A comedy of errors unfolded after one of Waymo’s self-driving vans became confused by a construction zone, stalled in front of oncoming traffic while figuring out its next move, and then fled from Waymo’s Roadside Assistance team. And a Youtuber captured all of it on video.
Joel Johnson with JJRicks Studios has been chronicling his rides in Waymo’s autonomous taxis in Chandler, Arizona, on YouTube for the past two years, Autoblog reports. But in his latest video posted this week, his trip takes a bizarre turn—literally.
About 12 minutes into the video, the car attempts to turn right onto a multilane road, but stalls after it sees the rightmost lane is closed for construction and blocked off by traffic cones. While the car’s internal AI system, aka Waymo Driver, ponders what to do next, a Waymo representative contacts Johnson and informs him that Roadside Assistance is en route to his location. While they’re still on their way, the car peels out to complete the turn but promptly comes to a stop between lanes. A moment later, it backs up a few feet only to stop again, blocking the entire lane of traffic this time.
Right around this point in the video, a construction worker arrives and starts collecting the offending traffic cones that left Waymo Driver stumped. A Roadside Assistance rep pulls up behind the car not long after, but before they can enter the vehicle, it drives away.
After briefly fleeing its fleshy overlords, Waymo Driver comes to a stop again, this time long enough for Roadside Assistance to get in and take the wheel. The human driver completed the ride and Waymo waived the fee, Johnson said.
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Waymo, owned by Google parent company Alphabet, claims its workers can provide Waymo Driver with suggestions about how to navigate confusing situations but can’t control the vehicle remotely, Engadget reports. In a statement to Johnson explaining what went wrong, the company said Waymo Driver detected an “unusual situation” (aka the construction zone) and only got more confused after contacting a remote specialist for help:
“While driving fully autonomously through an extended work zone, the Waymo Driver detected an unusual situation and requested the attention of a remote Fleet Response specialist to provide additional information. During that interaction, the Fleet Response team provided incorrect guidance, which made it challenging for the Waymo Driver to resume its intended route, and required Waymo’s Roadside Assistance team to complete the trip.”
While Waymo acknowledged that “the situation was not ideal,” it said it remained in touch with Johnson the entire time and Waymo Driver “operated the vehicle safely” until help could arrive.
“Our team has already assessed the event and improved our operational process,” Waymo said.
This just goes to show that there’s still plenty of work to do before we can realize our sci-fi future where everyone zips around in driverless cars. But, hey, at least he got a free ride out of the ordeal.
Google canceled last year’s annual Google I/O developers conference due to the pandemic, but this year, it’s back—virtually.
The event kicks off Tuesday, May 18 at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT with a keynote speech from Google CEO Sundar Pichai. And while we don’t know exactly what Google has in store this year, we’re hoping to hear more about Android 12, Google Assistant, and Google’s vision for the smart home.
Android 12’s New Look
It’s been a while since we’ve had a major shakeup of Android’s UI, but three developer previews and a plethora of leaks suggest that Android 12 is getting a big overhaul. Leaked screenshots show a new colorized interface, matching widgets, and menu schematics based on the dominant coloring of your chosen wallpaper. There’s also a reprised Quick Settings panel, with larger buttons and more contextual information. Even the Assistant shows off a little color once summoned.
XDA Developers has been uncovering some of the more significant interface changes we might see finalized in Android 12. Expect the always-on display and lock screen to be a part of the revamp, along with other subtle UI effects like screen transitions and typography.
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Other improvements in Android 12 will likely center around audio and video playback and under-the-hood privacy and security changes. Reports point to specific features, like Android automatically shelving unused apps and offering better support for scrolling screenshots, as well as updated notification permissions.
There’s also a rumored gaming dashboard coming, though it’s not clear if it’d be exclusive to Pixel devices. The gaming mode would effectively add proper controls and helpful information like a frames-per-second counter. It could be akin to the gaming launcher that OnePlus bundles with its smartphones, which blocks out notifications and other interruptions so you can focus on the game.
Finally, Some Traction for Wear OS
Wear OS takes a lot of (well-deserved) heat for falling behind other smartwatch platforms, but we may finally see some updates. There are two sessions on the I/O schedule to go over what’s new and how to develop Tiles for Wear OS. Google’s even sending out surveys, asking for guidance on what to do next.
