Brilliant makes your smart home more manageable

Controlling your smart home gadgets from your phone or by voice isn’t exactly a chore, but after setting up a bunch of smart lights, a Wi-Fi lock, thermostat and a few more smart devices, I came to miss the ability to control at least some of them with a physical switch. Add to that the simple fact that your visitors suddenly don’t have a clue how to turn off the lights and you may just want to go back to basic light switches. Thankfully, that’s something the industry has realized, too, and we’re seeing a few more smart hardware controllers now, too.

At CES this year, Brilliant announced a new smart plug and switch to complement its existing touchscreen smart home controller. The new hardware is still a few weeks away, but ahead of the launch, I got a chance to try out the existing Brilliant controller, which has been on the market for a while but has received numerous updates and support for new integrations ever since. One of the latest integrations is with Schlage’s Encode Wi-Fi lock, which I also tested.

The promise of the Brilliant Controls is that you will be able to control all supported smart home gadgets from the physical and touchscreen controls — and, of course, it also turns the light switches you replace with it into smart switches. It also comes with a built-in camera (with a privacy shutter) that you can use either for room-to-room video chats or to check up on your home while you are away. The video quality isn’t great, but good enough for its intended purpose.

Supported devices include Wemo smart plugs, Ring alarms, Sonos speakers, Philips Hue and Lifx lights, as well Schlage, Yale and August locks, among others. The number of integrations keeps growing and covers most of the major brands, but if you’ve bet on other systems, this isn’t the controller for you. It also comes with built-in Alexa support and works with the Google Assistant, too.

Depending on how you feel about working with electricity in your home, the physical installation of the Brilliant Controls (I tested the $ 299 single and $ 349 dual switches) is either a breeze or will cause you nightmares. If you’ve ever changed a light switch, though, the installation couldn’t be easier, and Brilliant offers both an in-depth printed installation guide and video tutorials.

My own experience was pretty straightforward, assuming that your home’s electricity system is relatively modern and conforms to today’s standards. Installing the single switch took me about half an hour and the more complex dual switch was ready to go in about 45 minutes or so — and that was the first time I changed a light switch in a few years. If you’ve never done this before, though, that rats nest of cables behind your switches may take a little bit to figure out, but thankfully, all electric cables in modern homes should be color-coded.

One nice feature here is that you first install the backplate, which has physical buttons to let you test your installation before you put on the actual touchscreen unit. That way, you don’t have to unscrew everything in case you did make a mistake.

As for the software side, once you put on the screen, the Android -based interface should pop up within a few minutes. From there, you go through the usual Wi-Fi setup procedure and most likely a software update. After that, you should be ready to go.

Managing the lights that are directly attached to the control from the touchscreen or the capacitive strips on the side (for the two-switch control and up) is easy enough. Adding your third-party devices to the system takes a little while, but isn’t too onerous either, and you’re only going to do it once, after all.

I found the overall menu system a bit confusing, though, and takes a while to navigate. That especially becomes a problem when you want to program scenes (maybe to turn on all the different smart lights in your living room or bedroom). For this, you have to program both a scene that turns on all the lights, which take a few taps for every single one — and then a second scene that turns them all off. Because you can duplicate scenes, that second step is a bit faster, but I couldn’t help but think that there had to be a better solution for this. At the same time, though, this allows you to create pretty complex scenes. You can do most of this through the Brilliant app on your phone, too, which is probably the way to go as it’s a bit easier and faster.

Once everything is set up, though, the system is actually incredibly easy to use, and even your house guests who have never seen a smart plug will finally be able to turn your lights on and off (and yes, I’m aware that this shouldn’t be a problem in 2020, but here we are). I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but it pretty much just works.

One problem I’ve had with Brilliant is that the Controls are pricey, starting at $ 299 for the single switch and $ 349 for the dual switch. At those prices, you’re not going to put those into a lot of your rooms (unless you think that’s not that pricey, in which case, congrats). With the upcoming screen-less dimmer switches, which only require you to have a single control in your home and will retail for just under $ 70, that equation changes. We’ll give those new switches a try once they are available later this year.

 

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Fujifilm’s X100V strengthens the case for owning a compact camera

The cameras on our phones are getting good enough that it’s becoming hard to justify having a dedicated picture-taking device. Fujifilm’s X100 series has always made one of the strongest cases for it, however, and the latest iteration makes it more convincing than ever.

I reviewed the original X100 back in 2011, and the series has received a new model about every two years since its announcement; today’s X100V is the fifth. But its changes are more significant than those of any one of its predecessors.

