All posts in “Consumer Tech”

Facebook will launch two new smart speakers in July, claims report

Facebook is taking on the smart speaker competition from Amazon, Google, and Apple.
Facebook is taking on the smart speaker competition from Amazon, Google, and Apple.

Image: David Becker/Getty Images

Facebook’s foray into hardware may actually be happening. Its new smart speakers will be available starting in July, according to a Digitimes report published Wednesday.

Portal, the Facebook-connected video chat device will reportedly have two models announced at the social media company’s developer conference in May. The devices, under the code names Fiona and Aloha, will then be available to order in July, according to a report from Digitimes based on leaks from supply chain sources outfitting the devices.

The speakers will have 15-inch touchscreens, but one of the models will be higher quality — something like a Google Home and Google Home Max. The main device, Portal, will include facial recognition and voice-controlled technology.

The devices won’t just be for video chatting and social media — Facebook has music licensing contracts with Sony and Universal, according to the Digitimes story. 

Portal was first leaked last year and more details in January revealed the product as an Amazon Echo Show competitor. 

The first Facebook-backed hardware comes out of the company’s Building 8 R&D center. Facebook is taking on the big players like Google, Amazon, and Apple with its smart speaker. Better hope first time’s the charm.

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Download this: Like, the music video app that lets you create ‘music magic’

There’s a new music video app taking over the App Store.

It’s called Like, and it combines videos with augmented reality effects, to create what the app’s creators call “music magic.”

On its surface, the app is a lot like or Dubsmash or number of other social music video apps. Users pick a song — the app features popular songs you can use as soundtracks for your creations — and record videos that can be shared within the app or elsewhere on social media.

What makes Like different than a lot of other apps is that it’s loaded with special effects you can use to transform your videos. There are Snapchat like face filters and voice changing effects, but there is also an impressive array of augmented reality effects.

Image: LIKE

The app’s “4D Magic” effects lets you transform the video for your background into something totally new. You can add simple animations — like bubbles or twinkling stars — or big explosions an exact moment in your video. 

Or you can change your background — so your kitchen suddenly becomes the surface of the moon — face swap, and add other “magic effects.”

The app’s combination of a library of popular music, special effects, and easy to use interface has already proved to be a hit. The app recently reached the App Store’s top 10, after spending several weeks as one of the top photo and video apps.

WATCH: This ridiculous game is for all the foodies out there 1223 445c%2fthumb%2f00001

5 things to know about 5G

Get ready to hear a lot more about 5G.

Slowly but surely, we’re moving closer and closer to the super-connected, ultra-fast, 5G world tech companies have been promising us for years. 

Here’s what you need to know about the state of 5G right now.

1. It’s really, really fast

Okay, it sounds obvious, but it’s important to understand just how much faster 5G is compared to current 4G LTE speeds. 5G will not only be many, many times faster than your existing LTE connection, it will be significantly faster than the broadband connection you have at home. 

Most of us have never experienced anything close to speeds that fast

To put that in perspective, the fastest 4G download speeds in the U.S. top out at an average of 19.42 Mbps, according to OpenSignal. 5G, by comparison, promises gigabit speeds.

Qualcomm’s first 5G modem, the Snapdragon X50, supports speeds up to 5 gigabits per second. That’s more than 257 times faster than the average speed of the fastest LTE network in the United States.  

Most of us have never experienced anything close to speeds that fast—even Google Fiber tops out at 1 Gbps. And we’re only talking about the first generation of 5G modems. Future chips will likely be even faster.

2. But … it’s not just about speed 

It’s not all about speed though. Yes, 5G networks will bring blazing fast data connections, but they also enable much more than that.

5G networks have a much higher capacity

Part of the appeal of 5G is that it also brings much higher capacity to mobile networks, meaning that networks will be able to support many more data connections than what was previously possible. Have you ever been to a large event where your data connection slowed down or stopped working? That’s because 4G networks can only support so many devices before being overloaded. 

But 5G networks have a much higher capacity. They’re required to be able to support up to a million devices per square kilometer, according to the International Telecommunications Union’s standards.

In addition, 5G is a huge upgrade over 4G when it comes to latency, or the amount of time it takes for data to be transmitted. Because 5G networks support extremely low-latency connections, devices will be enable to communicate much faster than previously possible. 

Which brings us to…

3. 5G isn’t just for phones

Put all this together and you begin to understand why 5G is such a big deal — and not just for the smartphone industry. It has huge implications for just about every connected device.

The technology will be essential for self-driving cars, which will need to be able to communicate with the world around them as quickly as possible. Lower latency and higher capacity means that cars will actually be able to communicate with their surrounding environment fast enough to enable them to actually be fully autonomous. 

Consumer tech like wearables, virtual reality headsets, PCs, and smart home devices will all dramatically improve as well, thanks to 5G. Even day-to-day tasks like checking social media or initiating a video call could drastically change. 

4. It won’t be cheap

The downside of all this, at least initially, will be all that extra speed is likely to come at a higher cost. Sprint’s CEO said just last week he expects to jack up the price of unlimited data plans by as much as $20 to $30 for 5G. 

