There are a ton of budget phones out there, but they’re not all worth buying. The Asus Zenfone 3 Go is shaping up to be one that is.

The budget-friendly Asus Zenfone Go was one of the most popular devices in the Zenfone 2 lineup, and now it looks like Asus wants to replicate that success. According to recent rumors, the Zenfone 3 Go will be announced before the launch of the Zenfone 4, and it may well make an appearance at MWC 2017.

The report comes from NotebookItalia, and it suggests that the device will be relatively decent, although that will largely depend on the price point. For example, the phone will feature a 5-inch 720p display, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 processor, and 2GB of RAM. That’s not bad when you consider the MediaTek chipset the original Zenfone Go used.

More: Asus may reveal a refreshed ZenBook Flip UX300-Series 2-in-1 in late February

On top of those specs, we should also expect a 13MP rear-facing camera and a 5MP front-facing camera, which certainly isn’t a bad combination.

When it comes to design, there are a few leaked images to go off. The images show that the device will feature a similar metal build to the Asus Zenfone 3, though the new device will be a little more simplistic with a smaller camera module that’s moved to the upper left hand corner of the phone’s back, and a basic Asus logo in the middle.

While pricing for the phone is reported to sit at around $160, that obviously remains to be seen. If true, however, the phone could give the likes of the Huawei P8 Lite a run for its money.

The new phone could be useful for Asus in maintaining the Zenfone momentum it has built over the years. That’s especially true if the new device proves to be as popular as the original Zenfone Go — although only time will tell if that ends up happening.

We’ll update this article as soon as we hear more about the Asus Zenfone 3 Go.