Friday, June 23, 2017

Amazon's new Dash Wand is practical to have like a kitchen table, but not as fun as one might hope, like a kitchen table

Amazon’s $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods is getting all the media attention right now, but the company made another grocery-related investment last week that’s just as interesting: it’s basically giving the new Dash Wand with Alexa away for free. Prime members who spend $20 on the Dash Wand get a $20 Amazon gift card and 90 days of free AmazonFresh grocery delivery, which normally costs $15 per month. All of Amazon’s marketing around the Dash Wand focuses on ordering groceries; the default shopping cart when you use it is AmazonFresh, not Amazon proper.

That’s a hell of a way to kickstart the idea of Amazon delivering groceries — and eventually Amazon delivering groceries from Whole Foods. And it’s another way to sneak Alexa into your home as your default voice assistant, with a set of new shopping capabilities Siri and Google Assistant simply don’t have yet.

The Dash Wand is basically a slightly smaller and simpler redesign of the original and oft-forgotten Amazon Dash voice-enabled barcode scanner: a 5.6-inch flat cylinder that’s half rubbery-black and half gloss white. New additions include a hook on the top for hanging, along with magnets on the back for sticking to your fridge. Where the older unit had two buttons, the Wand has a single button surrounded by an LED ring for activating Alexa and a speaker for feedback. But really, the only major difference between the Dash and the Dash Wand is that the Wand uses Alexa for voice recognition, while the Dash had its own proprietary voice recognition system.

Setting the Dash Wand up is simple — it runs on two AAA batteries, which come packed in the box, and then it’s just a matter of opening the Amazon app on your phone, holding down the button until the light turns orange, and adding the Wand to your Wi-Fi.

After that, it’s actually a little boring in the best way: you point it at bar codes, and if it recognizes an item, it bloops pleasantly, the light turns off, and the item is in your AmazonFresh or Amazon cart, ready for you to hit purchase. If you scan the same item a bunch of times, it’s smart enough to only add it once — something Amazon no doubt figured out from its Dash Buttons quick-ordering system. And if the Dash Wand doesn’t recognize something, Alexa says “I couldn’t find that. Please tell me what you scanned” in a calm tone that nevertheless sounds like a robot making a plaintive request for the information that one day allows AI to enslave humanity.

You can also add things to your cart by holding down the button and speaking, without any of the formalities that usually accompany an Alexa request — you’ve already pressed the button and the device is designed to shop, so you can just bark “grapes” at a robot and see red seedless grapes appear in your shopping cart. (Amazon defaults to red, but you can say green, of course.)

This all works well for groceries, provided you trust Amazon to get your preferences right, but it’s extremely hit-or-miss for everything else. I will share with you that I walked around my apartment shouting the names of objects into the Amazon Ska Microphone and it understood that I wanted to order new Lutron Maestro dimmer switches but not a single book or movie I tried. And it’s important to note that, just like with Echo devices, Amazon automatically selects the vendors for the items you’ve added, which means you’re at the mercy of the all-powerful buy button algorithm.

But the magic is only halfway: once you’ve added everything to your cart, you still have to open the Amazon app on your phone and check out. This is where you see if your items will be delivered by Amazon or AmazonFresh, which only matters insofar as AmazonFresh grocery deliveries have to be scheduled to avoid spoiling. Oddly, the dimmer switch was in stock and ready to be delivered by AmazonFresh, which suggests that perhaps spending $13 billion on people who know what belongs in a grocery store is a wise investment.

The Dash Wand can also do a bunch of Alexa things, like figure out basic math and unit conversions, tell dumb jokes, control smart home devices, and provide information that would otherwise cause you to make small talk and connect with your fellow humans before a sentient machine army destroys us all for pointedly demanding Mint Method Soap without a hint of courtesy.

What Alexa on the Dash Wand cannot do is play music, set timers or reminders, connect to your calendar, or basically anything else that makes Alexa a useful assistant in contexts outside of identifying objects and attempting to turn them into meals. And you have to press the button to use it, so it's certainly less convenient than the Echo or Echo Dot. Amazon enabled always-on listening for the Tap portable speaker earlier this year and I immediately started using Alexa more, but I’m not sure that’s possible for a device that runs off two drugstore batteries. But it’s something worth thinking about.

So should you get this thing? If you’re a Prime member, there’s literally nothing to lose. It’s a fun toy and it certainly makes adding things to your Amazon cart easier. If you’re already using AmazonFresh, it’ll make that easier, too. If you’re not, you might give it a shot, although it’s only available in certain cities at the moment. As Amazon’s grocery ambitions come into sharper focus with Whole Foods, it’s possible the Dash Wand will become even more useful.

But really, the thing to know is that Amazon’s nonstop experimentation with Alexa form factors is far beyond what Apple and Google are doing. It’s astonishing that you can get access to a best-in-class intelligent assistant that lives on your fridge for free (if you have Prime, of course). The Dash Wand is an aggressive display of Amazon’s ambitions in your home: ubiquitous, inexpensive, and ready to shop.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ron Howard to direct the upcoming Star Wars Han Solo movie.