And just when you thought that the Pixel Watch rumor was dead in the water, it resurfaces with a vengeance. YouTuber Jon Prosser recently showed off a convincing render of a circular watch that looks exactly like what we’ve all envisioned a Pixel Watch would look like.
This is also the first big event since Google’s acquisition of Fitbit was a done deal. We likely won’t see anything new on the Fitbit front (after all, they just announced the Fitbit Luxe last month), but maybe we’ll see closer integration between your Fitbit and Google accounts.
The last bit of Wear OS rumbling is from Korean news outlet MT, which points to a supposed Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 running Wear OS instead of Samsung’s Tizen OS. Speaking as a person wearing a Samsung Galaxy Watch Active because there was no comfortable Wear OS equivalent, having this come true could be all Wear OS needs to emerge from its current rut.
Don’t Bet on the Pixel 6
With the event being virtual and the lack of live audience to “ooh” and “ahh” over the announcements, it’s unlikely Google will show even an outlined render of the Pixel 6 during the developer keynote—though it’s teased smartphones this way at past developer conferences. There’s still so much we need to learn about Whitechapel, Google’s turn at making a mobile processor. And it would be such a major play against Apple’s silicon parade that it would warrant a separate event along with the official launch of a new flagship device.
It’s no guarantee that they’ll be introduced during the Google I/O keynote, but the Pixel Buds A were already inadvertently leaked on Twitter. They’re a cheaper alternative to the regular Pixel Buds, which cost $180. According to the leak, they promise to deliver quality sound and one-tap pairing with Google Fast Pair.
Don’t count too hard on Google revealing the budget-inclined Pixel 5a, either. With the global chip shortage and delays in nearly every nook and cranny of tech manufacturing, there’s only a slim chance the Pixel 5a is ready to launch this soon. At least we know it’s coming, as Google refuted reports it’d canceled the model, confirming instead it would be available later this year in the U.S. and Japan.
The Google Assistant in Your House
Google’s vision for the smart home will undoubtedly see some air time during the opening keynote. There’s even a session devoted to what’s new in Google Assistant the following day. According to the description, we can expect to hear a state of the union of sorts for the Assistant, plus new product announcements, feature updates, and tooling changes. We might even potentially hear about BERT and how Google uses it to make the Assistant understand us when we’re mouthing off gibberish, though that’s the kind of tech demo that plays during the opening keynote.
There’s a session later on that same day about what’s new in the smart home, with a mention of new product announcements and a showcase of Assistant experiences built by the developer community. Anything new introduced during these two sessions will likely be software updates or abilities made available to the Assistant since there’s already a new batch of Nest Hub smart speakers and displays.
There is also some expectation that Google will announce new products for its home security system, including better security cameras and a second-gen security system. Last year, Google discontinued the Nest Secure DIY security kit, then revealed to 9to5Google that it was planning a “new lineup for security cameras for 2021.” It’s also plausible it will partner up with security veterans ADT, considering the company’s CEO told CNBC it would be rolling out “Google products in the third quarter of 2021.”
Android in Your TV
The Chromecast with Google TV came storming in last holiday season to set the standard for Google TV devices going forward. There are no specific Google TV sessions on the calendar. However, there is already a developer preview available for Android 12 for TVs, and Google I/O is precisely the venue to walk developers through that sort of thing. Any major Google TV news will likely be more subtle through code reveals and other features announced for Android 12.
Chromebooks in All Forms
There’s no way we can forget Chromebooks, especially not after the platform’s phenomenal growth through the pandemic. Google offers a session on what’s new in Chrome OS the day after the keynote. The session will cover updates to Chrome OS’s Linux environment and new APIs. Hopefully, we’ll also learn how many people have adopted Android apps on Chromebook laptops since they debuted nearly three years ago.
Whatever Google plans to reveal, join us for our coverage of the virtual I/O 2021 developers conference beginning May 18 at 10 am PT/1 pm ET.
If a company can figure out how to perfectly toast a slice of bread, it can surely bring something to the table with regards to Android smartphone design. And anyway, some people think Android phones are nothing but chunks of carbs, so there’s clearly a market out there!
