Well, it’s that time of year again folks. Once again, Amazon’s annual sales event for which the already stupidly rich corporation is made even richer is upon us.
No formal date has yet been set for Amazon Prime Day 2021, but we do have a fairly good idea of when it’s likely to take place—we’ll get to that in a minute. For the mercifully uninitiated, first of all, good for you. Prime Day is effectively Amazon’s own personal Black Friday event, and this year it’s looking like it’s slated to take place around summer. There are deals to be had, for sure. But should you care? Read on for a crash course on the event.
So, what is Prime Day?
Again, it’s like Black Friday but…not that. It’s always a multi-day affair, and you’ll be able to find steep savings on many products through things like limited-time flash deals. Because Amazon is the everything marketplace, deals are pretty all over the place. If you’re looking for a specific thing, like a certain computer model, you might hold off for a reliable sale window from that retailer (typically those crop up around the holidays).
If you’re less picky about a specific thing that you need or want, you might be able to find a great deal. But you also might have to keep checking back to find it.
Does this have anything to do with NFTs or Dogecoin?
When is Amazon Prime Day 2021?
At present, that’s unconfirmed, though we know for sure that it’s set to take place before the end of the second quarter. Amazon has yet to give us an official date, but rumor has it that we’re looking at sometime in June.
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Can you even find good deals?
Well, that depends. If you’re looking for sweet deals on Amazon-specific products, like an Echo Dot, you’re going to find those gadgets at a steal. But again, the savings on non-Amazon products can be a little chaotic.
Are there any non-Amazon products I can expect to be discounted?
Reviews can be misleading, so be wary. One option is to install an extension like Fakespot, which can help flag counterfeits and fake reviews. Another option is CamelCamelCamel, which tracks the price history of products on Amazon so you’ll be able to tell whether that “deal” is really a steal.
Should I skip Prime Day?
Well, yes. Amazon is a massive corporation that made Jeff Bezos the world’s richest man, and yet the company is constantly under fire for labor atrocities and union-busting. And then there’s that whole thing about the platform getting caught for selling literal trash. Not great!
Can you maybe plan to snag a few deals on smart home gadgets and probably a mountain of other shit you do not actually need? Yes, you most certainly can. But I don’t think you’ll be missing too much if you skip it this year. Your bank account will certainly thank you, at the very least.
Google announced Thursday that it’s partnering with SpaceX to link Elon Musk’s ambitious satellite internet service Starlink with Google’s cloud infrastructure. The alliance marks a major win for Google in its competition with other tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft to dominate the fast-growing cloud computing market.
SpaceX will install ground stations at Google’s cloud data centers around the world to connect to its Starlink satellites to start providing the network’s speedy internet service to Google’s enterprise cloud customers by the second half of this year, Google said in a press release. The first terminal will be installed at Google’s New Albany, Ohio, data center, a SpaceX spokesperson told the Verge, adding that further details about the partnership will be shared in the coming months.
“We are delighted to partner with SpaceX to ensure that organizations with distributed footprints have seamless, secure, and fast access to the critical applications and services they need to keep their teams up and running,” said Urs Hölzle, senior VP of infrastructure at Google Cloud, in Thursday’s press release.
While the partnership isn’t exclusive—Microsoft announced plans in October to connect SpaceX’s network to its Azure cloud service—it should help Google keep up with Amazon and its burgeoning Project Kuiper, which plans to launch more than 3,000 interconnected broadband satellites into orbit to supply internet connections to an estimated 95% of the planet.
The SpaceX-Google deal involves providing internet access “to businesses, public sectors organizations, and many other groups operating around the world,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell in the press release. “Combining Starlink’s high-speed, low-latency broadband with Google’s infrastructure and capabilities provides global organizations with the secure and fast connection that modern organizations expect.”
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This isn’t Google and SpaceX’s first time collaborating. The search giant invested $900 million into SpaceX in 2015 to fund the development of its satellites and other technology.
To date, SpaceX has launched more than 1,500 Starlink satellites into orbit, making it the world’s largest satellite constellation. Last week, the company said more than 500,000 people have placed an order or put a deposit down on the internet service so far. SpaceX also scored another big win in December 2020 when it secured an $885 million U.S. government contract to provide high-speed internet to underserved, rural areas of the nation.
Amazon is trying its hand at earbuds again after stumbling out of the gate with its first pair of Echo Buds in 2019. The improvements, I’m mildly irritated to say, are good.
Amazon’s hardware is all over the place: Its Kindle lineup is excellent but still sports microUSB ports, its smart displays are very good but also mildly creepy, its first fitness tracker was horrifyingly invasive, and its first-gen Bluetooth earbuds were outdated from the jump (see, again, microUSB) and didn’t sound great. I wasn’t sure what to expect when the Alexa-forward second-gen Echo Buds arrived on my doorstep, but I have to admit, when evaluating the latest buds against the rest of the increasingly competitive pack of other Bluetooth earbuds, the new ones are priced so well that the little issues I have aren’t dealbreakers. They also sound pretty good.
