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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Gadgets

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Google Assistant gets a customized alarm, based on weather and time

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Alarm clocks were one of the most obvious implementations since the introduction of the smart screen. Devices like Lenovo’s Smart Clock and the Amazon Echo Show 5 have demonstrated some interesting features in the bedside display form factor, and Google has worked with the former to refine the experience.

This morning, the company introduced a handful of features to refine the experience. “Impromptu” is an interesting new addition to the portfolio that constructs a customized alarm based on a series of factors, including weather and time of day.

Here’s what a 50-degree, early-morning wake-up sounds like:

Not a bad thing to wake up to. A little Gershwin-esque, perhaps. 

Per a blog post that went up this morning, the alarm ringtone is based on the company’s open-source project, Magenta. Google AI describes it thusly:

Magenta was started by researchers and engineers from the Google Brain team, but many others have contributed significantly to the project. We develop new deep learning and reinforcement learning algorithms for generating songs, images, drawings, and other materials. But it’s also an exploration in building smart tools and interfaces that allow artists and musicians to extend their processes using these models. We use TensorFlow and release our models and tools in open source on our GitHub.

The new feature rolls out today.

‘Plundervolt’ attack breaches chip security with a shock to the system

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Today’s devices have been secured against innumerable software attacks, but a new exploit called Plundervolt uses distinctly physical means to compromise a chip’s security. By fiddling with the actual amount of electricity being fed to the chip, an attacker can trick it into giving up its innermost secrets.

It should be noted at the outset that while this is not a flaw on the scale of Meltdown or Spectre, it is a powerful and unique one and may lead to changes in how chips are designed.

There are two important things to know in order to understand how Plundervolt works.

The first is simply that chips these days have very precise and complex rules as to how much power they draw at any given time. They don’t just run at full power 24/7; that would drain your battery and produce a lot of heat. So part of designing an efficient chip is making sure that for a given task, the processor is given exactly the amount of power it needs — no more, no less.

The second is that Intel’s chips, like many others now, have what’s called a secure enclave, a special quarantined area of the chip where important things like cryptographic processes take place. The enclave (here called SGX) is inaccessible to normal processes, so even if the computer is thoroughly hacked, the attacker can’t access the data inside.

The creators of Plundervolt were intrigued by recent work by curious security researchers who had, through reverse engineering, discovered the hidden channels by which Intel chips manage their own power.

Hidden, but not inaccessible, it turns out. If you have control over the operating system, which many attacks exist to provide, you can get at these “Model-Specific Registers,” which control chip voltage, and can tweak them to your heart’s content.

Modern processors are so carefully tuned, however, that such a tweak will generally just cause the chip to malfunction. The trick is to tweak it just enough to cause the exact kind of malfunction you expect. And because the entire process takes place within the chip itself, protections against outside influence are ineffective.

‘Plundervolt’ attack breaches chip security with a shock to the system 1The Plundervolt attack does just this, using the hidden registers to very slightly change the voltage going to the chip at the exact moment that the secure enclave is executing an important task. By doing so they can induce predictable faults inside SGX, and by means of these carefully controlled failures cause it and related processes to expose privileged information. It can even be performed remotely, though of course full access to the OS is a prerequisite.

In a way it’s a very primitive attack, essentially giving the chip a whack at the right time to make it spit out something good, like it’s a gumball machine. But of course it’s actually quite sophisticated, as the whack is an electrical manipulation on the scale of millivolts, which needs to be applied at exactly the right microsecond.

The researchers explain that this can be mitigated by Intel, but only through updates at the BIOS and microcode level — the kind of thing that many users will never bother to go through with. Fortunately for important systems there will be a way to verify that the exploit has been patched when establishing a trusted connection with another device.

Intel, for its part, downplayed the seriousness of the attack. “We are aware of publications by various academic researchers that have come up with some interesting names for this class of issues, including ‘VoltJockey’ and ‘Plundervolt,’ it wrote in a blog post acknowledging the existence of the exploit. “We are not aware of any of these issues being used in the wild, but as always, we recommend installing security updates as soon as possible.”

