Withings ScanWatch is a great alternative to other smartwatches

When Apple launched the Apple Watch, they made a big hoopla out of teaching its consumers how excited it was about having a “digital crown” and “complications”. To the watch lovers among us, that was a head-scratcher — of course a watch has all of those things.

At the time, Apple was falling victim to its heritage as a computing company. In short — it wasn’t creating a smartwatch — it was creating a tiny iPhone you carry around on your wrist, while desperately trying to convince everybody that “yes, this is a wristwatch, we promise!”

Withings’ Health Mate app is exceptional, especially if you use more than one of the Withings health products. It integrates with Google Fit and Apple Health Kit so you can port the data into your preferred ecosystem. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

I’ve seen the parallel in the car world as well: A lot of the traditional car manufacturers scratched their heads and thought, “How can we cram a truckload of batteries and an electric drive train into one of our cars,” whereas some car manufacturers — Tesla in particular — essentially took the challenge differently. Tesla’s approach was, “What if we could take an iPhone, which just gets better with time as more software updates become available — and build a car around it.” The result, for Tesla, is a car that looks and feels spectacularly different than most of the other cars. Whether or not you prefer the interior and ownership experience of a Tesla or the newest generation of Mercedes electrical car boils down to a lot of things, but in my mind, it’s about a general philosophy and approach to design and functionality.

All of which brings us to the ScanWatch. Withings has always taken a different approach than Apple. With its relatively minimalist watches that actually look and feel like timepieces, it came at the same problem Apple was trying to solve, but the way a watchmaker would do it. How do you build a great, functional watch that looks and feels like a watch, but adds a dollop of smart features? Its Steel HR showed what was to come, and the Withings ScanWatch is a natural and more ambitious step up the ladder from there.

The upshot of the different design philosophy is that you can’t use the Withings ScanWatch as a remote control to take photos with your phone. You can’t talk to it or use it to send texts. You can’t use it to read emails or play music or record voice memos. And if those things are important to you, well, the Withings ScanWatch simply isn’t for you — you’re not looking for a smart wristwatch, you’re looking for a microscopic supercomputer.

The overall build quality and attention to detail of the ScanWatch is extraordinary. This feels more like a premium watch than a miniature computer. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

Having spent a little while with Withing’s top-of-the-line smart wristwatch, I found myself being delighted time and time again, both for all the things it is, but — most importantly — for all the things it is not. I stopped wearing an Apple watch because I disliked the design (it’s a soulless black square — much like a smartphone) and I hated the fact that it kept buzzing and notifying me of messages and tweets and emails. Yes, you can turn those things off, but if you turn off all the smartphone-extension features of the Apple Watch, you eventually end up with very little that makes the watch worth carrying around, especially when you have to charge it every day.

The Withings ScanWatch comes in two sizes, with a 38 mm and 42 mm watch face. Image Credits: Withings

Withings’ ScanWatch is the exact opposite. For one, it looks like a simple, minimalist wristwatch. If the little PMOLED display is off, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a high-end, understated timepiece from one of the many high-end watch manufacturers. The display isn’t a fancy retina display, but the trade-off is that you get up to a month of battery life. The watch feels like a wristwatch, too — heavier than you would think, but in a way that feels reassuring to me. You know that it is there, and if you’re used to wearing high-quality timepieces, that’s not a bad thing.

The ScanWatch also brings a ton of extremely high-end tech to a wristwatch, focusing primarily on health and wellness features — they are an extension of its fitness tracker roots, rather than extending the functionality of your phone.

Withings’ ScanWatch brings a ton of medical-grade trackers to your wrist. The EKG functionality is the crown jewel of the watch/app combo. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

The watch has been available in Europe for a while, and the reason for the delay for its U.S. launch further illustrates how different this device is from its competitors. To launch, it needed clearance from the FDA. Its built-in EKG is high-quality enough, the company claims, to be able to detect atrial fibrillation (afib), one of the most common cardiac arrhythmias — and a leading cause of stroke, heart failure and other heart issues.

To offer that data to you as a consumer, the company claims you need a prescription, and for the first EKG measurement to be analyzed by a medical professional — it isn’t entirely clear how other smartwatch manufacturers with similar EKG functionality get around this, or whether Withings is doing something fundamentally different.