And then there’s Alexa. More on that in a minute.
Boring Design Is Perfectly Fine
The Echo Buds look almost completely free of personality or branding until you peer closely at each earbud and notice the Amazon smile logo. Virtually no one wants to wear Amazon’s logo in their ear, but the black logo on black earbud is so faint as to be nearly invisible. The charging case is also branded, but the smile is on the bottom of the device so no one can see it. (I didn’t get a chance to see the white version in person, though the Amazon logo on those appears to be a little more obvious in photos.)
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The buds come with four silicone eartips, which are mercifully color-coded so you know which to grab, and two sizes of wings, which are damn near impossible to get on and off the earbud and can also easily cover the charging magnets that snap the earbud to its spot in the charging case. I found that out the hard way and accidentally drained my left Echo Bud from 100% to 11% thanks to an errant wing fit, which I promptly ditched. (The wing part doesn’t help with fit all that much anyway.) But even without the wings, I got a solid fit and a nice seal, and the vented design prevents discomfort even when wearing them for a couple of hours at a time.
Each bud is touch-sensitive so you can control music playback with a tap or two (or three), and you can customize one gesture, a long hold, to control volume on either the left and right buds. Customizing that gesture means removing the ability to control Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) and pass-through using a long hold, so I sacrificed that functionality.
Surprisingly Good Audio
The biggest change Amazon made to the second-gen Echo Buds is the addition of active noise cancellation instead of the first-gen version’s noise reduction. And it works.
I went for a 3-mile run outdoors in the heart of Hollywood to test the Echo Buds’ ability to drown out ambient street noise or filter in the outside world when I needed to for safety, and the ANC was effective. You can control the noise cancellation using a long press of either earbud, or ask Alexa to turn it on or off. Pass-through is fine, though I didn’t hear as much of the outside world as I hear with other ANC earbuds. (I should note that the Echo Buds are only rated IPx4 and are therefore not sweat-proof, so if you need earbuds that can withstand workouts, look elsewhere.)
One pass-through feature is specifically for phone calls, a setting called Sidetone you can activate in the Alexa app, which lets you more clearly hear yourself when you’re talking on the phone. This was buggy—I could hear myself marginally better than without it turned on at first, but then it quit working. The change wasn’t big enough to be super noticeable on my end, but when I was talking to my mom with Sidetone activated, she asked what I was making—the sound of my hair brushing against the earbud was so intense that it sounded like I was chopping iceberg lettuce, she said. Without Sidetone on, my hair wasn’t an issue.
The new Echo Buds have 5.7mm drivers and three mics: two external beamforming ones and one internal. Music definitely sounds good, but I will say that the Echo Buds audio doesn’t quite as full or immersive as it does with pricier earbuds (like Apple’s AirPods Pro and the Jabra Elite 85t), but I only noticed that listening to the same song on all devices back to back. I tested this with a few different genres, from EDM to classic rock and, of course, Fiona Apple. But overall the Echo Buds are well-balanced, and the ability to adjust the EQ in the Alexa app means I can bump up the bass as much as I want.
Battery Life Could Be Better
The second-gen Echo Buds come in two versions: the $120 model, which charges via USB-C, and a pricier $140 version, which has both USB-C and supports wireless charging with any Qi charger. Apple’s second-gen AirPods with wireless charging case will cost you $199 and they don’t even offer ANC, so this seems like a steal by comparison.
The charging isn’t particularly fast either way—the case charges about 30% in 30 minutes via USB-C or wireless charger—but 15 minutes in the case gives the earbuds themselves about two additional hours of juice, which is useful (see above, when I inadvertently drained my left earbud and had to quickly resuscitate it). Amazon promises four hours of call time on a charge and eight additional hours in the charging case with ANC and Alexa enabled, which tracked in my testing—I got a few days of battery life between listening to tunes and podcasts, going for a run, and making phone calls.
Battery life improves if you turn ANC and Alexa off—6.5 hours in the buds and 19.5 hours total with the charging case. That’s on par with what you get from AirPods Pro, which are $120 more expensive than the base-model Echo Buds, but the Jabra Elite 85t remain my fave for the 25 total hours you get with ANC turned on. (The 85t are also $230, but I love them.)
But I did appreciate the fact that the case has three color-coded LED lights—one for the case itself and one for each earbud—that let you know how much battery life is left in each. You can also ask Alexa for a quick battery status update, which brings us to the Echo Buds’ marquee feature.
Alexa’s Pros, Cons, and Privacy Concerns
Look: If you’re thinking of buying a pair of Amazon earbuds, you’re probably comfortable with Amazon as a company. Perhaps your home already has a handful of Alexa devices, despite the fact that Alexa has historically been a privacy minefield for reasons we’ve covered before—a reputation Amazon has never quite been able to shake, for good reason. While I am personally not all-in with Alexa, Amazon has made it possible to use these earbuds with no Alexa at all, or with minimal Alexa when you want it.
