Tag: Gadgets

The best devices and apps to up your selfie game

The first time a stranger on the train told me I had a nice smile, I didn't believe her. Back then, I hadn't yet had my crooked teeth fixed, and my self-esteem wasn't anywhere as high as it is today. I was an ugly kid, and it took a shocking number of selfies to convince myself that I'm not an ugly adult. It may seem like a superficial pastime, but selfie-taking has real benefits.

I'm not alone in believing there are psychological advantages here. Studies have shown that seeing a good picture of yourself can boost your confidence, while taking a smiling selfie can make you feel happier. Over time, that can improve your self-esteem. But getting selfies to look the way you want requires a very particular set of skills, skills I've acquired over a very long career of testing gadgets that are often designed to help you take better photos. We'll talk about those devices later -- best if you nail your technique first.

The basics

First of all, practice, practice, practice. When you have free time at home, take as many selfies as you need to figure out what angle works for you. Whether it's holding your phone up high, sticking your chin out at a particular angle or figuring out which of your smiles looks best, there are certain key elements that even the most advanced technology won't address.

There isn't a rule that applies to everyone, but in general, holding your camera slightly above your eyes will prevent the appearance of double chins. Tilting your head ever so slightly to the left or right will make your face look slimmer (if that's something you're going for), and it usually helps to stick out your chin slightly to elongate your neck. Ultimately, there are various flattering ways one can pose, and everyone's good angles are different. Your best bet is to experiment and learn what works for your face.

Understanding light

Once you've figured out your best angles (make sure you have a few to avoid becoming a one-trick pony), you'll need to find or create the best lighting. Any photographer will tell you that light is your best friend, and that's equally true with selfies. This is something you won't have much control over if you're outside with ample natural light. But if you're in an environment where light is coming from just one direction, try to face the light source without your hand casting a shadow on you. In fact, try to avoid any shadows on your face at all.

It also helps to understand the type of light you're shooting in. The best condition is natural light, specifically during the hour before sunset. Daylight is ideal for bringing out colors and details -- best for showing off a new outfit or hair color. But your pictures will look better on a slightly cloudy day than under harsh sunlight. Clouds provide a natural filter for a softer effect on your face and prevent the overexposure that can happen on a sunny day.

When you're indoors, very often you'll be stuck under overhead lights that have an orange or greenish cast. In these situations, try to find a neutral light source and face it. It's also better if the bulb is covered with a translucent material like tracing/tissue paper or a light-color lampshade, since this filters the rays to avoid harshness.

Remote triggers to avoid blur

All the prep you do before taking a picture can be ruined by shaky hands. Sometimes, you have to hold your phone in a way that makes the trigger hard to reach. In those situations, using a voice or gesture trigger can be very helpful. Today, many phones from companies such as Samsung and LG offer voice commands to take photos when you say prompts like "Cheese" or "Smile." You can even ask Siri or the Google Assistant to "take a selfie" (though Apple's software is useless since you still have to press the shutter button yourself).

Smartphone on its magnetic tripod

Activate these, as well as gesture triggers, to avoid introducing blur to your image when pressing down on a physical button. If your phone has none of these options, a good workaround is setting a short timer, pressing the shutter button, then framing your shot. You can also get a mini tripod for your phone, as well as a remote control, to take perfectly still selfies. I'd recommend a selfie stick, because they can be very useful in preventing blur, but they've been banned in so many places (I've had them confiscated at various security checks) that at this point they're not worth the investment.

Accessories you can buy

If you're serious enough about selfies to consider buying tools to improve them, the options run the gamut from lights to standalone cameras. Portrait photographers use a ring light to avoid their cameras casting a shadow on their subject's faces while creating a sparkle in their eyes. The phone equivalent would be a selfie case, like the ones from LuMee or Allure/CaseMate. They add bulbs around the screen of your phone that you can turn on when you're in a dark environment or if you just want a glamour boost.

Both the LuMee and Allure options have their strengths -- the LuMee Duo's lights are more flattering, while the Allure has a fold-out ring that makes for better grip and doubles as a kickstand. I prefer the LuMee Duo (and the Kardashians use it, too) but I wish it weren't so hard to pry off your phone once you put it on. I haven't tried other options like the Ty-Lite, unfortunately, so I can't vouch for it.

You can also try a clip-on selfie light like the Chatlight or a plug-in flash like the iBlazr LED if you don't want to swap out your existing phone case. I found both those options effective (if a tad blue) during my testing, but I don't like carrying additional accessories on me, so I prefer the cases.

Of course, strong lights like that can cause oily faces to look shiny, so make sure you blot or powder your skin before snapping a shot. If you don't carry blotters or powder on you, even dabbing your forehead and nose with a napkin or tissue will help.

Some accessories let you get some distance from the camera, so you can see more of yourself in the picture. A mini tripod is a good way to set up your phone far away, but a camera accessory that's controlled by your phone has the added benefit of giving you a preview of your shot before you capture it. Try this webcam-like toy called a Snap Petz that you can set anywhere to take your picture. You may also consider the upcoming Amazon Echo Look, a voice-controlled camera that takes full-length pictures or short videos. The Echo Look also has built-in LED lights, and also senses depth to apply an artificial background blur so you (and your outfits) stand out. The Echo Look still isn't available, though, and we've yet to test it.

If you have money to blow and are happy to be extremely extra, go ahead and take a drone selfie. These flying cameras can recognize your face and follow you as you wander around a picturesque field or mingle with guests at a wedding reception. There are plenty of options, and they typically cost hundreds of dollars. Drone cameras are excellent for aerial videography, capturing stunning landscapes that add drama to home movies and indie films alike.