Other carriers haven’t commented on specific pricing yet, but, as others have pointed out, data costs have historically climbed as network speeds increase and there’s little reason to think that trend won’t continue for the foreseeable future.

It’s not all bad news, though. Companies like Qualcomm say they’re optimistic data prices will come down in the long run due to the sheer number of new devices that will be coming online once 5G starts to roll out. But it’s impossible to say how long that transition could take

5. We’re not quite there yet 

Though we’ve seen a lot of positive progress just in the last year, we still have a long way to go before 5G is anywhere near as pervasive as 4G is right now. Carriers and hardware companies are only just beginning to make commitments for 2019.

But most in the industry agree that 2020 is the earliest 5G will even begin to touch most consumers. And even then, early 5G networks could come with their fair share of growing pains — like inconsistent coverage or negative effects on battery life.

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Siri on HomePod is a master at trolling

We all know Siri. Most probably remember it as the digital assistant on their iPhone whom they once asked about the weather and then never talked to again. Others might know it as the colorful wavy lines that appear on the bottom of your iPhone screen when you accidentally press the home button too long. A few might even think of it as a valuable virtual companion.

But I recently got to know anther side to Siri: a DJ with a master’s degree in trolling.

Here’s what happened: Fresh from its unboxing, the Apple HomePod was sitting in the middle of the Mashable studio, the centerpiece of an impromptu listening session. Senior Tech Correspondent Ray Wong, Video Producer Michelle Yan, and I were sitting around Apple’s new smart speaker, each taking turns at commanding Siri to play songs, adjust the volume, and other actions.

On one of the times it came around to me, I had a wisp of childhood nostalgia and hit Siri with what I thought was an easy one.

“Hey Siri, play the theme from Spider-Man.”

Now, I realize there are many Spider-Man movies and TV shows, and that asking for the Spider-Man theme, with no other guidelines, might be confusing to a computer, even if it is a glorified one like a HomePod. Still, I would expect that from even a cursory analysis of which Spider-Man theme people play the most often, it would have to be the now-iconic theme from the classic ’60s cartoon. Indeed, anyone with even a tiny level of cultural knowledge should know it’s the only Spider-Man theme music that everyone knows. It should be the default.

But instead of the familiar theme song, Siri announced it would play a version of the song by some group called the Sound of Monday. I could only get about 12 seconds into the cover’s showy horns and obnoxious-sounding lead singer before I gave the order: “Hey Siri, never play that song again.”

Siri understood loud and clear, or at least she seemed to, telling me she would save the preference.

With that song essentially blocked, I tried again, “Hey Siri, play the theme from Spider-Man.”

And here’s where things went south. Siri, seemingly with no memory of our exchange just seconds earlier, went right into The Sound of Monday cover — again. 

Annoyed, I said, “Hey Siri, I just told you to never play this song again.”

“OK, turning Repeat on,” she replied, taking her obliviousness to a new level of aggravation, leaving me gape-mouthed and Ray LOL-ing. Ray and I repeated the whole experience (you can see part of the exchange in the video below) to make sure it wasn’t just a one-off. 0166 9c22%2fthumb%2f00001

To be fair to Siri and the HomePod, the actual theme to the ’60s Spider-Man TV series doesn’t appear to be in Apple Music. You can find it on Spotify and Amazon Music, but it’s buried in compilations of TV show themes.

So I’ll give Apple’s digital assistant a pass on not finding the right song, even if it’s one of the most well-known songs in the world. But playing a song I just said never to play without so much as an “Are you sure?” (which she’s more than capable of asking — she hits you with the question every time you want to turn the volume up to 100%). And then turning on Repeat when I admonish her for it?

Now you’re just trolling, Apple. d595 dc8d%2fthumb%2f00001

Apple HomePod first impressions: Great sound is a good start

OK, yes, the HomePod sounds great. After spending a good chunk of the afternoon with Apple’s new Siri-controlled speaker, listening to tunes in the company’s tiny Tribeca apartment meeting space, I’m more convinced than ever that Apple has built an aural triumph in its initial entry to the “smart speaker” space.

What I’m less convinced of, however, is whether customers will care. The success of the Echo Dot — Amazon’s puck-shaped smart speaker that definitely de-emphasizes the second word of that description — tells me that anyone who’s been won over by the category mostly just wants to get the power of voice command in more places. And audio? A glorified intercom will do. Or, hey, just connect your own speakers.

By contrast, Apple approached speakers in typical fashion: It controls the experience from end to end. Apple designed to the HomePod (which costs $349 and goes on sale Feb. 9) from top to bottom, and it made audio a top priority. Close to the bottom of the squat device, beneath the space gray or white exterior, there are seven tweeters, all pointing inward and down, so their sound is directed out of the bottom of the device in such a way that it reaches all corners of a room with equal clarity.

Audio first

On top is a four-inch woofer that Apple says is capable of 22 millimeters of excursion (peak to peak). That means the HomePod can move some serious air, playing louder and clearer than you’d expect the 7-inch-tall speaker to be able to. The HomePod looks like a chunky monkey in pics, but in person it’s actually pretty cute, looking like a the Mac Pro’s pretty, younger sibling.