Though you have to set up the Echo Buds with the Alexa app to access features like adjustable EQ and customizing the tap controls, you can also just pair the Echo Buds to your phone using the standard Bluetooth settings, no app required. There are also a handful of ways to activate Alexa but mute the assistant when you want to so that the earbuds’ microphones aren’t always capturing your audio and sending it to the cloud. First, the Alexa app has to be open and running in the background on your phone for Alexa to function. And an earbud has to actually be in your ear to activate Alexa; it won’t be listening if placed in the case or on a table, for instance. If you want to use the earbuds but mute Alexa, you can do so in the app or by customizing a physical gesture (long-pressing the earbud). You will hear a tone when Alexa recognizes the wake word, but there are no physical indicators.
All of that said, if Alexa knows literally all of your business and you have no qualms about that, then having the assistant directly in your ear can be useful.
Amazon’s Echo system is not my go-to jam, so I am always taken aback when I remember just how fast Alexa picks up its wake word and responds. Even better, Alexa listens to me and responds even if I’m listening to something on the Echo Buds. For instance, while cooking dinner and listening to a podcast, I asked Alexa to set a timer for me, and while the pod volume lowered a bit as I spoke, Alexa didn’t interrupt to respond—the timer was set, the timer went off, and I went about my business. (Here’s where I could complain about Siri’s, but that sad, sad horse has long since stumbled off into the sunset.)
You can set up all the standard Alexa skills in the app to request that the assistant play music, audiobooks from Audible, add reminders to your to-do list, make phone calls—the works. That all happens quickly and easily, though I find Alexa to be most useful while bumming around at home or out on a walk (though if you’re out in public wearing a mask and no one can see you mumbling to yourself, by all means). And an Alexa Transit feature available in major cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago will help you plan your public transit route and give you status updates on the train or bus you’re waiting for. This hasn’t yet been flipped on where I live, in Los Angeles, but using your earbuds to plan your commute is kind of neat.
I appreciated using Alexa to do dumb little things like set timers, ask for the weather forecast, and play DJ for me—things you might have purchased an Echo smart speaker to handle, but could instead be accomplished with a pair of earbuds that can be used in your home or on the go. If your smart home is rigged with Alexa-compatible gadgets from tip to toe, you’ll likely find the Echo Buds even more useful.
What I Don’t Like
The Echo Buds are very good for the price, but they aren’t perfect. There are a few advanced features that don’t work as well as they should, and one big thing is missing.
Following so closely on the heels of Apple’s AirTag launch, I was surprised to find a Find My feature for the new Echo Buds in the Alexa app. It may not surprise you to learn that the Alexa Find My feature for Echo Buds is not quite as advanced as the one Apple uses for AirTags. I never lose just one earbud, but I regularly misplace the case with both earbuds tucked inside. Unless the Echo Buds charging case is open, however, it won’t play a sound (that’s because the earbuds themselves independently play sounds, and not the case itself). This is not helpful, to say the least. I have never lost an earbud charging case while it was wide open.
Then there are the quibbles I have with Sidetone and battery life that I mentioned earlier.
But really, the biggest issue is the lack of a feature I really, really need from Bluetooth earbuds: the ability to connect to multiple devices. The Echo Buds can only be paired to one device at a time, which means you can’t seamlessly switch audio from your phone to your laptop, which is crucial for me. If this is also an important feature for you, what with the pandemic era’s endless phone calls and video conferences, I would recommend splurging on a pricier pair of ANC earbuds that can connect to multiple devices at once. My go-to is the Jabra Elite 85t (or the also good Elite Active 75t, which has software-based ANC that’s actually very capable). Apple’s AirPods Pro are great for iPhone users with MacBooks, though the fit is not my favorite.
Who Should Buy Echo Buds?
As I started testing the Echo Buds, I wasn’t quite sure if they’d be any good for those of us who are either skeptical of Alexa or who avoid the assistant altogether. But they are good, especially considering the price. For $120, you get a solid-sounding pair of earbuds with capable ANC and comfortable fit, and for an extra $20 you get a wireless charging case. There are a few drawbacks—the battery life could be better, and not being able to switch devices sucks—but I’m surprised by how much I liked using these things. I don’t like them enough to fully embrace Alexa, but the good news is: You really don’t need to.
Yes, the budget for Amazon’sLord of the Rings series is almost half a billion dollars, but the woman behind it is happy to explain. In a new interview, head of Amazon Studios Jennifer Salke doesn’t deny last month’s reports that the show cost the studio about $465 million; she also blames both the market for original content between streamers and a bit of misunderstanding of the process for why the number is so big.
“The market is crazy, as you saw with the [almost $500 million] Knives Out deal,” Salke told the Hollywood Reporter in a roundtable that included Netflix’s Bela Bajaria, Disney’s Dana Walden and creatives Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay.