We don't recommend spending so much just to take an impressive selfie, but if you happen to get the chance to play with one, definitely make full use of it. Be careful to keep your eye on your drone, though. As our UK bureau chief Mat Smith learned, the possibility of accidentally decapitating other attendees or yourself is always looming.

Our favorite is the Hover Passport drone by startup Zero Zero, which Snap Inc is rumored to be buying. But at $550, the Passport is a pricey investment. There are plenty of decent alternatives for less money, including the Parrot Mambo FPV, the Yuneec Breeze 4K and the DJI Spark.

Apps

After you've taken the picture, there's more you can do to improve your selfie. Aside from using your built-in Photos app or Instagram to tweak highlights, shadows, warmth, saturation and more, you can also consider fixing your pictures with selfie apps.

These let you make fixes as subtle as smoothing your complexion or as dramatic as giving yourself a new look altogether. Discussions about misrepresenting yourself aside (a good practice when editing your selfies is to declare if you've done so), a virtual makeover can entertain your friends and followers. You can try out a different hair color, add thick eyelashes and see what your pals think.

My most popular selfies, as determined by number of Instagram likes, have been the ones where I've experimented with wild looks. I achieve most of these with CyberLink's YouCam Makeup app, which not only lets me slim my face, apply digital makeup and smoothen my noticeable acne scars, but can also change the color of my eyes and hair for a dramatic result. YouCam is excellent at detecting my facial features to apply things like eyelashes, eyeliner or blush, but it struggles to recognize hair. You'll have to manually paint an outline of your hair for the app to correctly identify it and change its color.

After I'm done with YouCam, I often use another app called Meitu Xiuxiu to add an overall glow to the picture. You might recall Meitu for its ethereal anime-esque selfie filters, but the app offers so much more. You can stretch yourself to appear taller, turn yourself into the cover star of a magazine or add stickers, doodles and text. I usually use Meitu for its beautifully rosy filters that make Instagram's options look garish by comparison.

There are many other apps that let you edit your face, but I've stuck with the above two for years because they're the most full-featured. For fun, I sometimes use an app called EditLab to add a double exposure effect that blends another picture on top of my selfie, which creates a romantic effect. I also like Snow for its fun Snapchat-like face filters, that superimpose my face onto a cartoon schoolkid or a steaming hot shower. It's a good alternative for those who don't have or want Snapchat but would still like to play with photo effects.

Remember, though, these apps are really more for fun than for achieving perfection; don't go overboard trying to look like someone you're not -- your friends can tell when you don't look like yourself.

Wrap-up

Now that we've gone over the technical skills you can use to improve your selfies, remember to have fun and not try to perfect your pictures for others. Our digital world can get toxic sometimes, and even the best selfies will be subject to scrutiny and ridicule. Even Kim Kardashian gets sensitive about unflattering photos and the subsequent insults. Ultimately, these your pictures are for your own pleasure and entertainment. Experiment, strike a weird pose or share an "ugly selfie" with your friends -- if it makes you happy, it's a good selfie.


How Microsoft embraced ‘messy’ creativity with Windows Ink

Windows Ink isn't Microsoft's first stab at bringing stylus support to PCs -- that would be Windows XP Tablet Edition -- but it is the company's most successful. It made stylus support a core part of Windows 10, and it's a big reason you're seeing so many computer makers shipping digital pens of their own. While the company's renewed push into the space with its hybrid Surface tablets seemed baffling at first, it's ended up looking like a prescient move. It even convinced Apple to compete with the iPad Pro's Pencil.

With the Surface Pen and Windows Ink, Microsoft found a way to let PC users do something completely new: It gave them a way to break free from the constraints of the keyboard and mouse.

"I think it's [Windows Ink] the first time that technology has embraced 'the messy,'" Aaron Woodman, general manager of Windows Marketing, told Engadget. "For me, seeing Pen come to life in a way where you don't have to go from top to bottom, from left to right, you can create in a way before your thought is really complete. I don't think there's a ton of technology that's really embraced that fluidity."

He's got a point. The way we interact with computers hasn't changed much over the years. If you learned how to use a PC with a keyboard and mouse, you'd have no trouble using a modern machine. The advent of smartphones and tablets, with their capacitive touchscreens, was the biggest change over the past few decades. But what if you want to draw a detailed picture, jot down notes in your own handwriting or write out mathematical equations? You'd turn to one of our earliest writing tools: the stylus.

"We're embracing that, yes, [stylus support features with Windows Ink] are hardware-driven; yes, they require a platform that has to be broad in reach; and yes, for part of that, you need ecosystem partners," Woodman said. "That really starts to get people to understand it and see themselves using it in applications like Office. To see that come through in a way that customers don't feel like they're jumping over walls, I think it's really satisfying personally."

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

In particular, Woodman credits Microsoft's close partnership with Wacom, a company best known for its stylus tablets and displays, for the progress with Windows Ink so far. That allowed the two companies to build a sensor that "essentially allows you to go between pen protocols." For computer makers, that's helpful since it lets them choose between different pen protocols. Basically, it let Microsoft open up the market for styluses, just like Windows did for PCs decades ago.

Now, Woodman says retailers are selling twice as many pen-capable machines, compared to those that don't have them. 43 percent of consumers with stylus machines are also using their pens monthly, according to Microsoft's stats. Given just how well they're taking off, though, it's surprising that Microsoft chose to make the Surface Pen an additional $100 purchase for the Surface Laptop, Pro and upcoming Book 2.

