All posts in “Mashtalk”

How cheap Fire TV devices power Amazon’s streaming war

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

If you did some online shopping this holiday season, chances are you bought something from Amazon. And if you did, you certainly saw a splash ad for the company’s own devices, including one for the Fire TV Stick, which was slashed from the regular $39.99 to just $24.99.

I know I did. And when I saw the ad for the 17th or 18th time, even though I wasn’t planning to buy the Stick (I already had a first-gen device, which lacks Alexa integration), I found myself clicking “Add to Cart.”

I wasn’t the only one. Amazon says its customers bought 2.7x times as many Fire TV Sticks over the Black Friday shopping period than it did over the same period last year. It also claimed to have sold “millions” of Alexa-compatible devices.

That’s impressive. It also might make you wonder: How can any other purveyor of video streaming devices compete? Apple didn’t help itself when it decided to offer its Apple TV 4K at a prohibitive price point, starting at $179. To be fair, the Apple TV 4K more directly competes with the new Fire TV box, but the price difference is still eye-popping — you can buy a Fire TV today for just $54.99. Even if you look to streaming mainstay Roku, it’s 4K Ultra streaming box sells for $89.99.

Beware what you buy, though, since it might not be compatible with the services you want. Google made that abundantly clear recently by restricting YouTube from Amazon devices, and Amazon famously doesn’t make its streaming apps Google Cast-compatible, meaning they don’t work on Google Chromecast. It doesn’t even offer any Chromecast or Apple TV in its store… or at least it didn’t until this week.

Will things get better among streaming competitors? How does Amazon get away with selling its devices so cheap? And what are the guiding principles for its Fire TV line? Scott Henson, Amazon’s director of product management for Fire TV, swings by the MashTalk podcast to give some insights into Amazon’s streaming-box plans, as well as some thoughts on why how we’re watching is almost as important as what we’re watching. He also tackles the question: Will we ever see ads on Amazon video?

You can subscribe to MashTalk on iTunes or Google Play, and we’d appreciate it if you could leave a review. Feel free to hit us with questions and comments by tweeting to @mashtalk or attaching the #MashTalk hashtag. We welcome all feedback.

(Note: This podcast was recorded before Amazon announced it would accept Google Chromecast and Apple TV back into its online store.)

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Why it’s hard to get an iPhone on a budget wireless carrier

Image: Haley Hamblin/Mashable

Got a smartphone? Then you must also have a wireless plan, and if you live in the U.S., chances are it’s with one of the big four — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint.

However, there are a bunch of other carriers you may have seen around, carriers with names like Cricket, Jolt, metroPCS, and Virgin. These are MVNOs, or mobile virtual network operators, and they exist by leasing spectrum from the major carriers. They’re also often a better deal, thanks to selectively targeting demographics and relying heavily on Wi-Fi to support the network.

One of those MVNOs is Republic Wireless. Founded in 2010, it made a name for itself by putting Wi-Fi calling on the map. Thanks to a Wi-Fi-centered strategy, Republic was able to offer incredibly cheap deals, which had the potential to cut big money off a wireless bill — a Mashable editor actually saved over $150 every month by switching. The big catch: The number of phones that actually worked on Republic was very limited. Notably, it didn’t — and still doesn’t — offer the iPhone.

After quietly expanding the number of phones that are compatible with its network, Republic Wireless is making noise again. It’s just announced two new hardware products that will debut in early 2018: a phone with no screen that looks more like a panic button, and its own smart speaker.

On this week’s MashTalk, Republic Wireless co-founder and CEO Chris Chuang explained who the products are for: families. The screenless phone, called Relay, functions as both a kid tracker and a way to communicate directly with them. The single button directly calls the parent, and it’s equipped with GPS so the parent can check the kid’s location anytime. The device also provides access to Google Assistant, so the kid can ask questions and get answers without bothering mom or dad (and yes there are parental controls for what information the Assistant can surface).

The smart speaker is called Anywhere HQ, and it’s also equipped with Google Assistant. It looks like any other wireless speaker, but if you pick it up off its (heavy) charging cradle and look at the bottom you’ll see all the buttons for a cordless phone. The big difference is that it’s a phone that works with your smartphone’s phone number, and it also works over the 4G LTE network — so you can take it anywhere.

If this all sounds great to you, but you’re still not psyched to jump to a carrier without the iPhone, Chuang has some good news for you: On the podcast he reveals Republic Wireless will offer an iPhone in 2018. He just didn’t say which one.

You can subscribe to MashTalk on iTunes or Google Play, and we’d appreciate it if you could leave a review. Feel free to hit us with questions and comments by tweeting to @mashtalk or attaching the #MashTalk hashtag. We welcome all feedback.

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Here are all the reasons you should be creeped out by Amazon Key

Image: Haley Hamblin/Mashable

Amazon has built up a lot of trust over the years as it’s evolved from digital storefront to ecommerce empire. Now it’s testing the limits of that trust with Amazon Key.