The Millennium Falcon has a new pilot.

Ron Howard has been named as the new director of Lucasfilm and Disney’s untitled Han Solo movie, sources tell to The Hollywood Reporter exclusively. The official announcement is expected Thursday morning.

The move comes two days after directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were let go from the movie they had spent over four-and-a-half months directing. Creative differences over style and tone came to a head between the duo and Lawrence Kasdan, with the studio backing the veteran screenwriter.

The firing sent shockwaves around Hollywood and beyond as the movie was about three-quarters through principal photography and the replacement of a director at that stage is near-unprecedented.

Howard, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter, will meet with the actors — Alden Ehrenreich is playing the iconic smuggler, Donald Glover is playing Lando Calrissian, with Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke and Thandie Newton also on the roll call — to soothe a rattled set and will pore over a rough edit to see what the project has and still needs.

The movie was scheduled to shoot for three-and-a-half more weeks, with five weeks of reshoots built into the schedule — the latter a standard procedure on large franchise productions.

Howard, who won an Oscar for directing 2002’s A Beautiful Mind, comes to the Han Solo film with several connections to George Lucas and the worlds of Lucasfilm. He appeared in Lucas' 1973 breakout film American Graffiti, and implemented Lucas’ 1988 pet fantasy project Willow as helmer. Howard also revealed on a podcast in 2015 that Lucas had approached him to direct 1999’s Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace.

Howard is considered to be a safe choice to complete the task, someone who will more than ably finish the movie while being a calming presence on set.

Howard’s recent movies include Inferno and In the Heart of the Sea, costly ventures that have underperformed at the box office.

Virgin Mobile moves to iPhone only plans that are $1 for a whole year of service

It's no secret that American carriers sell a lot of iPhones. Virgin Mobile, however, is taking that to a logical extreme. The Sprint sub-brand has announced that it's the US' first iPhone-only carrier as of June 27th -- if you don't like iOS, you'll have to head elsewhere. In return for the exclusivity, you'll get a fairly good rate as well as some potentially juicy promos.

You'll normally pay $50 per month for unlimited talk, texting and data, with the potential for "deprioritized" data (read: it may slow down) if you use more than 23GB per month. There are no commitment. However, you'll get 6 months of service for $1 if you buy an iPhone and sign up -- and those who enlist before July 31st will get a full year of service for the same buck. Also, Virgin is selling the iPhone SE at a starting price of $279 ($379 for 128GB), well under Apple's usual $399. Combine those with perks with Virgin brands (such as a round-trip companion ticket to the UK on Virgin Atlantic) and sales of used devices and it may be tempting to switch over, at least if you're looking for a new iPhone.

We've asked Apple about the extent of its involvement and whether or not more is planned down the line, and we'll let you know if there's anything it can add. Regardless, it's an audacious move. Apple may be playing it safe by partnering with a relatively small carrier like Virgin (Sprint can still count on its own brand and Boost Mobile), but you don't really see providers limiting themselves to one manufacturer -- even fledgling networks like Comcast's Xfinity Mobile have some diversity. Apple and Virgin are clearly betting that many Americans are more interested in a sweet deal on iPhone service than a wide choice of devices.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Keep your online self safe: How to set up two-factor authentication on all your online accounts

Just about any account you own on the internet is prone to being hacked — and one of the easiest ways to add an extra layer of security is to enable two-factor authentication. Also known as two-step verification or 2FA, the process gives web services a secondary access to the account owner (you!) in order to verify a login attempt. Typically, this involves phone number and / or an email address.

While 2FA doesn’t totally cloak you from potential hackers, it is an important step in preventing your account from being accessed by unauthorized users. Here’s how to enable 2FA on your accounts across the web.


2FA is currently offered to Apple users on iOS 9 or Mac OS X El Capitan or later. We don’t make the rules!


The steps are slightly different depending on how updated your iOS software is. For those using iOS 10.3 or later, you can enable 2FA on your Apple ID by going to “Settings” > [Your Name] > “Password & Security.” You can turn on 2FA to receive a text message with a code each time you log in.

Those using iOS 10.2 or earlier, the settings are under “iCloud” > “Apple ID” > “Password & Security.”

Mac OS

Click the Apple icon on the upper left corner of your screen then click “System Preferences” > “iCloud” > “Account Details.” (You can shorten this step a bit by typing in iCloud on Spotlight.) Click on “Security” and you’ll see the option to turn 2FA on.

The remainder of the steps, from either iOS or Mac, are the same. You can opt for Apple to send you a six-digit verification code by text message, or a phone call.


Even though you can access Instagram from a web browser, at this time you can only turn on 2FA from its mobile app. Head over your profile and click the hamburger menu on the upper right corner. Under the Account section, you should see “Two-Factor Authentication.” Toggle “Require Security Code” on to receive a text message with a login code to your account’s phone number each time you sign in.