Plundervolt is one of a variety of attacks that have emerged recently taking advantage of the ways that computing hardware has evolved over the last few years. Increased efficiency usually means increased complexity, which means increased surface area for non-traditional attacks like this.

The researchers who discovered and documented Plundervolt hail from the U.K.’s University of Birmingham, Graz University of Technology in Austria, and KU Leuven in Belgium. They are presenting their paper at IEEE S&P 2020.

In a first, Amazon launches a battery-powered portable Echo speaker in India

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In a first, Amazon launches a battery-powered portable Echo speaker in India 2

After launching nearly a dozen Echo speaker models in India in two years, Amazon said on Wednesday it is adding a new variant to the mix that addresses one of the most requested features from customers in the nation: portability.

The e-commerce giant today unveiled the Echo Input Portable Smart Speaker Edition, a new variant in the lineup that includes a built-in battery. The 4,800 mAh enclosed battery will offer up to 10 hours of continuous music playing or up to 11 hours of stand-by life, the company said.

“Portability has been one of the most requested features in India,” said Miriam Daniel, VP of Alexa Devices. “You want to be able to carry Alexa with you from room to room within your homes. So we have designed something just for you.”

The company said the Echo Input Portable Smart Speaker Edition (which remains a mouthful) shares the same “hardware architecture” as the Echo Input, a device it launched last year that does not feature a speaker.

The battery-powered Echo model, designed exclusively for India, is priced at 5,999 Indian rupees ($84). Users can currently purchase it at an introductory price of 4,999 Indian rupees ($70) and the device will begin shipping on December 18. Amazon executives said they intend to bring this new speaker to other markets eventually.

Other than the built-in battery pack, the new speaker model offers an identical set of features — access to some 30,000 Alexa skills, compatibility with a range of home devices and, of course, support for Alexa voice assistant — as other Echo variants. (The new model additionally carries an array of four LEDs that light up when a user taps the power button, to show battery level.)

Amazon has never disclosed how many Echo speakers it has sold in India, but it has noted that the country is one of its most important markets. At a conference in September, Rohit Prasad, VP and head scientist of Alexa AI at Amazon, said the “adoption of Alexa in India has been phenomenal.”

Over the years, a number of companies, including LG, Motorola and Sony, have added support for Alexa to their headphones and smartphones.

The e-commerce giant, which has invested north of $5 billion in India, is among many international firms that are currently betting to turn the nation of 1.3 billion people into one of its biggest markets. Winning that market means customizing many of their products and services to align with local conditions in the nation. In September, Amazon announced Alexa was adding support for Hindi language to broaden its appeal in the nation.

The UniFi Dream Machine router is a great entry point for networking nerds

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A few weeks ago, Ubiquiti unveiled the UniFi Dream Machine, an all-in-one networking device that for $299 combines a router, a switch with four Ethernet ports and a Wi-Fi access point. It has what Ubiquiti calls an integrated cloud key that lets you control your network.

I’ve been using the UniFi Dream Machine on my home network for the past couple of weeks, so consider this a review of the device.

Ubiquiti is a well-known networking brand. Most people are familiar with the company’s access points — those rounded antennas that you can find around schools, companies and public spaces.

But the upfront investment has always been a bit steep for personal use cases and even small companies. The UniFi Dream Machine sits perfectly in between professional gear and consumer devices. It represents a huge upgrade if you’re using the router with Wi-Fi capabilities provided by your internet service provider.

The UniFi Dream Machine router is a great entry point for networking nerds 3

Rebundling UniFi devices

Ubiquiti has a range of routers under the AmpliFi brand for consumers who are looking for a plug-and-play solution. The company recently announced a new device with great specifications if you don’t want to mess around with networking settings.

But if you’re reading this, chances are you know that UniFi products offer some customizations that you think are lacking in consumer products.

Switching from an all-in-one networking device to a UniFi system has always been a bit complicated. The company has broken down the networking stack into different devices to offer you more control.