Windows Ink's integration with Microsoft Office is a clear example of how stylus support can breathe new life into programs we've used for years. In Word and PowerPoint, you can use a stylus to edit documents as if you were marking up paper. And, as you can imagine, having a more natural input mechanism is a big help for OneNote. It's not only useful for jotting down your thoughts, but you can also use it for recording complex math equations — the sort of thing that would be tough to type out on a keyboard. OneNote can also convert your handwritten equation into something formatted for a computer, and you can then have it evaluate an equation, factor it and graph it.

It was a long road getting here, though. The first "Tablet PCs" powered by Windows XP (like the Compaq on the right) were woefully underpowered, heavy and generally just hard to use. It was difficult enough to get them to do basic Windows tasks, so there wasn't much chance consumers would spend time with their styluses. There were also some early digital pens available for Windows 8. Really, though, it took the launch of the Surface 2 and Pro 2 for us to really see what a stylus could do in Windows. The Surface Pen was light, responsive and simply felt good to use. Microsoft steadily refined it with future Surface models, giving us better tips and more pressure sensitivity.

Even after the launch of Windows 10, it took over a year for Microsoft to make stylus support truly meaningful with last year's Anniversary Update. That introduced Windows Ink and its accompanying software, including built-in sticky notes and a sketchpad. More importantly, it also gave Microsoft's partners more of a reason to bundle styluses with their computers. Apple entered the fray with the iPad Pro's Pencil in 2015, which is a decent stylus, but is only useful in a few creative apps. And you can forget about seeing it in MacOS anytime soon -- Apple is focusing its touchscreen efforts entirely on iOS.

Embracing a new type of computing creativity seems a bit out of character for Microsoft — at least, the pre-Satya Nadella Microsoft. But the timing for the company's change of heart makes sense. Thanks to faster and more efficient computing hardware, it's finally turning its stylus ambitions into a reality. And more importantly, consumers and computer makers are finally paying attention.

"On some level, we have a responsibility to solve the challenges customers are facing," Woodman said. "Now, watching 3D objects in Powerpoint [via the Fall Creator's Update] is mind boggling. Not because you see it in 3D, but because it saves you infinite steps. I think Pen has the same type of promise. It's more about just feeling like you have that permission to go beyond the boundaries of how people have defined the products so far."


The Morning After: Weekend Edition

Hey, good morning! You look fabulous.

Welcome to the weekend. We'll recap this week's news highlights, plus big stories from Friday like Project Loon-distributed internet going live in Puerto Rico.


Reconnect.Project Loon's LTE balloons are floating over Puerto Rico

Former Google X Lab (and now Alphabet X innovation lab) resident Project Loon is getting its first use in the US, as it's partnering with AT&T to provide service in Puerto Rico. As part of the restoration efforts, the high-flying balloons are launching from Nevada and floating over the island, all in hopes of beaming LTE to areas still without service a month after Hurricane Maria.


The first Cortana speaker sounds amazing.Harman Kardon Invoke review

The good news about this $199 smart speaker is that it sounds great, and Microsoft's Cortana voice assistant is a natural addition. The bad news is that as a latecomer to the game, it has fewer music service integrations, and right now, Cortana isn't as capable as competitors like Amazon's Alexa.


You say replicant, we say repli-can.Bad Password: Apps and gadgets for the 'Blade Runner' future we didn't ask for

This week, Violet Blue explains how technology can help make the best of our dystopian present -- at least until Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling show up to fix things.


Watch the movie first.Designing the technology of 'Blade Runner 2049'

Of course, if you prefer the distraction of a fictional Blade Runner universe, we have a few treats for you too. Take a walk with Territory Studios to find out how it established "the UI of a broken future" in Blade Runner 2049 -- but mind the spoilers.


So long, wobbly fulcrum hinge. Hello, 15-inch beauty.Surface Book 2 hands-on

The Surface Book 2 sounds like it may fix all of the issues we had with the original model (as well as last year's refresh). It has a stronger hinge, so no more screen-wobble as you're typing, and it's (predictably) more powerful than before. Microsoft also added a 15-inch model, making the Surface Book 2 even more of a competitor to Apple's MacBook Pro line.


Define "partisan."Does social media threaten the illusion of news neutrality?

As reporters become Twitter celebrities, newsrooms begin to adapt.

But wait, there's more...

The Morning After is a new daily newsletter from Engadget designed to help you fight off FOMO. Who knows what you'll miss if you don't subscribe.


Apps and gadgets for the ‘Blade Runner’ future we didn’t ask for

Punks, monks and Harrison Ford running scared through a poisonous cityscape were just a few of the details that made the original Blade Runner feel like its environment was a standalone character in the film. It felt as alien and familiar as the way we live today, with an environment turning against us, a government that couldn't care less, and a corporate ruling class that would make the Tyrell Corporation jealous.

The dystopian world of Blade Runner felt like it had naturally come to be. Unlike the version of Blade Runner we seem to be living in now, which feels like someone threw a switch at New Year's, and surprise, we're living in hell. Suddenly we have to catch up to living in dystopian fiction really fast, lest we die from fires, hurricanes, connected Nazis or nuclear war. So it's probably best that we use every bit of tech to our advantage so we make it to the next noodle bar, as it were.

Roy Batty's survival kit

Despite the best efforts of our federal government to deny it, climate change is real and the planet has had enough of our foolishness. From hurricane destruction to extreme heat and cold, everyone needs to plan for a local disaster -- at the very least. The way things are now, with fires and floods, and even hurricanes hitting Ireland, it seems like we need to prepare for everything. But not everyone can afford a survival pod.

Survival kits start with the basics: A "go bag" to keep by the exit, a kit (or extra supplies) for staying in your house, and an off-site stash in case you have to literally run from disaster (such as a "car kit"). Pick one, or all three if you have the luxury. The American Red Cross has a good starting list, while the Disaster Supply Center has a multitude of readymade kits.

