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Nothing Ear (1) review

By Brian Heater

Carl Pei says he looked around and saw a lot of the same. He’s not alone in that respect. Apple didn’t invent the fully wireless earbud with the first AirPods, but it did provide a kind of inflection point that sent many of its competitors hurtling toward a sort of homogeneity. You’d be hard-pressed to cite another consumer electronics category that matured and coalesced as quickly as Bluetooth earbuds, but finding something unique among the hordes is another question entirely.

These days, a pair of perfectly serviceable wireless earbuds are one click and $50 away. Spend $200, and you can get something truly excellent. But variety? That’s a different question entirely. Beyond choosing between a long-stemmed AirPods-style design and something a bit rounder, there’s really not a lot of diversification. Up until recently, features like active noise canceling and wireless charging bifurcated the category into premium and non-premium tiers, but they’ve both become increasingly ubiquitous.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

So, let’s say you’re launching a new consumer hardware company in 2021. And let’s say you decided your first product is going to be a pair of earbuds. Where does that leave you? How are you going to not only differentiate yourself in a crowded market but compete alongside giants like Samsung, Google and Apple?

Price is certainly a factor, and $99 is aggressive. Pei seemed to regret pricing the Ear (1) at less than $100 in our first conversation. It’s probably safe to say Nothing’s not exactly going to be cleaning up on every unit sold. And much like his prior company — OnePlus — he seems reluctant to position cost as a defining characteristic.

In a conversation prior to the Ear (1) launch, Pei’s take on the state of the industry was a kind of “feature glut.” Certainly, there’s been a never-ending spec race across different categories over the last several years. And it’s true that it’s getting more difficult to differentiate based on features — look at what smartphone makers have been dealing with the last several years. Wireless headphones, meanwhile, jumped from the “exciting early-stage mess” stage to “the actually pretty good” stage in record time.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I do think there’s still room for feature differentiation. Take the recently launched NuraTrue headphones. That company has taken an opposite approach to arrive at earbuds, beginning with a specialized audio technology that it’s built three different headphone models around.

Pei noted in the Ear (1) launch presser that the company determined its aesthetic ideals prior to deciding what its first product would be. And true to form, its partnership with the design firm Teenage Engineering was announced well before a single image of the product appeared (the best we got in the early days was an early concept inspired by Pei’s grandmother’s tobacco pipe).

There are other ideals, as well — concepts about ecosystems, but those are the sorts of things that can only come after the release of multiple products. In the meantime, we’ve seen the product from all angles. I’m wearing the product in the ears and holding it in my hand (though I’m putting it down now; too hard to type).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The form factor certainly borrows from the AirPods, from the long stems to the white buds from which they protrude. You can’t say that they’re entirely their own thing in that respect. But perhaps a case can be made that the nature of fully wireless earbuds is, in and of itself, limiting in the manner of form factors it can accommodate. I’m certainly not a product designer, but they need to sit comfortably in your ears, and they can’t be too big or too heavy or protrude too much.

According to Pei, part of the product’s delayed launch was due to the company going back to the drawing board to rethink designs. What they ultimately arrived at was something recognizable as a pair of earbuds, while offering some unique flourishes. Transparency is the primary differentiator from an aesthetic standpoint. It comes into play in a big way with the case, which is unique, as these things go. With the buds themselves, most of the transparency happens on the stems.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

In a vacuum, the buds look a fair bit like an Apple product. The glossy white finish and white silicone tips are a big part of that. The reason the entire buds aren’t transparent, as early renderings showed, is a simple and pragmatic one: the components in the buds are too unsightly. That brings us to another element in the product’s eventual delay: making a gadget clear requires putting thought into how things like components and glue look. It’s the same reason why there’s a big white strip in the middle of an otherwise clear case: charging components are ugly (sorry/not sorry).

It’s a potential recipe for overly busy design, but I think the team landed on something solid — and certainly distinctive. That alone should account for something in the homogeneous world of gadget design. And the company’s partnership with StockX should be a pretty clear indication of precisely the sorts of early adopters/influencers Nothing is going after here.