It means that you have to buy a Security Gateway (a router, the “brain” of the network), a switch (just like a power strip, but for Ethernet ports) and an access point (a Wi-Fi antenna). On top of that, a UniFi cloud key is an essential buy if you want to manage your network with the company’s controller software.

If you’re committed to the UniFi ecosystem, you get a great experience. You can manage each Ethernet port on your switch individually, you can control Wi-Fi settings from anywhere in the world and many, many more things. Ars Technica’s Lee Hutchinson fell down the UniFi rabbit hole and wrote a great story about his experience running professional networking gear at home.

The UniFi Dream Machine takes a different approach. It rebundles all the separate pieces that make a UniFi network come to life. You can buy the $300 UniFi Dream Machine and control every little detail of your network.

The UniFi Dream Machine router is a great entry point for networking nerds 4

Specifications

A few words on the specifications of the UniFi Dream Machine. The pill-shaped device has an integrated security gateway, which lets you run a DHCP server, create firewall policies, take advantage of multiple VLANs and more.

In addition to the WAN port to connect your device to the internet, there are four Gigabit Ethernet ports. As for Wi-Fi, the Dream Machine supports 802.11ac Wave 2 (“Wi-Fi 5”) with a 4×4 MU-MIMO antenna — no Wi-Fi 6, unfortunately.

Behind the scene, the device uses a 1.7GHz ARM Cortex-A57 processor. It has 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage and consumes up to 26W.

Using the Dream Machine

The UniFi Dream Machine router is a great entry point for networking nerds 5

Setting up the UniFi Dream Machine is a great experience. Ideally, you want to plug an Ethernet cable in your ISP-provided router and put it in bridge mode. This way, it’ll act as a dumb modem and let the UniFi Dream Machine do all the hard work.

After downloading the mobile app and turning on the UniFi Dream Machine, you get a popup that mimics the pairing popup of the AirPods. You can then control your network from that mobile app or use a web browser on your computer.

This is when it gets interesting.

UniFi’s controller software usually lists all the UniFi devices currently running on your network. With the UniFi Dream Machine, you get a single device. But if you expand that device, you can see a list of three separate UniFi components — a gateway, a switch and an AP.

As expected, you can control every little detail of your network. Once again, this isn’t for everyone and you will have to learn a lot of things about networking in order to optimize your setup. But if you’re a digital tinkerer, it’s a breath of fresh air.

The UniFi Dream Machine acts as the DHCP server in my home. I have renamed my devices and assigned fixed IPs to all my devices in order to find them more easily. You can see in real time the network they’re using and if they’re getting a good Wi-Fi signal.

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I have also configured Cloudflare’s 1.1.1.1 public DNS at the network level.

There are a ton of possibilities if you care about security. I created a guest Wi-Fi network that only lets my friends access the internet. They can browse Twitter and stream Netflix shows without any issue, but they can’t access my computers on the local network.

I also created another Wi-Fi network for IoT devices, such as connected speakers, a printer and a robot vacuum. Connected devices don’t get a lot of security patches and have more vulnerabilities than a computer or a smartphone that you keep up-to-date. I assigned a different VLAN to this Wi-Fi network. VLANs let you create a partitioned network with different sets of rules.

I applied firewall rules to this VLAN so that I can control the devices from my personal devices, but they can’t initiate requests to my devices on their own. This is overkill for most people, but it’s fun that you can do that from UniFi’s controller. More details here.

When it comes to Wi-Fi, everything is customizable and performances have been stellar. I live in a small apartment, but the balcony has always been an issue. I often work from the balcony, and I’ve been using a cheap Wi-Fi extender that I found in a box of gadgets and cables.

I unplugged the Wi-Fi extender and tried to connect to the UniFi Dream Machine. I get better performance, even if I reduce Wi-Fi transmit power to medium.

These are just a few examples of things you can do with the UniFi Dream Machine. I feel like I’m still underusing the device (you can connect via SSH and control everything from the terminal), but I wouldn’t consider going back to an entry-level router with Wi-Fi capabilities.