The guts of the HomePod

The guts of the HomePod

Image: Apple

Did I mention it sounds great, too? Because it really does: With song after song — from the snare drums of Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side” to the rat-tat-tat voices of “My Shot” from Hamilton to the of complex guitar of the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” the HomePod made them all sound visceral and suitably warm, whether the volume as loud or soft. Apple’s diminutive speaker even made the ubiquitous Disney mega-hit “Let It Go” from Frozen sound fresh, with impressively crisp piano notes and perfect vocals.

Since a smart speaker typically stands alone, it needs to be able to produce audio that sounds good throughout a room. The HomePod is able to scan your room and adjust sound to match the acoustics, and it showed: I was able to enjoy the music it produced wherever I stood in Apple’s demo room, an austere living space with a few bits of choice furniture. Even when I wandered behind a piece of greenery, the acoustics weren’t discernibly changed.

Apparently, even if you pick up and move the HomePod, it’s equipped with an accelerometer, so it’ll know to re-scan the room after you put it down. Smart.

You can pair two HomePods to create a stereo pair. Scratch that: You will, at some point in the future, after Apple updates the software, be able to pair two HomePods as a stereo pair. Apple previewed this ability for me, and the two HomePods filled a huge room with very clear sound with impressive volume. The bass lacked the thump of dedicated subwoofer, but had everything else.

As for how the HomePod’s sound compares with other smart speakers, Apple set up a demo space to match it against the Sonos One, Google Home Max, and Amazon Echo 2, playing the same songs, one at a time. Of course, the HomePod came out on top, though Google and Sonos made it a much closer fight than you might think for an Apple demo.

Siri’s new home

All this emphasis on sound gives you a good sense of what Apple’s line of thinking with HomePod: Music is job one. Siri is definitely a big part of HomePod, but it’s mostly there to facilitate your music experience, able to respond to granular commands about songs, playlists, and the like, as well as natural ones like, “Siri, turn it up.” Siri can also tell you all kinds of things about the song you’re playing: when it came out, who’s playing drums, the band’s history, and more.

The big catch, music-wise, is that the only music service it natively supports is Apple Music. Although you can play other services via AirPlay, you won’t get the granular voice control or extra information on any of the tracks. (My colleague Raymond Wong has lots to say about this.)

The HomePod comes in space gray and white.

The HomePod comes in space gray and white.

Image: Lance Ulanoff/Mashable

Over the last couple of years, Apple has really nailed down the right way to set up new gadgets: Like AirPods, the HomePod uses proximity and wireless tech automatically kick off setup with new devices, and all the user has to do is tap some dialog boxes on an iPhone.

One of those boxes is to approve personalization with the HomePod. What this does is ensure you can use certain Apple services — chiefly Messages, Calendar, and Reminders — with the HomePod. However, if your iPhone leaves the local Wi-Fi network (say, if you left for work), those personalizations would turn themselves off, reactivating when you return. This is smart: My family shouldn’t need to have to endure the minutuae of my life when I’m not there.

One thing personalization doesn’t do, however, is turn on any way for the HomePod to discern individual voices. Unlike the iPhone, where you can set up Siri to respond only to your voice, the HomePod responds to anyone and everyone within earshot (as I discovered by asking Apple reps about hypothetical Siri commands and hearing various HomePods around the apartment respond to my queries).

Since the lack of voiceprint on Amazon Echo devices feels like an oversight, I’m a little surprised Apple didn’t see it as a way to differentiate, though I admit it could complicate the setup process.

The HomePod's colored circle on top indicates Siri is listening to a command.

The HomePod’s colored circle on top indicates Siri is listening to a command.

Image: Lance Ulanoff/Mashable

The HomePod works with Apple HomeKit, of course, though the only thing it really adds is voice functionality. That’s no small thing, but the Home app already lets you integrate smart home devices into a central hub as well as set up routines where you can do multiple things — like turn on a coffee maker, raise the blinds, and turn up the thermostat — with a single “Hey Siri” command. Now you can do that with HomePod

Probably my favorite touch was the Siri light on top. Whenever you speak the wake-up command, “Hey, Siri,” a circular light appears, morphing and twisting in all the colors of the rainbow. At setup, however, the light is simply white, only becoming infused with color once you turn on Siri (you have the option not to if you just want to use the HomePod as a “dumb” AirPlay speaker). I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, but the closest visual analogy I could think of is the M5 computer from Star Trek:

Another reason you might not want to turn on Siri is the fear it’s always listening. That would be misguided, though: Apple is adamant that, although the speaker is always listening for a wake-up phrase, no audio is actually recorded until it hears the phrase. And even then, any commands that are processed in the cloud are encrypted, Apple says. The company has also talked about its use of differential privacy to ensure any data it uses to improve its services can’t traced back to individual users.

In my short time with the HomePod, I came away impressed with its acoustic power and precision. I liked the design more than I thought I would, too. But in the world of smart speakers — which is where Apple is now competing, despite its desire to make the conversation all about music — those factors are secondary to the simple question, “How much can this thing do for me?”

The HomePod has only just begun checking things off that list. If Apple thinks this is anything more than a good start, it has another thing coming.

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