Balmuda is a Japanese company that developed a humidifying toaster oven about six years ago. It became infamous for its toasters that produce fluffy yet perfectly browned slices of bread. I can taste the Nutella now, melting through the cracks of warm, soft brioche. I shouldn’t have written this article before lunch. My stomach actually growled as I typed this sentence.
Balmuda only recently brought its bread-toasting magic gadget to the U.S. But after becoming known in Japan for its modernized take on kitchen gadgets, it started producing other appliances, like fans, lanterns, a vacuum cleaner, and even a speaker.
Balmuda’s next foray will be designing a smartphone. It’s enlisted the help of industry-veterans, Kyocera, to manufacture the 5G device. The smartphone will be designed for use specifically on Softbank’s network in Japan, and there will be a SIM-free version available to purchase. The company’s CEO, Gen Terao, told the Next Web the phone would not merely be another appliance and would offer proprietary apps to make it a “great everyday-use” smartphone.
There are no details about where or when the Balmuda smartphone will appear. Android devices such as these don’t typically get a ton of traction because they’re niche and localized. Balmuda is likely testing the waters to see how it would do, lending its name to devices that could sell at scale. Apple’s iPhone currently dominates Japan, with 66% of users on iOS. The Balmuda phone will have to compete with the rest of the Android manufacturers vying for a slice of that remaining market share.
For those of us who need to get work done on the go, there’s always one dilemma when it comes to choosing your mobile machine: Do you skimp on screen size and go with a lighter 13-inch laptop, or do you risk putting your back or shoulders in jeopardy by opting for a larger 15-inch system? And for those who value flexibility, do you dare tack on even more added weight with a 2-in-1?
It’s a hard choice, and one that Samsung is looking to eliminate with the new Galaxy Book Pro 360. The new 2-in-1 combines a deliciously thin design and a gorgeous AMOLED display with excellent battery life and solid performance, putting everything you need in a single machine.
The Epitome of Sleekness
Devices get thinner all the time, but the Galaxy Book Pro 360’s dimensions still seem impossibly sleek. Measuring 14 x 9 x 0.46 inches and weighing just three pounds, the 15-inch Galaxy Book Pro 360 is significantly thinner and lighter than an XPS 15 (13.57 x 9.1 x 0.71). And the XPS 15 is a standard clamshell, while the Galaxy Book Pro 360 is a 2-in-1 with a rotating hinge.
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But it gets even better when you remember that the 15-inch Galaxy Book Pro 360 is actually the biggest and heaviest model in the new Galaxy Book Pro lineup, with the 13-inch Galaxy Book Pro 360 weighing just 2.3 pounds, and the clamshell 13-inch standard Galaxy Book Pro tipping the scales at a sprightly 1.9 pounds. All told, the lightness of Samsung’s Galaxy Book Pros means you can upgrade to a bigger system without breaking your back, which is a win for anyone who has ever wanted more screen to work or play with while traveling.
Additionally, despite being extremely thin, the Galaxy Book Pro 360 still offers great build quality, with a sturdy anodized aluminum chassis that only features a little bit of flexing in the middle keyboard, which given its dimensions, seems pretty reasonable. And while you could nitpick the Galaxy Book Pro 360 for having a slightly enlarged chin, that feels like an incredibly minor complaint.
Technicolor Dream Screen
Next, we move onto the Galaxy Book Pro 360’s display, which is where Samsung really flexes on the competition. Sporting a gorgeous 1920 x 1080 Super AMOLED panel, the Galaxy Book Pro line is one of the only laptop families that features an OLED screen as standard, while still remaining relatively affordable. Colors are deep and vivid, and with brightness being a strength of OLED displays, Samsung’s Galaxy Book Pro laptops are equally at home indoors as they are outdoors, even in bright sunlight.
This display is so good, it makes you want to find new things to view just to see how pretty they look. For more color-sensitive situations like editing photos or simply shopping online, Samsung provides multiple color profiles to make sure colors are accurate and not overly saturated. My only small gripe with the 15-inch Galaxy Book Pro 360 is that I wish Samsung had an optional 4K OLED panel, because with a lower overall pixel density compared to its 13-inch siblings, a little extra sharpness would go a long way.