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Targeting prosumers

The UniFi Dream Machine is the networking device I didn’t know I wanted. I’ll never have hundreds of Wi-Fi devices connected to my home network. I don’t need a dozen Ethernet ports. And yet, I want to be in control of my network. If you miss Apple’s AirPort Extreme or if you’re a networking nerd, you should consider the UniFi Dream Machine.

Small businesses and shops often make some poor decisions at the beginning of the company. A cheap Wi-Fi router on Amazon doesn’t cut it when your business scales. The Dream Machine can be a good entry point, as you’ll be able to build upon that base device.

But if you think you have bigger needs, don’t try to run a big network from a UniFi Dream Machine. Ubiquiti sells some great rackable devices that will give you a lot more flexibility. The UniFi Dream Machine is a constrained machine after all. That’s what makes it both not good enough for enterprise customers and great for prosumers.

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‘Carpentry Compiler’ turns 3D models to instructions on how to build them

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Even to an experienced carpenter, it may not be obvious what the best way is to build a structure they’ve designed. A new digital tool, Carpentry Compiler, provides a way forward, converting the shapes of the structure to a step-by-step guide on how to produce them. It could help your next carpentry project get off the screen and into the shop.

“If you think of both design and fabrication as programs, you can use methods from programming languages to solve problems in carpentry, which is really cool,” said project lead Adriana Schulz from the University of Washington’s computer science department, in a news release.

It sounds a bit detached from the sawdust and sweat of hands-on woodworking, but they don’t say “measure twice, cut once” for nothing. Carpentry is a cerebral process more than a physical one, and smart, efficient solutions tend to replace ones that are merely well made.

What Carpentry Compiler does is codify the rules that govern design and carpentry, for example what materials are available, what tools can do, and so on, and use those to create a solution (in terms of cuts and joins) to a problem (how to turn boards into a treehouse).

Users design in a familiar 3D model interface, as many already do, creating the desired structure out of various shapes that they can modify, divide, pierce, attach, and so on. The program then takes those shapes and determines the best way to create them from your existing stock, with the tools you have — which you can select from a list.

Need to make the roof of your treehouse but only have 2x4s? It’ll provide a recipe with that restriction. Got some plywood sheets? It’ll use those, and the leftovers contribute to the base so there’s less waste. By evaluating lots and lots of variations on how this might be accomplished, the program arrives at what it believes are the best options, and presents multiple solutions.

“If you want to make a bookcase, it will give you multiple plans to make it,” said Schulz. “One might use less material. Another one might be more precise because it uses a more precise tool. And a third one is faster, but it uses more material. All these plans make the same bookcase, but they are not identical in terms of cost. These are examples of tradeoffs that a designer could explore.”

‘Carpentry Compiler’ turns 3D models to instructions on how to build them 9

A 24-inch 2×4 gets cut at 16 inches at a 30-degree angle.

That’s really the same kind of thing that goes on inside a woodworker’s brain: I could use that fresh sheet to make this part, and it would be easy, or I could cut those shapes from either corner and it would leave room in the middle, but that’ll be kind of a pain… That sort of thing. It can also optimize for spatial elements, if for example you wanted to pack the parts in a box, or for cost if you wanted to shave a few bucks off the project.

Eventually the user is provided with a set of instructions specific to their set of tools. And the carpenters themselves act as the “processor,” executing operations, like “cut at this angle,” on real-world materials. In Carpenter Compiler, computer programs you!

The team presented their work at SIGGRAPH Asia last month. You can read more about the project (and learn how you can try it yourself) at its webpage.

Now even the FBI is warning about your smart TV’s security

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If you just bought a smart TV on Black Friday or plan to buy one for Cyber Monday tomorrow, the FBI wants you to know a few things.

Smart TVs are like regular television sets but with an internet connection. With the advent and growth of Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services, most saw internet-connected televisions as a cord-cutter’s dream. But like anything that connects to the internet, it opens up smart TVs to security vulnerabilities and hackers. Not only that, many smart TVs come with a camera and a microphone. But as is the case with most other internet-connected devices, manufacturers often don’t put security as a priority.

