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The Amazon Echo Show: Reviews round-up

Dieter Bohn, writing for The Verge:

The most important thing to know about the new $229.99 Echo Show, an Alexa speaker with a screen, is what it doesn’t do. You basically never need to tap the screen for anything, unless you really want to. There is not an “app store” where you hunt around for new things to add to your screen. It sits on your counter, answers your questions, sets your timers, and occasionally displays useful information. That’s it, and that’s great.

From nearly any other company, adding a screen would have resulted in feature-itis of the worst kind. By holding back, the Echo Show feels like it does more. Its strength is in its simplicity.

Brian Heater, writing for TechCrunch:

Like the standard Echo before it, the Show is pretty uninteresting at first glance. It’s a wedge-shaped device with a middling seven-inch touchscreen tablet built-in, flanked by a webcam and a big, ugly speaker grille. It’s pretty bulky — not the sort of thing you want to move around from room to room.

The Echo won me over one morning. It’s legitimately helpful in that scrum between waking up and getting to the train. It’s an alarm clock and a weather and traffic reporter all in one, and after Alexa gives you a an audible response, the information lingers on the display, letting you interact with it on the touchscreen. In the case of, say, the weather, you can keep swiping right to get more information for the rest of the week.

David Pierce, writing for Wired:

Every morning, as I survey the landscape of jeans and blue gingham shirts in my dresser, I ask Alexa about the weather. One day last week, as my virtual assistant chirped out of Amazon’s new Echo Show smart speaker, I noticed the voice sounded muffled. I walked into the kitchen and found the Show’s 7-inch screen facing the wall. Weird. I asked Anna, my fiancée, if she’d moved it. “Yeah,” she said, between yoga poses on our living room floor. “It has a camera, it’s creepy. I didn’t want it watching me.”

Still, I find the Show’s potential fascinating. The Alexa ecosystem has grown big enough that I suspect Netflix and Hulu will soon make video skills, most smart-home manufacturers will support the new device, and games and apps will pop up all over the place. Alexa’s voice recognition works well enough to make all of this work, and developers can access the camera, the screen, the microphone, and the speaker. The Echo Show is basically an always-on, plugged-in smartphone, which could become hugely powerful.

A lot of companies make successful products because of their prowess in industrial design, but Amazon manages to despite it.

Apple ARKit’s ability to measure objects through your phone camera is incredibly cool

Apple only demoed its ARKit — a platform for developing apps aimed at Augmented Reality — at its developer conference earlier this month, but this just goes to show how being patient till you have something that works is worth the wait. Microsoft and Google have been experimenting with AR for a while, with the latter’s efforts on Project Tango with specific phones having 3D capabilities has proved to be too narrow and unsuccessful up till now.

The video above shows you the simple brilliance of ARKit – deploying this intelligence to millions of developers at one go, since it works on an iPhone they already own. In two weeks we’re already seeing something that is extremely useful. Measuring objects through your phone camera proves the computational power available at our fingertips, where depth sensing can be done in real time. You can sense the extra benefit of having that secondary telephoto lens on the iPhone Plus which can capture even more depth information.

What’s more, developers are just getting warmed up. There’s also a Twitter account tracking all the neat progress made. This looks fun and promising.

AN INDIAN’S GUIDE TO BUYING A MACBOOK FROM THE U.S.

It’s not just that Macs aren’t expensive in the first place — so are most / all of Apple products — but they are significantly more expensive in India than in The U.S. This is in-line with all electronics in general but the gap is further   felt at the high priced spectrum.

This guide focuses on Macbooks because Apple laptops are easier to transport and retain their one year international warranty. iPhones and iPads (with cellular) do not, so they present a higher risk. iMacs of course are too cumbersome to carry over international waters. The only downside would be losing the box (the person carrying it has to pretend they own the laptop to avoid duties) and the plug type, which is less of an issue with the multi-support sockets being used today.

So first things first; the most common mistake is to judge the Apple Store’s prices as final. Note that it does not include tax because the tax varies per state and is calculated at checkout. It makes a big difference to the total price; at the time of writing living in New York tax adds 8.875% and living in New Hampshire exempts you from tax altogether.