More Than Enough Power to Get Work Done
Both the 13-inch and 15-inch models feature Intel Core i7-1165G7 CPUs and Intel Iris Xe graphics as standard, so the Galaxy Book Pro 360’s performance is pretty much as good as you can get without tacking on a discrete GPU. As expected, in Geekbench 5 our 15-inch Galaxy Book Pro 360 review unit pumped out similar numbers as other premium notebooks like the Razer Book 13, though systems with access to AMD CPUs like the Surface Laptop 4 do perform better when it comes to rendering videos. In Handbrake, our Galaxy Book Pro took 12 minutes and 29 seconds to convert a 4K movie to 1080p, compared to just under 9 minutes for the Surface Laptop 4.
And even without a discrete GPU, the Galaxy Book Pro 360’s Iris Xe graphics is still good enough to play less demanding games like League of Legends or Overwatch, though you might have to play with settings depending on the specific title.
Keyboard, Ports, and Stylus Support
For such a thin system, Samsung still provides a comfortable typing experience. The Galaxy Book Pro 360 balances out a relatively shallow 1mm of key travel with a crisp keystroke and a good bounce when you bottom out. Meanwhile, the Galaxy Book Pro 360’s touchpad is absolutely massive, with Samsung still finding room to include a numpad on the right on 15-inch models, which I think is a nice inclusion considering Samsung’s focus on mobile productivity. And in the very top right, there’s also a power button with a built-in fingerprint sensor that works with Windows Hello.
Port selection is also sufficient, with Samsung including one Thunderbolt 4 port along with two additional USB-C ports, a headphone jack, and a microSD card reader. With this system only featuring USB-C ports, I kind of wish Samsung had tossed in a USB-C to USB-A for help connecting legacy accessories, but you can’t get everything I guess. On the flip side, even though there’s no place to store a stylus in a system this thin, Samsung does include an S-Pen in the box.
A More Seamless Galaxy Experience
It’s easy to overlook this part, but Samsung has put a lot of work into a number of pre-installed apps designed to make other Galaxy devices play nice with the Galaxy Book Pro family. There’s Quick Share to help you share files between the laptop and your Galaxy phone a cinch, while Samsung’s Second Screen feature lets you turn a Galaxy tablet into a portable extended display. And of course there are all the S-Pen apps to help you quickly sketch or jot notes before syncing your scribbles across all your Galaxy devices.
Samsung even created a new version of its Smart Switch app, so you can transfer all of your existing files and Windows Store apps from your previous system to the Galaxy Book Pro 360 with ease. (Though strangely, it seems you can’t send over traditional standalone programs that you’ve installed manually.)
Look, it’s still not quite the experience you get from Apple’s family of devices, but it’s a big improvement compared to your typical Windows 10 fare, and for people who already own other Galaxy devices, these apps are something you’ll definitely appreciate. Annoying, there’s also a fair bit of bloatware pre-installed on here too, like apps for Amazon and Facebook Messenger, which detracts a bit from the notebook’s normal luxury vibe.
A Truly Awful Webcam
The one is a real head-scratcher, because it’s not like Samsung doesn’t already have extensive experience equipping and tuning cameras on mobile devices. But there’s no getting around it: The Galaxy Book Pro 360’s webcam is bad, or barely passable at best if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about showing their face on video calls.
Not only is the webcam’s 1280 x 720 resolution just ok, it captures content that looks grainier, blurrier, and just lower quality than what you get from an XPS 15. There aren’t really any excuses to have a webcam this bad on a premium laptop, and what makes things even worse is that aside from the webcam, the Galaxy Book Pro 360 doesn’t really suffer from any other major demerits, which makes the webcam feel like even more of an albatross.
Impressive Battery Life
Posting a time of 14 hours and 46 minutes on our video rundown test, the 15-inch Galaxy Book Pro 360 churned out one of the best battery life marks we’ve seen in years, easily beating out the XPS 15 (8:28), the Surface Laptop 4 (12:21), and others. Now it’s important to note that part of the Galaxy Book Pro 360’s longevity is due in large part to its OLED display, but even when playing games untethered, I was still impressed by its overall runtime.
One other nice bonus is that because the Galaxy Book Pro 360 supports charging over USB-C, you can also use Samsung’s 65-watt power brick to power up your other USB-C devices, which is a handy bonus when trying to pack light.
Which Laptop Should You Buy?