That’s the key takeaway from the FBI’s Portland field office, which just ahead of some of the biggest shopping days of the year posted a warning on its website about the risks that smart TVs pose.

“Beyond the risk that your TV manufacturer and app developers may be listening and watching you, that television can also be a gateway for hackers to come into your home. A bad cyber actor may not be able to access your locked-down computer directly, but it is possible that your unsecured TV can give him or her an easy way in the backdoor through your router,” wrote the FBI.

The FBI warned that hackers can take control of your unsecured smart TV and in worst cases, take control of the camera and microphone to watch and listen in.

Active attacks and exploits against smart TVs are rare, but not unheard of. Because every smart TV comes with their manufacturer’s own software and are at the mercy of their often unreliable and irregular security patching schedule, some devices are more vulnerable than others. Earlier this year, hackers showed it was possible to hijack Google’s Chromecast streaming stick and broadcast random videos to thousands of victims.

In fact, some of the biggest exploits targeting smart TVs in recent years were developed by the Central Intelligence Agency, but were stolen. The files were later published online by WikiLeaks.

But as much as the FBI’s warning is responding to genuine fears, arguably one of the bigger issues that should cause as much if not greater concerns are how much tracking data is collected on smart TV owners.

The Washington Post earlier this year found that some of the most popular smart TV makers — including Samsung and LG — collect tons of information about what users are watching in order to help advertisers better target ads against their viewers and to suggest what to watch next, for example. The TV tracking problem became so problematic a few years ago that smart TV maker Vizio had to pay $2.2 million in fines after it was caught secretly collecting customer viewing data. Earlier this year, a separate class action suit related to the tracking again Vizio was allowed to go ahead.

The FBI recommends placing black tape over an unused smart TV camera, keeping your smart TV up-to-date with the latest patches and fixes, and to read the privacy policy to better understand what your smart TV is capable of.

As convenient as it might be, the most secure smart TV might be one that isn’t connected to the internet at all.

Nix Pro 2 and Nix Mini color sensors are powerful, easy-to-use additions to any creative pro toolkit

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Translating the physical world to the digital has been a challenge, especially when it comes to things like color: Color isn’t actually all that static a thing, and the myriad displays and cameras we use can represent them in very different ways. But new gadgets from startup Nix can help cut through the confusion – the Nix line of color sensors, including the accessible Nix Mini (normally $99) and the more sophisticated Nix Pro 2 (normally $349).

These devices are deceptively simple in their use and construction, but do one job remarkably well – with a lot going on behind the scenes to make that possible. They’re main purpose is to give you a digital interpretation of an analog color, which could be the color of any surface you come across. To do this, they house a small lens and sensor inside a diamond-shaped plastic enclosure. Both the Mini and the Pro are easily pocketable, but the Mini is about the diameter of a large coin, while the Pro feels more like a golf ball in the hand.

Nix Pro 2 and Nix Mini color sensors are powerful, easy-to-use additions to any creative pro toolkit 10The sensors include built-in batteries that charge via Micro USB, and since they aren’t really using that much power when in operation, you can get around 3,000 individual surface scans out of a single full battery. Using them is also fantastically easy: You download an app (Nix has three, including one for digital color capture, one for paint, and one for Pro users with additional info useful for professional paint shops and other applications), pair one of the devices (they should show up automatically once charged) and then tap a button in the app to scan a surface, holding the Nix up to said surface.

The process is super quick, and provides different results depending on which app you’re using. In the Nix Paints app, once you select your preferred brand, it’ll give you the closes possible off-the-shelf matches, which is great if you’re doing patch work or repainting a portion of your house. You can also get a palette of complimentary or otherwise matching colors for redecorating. And the ‘Digital’ app lets you see all the HEX and other values you’d use for web or digital product design, and also build palettes that work together for project work.