Now that we're living in a Blade Runner future on Krack, we'll have to fill in the details of true life in a future gone wrong. Like many in Northern California, this past week set a record for locals comparing life in San Francisco to existing in the film itself. That had a lot to do with the fires, which have us investing in daily-wear face masks and conditioned to air quality worse than Shanghai. We realize that we're just catching up with the rest of the world in so many ways in terms of life with poisoned air.

Prep your cyberpet

On the Set of 'Blade Runner'

As Pris surely knew, real animals are rare in Blade Runner's universe. Animals were the first to start dying of the pollution which pushed humans Off-World. From fires to dust to gale-force winds, or bombs, your kit needs a face mask with N95 and N100 ratings.

Sure, you can get any old thing at the hardware store or Amazon, but this is the future. You can take advantage of living in a time when even product designers are allergic to everything, and get an air mask fit for a city dweller. In many instances, these nouveau air-pollution masks are better than what you'll get in that prepper survival kit.

Great daily use (or temporary daily use) masks that look good are now a competitive market. For the Cal Fires, a number of SF locals grabbed a Vogmask off Amazon for getting around town. Other recommended masks that will make you actually want to wear it are those from Airinum and the Cambridge Mask Co.

If Pris had survived her encounter with Deckard, she'd surely have an animal companion -- and the gear to make her darling doggo or kitteh ready for anything. For starters, she'd make sure that sweet little manufactured beast stayed far away from any actual blade runners with GPS tracking. One option is the Whistle Pet Tracker; internet famous travel cat Willow stays connected with the Tabcat tracker and a long-range (no cell service needed) MarcoPolo Tracking System.

Pris would also have a Pet First Aid Kit, certainly, but for the oppressive heat in a climate gone wrong, she'd own a swamp cooler pup jacket or a canine cooling harness. Or like me, she'd have read about the woman fleeing the Cal Fires who put her 80-lb pit bull in a backpack and bicycled to safety, and would want a quick escape solution -- like a U-Pet escape pod.

Off-World isn't yet an option

Blade Runner

Fire is one thing, but looking at recent events, everyone will probably need waterproof everything. When you can, get a waterproof (or water-resistant) case for all your devices, or try to invest in the newest versions of things like the Kindle, which is now waterproof.

Harrison Ford's character Deckard drank whiskey -- Johnny Walker Black Label, to be precise -- so that's one way you might be able to avoid the poisonous drinking water of our collective future. For those who may find this impractical for daily applications, a top-end water filtration device is the gadget you want. The most advanced consumer model is the MSR Guardian™ Purifier, but day trippers living in the future-now will want a handheld UV water purifier like the SteriPen.

Your biggest asset in a dystopian climate change emergency might just be your backups. You can make your backup with a reputable cloud service, like Crashplan or iCloud. But to be safe from today's security threats, you should have a secure backup hard drive that you keep at home (or in another safe place) and one that you can grab and go.

This portable drive can hold copies of everything you might have to leave behind, from family photos to scans of your passport. It should also be waterproof, shock-proof, and password protected. The gold standard for this type of external hard drive is IOSafe, which claims to also be fireproof. For a small drive to keep in a bag, in case the replicant hunters come looking for you or a hurricane strikes out of nowhere, consider a Silicon Power drive, with small versions storing up to 4TB.

Power will be a concern, no matter if you're in a sci-fi climate disaster future or just on the go in our Blade Runner day-to-day lives. For those who are oppressed by the sun, solar chargers are now easy to use and take everywhere with you. Adafruit's DIY solar charger tutorials will have your devices constantly charged, and can help you keep others charged as well.

If your modern-day Blade Runner experience doesn't include DIY tinkering, the American Red Cross FRX3+ All Purpose Weather and Radio Charger has it all. It includes a NOAA AM/FM weather alert radio, LED flashlight, a charger via its USB port, and it stays powered for a week when fully charged via hand crank, its solar panel, or its 2600 mAh rechargeable battery.

Alcon Entertainment

Apps for humans and replicants alike

One of the apps that made day to day living safe in the Bay Area over the past two weeks was AirVisual's air quality app. More immediate than local alerts, it let us know when we needed to wear masks to go to the grocery store, and when we'd expect to get a break with some fresh air.

That said, many were stuck inside worrying how fast we were dying from the air in our apartments. That's where the AirVisual Pro would come in handy, showing inside air quality as well as that outside our doors. Yet, inside is really where it counts in polluted dystopias like ours, which is why an air purifier is probably the "coolest" gift anyone can give in this coming holiday season. For the most tech-inclined, Dyson's pricey hot-cool air purifier is definitely the Cadillac of purifiers, and comes with its own app to help you monitor your space.

Radiation wasn't an influence on the original Blade Runner's storytelling, but it might be in ours. In case our dystopia takes a Fallout 4 turn, Idaho National Laboratory scientists created an Android app for detecting radiation -- and they tested it on several different smartphone models (Samsung Nexus S, Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Samsung SIII and LG Nexus 4).

The CellRAD app wasn't released to the public, but a similar app called Radiation Alarm works on the same functionality. It uses an Android's camera app to detect gamma radiation, as long as you follow the instructions closely (and keep the camera covered to get a reading).

There are apps I wish I'd had before the fires, and apps I've found that make me glad I'm installing them now. Climate change has made Weather alert apps completely invaluable. Weather Underground, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, RainAware, and Hurricane by the American Red Cross would've helped me decide to get an air purifier in time, and will probably save me and my replicant cat before the next disaster.

It's too bad that IBM's mesh network weather alert app isn't available in America yet, but I'm setting an alert to download it when it can help us out. This will negate the need to have cell service to get alerts, and I wonder how many lives it might've saved this year so far.