“This is a full season of a huge world-building show. The number is a sexy headline or a crazy headline that’s fun to click on, but that is really building the infrastructure of what will sustain the whole series,” she continued. “But it is a crazy world and various people on this Zoom, mostly Bela and me, have been in bidding situations where it starts to go incredibly high. There’s a lot of wooing and we have to make decisions on where we want to stretch and where we want to draw the line. As for how many people need to watch Lord of the Rings? A lot. [Laughs.] A giant, global audience needs to show up to it as appointment television, and we are pretty confident that that will happen.”
Oh, and of note, that $465 million reportedly doesn’t include the $250 million Amazon spent to get the rights to the franchise. (For what it’s worth, $465 million is also less than the cost of Jeff Bezos’ recently acquired “superyacht.”) So, indeed, a lot people are going to have to watch. Basically, all the people.
What Salke says makes sense, of course. Streamers are spending big money to bring in audiences to help sustain those investments. Plus, that $465 million will include lots of sets, props, costumes, and basic needs that won’t have to be paid for in full again. So maybe next season is closer to $200 million or something like that.
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Either way, it’s a big bet on a franchise that obviously has lots of name recognition, but almost seems like it’s being slightly overvalued here. We’ll watch the show. You’ll watch the show. But will your parents, grandparents, kids, etc? Only the elves in Rivendell know for sure.
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If you’re hooked on Alexa and want a more capable smart display, Amazon just announced a refresh to the Echo Show 8 and Echo Show 5, with better cameras than their predecessors. There’s also an update to the Echo Show 5 Kids Edition, which includes access to Amazon’s kid-friendly content.
The Echo Show 8 and Echo Show 5 have 8-inch and 5.5-inch screens, respectively, with the larger device getting the bulk of the updates. The Echo Show 8 now sports a 13-megapixel camera with a 110-degree wide-angle lens for video calls. It now has a feature similar to Facebook’s Portal, which pans and zooms to follow your movements within the field of view, powered in part by the nondescript “octa-core” processor that Amazon says is in the device. Unlike the Echo Show 10, the Echo Show 8 doesn’t physically swivel to follow you around. The Echo Show 8 is capable of AR effects within Amazon’s video chat app, including the ability to “react” on screen with animated images and set custom virtual backgrounds.
The refreshed Echo Show 8 smart displays are programmed to detect if a “human shape” is approaching the device, where it will then surface relevant routines or automatically launch one to, for example, turn on automatic lights in a dark room. Amazon has made these particular features opt-in only, and you’ll have to punch in an access code during setup to consent to the experience. Google Assistant smart displays have similar features, though they rely on “ultrasound sensing,” which uses speakers and microphones to determine whether a person is approaching the device. Both the Echo Show 8 and Echo Show 5 will also let you peek inside a room by viewing each smart display’s respective cameras remotely from your phone.
The Echo Show 5’s update is a little more like a slight spec bump. The camera has been improved slightly, but won’t get the panning mode feature on the new Echo Show 8. It’s getting a permanent price cut and is now $85. For $10 more, you can get the Kids Edition of the Echo Show 5, including Amazon Kids Plus services, which offers videos, audiobooks, games, music stations, and more content explicitly tuned for the kid crowd. The nearly $100 price point also covers any physical damage to the Echo Show 5 Kids for two years.
If what you’re after is a smart display with a clearer picture for video chatting with family and friends, the Echo Show 8 has a bit of an edge over existing Google Assistant displays like the Nest Hub Max, which sports a 6.5-megapixel camera with a wider 127-degree field of view.
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The Echo Show 8 and Echo Show 5 retail for $130 and $85, respectively, while the Echo Show 5 Kids is $95. All three devices are currently available for preorder, with shipping slated for June.
Gates McFadden’s career goes well beyond the ins and outs of the Enterprise sickbay. While she might be best known to sci-fi fans as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s iconic Dr. Beverly Crusher, McFadden’s taught, acted on stage and screen, worked on Jim Henson hits likeLabyrinth, and more. Now, she’s picking up a new skill: interviewer of other Star Trek icons.
The first podcast from the Nacelle Company—the production team behind documentary series like The Toys That Made Us, Down to Earth With Zac Efron, and Disney+’s Behind the Attraction—dropped today and sees McFadden reminisce with notable Star Trek creatives from across the franchise’s history. The 10-episode series includes guests like LeVar Burton, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, and many more from TNG, but also Voyager and Deep Space Nine favorites, including Robert Picardo and Nana Visitor. Speaking of everyone’s favorite Bajoran, you can actually check out an exclusive preview of McFadden’s chat with Visitor below, making its debut here on io9!
To celebrate the launch of the series, io9 spoke to McFadden to learn about picking up podcasting as her latest hobby in a long career, what Star Trek’s resurgence means to her and to the franchise, and why she wanted her Trek-heavy guest list to still feel fresh and unique to listeners who aren’t fans of the long-running sci-fi franchise. Check out the full interview below!