The Ear (1) buds are a lot more welcoming than any of the style-first experiments Will.i.am made in the category. And while they’re distinct, they don’t really stand out in the wild — which is to say, no one’s going to scream and point or stop you in the street to figure what’s going on with your ears (sorry, Will).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Ultimately, I dig the look. There are nice touches, as well. A red and white dot indicate the right and left buds, respectively, a nod to RCA and other audio cables. A subtle Nothing logo is etched in dotted text, bringing to mind circuit board printing. The letter extends to most of Nothing’s branding. It’s clear the design was masterminded by people who have spent a lot of time negotiating with supply-chain vendors. Notably, the times I spoke to Pei, he was often in and around Shenzhen rather than the company’s native London, hammering out last-minute supply issues.

The buds feel really great, too. I’ve noted my tendency to suffer from ear pain wearing various earbud designs for extended periods. On Monday, I took a four hour intra-borough walk and didn’t notice a thing. They also stayed in place like champs on visits to the gym. And not for nothing, but there’s an extremely satisfying magnetic snap when you place them back in the charging case (the red and white dots still apply).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is flat and square with rounded edges (a squircle, if you please). If it wasn’t clear, it might closely resemble a tin of mints. It also offers a pretty satisfying snap when shutting. Will be curious to see how well that stands up after several hundred — or thousand — openings and closings.

Though the company says it put the product through all of the standard drop and stress tests, it warns that even the strongest transparent plastic is still prone to scratching, particularly with a set of keys in the same pocket. Pei says that kind of battle scarring will ultimately be part of its charm, but the jury’s still out on that one. After a few days and no keys in close proximity, I have one long scratch across the bottom. I don’t feel any cooler, but you tell me.

A large concave circle on the top helps keep the lid from slamming into the earbuds when closing. It’s also a nice spot to put your thumb when fiddling around with the thing. I suspect it doubles to relieve some of that fidgeting we (I) usually release by absentmindedly flipping a case lid up and down. It’s a small, but thoughtful touch. Round back, you’ll find the USB-C charging port and Bluetooth sync button.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

On iOS, you’ll need to connect the buds both through the app and in the Bluetooth settings the first time. There are disadvantages when you don’t make your own operating system, chips and phones in addition to earbuds. That’s a minor (probably one-time) nuisance, though.

The Ear (1) are a decent sounding pair of $99 headphones. I won’t say I was blown away, but I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed that they don’t really go head-to-head with, say, the Sony WF-1000xM4 or even the new NuraTrue. These aren’t audiophile headphones, but they’re very much suitable for walking around the city, listening to music and podcasts.

The app offers a built-in equalizer tuned by Teenage Engineering with three settings: balanced, more treble/more bass, and voice (for podcasts, et al.). The differences are detectable, but pretty subtle, as far as these things go. As far as equalizer customizations go, it’s more point-and-shoot than DSLR, as Nothing doesn’t want you straying too far from the intended balance. After experimenting with all of the settings, I mostly stuck with the balanced setting. Feel free to judge me accordingly.

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There are three ANC settings, as well: noise cancellation, transparency and off. You can also titrate the noise cancellation between light and heavy. On the whole, the ANC did a fine job erasing a fair bit of street noise on my New York City walks, though even at heavy, it’s not going to, say, block out the sound of a car altogether. For my sake, that’s maybe for the best.

There’s also a built-in “find my earbud” setting that sends out a kind of piercing chirp so you can find the one that is inevitably trapped beneath your couch cushion.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

My big complaint day today is one I encountered with the NuraTrue. I ran into a number of Bluetooth connection dropouts. It’s a bit annoying when you’re really engrossed in a song or podcast. And again, it’s something you’re a lot less likely to encounter for those companies that build their own buds, phone, chips and operating systems. It’s a pretty tough thing to compete with for a brand-new startup.

I have quibbles, and in spite of months of excited teases, the Ear (1) buds aren’t going to turn the overcrowded category upside down. But it’s always exciting to see a new company enter the consumer hardware space — and deliver a solid first product out of the game. It’s an idiosyncratic take on the category at a nice price from a company worth keeping an eye on.

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VanMoof X3 e-bike review: Transportation revelation

By Taylor Hatmaker

Like some of the best consumer tech from the last decade, I didn’t know I needed an e-bike until I was on one, breezing down the bike lane contemplating my newfound freedom.

