Roku’s new ad-supported channel lets you watch a bunch of movies for free

Roku’s new ad-supported channel lets you watch a bunch of movies for free

The Roku 4 and its remote.
Andrew Cunningham

Movie buffs looking for titles to watch now have a new option on Roku devices. Roku announced that its new channel (aptly dubbed The Roku Channel) is now available for all US users that have a Roku device made after June 2011. This channel has a bunch of movies from studios including Lionsgate, MGM, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Warner Brothers that are available to watch for free with advertisements.

Roku revealed plans for this channel about a month ago, but now it has rolled out to all customers with compatible devices. Roku has curated content collections in the past, like its Roku Recommends and 4K Spotlight sections. But now the company is actively seeking licensing agreements with studios to offer movies and TV shows on The Roku Channel. In addition to big studios, the channel also has content from smaller companies including Popcornflix and American Classics.

After adding the channel to your Roku homepage (it’s under the “Featured,” “New and Notable,” and “Movies and TV” sections in the Streaming Channels setting), you can watch any of the available titles for free. There will be ads throughout the movie, so it’ll be more similar to watching a movie on a broadcast network than streaming one on Netflix. And don’t expect to see the newest movies or the latest seasons of your favorite TV shows on The Roku Channel: since viewing is free, most of the content available is older. Roku cites Mission: Impossible 3, Beauty Shop, Philadelphia, and Zookeeper as just a few of the options available.

If you stay away from ads as much as possible, you probably won’t like Roku’s strategy for the future. At the time of the company’s IPO (which was mere weeks ago), Roku stated it would focus more on selling advertisements and distributing content. The Roku Channel is likely the first of many ad-supported, curated channels we’ll see from Roku going forward. However, that doesn’t mean Roku will abandon hardware—the company recently announced five new streaming products to its device family, as well as the Roku OS 8 software update.

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Jio Recharge Cashback Offer, Airtel Rs. 999 Plan & More: Your 360 Daily

Jio Recharge Cashback Offer, Airtel Rs. 999 Plan & More: Your 360 Daily

Reliance Jio is giving Jio Prime customers 100 percent cashback on recharges of Rs. 399 under a new promotional offer for Diwali festive season. Named the Jio Diwali Dhan Dhana Dhan offer, it is applicable only on the Rs. 399 prepaid and postpaid plans and will entitle customers to vouchers worth Rs. 400. The offer is available now and run till October 18, a day ahead of Diwali. The Rs. 399 Jio Dhan Dhana Dhan pack for prepaid users offers 84GB data at 1GB per day, free text messages, free calls, subscription to Jio apps, and a validity of 84 days.

The new Jio Diwali Dhan Dhana Dhan offer provides Jio Prime customers eight vouchers of Rs. 50 each. You can redeem these vouchers against future recharges of Rs. 309 or above for full mobile plans, or data add-ons of Rs. 91 and above.

Here comes the catch: These vouchers can be redeemed only after November 15 and you can only use them one at a time. This means you can’t combine eight vouchers to get one recharge for free. Think of it as a series of staggered discounts instead of a 100 percent cashback on Rs. 399 recharge. The offer can be availed from MyJio app, Jio.com website, Jio Store outlets, Reliance Digital large-format stores, and the company’s partner offline retail stores and online platforms (JioMoneyPaytmAmazon Pay, and MobiKwik).

Here’s everything else that made news in the world of technology today.

Airtel offers 50GB data at Rs. 999 to postpaid users
Airtel has launched a new postpaid plan under the myPlan Infinity brand, this one priced at Rs. 999. The new Airtel plan comes with 50GB of bundled data and unlimited local and STD calls. Roaming calls, both outgoing and incoming, will be free too. This is the latest salvo in the fight between Airtel and Jio, as the latter also has a Rs. 999 plan with 90GB of bundled data, as well as free calls and SMSes and subscription to Jio apps. To combat the freebies, Airtel is providing customers of the Rs. 999 plan free liquid and accidental damage protection for six months and data rollover promise. In related news, Airtel is all set to acquire a lot more customers as Tata Teleservices has sold its consumer mobile business to the telco.

Amazon announces Diwali sale offers
Amazon and Flipkart are at it again. They both have a pre-Diwali sales starting from 14th to 17th of October, which covers the whole weekend. So you have your local sales, plus these online giants facing off trying to grab your attention. And who wins? You. Get all the best deals curated for you on Gadgets 360. For now, here’s a short roundup of deals Amazon is expected to provide during its Diwali sale.