James Whitbrook, io9:Why was now the time you wanted to do a series like this?
Gates McFadden: Because I was asked! And I actually turned it down twice! Because I couldn’t figure out, “why now?” Brian Volk-Weiss, who is the CEO of Nacelle, is the one who called me out of the blue. I didn’t know him—and he was so charming that he just charmed me into doing this. And I am loving it, I am so glad he did. It seems like the perfect time that it happened during the pandemic because you can record remotely. Sometimes we’d—he’d built a studio, so sometimes we were in, recording some of the beginning ones in the studio… but I think I’m finding my way. I have such wonderful friends, that it’s just fabulous to share our friendship with people, and also try to highlight them. It’s pretty amazing, the group of actors who’ve been involved with the Star Trek franchise. We’re all very close, actually, it’s unusual. I think every conversation, I’ve learned something more about my friends that I didn’t know and I hope the people who listen to the podcast feel the same way.
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io9: You’ve had an extensive career both in front of and behind the camera—this is a relatively new situation for you, to have to guide these conversations. What has that process been like for you?
McFadden: I actually love to research things, I’m curious. So even though I know all the things my friends have done, I love to try to find new things I didn’t know about them. And even if I didn’t ask questions, it’s always fun to revisit something they’ve acted in or done. You have to know how to guide it, but I didn’t just want it to be an interview—I didn’t just want to say, “Okay, LeVar [Burton, who played Geordi LaForge on The Next Generation], I’m going to interview you.” I wanted it to be something that was also a conversation and showed our closeness—that we could laugh and joke and all of a sudden, something powerful might come up. And that has happened, I would say, which is exciting. You can go from something that’s very serious, to funny and it absolutely shows our shared history, how we’re dealing with each other. So hopefully that’s the way people will hear it as well. I was nervous in the beginning because I hadn’t done it, then once I learned how to edit sound, I’ve been doing the editing—a wonderful fellow looks over what I’ve done and refines it, but I’m making the choices on the edit. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on it! I’ve learned a lot. In a lot of ways, it’s about finding things that make it flow better… it’s just like anything, like directing, you get into it and it’s similar. I think, sometimes, it’s more like I’m interviewing, sometimes it’s just like we’re having… there’s no there, controlling the conversation as much. Which is really kind of cool.
io9:You said you’ve drawn quite the roster of friends over the years, not just your colleagues on TNG, it’s people involved with the Star Trek franchise at large—both in front of and behind the camera. Has it changed anything about your perspective of yours and theirs places in the franchise?
McFadden: Amazing, isn’t it? It’s truly amazing. It became clear to me when many of us, from all the different shows, were on different Zooms [last year] raising money for the Democratic candidate for president, Joe Biden. It really hit me when I saw all of these intelligent people on this big Zoom call, and I was so honored to be part of it. I thought, “Boy, the casting people—and the producers—they really had something in their minds,” because every single one of these people I’d want to get to know. They all seem to be passionate about making the world a better place, working for change, really walking the walk, and not just doing something in an occasional interview. I really think it’s quite a stellar group of people.
The more of the cast members I met, either from Discovery or Picard, the more this pans out for me. I got to work with Ethan Peck—we were improvising together on something, where I was Kirk and he was Spock—on the [official Star Trek] cruise. I had a blast with him. We just totally clicked. And you hang out afterwards and you get to know people from all different shows. It’s been decades I’ve known John de Lancie, and Robert Picardo, and Nana Visitor— people like that. Some people like Denise [Crosby, TNG’s Tasha Yar] and Brent [Spiner, TNG’s Data], I’ve directed in things. So, there’s a lot of ways we intersect in our lives. It’s very unusual, it seems to me, to have a franchise where so many people get along so well.
io9: Trek aside, one thing that fascinated me to discover with this is your history with the Jim Henson Company as a choreographer on Labyrinth. Is that part of your career something you’d like to explore in the podcast, beyond your chats with people from Star Trek history?
McFadden: I don’t know—I haven’t thought that far ahead. There’s so many Star Trek people I could still talk to, really. Before Labyrinth, I had some acting in New York for years and had been teaching at a lot of drama universities and programs all over the United States, and done a lot of theater, a lot of different things. That was more of a fluke that I got asked to do that, and I took it because I was told by Jim I could also play Jennifer Connelly’s mother in the movie—but British Equity would not allow it. Even though that was the reason I took the job and had, for two years, been thinking that was what was going to happen. They would not allow us. Whereas in American Equity, British actors all the time act in our shows, so… that was a disappointment that I didn’t find that out until I was already over in London, working as choreographer.
io9: To bring it back to Star Trek, you get to talk to your friends as friends here, rather than as stars of the franchise. What’s surprised you most about them connecting in a format like this?