Activating the EKG approval process is free, and you will not be charged whether you are approved or not for continued EKG use. In the meantime, the company is working to make the EKG functionality fully available to users without a prescription or additional costs, presumably by mirroring what Apple, Samsung and the others are doing to get their FDA ducks in a row.

If that all sounds a little over the top, well, you wouldn’t be the first to make that observation. The company went on the defensive before the watch was even released, and ended up publishing a FAQ especially addressing the EKG functionality.

In my mind, it serves to highlight the company’s ambitions to be a health-first device. It fits in very well with the rest of the company’s devices — it sells smart sleep trackers, blood pressure cuffs, smart thermometers and body-fat-measuring scales, for example — and the excellent Withings Health Mate app that powers all of Withings’ devices is vying for your attention as the central hub as your physical health.

Withings’ ScanWatch comes in two sizes. This is the 38 mm version, which feels about right-sized on my “do you even lift, bro?”-sized wrists. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

The sum of all of this is a truly exceptional (time)piece of technology. The watch crams heart rate monitoring, blood oxygen monitoring, the EKG functionality, step, workout and activity trackers, connected GPS, an altimeter, sleep trackers, smart wake-up alarms and much more, all into a sexy, easy-to-forget device that lives on your wrist.

As a tech reviewer, I don’t have the medical expertise to determine whether all of these features are as good as the company claims they are. From conversations I’ve had with medical professionals, the general consensus seems to be that it isn’t as good as the multi-thousand-dollar industrial medical equipment that lives in your doctor’s office. Frankly, that would be unreasonable in a $300 consumer-grade item you carry around on your arm.

If you are a health and fitness-forward person who cares about style, it’s hard to go wrong with the Withings ScanWatch. It’s an incredible leap forward in wrist-carriable technology and a breath of fresh, well-oxygenated blood into a category that was starting to get a little hypoxic.

For what it’s worth, while I was glad to see the back of my Apple Watch when I put it on eBay a few years ago, I will buy a ScanWatch with my own money once this review unit goes back to Withings; high praise from someone who approaches a lot of gadgets with a backpack full of skepticism these days.

Microsoft takes on Chromebooks with school-focused $250 laptops and Windows 11 SE

Microsoft is making its play for the new shape of classrooms with a pared-down version of Windows 11 and a set of inexpensive laptops from the Surface brand and several other manufacturers. It’s clear they’ve got Google’s popular Chromebooks in their sights, and their partners seem to be hedging their bets as well.

Before all that, let’s just establish that “SE” doesn’t stand for anything, unlike the SE in Windows 98 SE (“second edition”) or the iPhone SE (“special edition”) or the Macintosh SE (“system expansion”). The SE is “intended to clearly differentiate it from other editions like Home and Pro,” Microsoft told me, though why the they didn’t just say it stands for “Students and Educators” instead of being a completely meaningless initialism is beyond me. (Yes, Microsoft, you can steal that.)

Whatever the origin of its name, the Surface Laptop SE we may take to be the platonic shape or reference design of what Microsoft is hoping to achieve here: a $250 laptop with all the basics, but designed with the remote classroom and ease of repair in mind.

The specs won’t wow anybody, but this is intended to be a homework and remote learning machine, not a 4K VFX workstation. Let’s just have a few bullets here:

  • Intel Celeron N4020 or N4120 series with integrated graphics
  • 4 or 8 GB of RAM
  • 64 or 128 GB of storage in an eMMC (and therefore not expandable)
  • 720p webcam with “improved facial awareness”
  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
  • 1x USB-A, 1x USB-C, 3.5mm headphone jack

There’s a missed opportunity to use the USB-C for charging (there’s a separate port for an old-school cylindrical power connector), but it’s more or less what you’d expect from a machine at this price.

Microsoft's Surface Laptop SE with two applications open.

Except for the 11.6″, 1366×768 display. Of course this is intended for kids, but still, Chromebooks at this price have 1080p screens, which is a big improvement for text clarity and video quality, two things you want to optimize for in a laptop like this.

The company did say that it is bringing the solid keyboard from its nicer laptops down to this device, which is good news. And the focus on repairability is welcome as well: “vital components like the display, battery, keyboard – even the motherboard – can be easily repaired onsite, saving time and money for IT admins and schools,” Microsoft wrote.