The X100V has a new 24-megapixel APS-C sensor and image processor, taken from Fuji’s high-end X-Pro3, which I’ve used and been quite impressed with. It also inherits the X-Pro3’s much improved OLED/optical viewfinder, autofocus system, and other features. But they’re married to a redesigned 35mm equivalent, F/2 lens that improves on what was already excellent glass.

The series has always had a throwback aesthetic, adding dials while others eliminated them, but in a concession to modernity the rear LCD is now a tilting touchscreen, now a must-have for many shooters. It also has improved video capabilities, and is now weatherproofed as well.

Plus, it’s beautiful.

All these fit into a package that is highly compact and attractive, though admittedly considerably thicker than a phone. But although under some circumstances a phone camera can indeed rival a dedicated camera, the X100V perhaps more than any other compact camera justifies itself (incidentally, DPReview’s initial impressions are highly favorable).

The shooting experience is so different (the hybrid viewfinder is and always has been genius), it puts so many options at your disposal, and the resulting image will not only be superior, but more defined by what you want to create than what your phone is capable of doing.

I’ve been trying to reconnect with photography and I’ve found that relying on the phone for that simply isn’t an option for me any more. I want the right tool for the job, yet I don’t want to be inconvenienced by a camera’s size or operation, or obsess over my lens selection. I want an image-taking device as dedicated to that purpose as a knife is to cutting.

Is that the X100V? There is real competition from Ricoh’s latest GR III street shooter, as well as the Canon G5 X II and Sony’s RX100 VII. Although camera sales are dropping, there’s no better time to want or have a compact device in this class. Fortunately it seems to come down to personal preference. I’d be happy with any one of those in my hand, if it means I can leave my phone in my pocket.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Shopping via smart speakers is not taking off, report suggests

U.S. consumers aren’t adopting voice-based shopping as quickly as expected, according to a new report today from eMarketer. While consumers have been happy to bring smart speakers into their home, they continue to use them more often for simple commands — like playing music or getting information, for example — not for making purchases. However, the overall number of voice shoppers is growing. It’s just slower than previously forecast, the analysts explain.

By the end of this year, eMarketer estimates that 21.6 million people will have made a purchase using their smart speaker. That’s lower than the Q2 2019 forecast, which expected the number to reach 23.6 million.

Still, it’s important to point out that the overall number of people making purchases via a smart speaker is growing. It will even pass a milestone this year, when 10.8% of all digital buyers in the U.S. will have made a purchase using their smart speaker.

EMarketer attributes the slower-than-anticipated growth to a number of factors, including that security concerns are leading people to not yet fully trust smart speakers and their makers. Many consumers would also prefer a device with a screen so they could preview the items before committing to buy. Apple and Google have addressed the latter by introducing smart home hubs that include screens, speakers and built-in voice assistants. But consumers may have already bought traditional Echo and Google Home devices and don’t feel the need to upgrade.

In addition, the report upped the estimates for percentage of users listening to audio (81.1%) or making inquiries (77.8%).

“Though there are thousands of smart speaker apps that do everything from let you order takeout to find recipes or play games, many consumers don’t realize that they need to take extra and more specific steps to utilize all capabilities,” said eMarketer principal analyst Victoria Petrock. “Instead, they stick with direct commands to play music, ask about the weather or ask questions, because those are basic to the device.”

To be fair, a forecast like this can’t give a complete picture of smart speaker usage. Many consumers do ask Alexa to add items to a shopping list, for instance, which they then go on to buy online at some point — but that wouldn’t be considered voice-based purchasing. Instead, the smart speaker sits as the top of the funnel, capturing a consumer’s intention to buy later, but doesn’t trigger the actual purchase.

That said, Amazon, in particular, has failed to capitalize on the potential for voice shopping, given how easily it can tie a voice command to a purchase from its site. Perhaps it became a little gun-shy from all those mistaken purchases, but the company hasn’t innovated on voice shopping features. There are a number of ways Amazon could make voice shopping a habit or turn one-time purchases into subscriptions, just by way of simple prompts.

Amazon could also develop a set of features, similar to Honey (now owned by PayPal), that allow users track price drops and sales, then alert Echo owners using Alexa’s notifications platform or even an “Amazon companion” skill, that could be added to users’ daily Flash Briefings (e.g. “The item you were watching is now $ 50 off. The new price is…$ X…would you like to buy it?”). The companion could also track out-of-stock items, alert you to new arrivals from a favorite brand, or even send product photos to the Alexa companion app, as suggested deals.

Instead, Alexa voice shopping remains fairly basic. Without improvements, consumers will likely continue to avoid the option.