Amazon says you can expect up to 40 percent off on mobiles and up to 80 percent discount on accessories. To be specific, Amazon India is expected to offer up to 65 percent off on power banks, 80 percent off on mobile cases, and up to 20 percent off on Bluetooth headsets. Brands such as Xiaomi, Lenovo, OnePlus, Apple, Samsung, LG, HP, Dell, Titan, and Fastrack will be offering discounts during the Amazon Great Indian Festival Sale. The Amazon Fire TV stick will also be discounted, the company revealed.

Nokia 9 press renders leaked
Nokia 9 has been leaked yet again. This is HMD Global’s upcoming flagship smartphone and the reason these leaks are interesting is because they corroborate the information we already have about the phone. The newest leaks seem to suggest that the smartphone might feature a glass back (could it have wireless charging?), curved displays, and a dual rear camera setup. If you care about the 3.5mm jack, Nokia 9 might disappoint you as the leaks seem to hint that the phone won’t have the headphone jack. Based on previous leaks, we may assume that the Nokia 9 could ship with 6GB of RAM and a variant with 8GB RAM. The smartphone could be waterproof and feature 128GB storage too.

Apple working on a foldable iPhone?
Could Apple be working on a foldable iPhone? A new report from South Korea claims that Apple is working with LG Display to accomplish that. The report claims that LG Display has created a task force to develop a foldable OLED screen for an iPhone that may be launched in 2020. This is a very early stage report so a lot could change between now and then. However, it does appear that Samsung might get there first as the company is rumoured to launch a Galaxy X featuring a foldable display.

Facebook unveils Oculus Go portable VR headset 
Facebook is launching a new virtual reality headset that does not require a separate computer to operate, allowing more mobile uses than the company’s existing Oculus Rift product. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the “Oculus Go” device would cost $199 (roughly Rs. 13,000) and ship early next year. The company says this headset is aimed at those who don’t have Samsung smartphones and can’t use the Gear VR headset.

iOS 11.0.3 fixes audio, haptic feedback bugs, and more 
Apple on Wednesday released iOS 11.0.3, the third update since it released iOS 11 to the public last month. Being a minor update, iOS 11.0.3 doesn’t bring any new features, but it does offer several improvements. iPhone 7 users who were facing audio and haptic feedback should see the problem resolved. It has also addressed an issue with iPhone 6s where some displays were unresponsive because they were third-party, and not genuine parts.

Nubia launches two new smartphones
ZTE has launched two new smartphones – the Nubia Z17S and the Nubia Z17 miniS. The Nubia Z17S has two variants: 6GB RAM with 64GB storage at CNY 2,999 (roughly Rs. 30,000), and 8GB RAM with 128GB storage at CNY 3,999 (roughly Rs. 40,000). The Nubia Z17 miniS has been priced at CNY 1,999 (roughly Rs. 20,000). Both phones are up for pre-order in China right now and will go on available from October 19.

Honor to launch a bezel-free smartphone on December 5
Huawei’s brand Honor has announced that it will be launching a smartphone with a bezel-free display in December 5. The company has started sending out teasers to this effect, which show a phone with thin bezels and an 18:9 aspect ratio. If you look carefully, you’ll be able to spot a dual camera at the back on the phone shown in the teaser. The global launch of this phone is expected to take place in London, and AI integration is expected to be a key highlight of the phone.

Amazon launches waterproof Kindle Oasis
Amazon has launched a waterproof Kindle ebook reader, called the Kindle Oasis, and it is up for pre-orders in India. This ebook reader will cost Rs. 21,999 for the 8GB variant and Rs. 28,999 for the 32GB variant. The storage space here matters if you plan to listen to audiobooks. Yes, once again the audiobook feature is available on a Kindle ebook reader. You’ll have to use Bluetooth headphones to listen to these books as the device lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack. In India, the Kindle Oasis will start shipping from November 13. The updated version of the Kindle Oasis offers six-week battery life, and a brighter 7-inch 300ppi screen, which is slightly larger than the previous model.

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LG to open Europe’s largest EV battery factory in Poland next year

LG to open Europe’s largest EV battery factory in Poland next year

LG is opening Europe’s largest factory for building lithium-ion batteries destined for use in electric cars, the company announced. Its LG Chem division is going to open the doors for the facility in 2019 in Poland near Wroclaw, per Reuters, and the facility will be able to supply as many as 100,000 EV batteries per year beginning from next year.

For comparison, Panasonic’s latest battery facility in China can make enough to supply the production of around 200,000 vehicles per year, and the Gigafactory hopes to eventually produce enough for around 500,000 vehicles per year. Already, Musk said that the Gigafactory at its current capacity, which is nowhere near total eventual output, is producing more batteries than any other factory in the world, according to Elon Musk.

Battery production could become a major chokepoint for vehicle electrification as more automakers shift more of their model lineups to EVs and hybrids. More factories can definitely help, but supply of base materials could become an even bigger hindrance in future.