Should hurricanes hit San Francisco, or if Deckard comes looking for me and my friends, I've now got the Red Panic Button. This app sends email, text, and GPS coordinates to trusted contacts in the event of an emergency, as well as notifying 911. The "ICE" app (In Case of Emergency) from American Red Cross keeps an unlocked medical alert on the lockscreen of my phone, just in case.

While we're on the subject, the American Red Cross has its problems, but the apps they provide are invaluable. Those include a Shelter Finder app, a hurricane/wildfire/earthquake app, and their first aid apps. The medial aid apps come in both human and pet versions, and they are stored offline should you end up without cell service and need to save a fellow replicant's life.

Some might say that Blade Runner was just a movie. But for the rest of us, it's suddenly a way of life, and also a guide to survival. Hopefully this little guide helps, too.

Images: Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images (Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty); Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images (Joanna Cassidy as Zhora Salome with Snake); Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images (Harrison Ford and Edward James Olmos as Deckard and Gaff); Alcon Entertainment / Blade Runner 2049 (Weather display)


Wireless charging will make drones always ready to fly

Drones are great until you realize running all those propellers, a camera, GPS and other assorted technology bits are a real drain on the battery. If you're just using one for images it's not too big of a deal. But if you're using one for surveying, security or delivering burritos, swapping out batteries all the time can be a huge pain and time suck. Fortunately, there's a new wireless charging landing pad on its way.

The WiBotic PowerPad is a three-foot by three-foot landing station that comes with an onboard charger that can be attached to pretty much any drone according to the company. The company says the weather-resistant platform can be mounted pretty much anywhere and can help alleviate the need to handle drones that run automated flights on a regular basis.

The PowerPad also can serve as a waypoint for long-distance flights. If a drone needs to survey a large plot of land, it can stop and recharge at regular intervals on distributed platforms. No word on pricing or when the pad will be available, but there are sure to more than a few companies interested in reducing the time they spend swapping batteries while gathering data about battery health in the drones they have deployed.

WiBotic PowerPad for Drones from WiBotic Inc. on Vimeo.

Via: Geek Wire

Source: WiBotic


The best plug-in smart outlet

By Rachel Cericola

This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter, reviews for the real world. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter's independently chosen editorial picks, it may earn affiliate commissions that support its work. Read the full article here.

After spending over 22 hours plugging in and unplugging lights and other small appliances and turning them on and off using various apps (and by barking orders at Siri and Alexa when we could), we found that the Belkin WeMo Mini is the best smart-switch outlet adapter for people who want to add smart control to their existing outlets. It packs most of the same features as our previous pick, the WeMo Insight, into a smaller size, and it's less expensive. It also plays nicely with both iOS and Android smartphones and tablets and integrates easily with popular smart-home protocols and devices. All you need to do is plug the Belkin WeMo Mini into an existing outlet and install the app to get started with home automation.

Who should get this

If you're the type of person who is constantly paranoid about if you left the iron on, smart plugs can ease your anxiety. These are small devices that plug into any outlet and allow you to control the connected appliance wirelessly via a smartphone app. Putting even just one smart switch into your home can ensure that you'll never enter a dark house; add a few and you can control items such as household fans, speakers, slow cookers, air conditioners, and more.

How we picked and tested

Smart switches are an easy way to add remote control to any electronic device.
Photo: Rachel Cericola

We started compiling a list of smart switches by searching for reviews on sites like CNET, Pocket-lint, and MakeUseOf. We then cross-checked our list with customer reviewers from Amazon, and decided not to consider any models with bad reviews.

After that, we started considering criteria and features. First and foremost, a smart switch should be easy to operate and reliable. You should be able to plug it in, download the app, and start controlling the switch in minutes. We also favored apps that provide extras beyond the ability to turn the switch's power on and off, such as dimming, scheduling, and the ability to group multiple switches.

To test each switch, I downloaded apps to an iPhone 5, an iPad, and a Samsung Galaxy S6. Most of the switches connected to Wi-Fi easily and were simple to operate. I kept all of the plugs confined to the lower level of my house, but operated controls from across the house, out in the driveway, and across the street (up to 150 feet away). To keep things interesting, I plugged a variety of items into our test switches.

Our pick

Belkin's WeMo Mini Switch turns any outlet into a smart outlet you can control with your iOS or Android device. Photo: Rachel Cericola

Belkin recently slimmed down its smart-plug offering with the WeMo Mini. The company's newest smart plug is just as reliable as our previous top pick, the WeMo Insight, but is more compact and $15 cheaper. It connects to the same WeMo app, which can control several devices remotely, includes options for scheduling and rules, connects with both iOS and Android devices, and can be integrated with other smart-home devices. The WeMo Mini is small enough to fit into either socket in a duplex outlet without blocking the second one.

The switch easily connects to your Wi-Fi without needing a hub. It performed as advertised throughout our testing period, providing on-off control from inside and outside of the house whenever called upon. The WeMo Android and iOS apps are almost identical, offering on-off controls, rules, and timers. Unfortunately, the WeMo Mini does not offer energy-usage information; the only WeMo device with that feature is the Insight Switch.

Like its predecessor, the WeMo Mini stands out because of its compatibility. In addition to integrating with other WeMo devices, the switch also works with the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and IFTTT. However, the WeMo Mini does not support integration with Apple's HomeKit.

Runner-up

Photo: Rachel Cericola

The iHome iSP8 is a solid runner-up. It performs all of the standard smart-switch features very well, but adds additional smart-home integration and energy monitoring so you can see how much energy your lava lamp is wasting via the companion app. It also comes with a separate remote control for controlling it without a smartphone (from up to 35 feet away). The drawback of these extra features is that they cost more than our top pick. If you don't need it to work with HomeKit or a smart-home hub, you don't need to spend the extra money.