If you already have a couple Galaxy devices and you’re looking for a work machine to round out your kit, the Galaxy Book Pro 360 has to be at the top of your list. Not only does its OLED screen ensure you get the same jaw-droppingly good viewing experience across all of your devices, Samsung has delivered some honest to goodness synergy to help everything play nice together.
But even if you haven’t dipped your toes into Samsung’s ecosystem before, there’s still a lot to like. Between its super sleek design, best-in-class battery life, and the flexibility you get from its 2-in-1 design, the Galaxy Book Pro 360 is more than ready to handle traditional productivity tasks with aplomb. And when compared to other top competitors like Dell’s XPS 15, the Galaxy Book Pro 360 is even more portable and arguably better looking. With the Galaxy Book Pro 360, Samsung has taken the pursuit of lightness to greater heights.
I’m starting to get whiplash from this roller coaster ride that is Dogecoin’s value in recent days. It surged amid hype for Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s Saturday Night Live debut last weekend but plummeted after he called the meme-inspired cryptocurrency a “hustle,” only to ricochet again days later when SpaceX committed to accept a company’s payment in Dogecoin and Tesla suspended purchases using Bitcoin, citing environmental concerns, not long after.
Well, strap in folks, because the Dogefather sent its price soaring yet again Thursday evening with the following tweet:
“Working with Doge devs to improve system transaction efficiency. Potentially promising.”
Now, Musk is a known internet troll with a history of using Twitter to throw the stock market into a tailspin for the sake of a punchline, so it’s anyone’s guess whether he’s being serious. About an hour later, he posted another tweet sharing a bit of age-old wisdom from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with his millions of followers: Don’t panic! This seems to suggest it might just be a prank, but honestly, who fucking knows. (We’ve reached out to Tesla for clarification, but admittedly the company’s been pretty quiet since dissolving its PR department last October).
Joke or not, though, the effect it’s had on the price of Dogecoin is very much real. Dogecoin’s value jumped by as much as 18% following Musk’s tweet, according to Coinbase, and TradingView reports that its market cap spiked by $10 billion. The buzz has since tapered off a bit, but Dogecoin’s value is still coasting about 11% higher compared to this time yesterday.
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On Wednesday, Musk announced (also via tweet) that Tesla would no longer be accepting vehicle payments in Bitcoin, supposedly out of concern over the “rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for Bitcoin mining and transactions.” In the meantime, he said, Tesla will continue to look for more energy-efficient cryptocurrencies. And while that’s a commendable goal, the fact that Musk is only just now acknowledging how insane crypto mining’s carbon footprint is makes Tesla’s newfound concern feel like a PR move more than anything else.
On Monday SpaceX agreed to accept a payment solely comprised of Dogecoin from the Canada-based Geometric Energy Corporation to secure its spot for an 88-pound satellite aboard a space mission scheduled for 2022. The announcement had Dogecoin prices rebounding a bit after they tanked by about a third following Musk’s SNL appearance. Prices have been extremely volatile (even for a cryptocurrency) in the days since. But whether Musk’s tweets are serious or not, their command over stock prices is undeniable, so I suppose the Dogefather is getting the last laugh either way.
It’s been over five years and the second-generation Apple Magic Mouse still needs to be awkwardly flipped on its back like a turtle to be recharged with a lightning cable—rendering it unusable in the process. A better approach is what Lenovo has done with its new Go mouse, letting it rest atop a wireless charging pad when its battery is low.
The mouse is one of two products introduced as part of the new Lenovo Go accessories line. The other is a new Lenovo Go-branded USB-C power bank with 20,000 mAh capacity and 65-watt power output so that it can be used to charge a laptop as well as two other battery hungry devices at the same time. Both are available next month with the power bank going for $90, but it’s the $60 Lenovo Go Wireless Multi-Device Mouse that’s definitely the more interesting of the two.
That’s not to say that Lenovo has reinvented the mouse here, with just two navigation buttons and a scroll wheel it’s a fairly mundane design. But it can connect to three different devices at the same time, allowing users to choose which one it’s controlling—a laptop, desktop, tablet, etc.—using a dedicated button on top. It’s also cordless, charging through a USB-C port on the front that means it can still be used as a mouse while it’s powering up, or it can be parked atop a Qi-compatible charging pad for a few hours when it’s not needed. Apple, are you taking notes?
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.