Featured Image: AFP/Stringer/Getty Images

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Movies Anywhere: Watch all your Amazon, Google, and iTunes titles in one place

Movies Anywhere: Watch all your Amazon, Google, and iTunes titles in one place

Movies Anywhere

A new service launched late yesterday promises to make streaming your favorite purchased movies easier by putting them all in one place. The new free app Movies Anywhere acts like a digital locker for the movies you’ve paid for through various online retailers, including Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes, and Vudu. Signing up for a Movies Anywhere account gives you access to the digital locker, which you can then populate with purchased or redeemed movies by logging in to the accounts you have with those online retailers.

It takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work for a service like this to flourish. It’s not easy to access movies you’ve purchased from an online retailer from another service. Typically, users have to go back and forth between Amazon, Google, iTunes, and Vudu to watch the titles they purchased through each outlet. According to a report from the Verge, Movies Anywhere can collect all those titles in one place because it’s built off of the same digital rights system architecture (called Keychest) that Disney first developed for its service Disney Movies Anywhere.

Disney launched its service in 2014 and it allowed users to get access to all of the company’s titles in one place. Movies Anywhere is using the same architecture with the blessing and collaborations of five Hollywood studios: Walt Disney Studios (which includes Disney, Pixar, Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm), Sony Pictures Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox Film, Universal Pictures, and Warner Bros. Entertainment. While discussions are ongoing with Paramount Pictures and Lionsgate to join the service, Movies Anywhere will not launch with any titles from those studios. However, that still means the service has over 7,300 titles in its library already.

This isn’t the industry’s first attempt to simplify film organization, viewing, and purchasing for digital users. The previously launched UltraViolet service was ultimately abandoned for Disney’s superior architecture, and because it did not have support from companies like Apple.

In addition to watching any movies you’ve purchased through Movies Anywhere, you’ll also be able to purchase movies in the app. Before buying a movie, you’ll see every connected retailer that offers it, allowing you to choose which services you want to purchase it from. That means you can buy a title from Google Play using your Google Play account information without leaving the Movies Anywhere app.

Aside from Movies Anywhere supporting the most popular digital film retailers, the service also supports a variety of streaming devices. Movies Anywhere users can access their libraries and watch films on Android, Amazon Fire, and iOS devices, as well as Android TV, Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast devices.

Users might be skeptical of yet another service they need to sign up for in order to reap the benefits of an all-in-one digital library. However, the fact that the Movies Anywhere app is free will likely be enticing enough for some folks. Movies Anywhere is also offering a tempting deal when you connect accounts: when you link your first account, Movies Anywhere will give you access to two free movies. Linking the second account will give you another three free movies. There’s no word on how long this promotion will last, but it is a “limited-time offer” for those who are the first to embrace Movies Anywhere as their digital film library.

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Vivoactive 3 review: Garmin’s often the underdog, often the better choice

Vivoactive 3 review: Garmin’s often the underdog, often the better choice

The fight to make the best all-purpose smartwatch has never been tougher. There are a number of new wearables around the $300 mark that want to be your device of choice for both fitness and all-day wear. Since fitness is still the most practical use for wearables, most companies follow the same pattern: make the best fitness device for the money and supplement it with other smart features that would be most useful to the masses.

Garmin’s latest attempt to execute that plan is the $300 Vivoactive 3, a device poised to take on the $329 Apple Watch Series 3 (without LTE) and the $300 Fitbit Ionic. It has serious fitness chops—as most would expect from a Garmin device—as well as a bunch of typical smartwatch features. The stakes are high for Garmin, given the Vivoactive’s price and its competition: the device must give users the best value for their money by being both a solid fitness watch and smart device, while also being unique enough to persuade prospective users away from similar devices. Some of the Vivoactive 3’s fitness and smartwatch features are Garmin signatures (and can be found on other Garmin devices), but others are features necessary to keep up with the Joneses in the wearable space.

Design

The Vivoactive 3 is a breath of fresh air compared to the Vivoactive HR. While Garmin’s previous device was boxy, bulky, and generally unattractive, the Vivoactive 3 is a huge improvement. It looks and feels like a regular watch, but isn’t as heavy or large as some wearables masquerading as timepieces. Some Android Wear devices that have traditional watch designs are huge compared to those regular timepieces. But Garmin’s Vivoactive devices have always been the company’s best competitors to high-end Apple and Fitbit wearables. I was happy to see Garmin step up its game with the Vivoactive 3’s design because the Vivoactive HR felt overwhelming and unattractive compared to the competition.