The iSP8 has a few additional smart-home perks over our main pick. Besides Alexa and Nest integration, it offers support for SmartThings and Wink smart-home systems, so you can connect it to a hub and make it a part of a larger, whole-house system. It also features Apple HomeKit integration, so you can control the iSP8 or groups of HomeKit-enabled devices using iOS devices and the sound of your voice. It does not work with Google Home.

Budget pick

Photo: Rachel Cericola

The Geeni Energi is a reliable performer and the least expensive Wi-Fi smart plug currently available. It provides all of the standard smart-switch features, allowing users to control devices both in and outside their home. It also includes scheduling and timers and can be controlled via Amazon Alexa devices. Geeni's Android and iOS apps are identical, offering on-off controls, scheduling, timers, rules, the ability to group devices, and energy-usage information. However, It's a bit bulkier than our other two picks, which will banish it to the bottom receptacle of your outlet.

This guide may have been updated by Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

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Harman Kardon Invoke review: The first Cortana speaker sounds amazing

Smart speakers are everywhere this year. So far, we've seen new entries from Apple, Amazon, Google and Sonos. Now, Microsoft is finally ready to join the party. The Harman Kardon Invoke is the first speaker to feature Microsoft's Cortana virtual assistant. Since it's coming from a brand known for audio gear, it promises better sound than the competition. And for the most part, it succeeds. The Invoke is miles ahead of Amazon's original Echo and Google's Home when it comes to audio quality. But Cortana still has to mature a bit before it can successfully take on Alexa.

Hardware

The Invoke is a large, cylindrical speaker that bears a striking resemblance to the Echo. It's just as tall as Amazon's, except wider toward the bottom. There's also a huge difference in build quality: The Echo is made entirely of plastic, while the Invoke features a more premium feeling metallic case, with only a bit of plastic around the base. Even the control dial feels much better than the Echo's; it's turns more smoothly and seems like you're controlling a piece of high-end audio gear. Don't forget, Harman Kardon has been building things like receivers and speakers for years.

There's a touch-sensitive area at the top, as well as a frosted display that shows you when Cortana is listening and the volume level. That top portion also houses the seven far-field microphone array, which lets the speaker hear you no matter where you are in a room. Overall, it's a pretty streamlined device. There are only two buttons in the back, which let you mute and pair the speaker with Bluetooth devices. There's also a diagnostic micro-USB port nestled near the power connection (which could be used for upgrading firmware or troubleshooting issues). My only real issue with the speaker is its ridiculously short three-foot power cord. You can easily augment that with an extension cord, but would it have been that hard include something longer?

Under the hood, the Invoke features three tweeters and three woofers that fill up most of the case. In comparison, the new Echo has just one woofer and tweeter. The Invoke even has more speaker hardware than the Sonos Play 1, which only has a single woofer and tweeter as well. Apple's forthcoming HomePod, meanwhile, has four small tweeters and a woofer. I'll admit, it's tough to compare speakers when you're just looking at what they're made of. What's more important is how they sound, and this speaker sounds great.

In use

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

To set up the Invoke, you'll need Cortana's iPhone or Android app. Alternatively, you can use a Windows 10 PC. The speaker shows up as a device in Cortana's settings, and it takes just a few seconds to connect to it. After that, all you need to do is say "Hey Cortana" and start issuing commands. You could ask about the current weather, the latest news, or for directions. For the latter, it'll read off basic navigation instructions and send a copy to the Cortana app on your phone. These are all things Cortana has been able to do for years on PCs and smartphones, but having it available in a standalone speaker is quite useful.

I started out testing the Invoke by doing just about everything I do with my Amazon Echo. It played New York City's NPR station from TuneIn when I asked it to "Play WNYC." And it had no trouble relaying the weather when I asked. (That might sound dull, but it's something I end up asking my Echo several times a day.)

The Invoke's biggest weakness at this point is the limited selection of audio streaming services that Cortana works with. So far, the list includes, Spotify, Tunein, and iHeartradio. There's no Pandora support yet, which is a big disappointment considering this is being positioned as a music-first device. Still, Microsoft says it's in talks to sort that out. The company also intends to work with other services like Soundcloud and Deezer, but it's unclear when we'll see those available on the Invoke. In Spotify, the speaker found my Discover Weekly playlist when I asked for it, and it also easily played music from specific artists and albums. It's also a Spotify Connect device, meaning you can control what the Invoke is playing from any of the service's apps, either on your computer or mobile.

I've mentioned this already, but it's worth repeating: The Invoke sounds fantastic. Music from every genre sounded immersive, with detailed mid-range, crisp highs and some decent low-end thump. It can easily fill a room -- but more than that, it does so in a way that's enjoyable. It sounds more like a decent bookshelf speaker than a mere smart gadget. The better sound quality also makes radio shows and podcasts sound more natural. The Invoke simply blows the original Amazon Echo away. I haven't tested out the new model yet, though, which is supposed to sound better.

I've listened to the Echo daily for years, and generally I've found it good enough for casual listening, but that's it. The difference between Amazon's speaker and Harman Kardon's is readily apparent when you switch between the two back and forth (which is pretty easy using Spotify Connect). With Flying Lotus's tracks in particular, the difference between the two is stark. The Invoke's audio is much richer and nuanced, while the Echo sounds cheap and flat by comparison.

Cortana's voice also sounds much more natural than Alexa at this point. When I asked her to tell stories and jokes, it was difficult to notice that I was listening to something completely artificial, and not lines read by her voice artist. Alexa is getting steadily better, but it still sounds vaguely robotic.