Nix Pro provides a range of color readouts that are used by professionals for super-accurate matching and measurement, and you can again use the built-in paint library to match accurately, or the color values to have a batch custom mixed to your specifications.

Nix can scan just about any surface, including all types of paints and fabrics, as well as tile and other flooring. It’s an accessory that really makes quick and painless what has been a pretty messy process in the past, and it also comes calibrated out of the box so there’s nothing the user has to do to ensure color accuracy when actually using it.

Nix Pro 2 and Nix Mini color sensors are powerful, easy-to-use additions to any creative pro toolkit 11

The Samsung Galaxy Fold is headed to Canada, with in-store pre-orders starting today

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The Samsung Galaxy Fold is a very unique smartphone, in more ways than one. The most obvious differentiator is that it folds out to expose a large, continuous 7.3″ display, hiding the seam thanks to a flexible OLED screen. It’s also at the very top end of the smartphone market price-wise, which could explain why it only debuted in a few limited markets at launch. Samsung says that customer interest has helped expand that initial pool of availability, however, which is why it’s launching pre-orders in Canada today.

There’s going to be some sticker shock for Canadians, however: The Fold starts at $2,599.99 CAD in its newest market. That’s the price you’d pay for a well-specced computer, but it’s actually right in line with the price of the phone in the U.S. when you account for currency conversion. Pre-orders are also going to be exclusively in-store, at Samsung’s Eaton Center, Sherway Gardens and Yorkdale locations, all of which are in Toronto. Retail sales, also exclusive to Samsung’s own retail operations, are starting December 6 but pre-order customers will be able to ensure a day one pickup.

The Samsung Galaxy Fold is headed to Canada, with in-store pre-orders starting today 12

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold has had a bit of an uneven launch, with a first attempt cancelled in light of multiple reviewers experiencing issues with their devices. Samsung re-designed elements of the phone as a result, including adding caps to prevent dust entering the crucial hinge component that powers the folding actions, and embedding a necessary pre-installed protective screen covering under the phone’s bezels. Still, our own Brian Heater experienced a display hardware issue within a day with his redesigned review device.

Samsung is offering free “Fold Premiere Service” which includes discounted screen replacements and standard free repairs when an issue is not due to any misuse on a user’s part. Overall, the takeaway should be that this is a first-generation device, but also a totally unique piece of technology in today’s marketplace for those willing to risk it.

Peak Design’s Everyday Backpack Zip and Everyday Backpack V2 are top-notch photo and travel bags

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Peak Design has evolved from a crowdfunded upstart into a trusted accessory brand for photographers everywhere, and this week it introduced updates to its ‘Everyday’ line of backpacks and bags. These new and improved designs offer stuff that impresses anyone who was previously a fan of Peak’s work, and should also win the company brand new fans, based on my testing of the all-new Everyday Backpack Zip 20L and the updated Everyday Backpack V2 30L.

Everyday Backpack Zip 20L

The Everyday Backpack Zip is a brand new product for Peak, taking a lot of inspiration from the Everyday backpack but opting for a full zip closure in place of the MagLatch that it created and introduced on the Everyday line. Opting to go with a zipper instead of the MagLatch means that the Zip backpack doesn’t have the same capacity expandability to allow you to stuff more… stuff… in the top compartment, but it also offers its own benefits depending on your needs.

Peak Design’s Everyday Backpack Zip and Everyday Backpack V2 are top-notch photo and travel bags 13First, there’s price: The Backpack Zip 20L I reviewed will cost you $219.95, which is $40 less than the equivalent Everyday Backpack with the magnetic closure. It’s not a huge gap, but if you’re looking to save a few dollars it’s a good value for what you get. The Zip also comes in a smaller 15L capacity, the smallest size for any of the Everyday Backpacks, and that’s a nice compact bag for anyone with a smaller frame or looking to carry less gear.

The zipper enclosure is also interesting in its own right, allowing you to fully open the back of the bag if you want. By default, there are rigid dividers in the backpack to effectively give it shelves, but should you want to remove these, this makes this the most easily packable Peak backpack in this daypack size range. It’s therefore a great choice for those looking for a backpack to use for purposes other than as a camera bag.