Add to this your credit card conversion rate; I find it good practice to pay directly and ship it rather than pay someone in rupees when they earn in dollars. Banks typically charge a 4% surcharge over whatever the ongoing rate is. So if we put this altogether:

A $2000 Mac will cost you (2000 x 1.08875 x 1.04) in New York i.e. $2265 which can then be multiplied with the ongoing rate. Currently at 64.50 rupees to a dollar, that comes to ₹1,46,000 which is still lesser than Apple’s pricing for the $2000 13-inch Macbook Pro in India, which amounts to ₹1,71,900. That’s a tidy 15% savings.

But let’s evaluate some options for further savings:

1) Tax exemption – While buying from the Apple Store is the most trusted — including no questions asked returns — The U.S. tax regulations does have one peculiarity; if you do not have a physical presence in a state (Amazon is excluded), you are exempt from charging sales tax for online orders. So in this case, reasonably reputed sellers at B&H Photo and Aldorama can lower the price to ₹1,36,000 on the earlier deal, if you order it to a place outside New York or New Jersey.

2) Refurbished – Even though the Indian Government has banned Apple from subsidising product prices through refurbished sales, it’s very much an acceptable practice in America. The Apple Store in particular is highly recommended for providing almost blemish-free, quality products with the same one year warranty. An option to extend it is also available. In fact, in some cases the quality is better than the original as they fix the issues present in the first supply runs of a new design. A lot of the times the products are close to brand new, either because a customer returned it within the first week or a case of Apple clearing out their unused inventory after a new model releases. A $2000 laptop typically retails for $1699 before tax, and often can go down to as low as $1609. If you’re keeping count, that’s ₹1,17,500.

3) Deals – Yes, it is possible to cut down even further. Apple Insider is key here; they regularly have deals with B&H Photo and Aldorama to reduce the base price of Macs (among other Apple products) and I’ve found them to be of amazing value. $100 discounts are common 2 months after launch, and go up to $300 on an older model. The savings are even higher when Apple Care is bundled. At present, the $2000 laptop goes for $1740 and at no tax, that amounts to ₹1,16,700. Apart from this there’s also Mac Prices, which acts like a daily deal tracker for all stores, including Apple’s Refurbished section.

All in all, even though Macs go for a rate well below their MRP, it’s a substantial savings if you know someone residing in The U.S. and coming down. Better yet, it’s advisable to keep an eye on the price drops to take advantage of the best deal. And honestly, their current climate has already done us a favour by bringing the exchange rate this low.

Weekly Vision: June 25, 2017

The Weekly Vision is a collection of stories that are worth consuming as whole, or just not worth the time editing. You’ll find out either way.

1. If you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it

2. An introduction to HEIF – The new soon-to-be ubiquitous image format to replace JPEG

3. Ancient trees with stories to tell. Spectacular photographs by National Geographic.

4. The science behind fonts (and how they make you feel)

5. The four colour map theorem. No matter how complex the map, you don’t need more than four colours to ensure that no adjacent territories share the same colour (video).

THE LYFT SHUTTLE: RIDE HAILING ISN’T DONE DISRUPTING THE TRANSPORT ECONOMY

Earlier this month Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, spoke to Bloomberg regarding the state of driving technology:

“There is a major disruption looming there,” Cook said on Bloomberg Television, citing self-driving technology, electric vehicles and ride-hailing. “You’ve got kind of three vectors of change happening generally in the same time frame.”

He’s not wrong. Not only do cars — or personal transport systems — carry big potential for the biggest technological advancement since the internet and mobile, each of the these three vectors are disruptive in their own right. And each one is dependent on the development of one core element – electric vehicles need batteries, ride hailing needs mobile, and self-driving needs Artificial Intelligence. (Of course, I’m conveniently ignoring the legal and infrastructure hurdles but it’s history has taught us that we are in a better position to tackle them after gaining the technological innovation.)

It’s no surprise that ride hailing is the most successful right now; after all, only mobile is as developed and widely adopted today. Ride hailing entered the scene with Uber benefiting from reducing friction between you and the service; yes, the rates are cheaper than the traditional taxis in most countries but it’s point of entry was the convenience of easy booking and easy payments. The early subsidised fares prove that they viewed their benefits here and integral for locking you in.