Amazon's voice assistant wins out when it comes to controlling smart home devices, though. Cortana works with Wink, Nest, Smartthings and Hue, but it doesn't integrate with devices from Sonos or Logitech's Harmony platform like Alexa does. I was also disappointed at how unreliable Cortana was when it connected to my Philips Hue smart lights. At first, it had no problem turning lights on and off, or changing scene colors. Several hours later, though, it stopped working entirely. Resetting my Hue Hub and all of my settings didn't help; it's as if Cortana got into a fight with Philips and refused to talk to my lights anymore. I'll chalk this up to growing pains for now, but I hope Microsoft irons out these issues soon.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Since Amazon has had a head start in the smart speaker arena, it's managed to get developers aboard faster. Altogether, they've built more than 20,000 Alexa skills. Microsoft only opened up Cortana's Skills API in May, and it launched with just 46. That number is growing, but it has a long way to go before it catches up to Alexa.

One unique feature the Invoke offers is Skype calling. You can call other Skype users directly, along with normal phone numbers in your contacts and local businesses. When I asked it to call my friend, it found the appropriate contact and dialed the number without issue. He was able to hear me clearly, but he noted that it sounded like a speakerphone. While you can make calls to other Alexa users with an Echo, that's not nearly as convenient as ringing a normal phone. Amazon's Echo Connect changes that a bit, but it requires a landline. Unfortunately, while you can pair your devices with the Invoke over Bluetooth for music playback, you can't use it as a speakerphone when it's connected to your smartphone. (But that's something the Echo can't do either.)

Pricing and the competition

The Invoke's $199 price puts it at twice the price of the new Echo, and $50 more than the smart home hub-equipped Echo Plus. It's also significantly more than the $129 Google Home. Still, it's cheaper than Apple's $349 HomePod, which is also aiming for high-quality sound.

Really, though, your choice with all of these smart speakers really comes down to which ecosystem you want to be a part of. If you want something that works with the most services possible, than Amazon's Echo line makes more sense. Android fanatics might be better off with Google Home and its integration with that company's virtual assistant. Logically, you can assume the Invoke works best for Windows users. And while that's true, it's also a compelling option for anyone who values music quality. With Cortana available on iOS and Android, you don't need a Windows PC to take advantage of this speaker.

Wrap-up

The Invoke is great piece of hardware hamstrung by Cortana's fledgling ecosystem. It could get better over time, but most consumers would likely be better off with a competing smart speaker that might not sound as good, but can do much more. But if Cortana catches up and the Invoke's price goes down, it could end up being a truly compelling smart speaker for music lovers.


Nintendo Switch now supports wireless USB headphones

Turns out Nintendo rolled out another pretty useful feature with Switch OS version 4.0.0 but curiously kept it a secret. Some Reddit users have discovered that the update comes with support for USB devices, even wireless USB headsets like Sony's Gold Wireless headset for PlayStation and PC. You simply have to plug the device's dongle into the Switch dock, and you'll notice a new volume slider for it. The feature supports a variety of other USB headphones, so you're not limited to the PS Gold. However, it only works when the Switch is docked.

One possible workaround to make it work on handheld mode is to plug the receiver into a USB-C adapter -- it's not an elegant solution, but it's a solution nonetheless. In addition to USB support, Switch version 4.0.0 has other sweet features to offer. It also gives you a way to record 30 seconds of play and, best of all, the ability to transfer saved games and user profiles to another system.

Source: Reddit, Neogaf


The Morning After: Friday, October 20th 2017

Hey, good morning! You look fabulous.

Good morning! Lyft got a big boost from Alphabet, and we're ready to help you find a great phone for cheap, or figure out if you need a GoPro Hero 6.


Panos Panay explains what he learned from the first Surface Book.The Surface Book 2's secret weapon is ceramic

Now that the Surface Book 2 has been revealed, we can dig into how and why it has certain changes from the first model. According to Microsoft's VP of devices Panos Panay, "We redesigned the connection mechanism, we went to ceramics, we lightened the whole product," in the name of stability. Another issue is reliability, after some of the glitches owners experienced last time. Now, Panay tells us that dealing with those issues created a closer connection with Intel, and a better understanding of how they're straining the CPU, GPU and hinge components.


You could have an iPhone X or four of these.The best phones under $250

High-end flagship phones are tantalizing, but what about mobile devices for those of us on a budget? If you're willing to give up features like OLED screens and super-sized storage, there are some deals to be had that will still run all of your favorite apps without a problem. Cherlynn Low explains why you should give choices like the Moto G5S Plus, Nokia 6 and others another look.


It's what's inside that counts.GoPro Hero 6 review

According to James Trew, the Hero 6 is an upgrade in important ways. As he puts it, "Voice control and other auxiliary features are nice, but it's good ol' photography that really matters, and there's enough improvement here that I think it warrants the upgrade." The only question remaining is if it's worth the extra $100, but you should check out some sample pictures before making a final decision.


Play the post-'RotJ' timeline from the Empire's perspective.'Star Wars Battlefront II' turns the Empire into an unlikely protagonist

We spent 90 minutes in Iden Versio's Imperial Squad boots, to find out what this sequel has to offer in its single-player campaign.


For everyone, even the haters and the losers.'The Daily Show' library of Trump's tweets opens in Chicago today

Back in June, we covered The Daily Show's presidential Twitter library in New York. After all, the frequency at which our Commander in Chief takes to Twitter is surely to become a part of his legacy. The library is now moving to Chicago, and you can see it this weekend only. It's free and open to the public from 10 AM to 10 PM CT through Sunday. The library is in the Burlington Room at Chicago's Union Station.