Under the hamburger menu on mobile apps or the upper right side on a web browser, click “Settings” > “Security and Login,” or go to Under the section “Use two-factor authentication” you will have the option of registering your phone number to receive a code each time you log in, or have Facebook send a push notification to your phone to authorize or deny the login attempt.

Here, you can also set up a Security Key to log in through USB or NFC, or pre-generate a Recovery Code in case you’re traveling abroad where you will not have cell service.

If you prefer to not use 2FA each time you log in from the same device (say, your personal laptop or phone) you can also set up your trusted devices under the “Authorized Logins” menu. This will allow you to grant access to bypass 2FA for devices currently logged in to your Facebook account.


On either the Twitter mobile app or browser version, click your profile avatar and find the “Settings and privacy” menu. Under “Account” > “Security” (or, as a shortcut), you can toggle on “Login verification” to make Twitter text your phone number a code to log in.

Just like other services mentioned above, you can generate a backup code to use when you’re traveling and will be without internet or cell service, or even create a temporary app password that you can use to log in from other devices. The temporary password expires one hour after being generated.


Go to the Amazon homepage and log in. From your Account homepage, find “Login & Security” and click the edit button on “Advanced Security Settings.” To set up, click “Get Started” and Amazon will walk you through registering your phone number, or you can opt to use your preferred authenticator app by syncing it through a QR code.

Once verified, you can select trusted devices to bypass 2FA or generate a code to login via a mobile app.


The easiest way to turn 2FA on across your Google account (i.e., Gmail, YouTube, or Google Maps) is by heading over to the main 2FA landing page and clicking “Get Started.” You’ll be asked to log in then enter a phone number before selecting to receive verification codes by text message or phone call. Like Facebook, you can also choose to use “prompts” that allow you to simply click “Yes” or “No” when a login attempt occurs, or generate a Security Key with a USB stick.

Here, you can also generate backup codes for offline access. Google generates 10 at a time, and they’re designed to be single-use each so once you’ve successfully used one, cross it out as it will no longer work.


From the app’s main page, tap the gear icon and look for “My Account,” followed by “Login Verification.” Select SMS to receive a code for each time you log in. Once 2FA has been enabled on your Snapchat account, you can add trusted devices or request a recovery code for when you’re planning to be somewhere without cellular service.


Log in to your Microsoft account and find the “Security settings” menu. Choose to set up 2FA and you’ll get walked through the steps with your phone number similarly to the process outlined for all other services above. For when you lack cell service, click “App passwords” to generate a unique, one-time use password to log in.


From your Dropbox homepage on the web, click your profile avatar and find “Settings” > “Security.” Scroll down a bit to find “Two-Step Verification” — there it will tell you the status of your 2FA. Click to enable to turn the feature on and enter your phone number to verify.


On the main dashboard, click the gear icon and find “Profile and settings.” PayPal doesn’t explicitly call the feature out as “Two-Factor Authentication” so you’ll need to look for “Security Key.” Click this to set up what’s basically your 2FA by entering your phone number, verifying with the SMS code, and continuing as normal.

If you lose your phone, change numbers, or decide to revoke authorization rights, come back to this menu in the same steps outlined before to make adjustments.


For everything else not listed here, we recommend using authenticator apps to keep track of verification codes so you can get them sent to you without requiring cellular service — useful for when you’re traveling abroad and have access to only internet. Popular options include Authy, Google Authenticator, or HDE OTP (iOS only). These apps follow mostly the same procedure when adding a new account: scan a QR code associated with your account and it will save it in the app. The next time you need to login, just open up your app to find the six-digit code required to get past security.

These extra steps are great for adding a layer of security on all your accounts, but remember that you should be changing and updating your passwords regularly even with 2FA enabled just to stay in tip-top shape.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Pioneer introduces first-ever Lightning-powered iPhone speaker called Rayz Rally

Pioneer is launching a new Lightning-connected speaker today called the Rayz Rally that is designed to host conference calls. The Rally doesn’t have a battery inside, so it has to be plugged into your iPhone to work. (You could also make calls over your iPad or iPod Touch.) On the bright side, you can charge while you listen because the Rally has a Lightning port, too. 

Really, the Rally is just a plug-and-play speaker that Pioneer claims has been optimized for call clarity. The company also says it detects when you’re playing music instead of calling someone and adjusts its levels accordingly.

It comes with a companion iOS app that updates the device, as well as a built-in “smart button” that can mute / unmute calls or play / pause music. I can’t honestly tell what’s “smart” about it. During a demo of the Rally, I was told that the device might be best suited for someone who works from home since they might both take phone calls and listen to music in an open setting (versus headphones in an office).

While I think that makes some sense, I also don’t know whether people working from home care if they have a conference call speaker. They could make calls from their laptop or just put their phone on speaker, especially if it’s just them in a room. That said, I could see people who travel for work frequently using the Rally. It’s portable and meant to be thrown into a bag. This use case seems more likely.