McFadden: Well, I think the thing that stood out to me most is how difficult it is to hear yourself while doing a podcast. It’s sort of an existential dilemma! There’ve been surprises—like, with Wil Wheaton, I tried to play games with him because he’s just a good podcast host. I wanted to not have it so he felt like he was being interviewed, or interviewing me, so, I made us play games. Things like “Never Have I Ever” or answer ethical questions. Really surprising things came up. I learned so much about him, that was super fun. I learned stuff about Jonathan [Frakes, TNG’s Commander Riker]. You know, like dinner time at Jonathan’s house, and how he and his dad behaved one day… really things I’d never heard before, these stories. I hope people who listen will enjoy it as much as I did doing it. We’ll see. I thought better to try something and fail than not try at all. That’s what I was doing. I had a blast!
io9: You’re doing this at an interesting time for Star Trek—what’s it been like for you, seeing Star Trek become really big again in a way it hasn’t been for a while?
McFadden: I think it’s very, very wonderful. I’m quite thrilled to see Star Trek being embraced so much. The show does talk about our collective future in a way that there is inclusion and more tolerance and seeking for answers—the search for answers instead of just judgemental, “This is wrong. This is right,” but being able to hold contradictions. The thing that I always loved about Star Trek is that it teaches people how to think and discuss things collectively, and that is what we need to do if there is going to be a future if we ever work together to solve some of our crises—be it economic or environmental. So, I’ve loved it. Even if I could go back to the Next Generation, the very idea that there was a character like Wesley Crusher… I think that was such a prophecy of what was coming with young people, and technology, and how they are coming up with robotic things and all sorts of stuff. We have the rover on Mars—what it’s capable of doing it astonishing!
I think that that is why Star Trek is popular. I think all of the generations that followed ours—someone I talked to today, he was seven when he first saw “Encounter at Farpoint,” and technology is totally a part of his life. So, it makes sense it’s come back because that is where it was when we started our show from when the original started. It’s about the future. The writers talked to scientists and people who were futurists—that was their title—and look at all the things that we have now in technology, like the cell phone, and many other things. And that’s just going to happen more and more. So why not be involved in a show that talks about the future in a positive way? I would say that’s why it’s more popular now. We really have seen how some of the things we’re talking about have come to fruition. And that is going to happen more and more if we work together and think about these problems in a positive way.
InvestiGates: Who Do You Think You Are? launches today and is available where all good podcasts can be hyposprayed into your eardrums, including on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Podbean, Amazon Music, and more.
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Apple, Amazon, and Google rarely have a reason to work together, but the companies are teaming up for a new smart home standard, now called Matter, that will make it easier for you to buy devices that work seamlessly together without thinking about it.
The Matter branding, which emerged from what was formerly known as Project Connected Home over IP (CHIP), will help you figure out which smart devices are compatible with the Matter standard, which already works with Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, and Google Assistant. Soon those devices will be branded with a symbol that looks like three arrows all pointing at one another—think of the Spider-Man meme, but make it smart home.
The launch of Matter also marks the end of the Zigbee Alliance. It’s now known as the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), focusing on uniting manufacturers and other companies around Matter. There’s also a push for releasing Matter’s open-source code to device makers already on Github.
Matter uses a combination of Ethernet, wifi, Thread, and Bluetooth LE to connect. Its ultimate function is to standardize how gadgets identify themselves and what they can do together, essentially taking the heavy lifting off of you to set it all up. Currently if you have a dozen devices connected to your network with similar antennas, they might not have the software to sync with one another.
As reported by StaceyonIoT, a video released as part of the rebranding shows multiple devices working together through a feature called Multi-Admin:
The video’s narrator calls the feature Multi-Admin, and promises that “users can connect devices to multiple apps and multiple ecosystems locally, securely and simultaneously.” It also sounds like users will also be able to grant control of devices at an individual level, which means that connecting a Nest account to an Amazon Echo might not require adding all of the devices associated with that Nest account. This could make it easier to put a controller of some sort in a guest bedroom letting your guest have access to some home controls, but not all of them.
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It sounds like this could be an automated feature that’s as easy as logging into an app and allowing it to scan your network—akin to how you’d log on to a wifi network.
The first Matter-compatible gadgets emblazoned with the new logo should arrive before the end of 2021, with more expected in 2022. Philips Hue is already on board, offering to release a software update in the coming months to make its massive lineup of smart bulbs and lighting compatible. Other early adopters include Google, Comcast, Nanoleaf, Schlage, Samsung SmartThings, and Texas Instruments.
New horror anthology The Unknown is coming to Amazon, this time from Craig Macneill, Clay Chapman, Jonathan Nolan, and Kilter films Lisa Joy. This announcement comes two years after Nolan and Joy signed an overall TV deal with the streaming service.
The Unknown will combine the vastness of the American landscape, urban legends, and folklore, and true crime events—in the vein of horror films like 2020’sThe Dark and the Wicked. The first season will focus on a brother and sister duo who returns home to Texas and encounter evil forces that habit their childhood home. There is no scheduled release date available at the moment.