Before buying a Nintendo Switch, I would have never guessed how much a candy-colored gaming console that I could pop out of a dock and into my backpack for long flight would fill me with joy. An e-bike, particularly this e-bike, the VanMoof X3, feels like that.

I live in Portland, Oregon, land of ample bike lanes and naked bike rides. When I first moved here, I biked everywhere, but that habit slowly dissolved over the years. First, I bought a car for weekend camping trips, which slowly became weekday errand running.

A few years later, I got diagnosed with a chronic illness and suddenly found myself much less confident in what my body could do and where it could comfortably take me. Over time, my bike would only see a handful of rides a season on beautiful days, when I’d always sigh and think I wish I biked more — it makes me feel good!

Before testing the X3, I’d find excuses to drive short distances instead of riding my bike. What if I got tired and didn’t feel like biking home? What if it starts pouring rain? What’s if it’s too hot? What if I’m too sweaty when I get to the office? Riding an e-bike erases most of those concerns outright.

The X3 is an effortless enough ride that I can still zoom to work if it’s 95+ degrees out. It’s fast enough that I can get out of a surprise rainstorm quickly if need be. If I don’t want to be sweaty at the start of the day, I can lean on sweet, sweet electricity to whisk me away, rolling up to my office without breaking a sweat.

And it can’t go unstated that going fast on a bike — the whole time, with as much or little effort as you feel like putting in — is really, really fun. If you haven’t had a chance to try an e-bike, know that the sensation of effortlessly zipping around, electricity near-imperceptibly humming beneath you, is difficult to describe and best experienced first-hand.

VanMoof’s handsome pair of high tech bikes, the X3 and its larger cousin the S3, are far from the only options on the market, so some of their pluses would hold true for any electric bike. But that doesn’t make the VanMoof interchangeable either. The VanMoof X3 has a very specific look, feel and feature set that will perfectly suit a certain kind of rider (myself included) but other e-bike shoppers will still want to play the field. We’ll get into that — here goes!

VanMoof X3 e-bike

Matrix display shows battery life, speed and other key info.

APPEARANCE

I tested the VanMoof X3 over the S3 not by choice — its geometry is a little wacky looking in pictures — but because I’m 5’4″. The X3, which fits anybody from 5′-6’5″, is a little smaller and less traditional looking than the S3, which suits anyone taller than 5’8″. The X3 has 24″ wheels rather than the S3’s 28″ wheels and it has a little bungee-corded platform in the front where presumably you could carry something, but I still have no idea what (You can also buy an add-on front basket that slots in there and looks very cute.)

Like most e-bikes, the X3 is much, much heavier than a normal road or commuter bike. The listed weight is 45.8 lbs and you’ll feel every pound of it if you ever need to carry it very far. I live in a standalone house in Portland, Oregon and had to carry the X3 down a very short front step to ride it — totally fine!

I used to live in a fifth floor walkup in Brooklyn and carrying it up or down that would have been impossible. If you can’t store the X3 (or most any e-bike) around ground level with access to a charger, it might not be a good fit for you. (Note that in our pictures, the small platform above the chain area is where an optional external battery pack, discussed later, sits. The platform is removable.)

Though on paper I’d prefer the look of the S3, the X3 doesn’t look strange at all IRL, whether parked or with somebody riding it. It’s cute, futuristic but not conspicuous and gets plenty of compliments. My wife described its aesthetic as “Death Star chic” and while I don’t totally know what that means, she’s not wrong. On the way to my office a sanitation truck driver rolled down his window to bellow “HEY—THAT’S A REALLY COOL BIKE.” Thanks, my dude!

VanMoof X3 e-bike

The current generation of VanMoof e-bikes are coated in matte paint and you can choose between a classic, sexy matte black or a pleasantly cheery matte light blue. A previous version of the bikes used glossy coating, but apparently the matte is supposed to be more scratch resistant. The paint does seem pretty tough though it’s not totally bombproof. Somehow the handlebars picked up a little nick in the paint, though I still have no idea where it came from or what did it (owls?).

Something important to note is that neither the VanMoof X3 or S3 look like e-bikes. They don’t have an ugly bulge jutting out from the frame and the top tube and down tube are both thick but uniform — and not so thick you’d think twice about it.