The Vivoactive 3’s stainless steel case measures 43.4 x 43.4 x 11.7 mm and weighs just 43 grams. It’s the perfect size for my small wrist. Although I like larger watches, I also don’t want to have a distracting, behemoth of a device on me at all times. My review unit had black and silver hardware, but you can also get the Vivoactive 3 with white/silver hardware, or a slate case with black accents. The entire design is waterproof up to 50 meters as well, so it can track swimming exercises and you can safely shower with it.

The device has one button on the case that’s used to access the wheel-like display menu and sport profile menu. Garmin also added a “side swipe” mechanism that lets you scroll through screens by gently rolling your finger up and down along the opposite side of the watch’s case. It’s slightly textured so you have some tactile feedback, and it works well as an alternative to the Vivoactive 3’s touchscreen.

Using side swipe was a bit clumsy for me, but that’s because I wore the Vivoactive 3 with the button positioned close to my wrist bone, facing away from my body. During the device’s initial setup, you can choose the preferred orientation of the device on your wrist. If you’re right-handed like me, and you plan on using side swipe often, I recommend turning the case so the textured side faces your wrist bone and hand.

The 1.2-inch, 240 x 240-pixel display isn’t as vibrant as those of similar devices like the Fitbit Ionic or the Apple Watch Series 3, but it is backlit and visible in direct sunlight. When resting, the display is always on but dimmed so you can still see the watch face. The display’s backlight automatically comes on when you flip your wrist up to check the time and the light is customizable, letting you choose how long it stays on before it turns off automatically again.

Inside the Vivoactive 3 are the usual sensor suspects: accelerometer, barometric altimeter, compass, thermometer, GPS/GLONASS, and Garmin’s Elevate heart-rate sensor. The underside of the Vivoactive 3 shows Garmin’s hard work in minimizing the space between your wrist and the optical heart-rate monitor. Much like Fitbit’s Ionic smartwatch, the Vivoactive 3 doesn’t have any raised edges, bumps, or unevenness under the case so the device lays completely flat against the wrist. This should better prevent pressure pockets from forming, or space and air coming in between the device and your wrist, both of which can breed inaccurate heart-rate readings.

I prefer the look of the improved heart-rate monitor on Garmin’s device over the Fitbit Ionic’s, because the former’s underside still narrows before becoming totally flat. As a result, the Ionic is looks and feels thicker than the Vivoactive 3, not to mention it’s awkwardly shaped as well. The Vivoactive 3’s flatness makes it more comfortable than other high-end wearables, while also increasing its heart-rate monitoring accuracy.

The Vivoactive 3 also supports standard 20mm quick-release bands so they can be replaced with bands of different colors and materials. Garmin also claims the device’s battery will last up to seven days on a single charge, or 13 hours in GPS mode. After updating the Vivoactive 3’s firmware, I had an issue with its battery: it was depleting like crazy, lasting only 24 to 36 hours at most. Before the problem started, my device got about three to four days on a single charge—not bad, but not as good as the Fitbit Ionic’s seven-day battery life.

Garmin is aware of the issue and is working on a fix for it, and the company advised me to charge the device fully before turning it off and back on again. After doing so, the battery life appeared to bounce back: after two days of consecutive day and night use (including daily activity, workout, and sleep tracking, as well as about 20 minutes of GPS use), the battery life was down to 62 percent.

The bands and the overall case design make the Vivoactive 3 the closest thing you can get from Garmin (in terms of design and features) before jumping into the expensive Fenix family. While Garmin also sells the Vivomove HR, it’s clearly targeted to women thanks to its “hybrid smartwatch” branding, metallic colorways, and the fact that it’s categorized under “women’s wearables” on Garmin’s website. The Vivoactive 3 is the more powerful, unisex version of the Vivomove HR, and the more accessible version of the Fenix 5 wearable that starts at $599.

Listing image by Valentina Palladino

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Pre-release Google Home Mini goes rogue, starts recording 24/7 [Updated]

Pre-release Google Home Mini goes rogue, starts recording 24/7 [Updated]

The Google Home Mini. It’s listening, even sometimes when it’s not supposed to.

Update: Welp, this is officially a full-blown disaster. In response to reports of constantly recording Google Home Minis, Google is permanently removing the Google Home Mini’s center touch point functionality. The company released a statement tonight, saying:

We take user privacy and product quality concerns very seriously. Although we only received a few reports of this issue, we want people to have complete peace of mind while using Google Home Mini.

We have made the decision to permanently remove all top touch functionality on the Google Home Mini. As before, the best way to control and activate Google Home Mini is through voice, by saying “Ok Google” or “Hey Google,” which is already how most people engage with our Google Home products. You can still adjust the volume by using the touch control on the side of the device.