But with any new service, ride hailing needed its time to gather familiarity and acceptance. And it wasn’t long before more consumers lead to more taxis, and the opportunity to introduce ride sharing. It’s a brilliant strategy with benefit to both sides – having those cars on the road is almost a sunk cost; with lower fares, you’re tapping into more customers and more frequent hails. Though somehow, it still has its drawbacks – many a time the route goes awry since it’s still a door to door service; time is lost, time is unpredictable, and time is inefficient.

Enter Lyft Shuttle:

Ride for a low fixed fare* along convenient routes, with no surprise stops. Shuttle is available during commute hours: weekdays 6:30-10:30 AM and 4-8 PM.

The Lyft app will give you walking directions to your stop. You’ll also see a photo of where to meet your driver in their personal car. Make sure you get there by the listed departure time.

Yes, it might sound elitist to take a “car” instead of the already available shuttle public transport but that’s exactly what this is right now – another mode of shuttle public transport. You may benefit from a nearby stop (and with no infrastructure costs, it may get revised in the future), a fixed lower fare, and a much more accurate estimated arrival time. Not to mention that this could prove a great supplement to the bigger and faster public networks.

To some extent this shuttle service feels obvious and natural. Keep in mind though, it’s needed until today to realise, after gaining the necessary technology and acceptance. But it’s finally reached that stage of disruption it started out to accomplish and play nice with the next vectors to come along – electric vehicles and self-driving technology.

Balenciaga sells out its $1100 shopping bag

Ashley Hoffman, writing for Time:

After Balenciaga launched a $2,145 version of an Ikea shopping bag, the high-end designer label has done it again with a shopping bag-like tote that retails for $1,100.

The difference between the paper bag and the accessory that costs around $1,100 might be the materials. The high-priced calfskin white tote comes branded with the word BALENCIAGA in the label’s signature font. (The shopper’s handles are also Nappa leather, and the hardware is silver, which probably doesn’t come cheap.) Bonus: the carrier features plenty of zippers and pockets within for slipping in all the money you have left after buying it.

Call it media bait if you want, but people either really love it or they really want to walk through life looking like they always just bought something at Balenciaga.

It was sold out as of Thursday morning.

Even if this is artificial scarcity or a limited supply run, their marketing team is a genius at research.

The constant push for coercing app installs and shares on a mobile browser

John Gruber, writing for Daring Fireball:

Medium seems to continue to grow in popularity as a publishing platform, and as it does, I’m growing more and more frustrated by their on-screen “engagement” turds. Every Medium site displays an on-screen “sharing” bar that covers the actual content I want to read. This is particularly annoying on the phone, where screen real estate is most precious. Now on iOS they’ve added an “Open in App” button that literally makes the last 1-2 lines of content on screen unreadable. To me these things are as distracting as having someone wave their hand in front of my face while I try to read.

This is now a very common design pattern for mobile web layouts. Medium is far from alone. It’s getting hard to find a news site that doesn’t put a persistent sharing dickbar down there.

I’m sure “engagement” does register higher with these sharing dickbars, but I suspect a big part of that is because of accidental taps. And even so, what is more important, readability or “engagement”? Medium wants to be about readability but that’s hard to square with this dickbar, and especially hard to square with the “Open in App” button floating above it.

A website should not fight the browser. Let the browser provide the chrome, and simply provide the content.

Bang on point. Gruber’s missed out on Instagram’s persistent “Open in App” dialogues which pop up with every click you make no matter how many times you dismiss it, but that’s probably because he uses the app. Medium’s direction to make this button non-dismissable kills the user experience (the colour pop doesn’t help), and I’ve really started hoping I don’t get redirected to their website when I’m perusing links.

You can go through the entire article for more examples of dickbars from sites like TechCrunch, The Verge and Wired.

IKEA plans for placing your furniture through a mobile app

Mitchel Broussard, writing for MacRumors:

At WWDC this year, Apple senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi performed a demo of the company’s new augmented reality platform, ARKit, while mentioning popular furniture company IKEA as an upcoming partner in the technology. Similarly, Apple CEO Tim Cook referenced an IKEA AR partnership in a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.

Now, Ikea executive Michael Valdsgaard has spoken about the company’s partnership with Apple and ARKit, describing an all-new augmented reality app that will help customers make “reliable buying decisions” for IKEA’s big ticket items

Interior designers on a budget – AR is here to take your lunch money.

(It’s not like design is undervalued enough. P.S.: Called it.)

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