The electronic components are nestled away in the frame and even the drivetrain is tucked away and enclosed. And while there’s a deeply cool LED matrix display embedded in the top tube, only the rider really sees it. For anyone looking for an e-bike that doesn’t scream e-bike!!!! the VanMoof is one of the best choices if not the best choice you could make. It’s an awesome looking bike — not just an awesome looking e-bike.

VanMoof X3 in the city of roses.

RIDING

The VanMoof X3 is a nice-looking bike — you get it. But what about, you know, the biking? I can confidently report that from the first time you hop on it to your twentieth commute to work, the X3 is an absolute joy to ride.

As an e-bike newcomer I had reservations. Would the electric assistance cheapen the magic of riding a bike? Do I really want a bike doing the shifting for me? As it turns out, quite the opposite and yes, absolutely.

The VanMoof X3 (and its sibling the S3) give you an electric boost while pedaling — you’ll still be pedaling but it feels enticingly easy and you’ll go faster with less effort. The bike also features a Turbo Boost button on the right-side handlebar that gives you a big boost on top of the smoother normal electronic assistance, up to 20 miles per hour in the U.S.

You can choose the amount of help that you want. Using the VanMoof app, which we’ll get to, or a physical button, you can select what level of power assist you’d like from zero to four. Zero is you pedaling a heavy-ass bike alone with no help (it sucks) and four makes everything feel so easy there’s almost no way to break a sweat.

In my time testing the bike, I’d use “two” when I felt like getting a bit of a workout with extra pep in my pedal, four when I was in a hurry to get to my co-working space in the mornings and three the rest of the time, like riding to brunch on a weekend. Being able to choose the level of pedal assistance is a huge perk and it makes the bike feel flexible for different uses.

VanMoof X3 e-bike

The kick lock button, back wheel and enclosed chain.

Whatever mode you’re on, the turbo boost button is a killer feature. It flattens steep hills and makes it feel way safer to zip across busy intersections where you’re not sure drivers are paying attention. It’s fun and awesome for safe, defensive city riding.

It takes a little bit to get used to the automatic electronic shifting but that’s silky smooth too. I initially assumed that, like many things that worked perfectly well before having some extraneous “smart” high-tech nonsense draped over them (fridges! lamps! vibrators!) the technology would fail just often enough to be a nuisance.

After a long period of testing, I can report that the X3 rides as smooth and seamless as ever. Every once in a while I’d crunch down on the pedal or a gear won’t catch right away but it’s super rare. You can even use the app to customize when the bike shifts up and down and it’s worth playing around with that to find something that feels just right.

What else? The X3’s maximum assisted speed is in the U.S. is 20 mph (32km/hr), but anyone in Europe will be limited to 15.5 mph (25km/hr). The U.S. speed feels great and it’s painless to get up to 20mph and maintain that speed with the X3 in a way I’d have to destroy my quads to manage otherwise, even on my zippy non-electric road bike.

Beyond that, the seat is very comfy and the ride is pleasantly upright and natural. After riding the X3 for a while I had a hard time going back to hunching over on my (adorable) little Bianchi and pined for the comfy ride I’d gotten so used to.

VanMoof X3 e-bike

Tail light from the future.

VALUE

The VanMoof X3 is an excellent value, all things considered. The company has a weird habit of tinkering with its pricing, but after a redesign and a colossal price drop in 2020 ($3,398 to $1,998 at the time) the bikes feel very well priced. Now they’re retailing for $2,298 — $300 more than the previous price but still a fine deal for anyone looking for a very full-featured e-bike without spending more than around $2,000.

That’s not that much more than you’d spend on a regular new bike, sans electricity and VanMoof’s many, many cool bells and whistles. If you’re into higher end bikes, it could even be a lot less. And realistically, it’s just as likely that you’re shopping for an e-bike to rely less on a car, public transportation or whatever else you’re paying for to get around — not to replace a traditional bike. (For something in the U.S. in the sub-$2,000 range, check out Rad Power Bikes and Charge for some good options.)

VanMoof’s pricing is also substantially less than you’d pay for the high end tier of feature-rich e-bikes with high quality components, but the company still manages to compete with those on looks and features. Still, it’s kind of stressful that VanMoof is quietly messing around with the pricing with the bikes already out in the wild. It would suck to plan to buy one only to see the price shoot up before you’d pulled the trigger.