The total, permanent removal of the top center touch point means you won’t be able to long-press on it to begin voice recognition, and you won’t be able to tap on it to pause or resume music, or stop an alarm from beeping. While the Mini still isn’t released yet, apparently the false-positive touch issue is not fixable through software, the Minis are too far along to fix the hardware, and Google doesn’t want to rip apart the units that have already been manufactured. Someone messed up big time.

Our original post is below.


The Google Home Mini isn’t out yet, but Google is already dealing with an issue related to it.

Artem Russakovskii, the founder of Android Police, tells the harrowing tale of a Google Home Mini gone rogue. Russakovskii’s pre-release unit, which he picked up from Google’s October 4 event for the tech press, has apparently recorded “thousands of times a day” and attempted to respond to random noises. After swapping the device with Google, Google engineers determined that Russakovskii’s Home Mini had a defective touch panel that was registering “phantom” touch events. The Mini has a touch-sensitive surface, and, to issue a command, you can either say “OK Google” or long press on the top. Russakovskii’s unit was apparently registering touches at random, so it would randomly start recording audio of his home and storing it on Google’s servers.

Google acknowledged the issue on a support page, saying, “The Google Home team is aware of an issue impacting a small number of Google Home Mini devices that could cause the touch-control mechanism to behave incorrectly. We immediately rolled out a software update on October 7 to mitigate the issue.”

For now, Google’s “mitigation” to the issue has been to update all Google Home Minis to totally disable the “long-press to talk” functionality. The company also says it “removed any activity/queries that were created by long-pressing the top of a Google Home Mini between October 4 and October 7, when the software update was rolled out.”

Google says the people affected are those “who received an early release Google Home Mini device at recent Made by Google events.” “Made By Google” events presumably don’t just cover the press event; they also cover the pre-release giveaways that have been occurring at pop-up stores across the US and Canada. The Google Home Mini won’t officially hit store shelves until October 19.

Ars can confirm that our pre-release Mini had the long-touch functionality when we first set it up, and the touch-to-talk feature was recently disabled. Our Mini never went crazy by recording at random.

Russakovskii seems happy with Google’s response. He says the company replied to his initial e-mail within 10 minutes and issued a band-aid patch the day after his report. Disabling touch control isn’t a permanent solution, but it was a fast one. If Google can’t adjust the touch sensitivity through a software upgrade, it might have to recall the units it has sent out. However widespread this issue is (we haven’t seen any other reports like this), the good news is that this was caught before the product hit store shelves. Presumably, Google has warehouses full of units that it can test, debug, adjust, and maybe even delay.

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Tim Cook says the tech “doesn’t exist” for quality AR glasses yet

Tim Cook says the tech “doesn’t exist” for quality AR glasses yet

The “Sword of Damocles” head-mounted display, the original augmented reality headset, circa 1968. Augmented reality has gotten a lot more mobile in the past decade.
Ivan Sutherland

Apple CEO Tim Cook believes augmented reality’s rise will be as “dramatic” as that of the App Store, but he doesn’t believe AR glasses or similar wearables are ready for the market yet, according to a sit-down interview with The Independent. Much of Cook’s interview focused on the prospects of augmented reality and Apple’s justification for making it a focus in both iOS and the iPhone 8.

He said this to The Independent:

Think back to 2008, when the App Store went live. There was the initial round of apps, and people looked at them and said, “this is not anything, mobile apps are not going to take off.” And then, step by step, things start to move. And it is sort of a curve, it was just exponential–and now you couldn’t imagine your life without apps. Your health is on one app, your financials, your shopping, your news, your entertainment–it’s everything. AR is like that. It will be that dramatic.

iOS 11, the latest software release for iPhones and iPads, included ARKit, a framework for developing augmented reality applications around the iPhone’s robust suite of sensors and cameras. It doesn’t enable anything that has never been done before in AR, but it is intended to greatly increase ease of development of AR applications for one of the most robust software markets in the world—the iOS App Store.

Because handsets as far back as the iPhone 6S are supported, smartly designed AR apps based on ARKit will find a large and mature market of consumers. Cook believes his company is providing a sort of garden for growing great AR ideas. He’s quoted saying: “The way that you get lots of great ideas is for us to do the heavy lifting of the complexity of locational things and software, and put those in the operating system… And then you have all the developers that are able to put their energy into their passion.” Cook also said that he believes day-to-day experiences like shopping will be “entirely” changed by AR.

Ars’ iPhone 8 review called it “the best mass-market AR platform we’ve yet seen.” But the best mass-market platform is not necessarily the most advanced. Even as many developers are creating AR apps for ARKit on iPhones or for Google’s ARCore platform, others are focused on platforms like Microsoft’s HoloLens and Windows Mixed Reality platform, which have some capabilities the iPhones don’t. Some of these competing concepts are worn like goggles over your eyes.