Other devices are on the way from Acer, ASUS, Dell, Dynabook, Fujitsu, HP, JK-IP, Lenovo, and Positivo, with both Intel and AMD options and no doubt a bit of variance in specs. They’re not necessarily new (Dynabook’s E10 came out earlier this year, for instance) but are compatible with the new OS.

To wit, all these laptops will be running Windows 11 SE, a version of the OS that’s intended to be easy for schools to deploy en masse. It has been optimized for the hardware noted above and can be provisioned quickly and simply, with Microsoft 365 and other commonly used apps and services pre-loaded. School IT is also the only one that can add and remove apps, and can control web access as well. Automatic updates, cloud management, the whole enchilada.

Microsoft’s Windows 11 SE showing two apps pinned side by side.

In the announcement post, Microsoft notes that internet access at home is not necessarily something that every student can rely on. So they made sure that the built-in apps don’t have to phone home to work. 365 apps will work offline and OneDrive will store changes locally, syncing them once it connects to Wi-Fi.

Microsoft has had mixed luck with these limited forks of its flagship OS. Windows RT was the most famous flop, but 11 SE is very different — sure, it’s made to run on specific hardware and locks down a lot of basic features, but it’s intended for a particular market that actually wants those things.

Netbooks, too, were something of a flash in the pan and not much good to anybody, but nowadays you can do a lot more with a barebones PC and a browser. Hopefully these modest notebooks will make it into the hands of students and do a bit to improve the rather uneven present situation with remote learning.

Paranoid and on the move? Arlo Go 2 brings battery power and cell data to the surveillance mix

Aimed at construction sites, vacation homes or for other hard-to-reach locations, Arlo‘s new Arlo Go 2 LTE/Wi-Fi Security Camera is at your beck and call to keep an eye out for thieves, sneaks and other scoundrels.

The company is also peddling its Arlo Secure subscription service, which gives users access to a rolling 30-day library of cloud recordings, in addition to computer vision analysis of the footage with personalized person, animal, vehicle and package detection. The service also includes an Emergency Response feature, which can dispatch emergency services to the camera’s location at the touch of a button.

The cameras are rugged, with a weather-resistant design to withstand the test of the elements, provide secure local storage to microSD cards and have connectivity built in. The cameras can phone home to the company’s servers using your Wi-Fi connection if and when it’s available, or LTE networks as either a primary or fallback option when the Wi-Fi goes down for the seventh time just when the latest episode of your favorite TV show gets good.

“Arlo Go 2 builds on the success of its Arlo Go predecessor, serving as the most versatile solution for anyone seeking wire-free security for hard-to-access locations,” said Tejas Shah, senior vice president of Product and Chief Information Officer at Arlo. “Arlo Go 2’s ability to operate on either a mobile network or Wi-Fi puts the power in the hands of the user, allowing them to select the best connection for their use case.”

Arlo Go 2 is equipped with GPS positioning so you can keep tabs on them — making it easy to locate multiple devices across a larger area, or to go find your camera if bitter irony should strike and the thieves leave your house alone and instead just wander off with the cameras themselves. The cameras also feature two-way comms with speakers and a microphone so you can troll your would-be burglars from a safe distance, and a built-in siren so you can signal to your intruders that they’re being watched.

Carrying a $250 price tag, the cameras will be available through Verizon now-ish, with additional carriers becoming available next year.

Music wearable Mictic raises $2.5M to get you shredding, scratching and strumming

Switzerland-based Mictic has created a pair of wearables that turns thin air into your concert hall. Imagine a theremin without the theremin, hooked up to a clever loop station, and you’ve got the right idea. Just from the demos and descriptions, it’s the kind of startup you’d scratch your head over and talk about in the bar after a long day of CES, for it to never be heard of again. Mictic, however, rose above the gimmicks sufficiently to raise a $2.5 million seed round from PTK Capital — and even adds music megastar Moby to its cap table.

The Mictic device is a pair of wristbands that includes sensors to measure your movements. It connects to your smartphone, and the app unlocks music-making creativity for beginners with no music skills at all. At launch, the app will offer 15 sounds and soundscapes, including a variety of musical styles and genres.

The startup has one of the stranger inception stories — it started with a game of badminton. The founders went along to a game of tennis, which was canceled due to rain, and the game was moved indoors instead. The founders were discussing how anti-climactic the game is, from an aural enjoyment point of view. So they went and hacked together a product that turns every slap of the shuttlecock into an epic explosion or other sound effects. From there, the team added a bunch of other soundscapes, changed the interface and ended up building a full-on musical instrument.