Peak Design’s Everyday Backpack Zip and Everyday Backpack V2 are top-notch photo and travel bags 14The Everyday Zip also still packs a ton of connection points for you to hook gear to, as well as improved zippers vs. Peak’s original packs. There’s a dedicated laptop sleeve with a tablet pocket that can fit 15″ laptops on the 20L and 13″ laptops on the 15L. The 20L also features the all-new adjustable laptop pocket design that Peak introduced on this generation, which includes an adjustable shelf that lets it more easily hold smaller laptops without them falling all the way to the bottom. It’s also on the standard Backpack V2, and it’s an awesome and easy-to-use quality of life improvement.

Like the Everyday Backpack, the Zip also features a pass-through luggage strap for putting it on a roller while you’re making your way through an airport, and interlocking zipper pulls that can help prevent anyone from quickly tugging open the bag to try to manage a quick pass-by theft. The durable, ripstop fabric exterior is also great for lifetime sustainability.

Peak Design’s Everyday Backpack Zip and Everyday Backpack V2 are top-notch photo and travel bags 15In terms of capacity, this is a smaller bag but it can still fit a lot of gear – I was able to pack my Sony 70-200 f/2.8 GM, Sony 100-400 f/2.8 GM and my Sony A7R IV with the 24-70 f/2.8 GM attached for instance, though fitting all that in with the requisite accessories is probably too tight a fit and merits moving up to the bigger sizes of the V2.

 

Everyday Backpack V2 30L

The improved Everyday Backpack V2 brings back the MagLatch, with a new design that Peak says is “more ergonomic and sleek.” It definitely stands out less than before, and does seem to be more intuitive to use, which is good news. The sides are again accessible via two zippered compartments (all the zippers are improved and designed for more durability) and the interior is divided by three included velcro, flexible dividers.

Peak Design’s Everyday Backpack Zip and Everyday Backpack V2 are top-notch photo and travel bags 16

The overall look of the Everyday Backpack V2 has been tweaked – and for the better. It was already one of the better looking photo backpacks you could buy, but Peak has made it more rounded this generation, and improved the look of all the seams for a look that just generally projects more quality and attention to detail.

Peak sent the 30L version for me to review, and the capacity difference between it and the 20L Zip allows for packing in way more stuff, including all the various accessories like extra batteries and chargers, mics and more you’re likely to want with you on a dedicated photo or video shoot. I could easily pack the same lens+body combo mentioned above, plus a Mavic Mini and a second Sony A7III body in the 30L.

Peak Design’s Everyday Backpack Zip and Everyday Backpack V2 are top-notch photo and travel bags 17

That height-adjustable laptop sleeve is again present, and makes an even bigger difference on the 30L, since the pocket is deeper to begin with. On my existing V1 Everyday, chasing down the company-issue 13″ MacBook Pro in that cavernous pocket was always a bit like diving deep to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but here it’s really easy and far less likely to give your fingers rug burn.

The shoulder straps on the Everyday V2 are also improved, and they do feel more comfortable based on initial testing. They also now have embedded magnets that connect to the back of the bag when you’re not wearing it, which is actually wonderful for when you’re stowing the bag in an airplane overhead compartment, or putting it through the scanner at the airport security checkpoint. It’s a small detail, but then again Peak’s whole rep is built on it including small details, like the various stowable straps, that remain out of the way until needed and then really deliver awesome convenience.

Peak Design’s Everyday Backpack Zip and Everyday Backpack V2 are top-notch photo and travel bags 18

Bottom Line

Just like the originals, Peak has delivered what are likely the most thoughtful, carefully designed photography backpacks available on the market with their V2 range. The fact that Peak as a company is now also focused on ensuring they can build and deliver their products in a way that has a neutral impact on the climate is just an added benefit of its ability to engineer and deliver high-quality, functional gear.