But wait, there's more...

The Morning After is a new daily newsletter from Engadget designed to help you fight off FOMO. Who knows what you'll miss if you don't subscribe.


Wirecutter’s best deals: Bose SoundLink Mini II speaker drops to $150

This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter, reviews for the real world. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter's independently chosen editorial picks, it may earn affiliate commissions that support its work. Read their continuously updated list of deals here.

You may have already seen Engadget posting reviews from our friends at Wirecutter. Now, from time to time, we'll also be publishing their recommended deals on some of their top picks. Read on, and strike while the iron is hot -- some of these sales could expire mighty soon.

Coway AP-1512HH Mighty Air Purifier

Street price: $230; Deal price: $210

While we've seen deals as low as $160 before, those deals tend to last hours, not days. If you're in need of a good air purifier and can't wait, this $20 drop in price is a decent deal from the $230 street price. Currently only available in black.

The Coway AP-1512HH Mighty is our top pick in our guide to the best air purifier. John Holecek and Tim Heffernan wrote, "The Coway is HEPA-certified and rated to clean areas up to 350 square feet—the size of a large living room, and far bigger than the average bedroom. In terms of measured particle removal, the Coway is very nearly the best we've tested. On the moderate setting—the highest you're likely to ever run it on for long periods—it purified better than all but two units in our 2016 lab test, reducing particle concentration to just 12 percent of the background level after 20 minutes when set on medium/sub-55-decibel. (Of the two machines that bested it, one, our runner-up Winix, only beat it by a statistically insignificant 2 percent; the other, the Blueair 503, showed seriously degraded performance when we re-tested it after a year of occasional use, and we no longer recommend it; see The competition.) In the 2017 lab test, the Coway again shone against the competition, reducing particulates to as little as 10 percent of the initial level."

Bose SoundLink Mini II Bluetooth Speaker

Street price: $180; Deal price: $150

At $150, this is the lowest price we've seen in recent months on the Bose SoundLink Mini II Bluetooth speaker. While you're limited to just one color (Black/Copper) and Bose has released some new wireless speaker options of late, this speaker still rarely falls below $180. This deal is available to both members and non-members of Costco. Shipping is free.

The Bose SoundLink Mini II is an option we like in our guide to the best portable Bluetooth speaker. Brent Butterworth wrote, "If you want better sound quality and louder volume, or if you also want an excellent speakerphone for making calls, the Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth Speaker II is worth the cost (roughly twice the price of the Roll 2). It's shocking to hear how much better the SoundLink Mini II comes across than most competitors, with clearer voices and a fuller sound closer to what you might expect from a decent small stereo system. It also plays loud enough to drown out a small dinner party.

At nearly 1.5 pounds in a boxy frame, the SoundLink Mini II is probably heavier than backpackers and business travelers will want to carry, but perfect for lugging along on family vacations. (A recent price reduction has pushed the larger, even better-sounding Riva Turbo X down into the SoundLink Mini II's price range, but because the Turbo X is four times as large by volume, it's really in a different category.) Additionally, this model's speakerphone was the only one in our tests that didn't muffle voices or pick up echoes, so it's a good choice for home-office use."

Vitamix 5200 Blender

Street price: $400; Deal price: $358

This is the lowest price we've seen on the Vitamix 5200 in the black color since Christmas of last year. At $358, this is a little over $40 under the historical street price, but this blender has jumped up to the full MSRP of $450 in recent months, so this drop is a good one. While we saw the white color for a crazy $305 during the summer, that price is an outlier and shouldn't deter you from pulling the trigger on this one if you need a blender. Shipping is free.

The Vitamix 5200 Series is our upgrade pick in our guide to the best blender. Christine Cyr Clisset and Lesley Stockton wrote, "For the fifth year running, a Vitamix blender performed best, overall, in our testing. The classic 5200 was our top pick in 2014 (the Pro 300 the year before), and once again it was the only one in our tests that could make creamy peanut butter and puree soup without spewing molten liquid up the sides of the jar, and it has the best range of speeds (far better than the equally priced Blendtec Designer)."

Refurbished Amazon Tap

Street price: $90; Deal price: $60

Despite all of the recently released Amazon speakers out there, the Tap remains the only Amazon-branded portable option, a nice selling point for those who want Alexa on the go. At $60 ($55 + $5 shipping), this refurbished model is at the lowest price we've seen for the Tap, period. It carries a one year warranty from Amazon.

The Amazon Tap is our portable Alexa speaker pick in our guide to Alexa-enabled Amazon speakers. Grant Clauser wrote, "The Tap is for people who want to take Alexa into the backyard, primarily those who've already made the investment in an Echo (or otherwise use Alexa within the home). Smaller than the Echo, the Tap includes a speaker capable of decently reproducing music, a rechargeable battery, and a charging base. Keep the Tap charging in a convenient place near the back door so every time you want to sit on your lounge chair you can grab it on the way out. As long as your Wi-Fi signal is strong enough to pass through your wall, the Tap can tap into its music abilities for all the neighbors to hear.

The Tap didn't originally sport the always-on microphone for receiving voice commands that the Echo and Dot have, but Amazon recently enabled a hands-free mode with a firmware update. Without enabling that feature you need to press a microphone button prior to giving a command, similar to pressing the home button on an iPhone to call Siri to attention (if you don't have "Hey Siri" enabled on your iPhone). This little inconvenience is meant to make the Tap's battery last longer. It also makes it unsuitable as your main Alexa interface."

Because great deals don't just happen on Thursday, sign up for our daily deals email and we'll send you the best deals we find every weekday. Also, deals change all the time, and some of these may have expired. To see an updated list of current deals, please go to thewirecutter.com.