They haven’t all been home runs, but Motorola is known for taking chances. The company has repeatedly shown it’s not afraid to bet on new technology, from the recently phased-out Moto Mods back to the first wafer-thin Razr feature phones. Now, Motorola is trying its hand at remote wireless charging for smartphones by partnering up with former CalTech engineers. Many have tried, but no company has made over-the-air charging a widespread thing. So why not try again?
The concept behind remote wireless charging is basically the same as wifi and mesh networking, though within a smaller scope. Instead of physically placing your smartphone atop a specified charging plate, you can walk into the range of the charger’s connection to start charging your phone.
GuRu, the company partnering with Motorola on the charging standard, is named after its hardware requirements. “Gu” stands for the generator unit, which is, in this case, a ceiling-mounted power generator. “Ru” stands for receiving unit, referring to the bite-sized receiving chip built into the smartphone. GuRu uses millimeter-wave frequency—the same kind that enables ultra-fast, short-range 5G networks—to transmit the wireless charging signal.
According to ZDNet’s deep dive into how GuRu’s over-the-air wireless charging technology works:
Instead of using one huge power transmitter, which blasts waves of energy in all directions, GuRu’s solution uses a small transmitter made up of interconnected modules that use millimeter-waves (mmWave), a radio frequency typically defined in the 30GHz to 300GHz range that works within line-of-sight. (MmWave is also used by the current 5G standard to send data at extremely high speed over relatively short distances compared to the Sub-6 GHz 5G tech.)
Because GuRu is using millimeter-wave frequencies and smart algorithms, its transmitters and receivers can be miniaturized, and it allows it to better direct and confine the EM waves compared to waves in the higher microwave bands — the very same wavelengths where Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are operating.
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GuRu told ZDNet that the generator could concurrently track and transmit to multiple receivers within distances exceeding 30 feet regardless of the device’s wattage requirement. And since it’s scalable, GuRu’s wireless technology could be used to power up everything from earbuds, headphones, smartwatches, and even laptops and tablets, as well as charging multiple devices concurrently. Imagine Motorola hinging an entire lineup of accessories for its smartphones on this wireless charging specification—like Moto Mods but useful.
The concept of charging a smartphone by simply walking into a room is pretty neat. Seeing it come to fruition is another thing entirely, as most of the time, remote wireless charging is nothing more than a “tantalizing tech demo,” to borrow a phrase from Gizmodo’s Andrew Liszewski. Overseas Android favorites Xiaomi and Oppo, are pushing through their versions of the technology, with Oppo’s Wireless Air Charging being the most competitive. But unlike GuRu’s implementation, Oppo’s technology is limited to charging devices from a mere four inches away.
GuRu’s remote wireless charging specification could be the sort of thing that helps Motorola recapture the smartphone spotlight. With Lenovo at the helm, Motorola is clearly willing to take risks. Wireless charging has become the default for flagship smartphones, and GuRu’s implementation would take a Motorola phone to the next level.
Sen. Ron Wyden, historically a leading proponent of heightened cybersecurity governance in both public and private spheres, called for congressional action Wednesday around all private firms operating in critical infrastructure sectors, saying the recent network breach at one of the largest U.S. pipelines paints a dismal picture of the nation’s susceptibility to attack.
The cyber intrusion detected at Colonial Pipeline Co. over the weekend forced the shutdown of a vital pipeline stretching from Houston to New Jersey, which typically ferries more than 2.5 million barrels of fuel per day. On Sunday, The FBI confirmed the breach involved a criminal ransomware gang known as DarkSide, which cybersecurity experts have linked to Russia, though not directly to the Kremlin. The group itself issued a statement on Monday claiming the breach was financially and not politically motivated, and that it intends to work toward “avoid[ing] social consequences in the future.”
In a statement to Gizmodo, Wyden, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said the attack underscores a “massive problem” at companies running the country’s critical infrastructure, saying “dangerously negligent cybersecurity” portends more crippling attacks in the future. Failures at the highest corporate levels pose a significant threat to national security, he said, adding that Congress should immediately force critical infrastructure companies to institute heightened security safeguards.
“For far too long Wall Street has racked up profits by cutting jobs in safety and security, even when it puts lives and the country’s economy at risk,” he said. “There must be serious civil and criminal penalties—with personal accountability for CEOs—for critical infrastructure firms with lax cybersecurity, and federal agencies should be conducting regular cybersecurity audits of these firms.”