Cook didn’t address all of these technical differences in the interview, but he did talk about the prospects for AR goggles or glasses. He believes the tech isn’t ready:

The technology itself doesn’t exist to do that in a quality way. The display technology required, as well as putting enough stuff around your face–there [are] huge challenges with that. The field of view, the quality of the display itself—it’s not there yet.

Using HoloLens shows the potential of AR glasses, both in the sense of them being wearable and in the sense that HoloLens offers some technologies that aren’t yet on mass-market consumer phones—like better mapping of 3D assets over varied terrain rather than just flat surfaces. But at the same time, there are terrible limitations. HoloLens is bulky and unattractive. The field of view is pitifully small, breaking all potential immersion in what’s being displayed. Granted, things have moved forward a bit since HoloLens was introduced, but they haven’t moved that far.

But even with those limitations, it’s easy to conclude while trying HoloLens that wearables are where AR ultimately needs to go in the long run to achieve its full potential, despite the poor reception of the now ancient-seeming Google Glass concept. Holding up a phone just isn’t the same. But judging from Cook’s comments, Apple nevertheless believes the phone AR experience is enough for a revolution in its App Store. As attractive as the longterm vision of wearable AR might be to many, he’s probably not wrong.

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Google Home Mini review—A gateway drug for the Google Assistant

Google Home Mini review—A gateway drug for the Google Assistant

How much can you slice away from a Google Home and have it still be good? That was the question asked of Google’s hardware team when it created the Google Home Mini, a device that slashes the $129 Google Home down to a mere $50. The result is a smaller, cheaper, simpler device that still has all the Google Assistant smarts of its bigger brother without a speaker system capable of pumping out decent-sounding music. If you’ve ever wondered if this voice command stuff would work in your house and need a test device, Google is hoping you’ll take a gamble on this cheap little device.

Most of the features we covered in the original Google Home review still apply. The Home Mini still has an incredible mesh hotword system, seamlessly creating a Star Trek-like voice command network with other Google Homes and Android devices. A shout of “OK Google” and the Google Home hivemind will instantly identify the closest device to you and singularly answer you on that device. You still manage it through the Google Home app. It still has a bunch of voice commands. In this review, we’re mainly looking at the hardware, so let’s dive in!

The hardware

The design of the Google Home Mini is kind of cute. It’s a small circle that’s 3.86-inches (98mm) in diameter and 1.65-inches (42mm) tall. The top is covered in a woven cloth material, while the bottom half is plastic with a big rubber foot. It looks like someone stuck a donut inside a sock. Since the Google Home Mini looks like a piece of laundry or a couch cushion, it blends in to a home environment much easier than the white plastic obelisk that is the original Google Home.

Under the stock fabric is a set of four lights, which work just like the ones on the big Google Home. This is a step down from the Google Home’s 11 lights, but hey, we’re trying to cut costs here. The lights will turn on when the Google Home is talking or listening to you, and they also indicate the volume level (1 to 4) when you adjust the volume. The lights are RGB LEDs, but mostly they’re content to stay their default hue of white.

Google Home Mini touch points.

Enlarge / Google Home Mini touch points.
Google

The top surface is touch sensitive. Tapping on the left and right (the “front” is opposite the power cord) changes the volume. Tapping the center will pause or play the currently loaded music, and long-pressing the center will start the listening mode as an alternative to saying “OK Google.” Currently, this is disabled because at least one Google Home Mini shipped with a defective touch surface, which caused it to accidentally record a lot more than it should.

Update: Nevermind about that center touch point. Google is now officially disabling it forever.

On the back of the device you’ll find the power cord, along with a physical “mute microphone” switch that you can move left and right. Sliding the mute switch to the right will turn off the mini’s microphone, exposing a bright orange layer under the switch and turning the four lights orange. A physical switch is an odd choice, since you can also mute Google Home by voice. This means you can cause the switch to be out of sync with the actual mute state.

Google’s hardware division is all over the place when it comes to the power plugs for its devices. The Google Wi-Fi, released last year, was a welcome surprise with a USB-C port just for power. Given Google’s pioneering work with USB-C in products like the Chromebook Pixel 2 and Nexus/Pixel Phone line, Google seemed like it was going to push this reversible plug standard to everything. The original Google Home was an outlier, with a coaxial DC power jack, but since it was developed around the same time as the Google WiFi, you could assume that maybe the USB-C revolution just didn’t make it in time. A year later, the new Google Home Mini is at a weird halfway point, using an old-school micro USB port for power. What the plug is doesn’t really matter, given that you probably won’t ever lose the Mini’s power cord and need to replace it. But it’s an example of Google Hardware lacking uniformity.