Macneill and Chapman are no strangers to the horror/thriller genre. Macneill has directed episodes of popular television shows to include Castle Rock, Amazon’s Them, and The Twilight Zone. He also directed the feature film Lizzie, which is based on the life and (possible) crimes of Lizzie Borden. Chapman is a writer and author of books and comics, like Nothing Untoward and Marvel series Scream: Curse of Carnage.
When the two were finally able to work together, they directed/created the 2015 horror movie THE BOY.
What do you think? It looks like everyone is trying to get into the horror game lately. Stay tuned for more details!
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Toys and CollectiblesAction figures, statues, exclusives, and other merchandise. Beware: if you look here, you’re probably going to spend some money afterwards.
Welcome back to Toy Aisle, io9’s regular round up of the latest and snazziest merchandise on the internet. This week, Star Wars: The Bad Batch descends on the world of Lego, while Star Trek beams itself back up to action figures, and… no one can withstand beach balls of this magnitude!? Check it out!
EXO-6 Star Trek: First Contact Captain Jean-Luc Picard Sixth-Scale Figure
Star Trek has flirted with 1:6 scale figures before, but CBS’s latest partnership with EXO has high hopes to go beyond and deliver figures from every iteration of the franchise. Things are kicking off with Jean-Luc Picard, and surprisingly, it’s not Patrick Stewart’s captain as he appeared in The Next Generation—it’s his later movie uniform, specifically from First Contact. Complete with an alternate vest jacket, a phaser rifle and pistol, and open and closed tricorders, Picard also comes with various sets of hands to hold all those wonderful toys. Added bonus? The gripping hands could just as equally be used to pose him doing the real Picard maneuver: tugging his jacket down in place whenever he stood up from the Enterprise captain’s chair. Picard is set to cost $190 when he releases later this year. [Toyark]
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Lego Star Wars: The Bad Batch Attack Shuttle
Dropping just in time for the Clone Wars spin-off to hit Disney+, Lego’s new 969-piece The Bad Batch Attack Shuttle set includes the shuttle itself, two speeder bikes, a gonk droid, and minifigure versions of Tech, Hunter, Wrecker, Crosshair, and Echo—otherwise known as the bad batch of clones that didn’t turn out quite right. You can pre-order it now, but the set’s not expected to ship until August 1, well after the series will conclude its 16-episode run.
Knockoff toys are a genuine problem for toymakers, but at the same time they’re also a source of much hilarity for collectors. One of the most memorable bootlegs of all time, shared across the internet millions of times, is a knockoff RocoCop 2 figure simply named “Robert Cop 2,” which, thanks to its ill-gotten fame, is almost more collectible than the real thing. So for San Diego Comic-Con 2021, Hiya Toys, who currently produces RoboCop figures, is releasing its own 3.75-inch Robert Cop 2 figure as a $20 exclusive for the convention. You’re mostly just paying for the novelty packaging, but you don’t hear us complaining.
Giant Six-Foot Inflatable Star Wars Death Star Beach Ball
The real Death Star was capable of destroying entire planets, but you’ll have to set your destructive sights a little lower with this six-foot wide Death Star beach ball that can only wipe out small groups of children, sand castles, elaborate cakes, and champagne glass towers with a single toss. It’s recommended for users aged 12 and older, because anyone younger and smaller than that will simply be bowled over like Indiana Jones escaping a booby trap. Amazon lists it, but it appears to be currently sold out, so here’s hoping it will restock before the summer officially arrives.
Hasbro Marvel Avengers Age of Ultron Quicksilver Legends Series Figure
Hasbro isn’t exactly running out of characters from the Marvel universe to turn into action figures, but that hasn’t stopped it from immortalizing one of the MCU’s shortest-lived heroes in articulated plastic: Quicksilver… no, not the Quicksilver that surprised everyone during WandaVision, the other Pietro that died in Sokovia. Pre-orders for the $26.50 figure started earlier this week and despite the character being mostly forgotten in the MCU, it’s already sold out. But a lot can happen between now and its September release, and there could be more chances to pre-order one.
Numskull Back To The Future 3D Desk Lamp and Wall Light
The Back to the Future trilogy might be second only to Star Wars when it comes to the number of coveted props featured in the films. Not only is the time-traveling DeLorean worth drooling over, it comes packed with other collectible gadgets, including the famed flux capacitor and the time circuits—which Numskull has recreated as a $30 desk lamp or wall lamp if you’re willing to go to the trouble of mounting it. It can be powered by a micro USB cable or three AAA batteries if you want to go cordless, and while the numbers indicating when you’re going, when you are, and when you’ve been light up, they unfortunately can’t be changed. Which is too bad because this would have made for a great alarm clock.