In addition to the pre-made soundscapes, the company’s founders are excited about the potential of their product as a more serious musical instrument.

“People can connect with Ableton, and they can use Mictic the same way they would use any MIDI controller. We hope that people will find new ways of using our product,” says the company’s CTO Matthias Frey. “We are also planning to expand our platform business in the very near future. Once the product is out, one of the next steps for users is for them to be able to create their own soundscapes quite easily.”

The funding round will enable the company to grow further and to test out its product in the market. Mictic currently consists of 10 people, and it is hoping to grow further.

“We really had to bootstrap for a while and then we built this fundraising round. Our next step is to put the product out as soon as possible. We’re proud of it and we are looking forward to getting a sense of how people are planning to use the product,” says Mictic’s CEO Mershad Javan. He agrees that $2.5 million isn’t going to be enough to fulfil all of the company’s dreams; “It’s not a whole lot of money, but to us it is a matter of shipping our product to our customers, and then hopefully ramp up from there. As soon as we can actually bring in some key data and business insights, we can continue to grow and probably raise another round of funding fairly quickly after.”

In its press materials, Mictic makes a big deal of Moby being on the company’s cap table, and is excited about the potential for collaboration and advisor potential, but admits that the musician was a relatively minor participant in the round, investing less than 10% of the $2.5 million round. In addition to investing directly in Mictic, the musician is a limited partner (i.e. an investor) in PTK Capital, the venture firm leading Mictic’s round.

Mictic opened up for preorders over the weekend, and the weird and wonderful musical instruments can be yours for a cool $119. The company expects to be shipping in the next month or so.

Update: An error snuck in, and we stated that the Mictic product cost $199. That has been updated to the correct price: $119

Is China building the metaverse?

There is a heated debate on the state of the race between the United States and China to dominate in AI. But perhaps the more strategic question is whether China is building the metaverse.

Built upon infrastructural technologies like AI, the metaverse refers to the vast array of digital experiences and ecosystems, from e-commerce and entertainment to social media and work, where we spend more and more of our lives. It’s soon going to be hard to conceive of a world in which much of our social and economic lives are not defined by the rules of the metaverse. To the builder goes the opportunity to establish rules to their own benefit.

In truth, both the U.S. and China are trying to build and lay claim to the metaverse, with other actors such as Europe trying to do so as well, but they simply don’t control enough of the core technologies that make the metaverse possible.

These core technologies include AI, 5G, end-user devices and the sector-straddling super apps that bring everything together — and related technologies such as smartwatches and eyewear. Competence and dominance across these four criteria is what may give China an insurmountable head start over the U.S. in the race to build the future of the virtualized human experience.

China’s AI advantage

The Chinese leadership understands that AI is revolutionizing virtually all aspects of social life, including consumption. AI is a top priority for government and business, and the Chinese government has called for China to achieve major new breakthroughs by 2025 and become the global leader in AI by 2030.

If the metaverse does become the successor to the internet, who builds it, and how, will be extremely important to the future of the economy and society as a whole.

The strategy was initially outlined in the Chinese government’s New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan in 2017. It has since spurred both new policies and billions of dollars of R&D investments from ministries, provincial governments and private companies.

As a result of China’s AI initiatives, the American advantage in the sector has been steadily eroding: In 2017 the U.S. had an 11x lead over China, but by 2019, that lead had come down to 7x. By 2020, the U.S. was left with a narrow lead of 6x. Even this lead has been uncertain, and the ex-chief software officer of the Pentagon went so far as to say that China already had an insurmountable lead in AI and machine learning.

Moreover, some question the American lead when it comes to the availability of training data. In the privacy versus public good debate, the U.S. tends to lean toward privacy, whereas China has long exercised government intervention in maintaining a civil society as a public good.

Finally, China has access to vast data sets to train AI, which presents a significant strategic advantage, especially considering the country’s population of 1.4 billion.

China builds the devices

The capacity to build and ultimately become the preeminent force in the metaverse starts with China’s long-standing and unrivaled dominance of consumer device manufacturing. From smartphones and notebooks to AR and VR headsets, Chinese manufacturers are building the largest portion and widest varieties of the devices that consumers need to access digital platforms and social experiences. The most advanced design and production competencies are likely to already reside in cities like Shenzhen.