EMarketer also today adjusted its forecast for overall smart speaker usage. Instead of the 84.5 million U.S. smart speaker users, the 2020 estimate has been dropped to 83.1 million users, indicating slightly slower adoption.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

BlackBerry and TCL will end their handset partnership in August 2020

Big changes ahead for BlackBerry and TCL at a time when the smartphone market continues to see slowing growth. The two announced today that they would end their four-year brand licensing and tech support partnership in August 2020, with TCL ceasing to make new models of BlackBerry handsets after then, but continuing to support models that are already in the market for two years after, until August 31, 2022.

“We…regret to share… that as of August 31, 2020, TCL Communication will no longer be selling BlackBerry-branded mobile devices,” says the note, posted BlackBerry’s Twitter account. “TCL has no further rights to design, manufacturers or sell any new BlackBerry mobile devices.”

The company has yet to follow up with any more details about what this means for new BlackBerry handsets after that point. (We have asked directly but have not heard back. People asking on Twitter are also not getting any responses.)

The announcement caps off what has been a tough four years for the two companies.

BlackBerry, making devices using its own operating system, was once a market leader and trailblazer in the world of smartphones, with its small, full-qwerty keyboard gaining a loyal following among professional users, “prosumers” and other early adopters. That popularity lead to the Canada-founded company controlling some 50% of the smartphone market in the US and some 20% globally at its peak.

That was, however, before the rise of the touchscreen. After the launch of Apple’s iPhone and a slew of Android-powered handsets, Research In Motion (as the company was called then) gradually saw its share start to decline as it failed to produce compelling enough handsets to fit changing tastes.

RIM/BlackBerry appeared to be ready to leave the smartphone market altogether to focus instead on security, enterprise services and systems for other kinds of “hardware” like connected cars, until TCL came along.

TCL’s announcement in December of 2016 that it would take over making handsets, with BlackBerry to provide security and apps, but not the operating system, which would be Android — not unlike the partnership that another once-huge but now ageing handset brand, Nokia, struck up with HMD, just months before that, to make smartphones built on Android — looked like a new lease of life for BB.

But the change may have been too little, too late. The last few years have seen a general slowing down of smartphone growth, in large part due to market penetration in many countries: meaning, it’s much harder to shift devices than it used to be. And on top of that, there have been an army of new handset makers out of Asia, and also building on Android, that are dominating sales, led by Huawei but also including the likes of Xiaomi and Oppo, making the sales funnel even more challenging.

The end result has been that TCL and BlackBerry have struggled to break through with significant sales — falling instead into the large, and largely fragmented, “other” category in smartphone market share reports.

More recently, TCL has been wading into the market with its own-branded devices alongside its efforts with BlackBerry and Alcatel (another legacy mobile handset brand that TCL resuscitated), and so the writing was, perhaps, already on the touchscreen, so to speak.

We’ve reached out to BlackBerry to find out if it can tell us any more on its plans for handsets going forward, of if this is really it. BlackBerry has inked some licensing partnerships in specific markets, such as this handset deal in Indonesia, so there may be yet more to come.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Maxar and NASA will demonstrate orbital spacecraft assembly with a new robotic arm

NASA has awarded Maxar an estimated $ 142 million contract to demonstrate in-orbit spacecraft refueling and assembly of new components using a custom robotic platform in space.

The space infrastructure dexterous robot, or SPIDER, program will be part of NASA’s Restore-L mission to demonstrate automation of proposed orbital tasks like reconfiguring or repairing a satellite or manufacturing new components from scratch.

The first thing the Restore-L spacecraft will do is show that it can synchronize with, capture, connect with, refuel a satellite in orbit, then release it into a new orbit. Afterwards the craft will use a Maxar-built robotic arm to assemble a multi-panel antenna reflector, then test it.

Last, a separate piece of hardware, Tethers Unlimited’s MakerSat, will extrude a beam some 10-20 meters long, which will be inspected by the parent satellite, then detached and reattached to demonstrate its robustness.

There’s no hard timeline for the mission yet, so don’t expect anything for at least a year or two. This isn’t a small-scale experiment that can fly up next week in an Electron — it’s a big, expensive one that will likely take up most of a large rocket’s payload.

Although it’s only a demonstration, a Maxar representative pointed out that it is very close to what would be an operational system on other satellites in the future. It has also been previously demoed on the ground, though of course that’s no substitute for the real thing.

Robotic arms are something of a specialty for Maxar, which has delivered six total for NASA, including the one on Insight (currently on the Red Planet) and the Mars 2020 Rover (due to receive its official, inspirational name any day now).

We’ll have Maxar’s head of space robotics on stage at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI in March at UC Berkeley, so be sure to join us there if you’d like to hear more about the business of building space robots.

Gadgets – TechCrunch