Welcome to Gadget Dreams and Nightmares, the column that’s breaking its World Cup obsession for a brief moment to dissect the latest gadget announcements, determining which are worthy of a highlight-reel play, and which are destined for a red card.
This time around in our political hotbed hosting a giant, global sporting event are Amazon’s latest Fire TV device, the latest smart speaker from Sonos, and a phone case that can act as a portable quasi-X-ray machine.
As always, the ratings are in no way indicative of the item’s quality — these are not reviews, and the near-meaningless score is there only to indicate how much I’d like to try each gadget.
Playing With Fire
Amazon’s latest gambit for taking over your living room is the Fire TV Cube (pictured above). It works in much the same way as the Fire TV stick, but with the added impact this time around of stuffing in a smart speaker with the familiar tones of the Alexa voice assistant.
You can use it to play whatever you want to see in up to 4K resolution from various streaming services. All the usual suspects are here, like Netflix and HBO Go, but sadly, there’s no native YouTube app, thanks to a tiff between Amazon and Google.
The Cube can link to your cable box and switch channels via voice commands. When you want to play a certain network, show or channel, Alexa will hunt through the available services to find out where to play it from.
Adding Alexa functions, which give you pretty much all the power of an Echo in a unified device, makes perfect sense for a Fire TV system. You can set up routines so that when you issue a command, Alexa can lower your connected lights, turn on the TV, or start playing the last thing you were watching, for instance.
Alexa can use infrared signals to control almost your entire home theater system (though sadly, not Blu-ray players or game consoles yet). The Fire TV Cube, which costs US$120, is bundled with an IR extender, which may prove especially useful if you have stowed away your lump of a cable box in a cabinet.
This is a natural evolution of Amazon’s connected home suite. The only thing that’s truly surprising is that it took so long for this to show up alongside the rest of the Fire family.
It doesn’t have the full power of Alexa on Echo: It can’t handle calls or messages, nor can it connect to Bluetooth speakers or other Echos in a multiroom setup. Still, it sure beats having to press buttons to make your TV do things.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Alexa, Play Spain vs. Portugals
Speaking of smart, um, speakers, Sonos has a new device with its Beam home theater system. It has HDMI connectivity, and you can control it with Siri using Apple’s latest AirPlay 2 protocol. You also can control your TV here through an Alexa integration. This is around 60 percent smaller than the Playbar, Sonos’ prior soundbar offering.
There’s a feature called “night mode,” which balances out quiet and loud noises. If that works as advertised, it could be great for late-night movie watching if your loved ones are asleep, but you don’t want to wear headphones.
There’s little doubt that Beam will deliver the same kind of quality audio for which Sonos is renowned, with current features like AirPlay 2 support included. However, there’s no Dolby Atmos support, which is a shame. Still, I’d love to have one tucked underneath my TV, and at $399, that’s a reasonable price for an all-in-one smart speaker.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Not-So-Loud Explosions
Royal Holdings’ Sword is a case for iPhone 8 Plus or Pixel 2 XL that harnesses the handset’s radio frequency waves to create an image profile using its 18 antennas. If that all sounds a little heavy, here’s the crux: It could help determine whether someone is carrying a weapon, as a sort of X-ray tool.
How well it really works is difficult to determine without actually using it in person, but the underlying tech is admittedly cool. That said, I don’t think I’d be comfortable seeing these in the hands of the public. The potential privacy violations and the inherent paranoia such a method of weapon detection could bring could make this case more trouble than it’s worth.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Is That a Gun In Your Pockets?