On the bottom of the Mini, you’ll find a bright orange rubber foot with a “G” logo stamped into it. The foot serves to firmly anchor the Mini to whatever you stick it on, but it also has a hidden little button on the bottom. If you hold it down, you’ll factory-reset the Mini.

Google Home, now without its best feature

The other big thing to go on the Mini is the sound. When Google introduced Google Home last year, the company definitely seemed to take a “minimum viable product” approach to launching the device. Google Home generally felt unfinished and couldn’t do many of the things that we had come to expect from Google’s voice command system, but the one thing it could do well was music. Multiple Google Homes could be placed around your house and connected together, and they would accomplish the surprisingly difficult task of playing seamless music throughout your house.

It seemed like “good music playback” was the minimum viable product for Google Home at launch, and now, a year later, Google is launching a Google Home device that isn’t meant for music playback. The Mini can play back music—it just really shouldn’t. The Google Home Mini only has a single 40mm driver, and while it gets fairly loud, the bass is non-existent, the highs are clipped, and it’s just overall an unpleasant speaker for music.

Google also describes the Mini as a “360-degree speaker,” but what Google actually means is that the speaker points straight up. The point is, the Mini isn’t any good at playing music. It seems tuned for voice and voice only, which is fine for hearing command affirmations and the weather report.

What do you do with a Google Home that shouldn’t play music, though? Should you add the Mini to the Google Home speaker group and have a low-quality speaker blaring away when you’re playing music? After a few test runs, I chose to remove it from the music speaker group, because it just sounds bad. As someone who’s a fan of the whole-home music idea, this makes finding a place for the Google Home Mini in my house difficult. I ask myself the question, “Where do I want voice commands, but not music?” and I can’t come up with a spot that fits that description. I feel like the Home Mini is nice if you’re experimenting or on a budget, but if you care about music, there’s little reason to get a mini if you can afford a full-sized Google Home.

If you want to buy a $35 Chromecast Audio along with your $50 Google Home Mini, you can use the Mini as a “smart bridge” for a real speaker system. This seems like the use case in which the Mini shines brightest. You get to keep the music playback while not using the Mini’s crappy speaker. The Amazon Echo Dot has the same idea, but since it uses a good, old-fashioned 3.5mm jack, you can hook up a speaker without the need for an expensive dongle and yet another power plug. It’s a shame the Mini can’t do the same.

So what’s left other than music?

Any time I talk to someone considering a Google Home, I ask them “What do you think you’ll use it for?” If you can’t immediately come up with a specific answer to that question, you’re probably not going to find a ton of use once you set it up. Right now, I would rank Google Home’s best use cases thusly:

  1. Music—Great sound. An awesome, easy way to get perfectly synced music in every room, which is a nightmare with regular audio equipment. This is not really an option for the Home Mini.
  2. Smart Home control—Great for turning lights on and off, controlling dimmers, and adjusting HVAC. You’ll need lots of expensive smart home equipment to make this work. The coming “routine” features will make this even better.
  3. Reminders—You can now finally tell Google Home to remind you of something, and it will do it.
  4. Phone Calls—It works as a speaker phone now. You can dial contacts or businesses.
  5. Finding your stuff—Google Home can now ring your smartphone when you need it. The Bluetooth beacon company Tile also has Google Assistant integration, so you can find stuff besides your phone (like your car keys), too.
  6. Asking questions—The answers to random trivia, unit conversions, and the weather report are just a question away.

That’s about it for now. Does that sound like enough functionality to bring yet another device into your home? Is it enough to make you want to put a Mini in every room, the way the small price point and mesh hotword capabilities suggest? The Google Home always felt like a cool speaker system with some extra smarts thrown in. With the main speaker functionality gone in the Mini, you’re left with the “extra smarts,” and I’m not sure those features are enough to feel like a fully formed product.

The good news is that the Google Home is a whole lot better this year than it was last year. Google doesn’t always support its products after launch, but with Google Home, the company seems committed to building a serious voice command ecosystem. While it still feels like an early adopter project, Home has been steadily improving all year.

In a later article, we plan on digging through all the additions made to Google Home over the year for a full re-review. But, for now, we can offer a quick rundown. This year Google Home added the ability to distinguish users by voice using its “Voice Match” technology. It added calendar-event creation, reminders, and reminder-notification support. You can make phone calls and even spoof caller ID with a Project Fi number. Home can read out cooking recipes. It can ring your phone. There’s also a growing world of third-party apps that can start your robotic vacuum cleaner, write up an IFTTT recipe, or call an Uber.

There are still a million-and-one edge cases where the Google Home frustrates. Google ruined the shopping list functionality by killing the excellent Google Keep integration and turning the shopping list into a big Google Express ad, and it is still awful. Podcast support is still a janky custom Google Home solution and not based on Google Music’s podcast subscriptions. Music and the hotword mesh across devices, but things like alarms and timers don’t, so an alarm triggered on one Google Home can’t be silenced on a different Google Home. The app has a feature called “Shortcuts,” which is supposed to let you assign a custom phrase to an action, but it flat-out doesn’t work.