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Peak’s stuff is not for everyone – you can definitely get totally fine photo gear for less money. But it’s a category-leading choice for anyone with the means and a great value if you’re looking for a long-term, modular solution that you can go everywhere with.

Xiaomi’s Q3 earnings report shows slowing growth

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Xiaomi, the world’s fourth largest smartphone vendor, on Wednesday shared its earnings figures for the quarter that ended in September. While the results fell largely in line with analysts’ expectations, a drastic drop in the company’s growth underscores some of the struggles that handset makers are facing as they shift to services to make up for dwindling smartphone purchases globally.

The Chinese electronics firm posted Q3 revenue of 53.7 billion yuan, or $7.65 billion, up 3.3% from 51.95 billion yuan ($7.39 billion) revenue it reported in Q2 and 5.5% rise since Q3 2018.

This is largely in line with analysts’ estimated revenue of 53.74 billion yuan, per Refinitiv figures, but growth is slowing. As a point of comparison, in Q2, Xiaomi reported QoQ growth of 18.7% and YoY of 14.8%.

Xiaomi said its adjusted profit in the aforementioned quarter was 3.5 billion yuan ($500 million), up from about 2.5 billion yuan a year ago. Gross profit during the period was 8.2 billion yuan ($1.17 billion), up 25.2% year-over-year.

The company said its smartphone business revenue during Q3 stood at 32.3 billion yuan ($4.6 billion), down 7.8% year-over-year. The company, which shipped 32.1 million smartphone units during the period, blamed “downturn” in China’s smartphone market for the decline.

Marketing research firm Canalys reported this month that China’s smartphone market shrank by 3% during Q3. Despite the slowdown, Xiaomi said its gross profit margin of smartphones segment had reached 9% — up from 8.1% and 3.3% in the previous quarters.

Other than Huawei, which leads the handsets market in China, every other smartphone vendor has suffered a drop in their shipment volumes in the country, according to research firm Counterpoint.

But for Xiaomi, this should technically not be a problem. Long before the company listed publicly last year, it has been boasting about its business model: how it makes little money from hardware and more and more from delivering ads and selling internet services.

That internet services business is not growing fast enough, however, to be an engine for the overall company. It grew by 12.3% year-on-year to 5.3 billion yuan ($750 million) and 15% since last quarter. Either way, it accounts for only a fraction of smartphone business’ contribution to the bottomline.

Furthermore, parts of that business are facing some other challenges: Advertisement revenue has been falling for more than two consecutive quarters, the company says.

Xiaomi said two years ago that it will only ever make 5% profit from its hardware, something its executives told TechCrunch has been engraved in the company’s “constitution.” But the slow shift to making money off of internet services, while making less money from selling hardware, is one of the chief reasons why the company had an underwhelming IPO.

Meanwhile, the user base of Xiaomi’s Android -based MIUI software is growing. It had 292 million monthly active users as of September this year, up from 278.7 in June.

In more promising signs, Xiaomi said its smart TV and Mi Box platforms had more than 3.2 million paid subscribers and revenue from its fintech business, a territory it entered only in recent quarters, had already reached 1 billion yuan ($140 million).

But it’s hardware that continues to make up the biggest proportion of its revenues. The company, which is increasingly moving its gadgets and services beyond Chinese shores, said revenue from its international business grew 17.2 year-over-year to 26.1 billion yuan ($3.7 billion) in the third quarter — accounting for 48.7% of total revenue.

Much of Xiaomi’s international success could be attributed to its dominance in India, the world’s second largest smartphone market. For last nine consecutive quarters, Xiaomi has been the top smartphone vendor in India, one of the rare markets where the appetite for handsets continues to grow. Of the 32 million smartphone units the company shipped in Q3, more than 12 million of those arrived in India, according to Counterpoint.

In a statement, Xiaomi founder and chairman Lei Jun said the company is hopeful that it will be able to further grow its revenues when 5G devices start to get traction. The company has plans to launch at least 10 5G-enabled smartphone models next year, he said. No word from him on what the company intends to do about its services ecosystem.

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