It’s a simple enough concept, and it really solves a problem: The main thing Amazon does is deliver packages to your door, but there’s always the question of what happens when you’re not home. In many cases, that package may find a different home if it doesn’t get through your door right away.

Amazon Key, which includes a smart lock and security camera, will let the delivery person in your front door and let you keep an eye on them, from wherever you are. In cities where lots of people live in apartments, the idea has merit.

It also has a lot of connotations Amazon would like to avoid. The company is already a presence in many households through its Echo devices and Alexa voice assistant, and Amazon Key feels like a bridge too far. It also speaks to just how much we’re willing to allow tech companies encroach into our lives, including in places where we’d never trust the government to intrude.

In this week’s MashTalk podcast, the Mashable team unpacks what Amazon Key means for the company and tech in general, and answers the question: Is it worth the tradeoff? We also discuss the company’s now-bloated line of Echo devices. Is this really fragmentation, and even if it is, does it matter for a voice-powered device like the Echo?

Finally, we reveal the gadget you should definitely get this holiday season. Surprise — it’s from Amazon.

You can subscribe to MashTalk on iTunes or Google Play, and we’d appreciate it if you could leave a review. Feel free to hit us with questions and comments by tweeting to @mashtalk or attaching the #MashTalk hashtag. We welcome all feedback.

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Google’s secret hardware ingredient is AI

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

What does Google know about hardware that no one else does?

If you said software, you’re almost right. Google likes to think its secret sauce is artificial intelligence, which manifests in its consumer products as the Google Assistant. The Assistant was front and center during the company’s big hardware event earlier this month.

From the new Pixel 2 phones to the Home Mini and Home Max smart speakers to the insanely powerful Pixelbook laptop, Google pointed to its command, “OK, Google” again and again as a key way to interact with its devices and get information.

Nowhere was the power of AI more clear than in the Pixel Buds earphones, a set of wireless headphones that can translate spoken language on the fly. AI is also the big selling point of Clips, a camera that Google touts as a kind of intelligent life logger: You set it down on the a shelf or a floor, and it will smartly capture only the moments that matter to you.

Are all these smarts compelling or creepy? And even if it’s the former, is having a smart AI enough for Google to actually move these products on store shelves? And is any of this stuff something you should think about buying?

Those are the questions Mashable‘s Tech Team tackles in the latest MashTalk. Tech Reporter Karissa Bell, who got to try out Google’s new suite of products, joins the podcast alongside Tech Correspondent Raymond Wong and Chief Correspondent Lance Ulanoff.

You can subscribe to MashTalk on iTunes or Google Play, and we’d appreciate it if you could leave a review. Feel free to hit us with questions and comments by tweeting to @mashtalk or attaching the #MashTalk hashtag. We welcome all feedback.

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What Joel Osteen learned about social media from Hurricane Harvey

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Thank heaven for social media.

That sentiment was definitely on the minds of many people caught in the path of Hurricane Harvey, which is shaping up to be one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. It dumped 24.5 trillion gallons of water on Texas — enough to cover the entire state of Arizona in a foot of water. More than 32,000 people were displaced and forced to go to shelters. The official death toll stands at 46 (at the time of the podcast recording, it was 35).

That last number might have been higher if not for social media. In the early hours of the hurricane, 911 systems were overwhelmed, and many people reported not being able to get through to emergency services at all. 

With the water level rising and no help coming, lots of people turned to social media to plea for rescue.

In many cases, their pleas were answered. When calls for rescue went out, influencers began retweeting, Facebook groups were formed, and certain “low-tech” apps (like push-to-talk communicators) became invaluable. Social media networks became a force in connecting rescuers with those in need, and helping volunteer forces organize.

Public figures felt the power of social media in the wake of the disaster, too. 

Popular Houston-based televangelist Joel Osteen was forced to respond when Twitter stirred up criticism that his massive Lakewood Church stood nearly empty while shelters in the area were filling up. 

First Lady Melania Trump was a target, too, over her choice of footwear, although the backlash to that criticism was just as swift.

Over the course of the week, Twitter saw more than 27 million tweets related to Harvey, making it the second most-tweeted event in 2017 (the Super Bowl saw 27.6 million). Facebook opened up Safety Check to those affected by Harvey, and saw more than 1,000 users made requests for help via the feature, with more than 3,500 offers from volunteers seeking to help those affected.

On this week’s MashTalk, we talk to Houston resident and Ringer staff writer Shea Serrano, who became one of the most prolific “signal boosters” on Twitter for people affected by the storm, and Bill Moore, CEO of Zello, whose “live conversations” app was instrumental in enabling people to communicate directly when regular methods weren’t working.

You can subscribe to MashTalk on iTunes or Google Play, and we’d appreciate it if you could leave a review. Feel free to hit us with questions and comments by tweeting to @mashtalk or adding the #MashTalk hashtag. We welcome all feedback.

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