Last month, Google sent an update to all Google Home users that required them to blow up their smart home settings and relink their devices to the Google Assistant. Google Home still feels like an early adopter product that isn’t finished.

At the launch of the Home Mini, Google announced a few features coming to Google Home in the future, too. “Routines” will allow you to program big macros into Google Home, so a single command like “Good night” could lock up the house, turn off the lights, lower the thermostat, read you tomorrow’s agenda, and (seriously) read you a bedtime story. “Broadcasts” will allow you to send a message to all the Google Homes in a household, sort of like an intercom system. Google is also working on a bigger hardware ecosystem, with its own $400 Google Home Max on the way and a slew of third-party devices coming next year.

A gateway drug to Google voice commands

Google

The Google Home Mini primarily serves as an easy entry point for a Google voice command system. It’s $50, and you can just plug it in, and it will work. You don’t have to buy a new $800 smartphone or a heavier $129 box. Google seems happy to give them away like candy, offering free Minis to anyone that buys a Pixel 2 or a $25 credit if you buy a Mini from Walmart using Google Express. I suspect Google will try to shovel these things at users as much as possible as a gateway drug into the Google Assistant ecosystem.

I have a hard time believing the Mini will ever stop feeling like a starter product, though. The device, which grew out of the Chromecast team, has such deep roots in media that it feels like sacrilege to have one without a decent speaker. I feel like the Mini is a good “test” device for those looking to dip their toes in the world of Google voice command products, but if you decide you like it, eventually the Mini will be relegated to a dusty closet and replaced with a bigger Google Home. Unless, of course, you also plan to buy a Chromecast Audio and will use an existing speaker system. Then a Mini or two for your existing setups seems like a great option.

A cheap gateway product into Google’s voice ecosystem is important to have, and the Mini serves that purpose perfectly. I’m not sure I would ever fill a house with Minis, though. It’s called a “Mini” for a reason—this is the small one you’re not meant to use for the full Google Home experience.

The Good

  • It’s cheap! For $50, newbies can easily experiment with Google’s voice command system.
  • The mostly cloth design merges easily into a home decor.
  • It’s small. You can put it anywhere, and it won’t be in the way.
  • Tethering to a Chromecast Audio is nice for those with bigger speakers, but a wired option would be nice, too.
  • Plenty of upgrades to the software were made in the past year.

The Bad

  • Google Home still feels like an early adopter product.
  • Music was the Google Home’s best feature, and this doesn’t really work with music.

The Ugly

  • The sound the speaker pumps out.

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You can now shop for Target stuff on your Google Home

You can now shop for Target stuff on your Google Home

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The Target team up comes just after a similar partnership with Walmart and Google.


Chris Monroe/CNET

Target is making a big move into Google Express.

After testing out Google’s delivery service in New York City and California, the big-box retailer on Thursday said it’s now expanded nationwide on the Google Express website and app and on the Google Home smart speaker via voice shopping. The two companies are also partnering up to build up their relationship going forward, with more Target services coming to Google Express starting next year.

Target’s push to grow on Google Express comes just ahead of the holiday shopping season and right after Walmart teamed up with the search giant, too. These companies all likely see a major threat in Amazon, which currently soaks up 40 cents of every dollar spent online in the US and has become the default search engine for product searches for most Americans, according to researchers.

Voice shopping is still in its infancy, with most consumers not yet used to buying paper towels or shampoo using a smart speaker like the Google Home or Amazon Echo. Still, it seems Google, Walmart and Target don’t want to see Amazon — which has a dominant position in smart speakers today — to run away with the new market. With Google lacking warehouses full of products and Walmart and Target lacking smart speaker hardware, it makes sense for them to combine forces.

Also, the Google partnerships could give buyers of its smart speakers more selection and help keep up competition in the voice-shopping market. Other stores available nationwide for voice orders on Google Home include Costco, Kohl’s and PetSmart.

Next year, Target plans to make its REDcard debit and credit cards available as payment options on Google Express, allowing those shoppers to take advantage of the card’s five percent discount on orders and free shipping.

Also, starting next year, Target shoppers will have the option to pick up their Google Express orders at a Target store, with the items ready in two hours. Those kinds of buy-online, pickup-in store options could help traditional retailers compete with Amazon, though the online seller’s purchase of Whole Foods this year could weaken that advantage. Next year, Target shoppers will also be able to link their Target.com accounts with Google for more personalized shopping, a feature Walmart recently rolled out to its customers on Google Express.

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