Wyden added: “Any company so vital to our economy that a cyberattack can disrupt the lives of millions of Americans, should be regularly audited by the government so that our adversaries are not the first ones to discover cybersecurity weaknesses.”
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The Oregon senator’s focus on the culpability of corporate officers is hardly out of left field. Wyden has previously introduced and sponsored several bills concerning data security seeking tough penalties for corporate malpractice, including, in the case of Silicon Valley, prison time for executives who mislead regulatory bodies about their data handling practices.
The biggest impact of the pipeline breach so far appears to be a spike in concern around the country’s ability to provide fuel to residents along the Eastern Seaboard. Panic buying in several Southern states, including Tennessee and Georgia, has provoked gasoline shortages and in some areas driven up prices. The price hikes have been relatively minimal so far, roughly equivalent to annual spikes seen usually during natural disasters.
On Tuesday, the Biden Administration waived shipborne fuel requirements implemented under the Clean Air Act to ease fuel shortages until normal supply in the region is restored.
Bloomberg reported this week that U.S. agencies, including the FBI and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, had joined forces with a group of private-sector firms to help mitigate the impact of the DarkSide attacks, which affected more than two dozen companies. The effort provided Colonial Pipeline a means to recover some of the stolen data, which had been bound for a server in Russia.
While not directly implicating the Kremlin, President Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday the Russian government bears at least “some responsibility” to address cyberattacks emanating from within its borders.
Two months ago, Apple decided to discontinue the original HomePod. And yet, it appears the product is still available in the Apple Store—and if you buy one, you might actually get sent a HomePod from the original launch stock.
Typically when a product is discontinued, you can find massive discounts, and if the product is remotely good that leftover inventory can vanish pretty quickly. For instance, according to 9to5 Mac, the iMac Pro was discontinued around the same time as the HomePod and leftover stock vanished before the month was over. The space gray HomePod was sold out before Apple made the decision to nix the device, but the white version is still for sale at $299.
HomePod defenders might shrug and say, so what if it’s been two months? Well, YouTuber Michael Kukielka bought two HomePods after they’d been discontinued and both were apparently from Apple’s launch stock. As in, the HomePods were manufactured for the device’s launch in 2018 and sitting in boxes ever since. Kukielka posted proof that one of two HomePods he’d bought was produced on Dec. 19, 2017, while the other had been made on Feb. 3, 2018. The latter HomePod came out of the box running iOS 11.2.5 firmware, which was publicly released in January 2018. He also had another picture of the HomePod’s plug, covered in white dust from plastic breaking down after sitting in a box for over three years.
The HomePod was one of Apple’s more public flops. While many reviewers praised its sound quality, the initial $349 price tag was a lot considering most other smart speakers at that time were much more affordable and came with a digital assistant that didn’t suck. Not helping matters was the fact that you were confined to Apple Music. If you wanted third-party music streaming, you’d have to rely on AirPlay, a feature that was readily available on other high-quality smart speakers like the Sonos One. About a year after launching, Apple permanently slashed the price of the HomePod from $349 to $299. And if there’s one thing about Apple, permanent price cuts for an active product are beyond rare—they’re nearly unheard of.
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It’s even harder to recommend the HomePod now that the more affordable HomePod Mini is here. Not only has the original not been discounted further, but also some owners couldn’t access Apple Music via Siri after updating to iOS 14.5. Given that Apple Music is only one of a handful of streaming services the device natively supports, this isn’t great. Meanwhile, the Mini is a third of the price, sounds impressive for its size, can do most of what the original can, and is competitively priced to rival smart speakers. It’s sort of a no-brainer.
While we don’t know the exact numbers, it’s also clear the HomePod Mini is selling much better than its predecessor did. The device sold out on day one, and Apple itself confirmed in a statement to multipleoutlets that the Mini “has been a hit since its debut last fall.” To rub salt in the wound, market research firm Omdia estimated Apple sold 2.4 million smart speakers in the U.S. in Q1 of 2021, with 91% of those sales being the Mini. If the rest were the original HomePod, that would shake out to roughly 216,000 units sold. And yet, we’re still here two months later with leftover launch stock. Yeowch.