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Hot on the heels of Apple’s AirTags launch, Amazon announced that it’s expanding its Sidewalk network with Tile, smart lock company Level, and elder care smartwatch maker CareBand. The news is the biggest expansion of Amazon Sidewalk since it was announced last year, and offers a glimpse into how the company envisions this device-to-device network will work to help people find lost items or extend connectivity beyond wifi. And while we can all agree networks like Amazon Sidewalk and Apple’s Find My, which enables AirTag’s tracking abilities, might make losing things a lot less annoying, we’re not talking seriously enough about how to prevent them from being abused.
At this point, the average person is still probably fuzzy on what exactly Amazon Sidewalk is. It’s a sort of secondary mesh network in which Echo and Ring customers’ devices act as bridges to extend connectivity. It works by “borrowing” a small amount of your bandwidth and adding it to other participating Echo and Ring devices in your vicinity. Likewise, if you turn on Apple’s Find My, your Apple devices act as Bluetooth beacons to help locate other Apple devices—even if they’re offline—and relay that to the owner of the device.
The fact that close to 1 billion Apple devices are part of the Find My network is a big reason why Apple’s AirTags are incredibly precise at finding lost objects. By that logic, Amazon adding Tile, Level’s smart locks, and the CareBand stand will Sidewalk a more effective network to track items, too. Starting June 8, Amazon will flip the switch on Sidewalk, and Tile integration starts June 14. This sounds neat. You get to extend the range of Tile trackers, while also improving device location within your home—Alexa will reportedly be able to tell you which Echo device your misplaced item is closest to.
Tile has had its own mesh network for a while, but it wasn’t very extensive, and partnering with Amazon will give it a massive boost. For the Level smart locks, joining Sidewalk is supposed to enable your smart home gadgets to continue communicating with each other regardless of where your phone is. The CareBand will let you keep track of where older relatives with dementia are without needing to be connected to wifi.
What’s wrong with that? Well, nothing if these are used in the way they’re intended, with the best intentions. It’s what happens when they’re not. Apple and Amazon both claim to care about privacy and both enable encryption for security. In the case of the AirTags, Apple has implemented features to prevent unwanted tracking. Amazon has likewise released a white paper on how it treats privacy and security with Amazon Sidewalk. The problem is we don’t know how rigorously these precautions have been tested and vetted in real-use testing for the worst-case scenario: abusers using these networks to stalk people without their consent. Just because companies encrypt your data, doesn’t mean these products can’t be used in creatively awful ways to violate your privacy.
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In both Gizmodo and Mashable’s reviews of the AirTags, the trackers were found to be scarily accurate at tracking people without their knowledge or consent. Users who haven’t updated to iOS 14.5 will not receive alerts that an unwanted tracker is near them, and even if you have updated, you may not see a notification if the AirTag isn’t tracking you for some unspecified length of time. Android users are also at a disadvantage. If they’re being tracked via an AirTag, they won’t be notified until they’ve been physically out of range from their stalker for three days. In many abusive situations, you may never reach that particular threshold. This isn’t tech reviewer paranoia either. The National Network to End Domestic Violence told Fast Company it feared that AirTags could be abused as surveillance tools to discreetly track a partner, and that it is standard practice for halfway houses to thoroughly search through a survivor’s devices for these kinds of surveillance devices.
There’s the temptation to engage in whataboutism. There have been GPS child and pet trackers for years. Tile has been around for ages. It’s not like AirTags were a well-kept secret. Hell, smartphones can be easily be abused this way too. Why make a stink now? The reason why this moment is the exact time to raise the alarm is both Apple’s Find My and Amazon Sidewalk have the potential to make these devices easy to use, affordable, accessible, and extremely accurate, without the need for wifi or GPS.
And you don’t even need to opt into these networks to be vulnerable to their tracking functionality. There are 1.65 billion Apple devices in active use as of January 2021. According to Statista, there are 46.5 million Amazon Echo devices in the U.S. Both Find My and Amazon Sidewalk depend on as many people as possible participating to be effective, so all of those devices are pinging each other in the background with accurate locations, but that scale also means that it doesn’t matter if you as an individual choose not to participate (which in both cases, you can). What matters is that everyone around you has opted in, most likely, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So long as there’s an Apple or Amazon Echo device around, you can be tracked by a small, easily hidden Bluetooth device that doesn’t need to be connected to the internet or a cellular network or a GPS satellite to report on where you are.
The myth is these abusive situations are rare; things that happen to other people, in rarefied circumstances. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Abuse and stalking are depressingly ordinary and commonplace. Domestic violence numbers have surged during the pandemic, and the CDC also says one in four women and one in seven men will experience physical violence from a partner in their lifetime. In the U.S., one in six women and one in 17 men, or roughly 19.3 million women and 5.1 million men, will experience stalking in their lifetime. It’s a given that some abusers will use the accuracy and convenience of Find My and Amazon Sidewalk to their advantage—and that they will test the boundaries of whatever protections Apple and Amazon have put in place. It’s for that reason we need to have this conversation now because frankly, opting out is an illusion. If ensuring safety for everyone means you can’t track your items, maybe that’s a sacrifice we should collectively make.