The company should be more transparent about this, giving set future dates for planned price changes. There also seem to be updates within generations of the bikes, so an X3 you buy now might differ from an X3 you could buy in 2020. That’s confusing and all of it should be made clearer somewhere obvious on the website.

vanmoof-app

The VanMoof app’s in-app ride tracking and summary stats.

RANGE

One of the biggest considerations with an e-bike (or an e-anything!) is range. VanMoof says the X3’s range is 37 miles using “full power” and up to 93 miles in economy mode. If you’re getting 93 miles out of the battery, you probably aren’t even using the pedal assistance at all, so you can just toss that number out. The low end estimate of 37 miles might be a little generous for someone who’s using the bike on the fourth power assistance level and smashing the turbo boost regularly, but 35-45 miles feels about right from my testing (usually mode 3 or 4, occasionally 2, light use of turbo button).

The range feels good. Even using the X3 most days out of the week, charging is infrequent enough to never feel annoying. In my case, that meant daily short rides (2.5-5 miles, usually) and the occasional longer ride (10-20 miles). If you’re using the X3 or S3 to commute to work somewhere that’s farther away, you’re going to find yourself plugging in more. Even so, I never got into a situation where I was concerned that I’d run out of battery far from home. And even if you do, you can still pedal the bike — it’s just really heavy. Most people will probably charge up overnight, but you can fill up the battery in four hours if you need to.

Something to note is that you’ll plug in a wall charger directly to the bike to charge it. For anyone who can’t charge and store the X3 on ground level, know you’ll have to carry the whole dang bike to an outlet. The lack of a removable battery might be a strike against the VanMoof bikes for folks who live in walk-ups or small apartments, but for people with somewhere easy to store it, this wasn’t something I thought twice about.

While the built-in range is totally adequate for a lot of use cases, VanMoof just introduced an external add-on battery pack for both the X3 and S3. The battery slots into a little platform, pictured below and mounted on our test bike, and it extends the X3’s range considerably. VanMoof sells the PowerBank accessory for $348. The thing isn’t small — it weighs six pounds — but VanMoof says it’ll give you anywhere from 28 to 62 miles of extra range. Again, almost nobody is going to hit the high end of this, but even at the low end it almost doubles the bike’s existing range.

External PowerBank via VanMoof

The PowerBank is big and pretty clunky. It doesn’t look awful, but it definitely makes the X3 look like an e-bike. It’s not elegant like the removable battery on the Cowboy, another extremely handsome e-bike, but it’s ok. If everything else about a VanMoof suits you perfectly but you need more range, it’s great to have the option, even if you’ll be shelling out for it.

VanMoof X3 e-bike

TECH FEATURES

The tech bells and whistles are something that really makes the VanMoof X3 and S3 stand out from the crowd. The X3’s price feels reasonable for a reliable, great-looking e-bike, but on top of that you’ll be getting an electric steed with some pretty sweet tricks:

  • Matrix display: On the bike’s top tube an array of LED lights built into the metal displays your speed, battery life and other useful info. This is a killer feature, it’s extremely cool!
  • Alarm. You can activate an alarm that will *literally growl* at anyone who jostles your bike. It’s intense and really loud.
  • Kick lock. You can kick a small physical button to alarm the bike and lock the back wheel. If you live in a city with bike theft, someone could still toss the bike in a truck easily so this isn’t a single security solution (I used a normal mini Kryptonite lock and that worked great.)
  • Find My on iOS. If you’re an iOS user you can track your bike’s whereabouts easily. It’s a nice feature, though ideally if your bike is well-locked you aren’t going to be messing with this much.

Vanmoof Find My iOS

VanMoof support for “Find My” app in iOS

  • Lights. The VanMoof X3 has great built-in lights, front and back.
  • App: Surprisingly, the app is actually pretty good. You can customize lots of small things (bell noise, alarm on or off, shifting preferences), use it to track your rides and more. You also don’t have to be connected to the bike with the app to do the most essential stuff, liking riding it, unlocking it and changing your level of electric assistance. I had an occasional connectivity problem with the app (usually on Android) but this was easily resolved and never kept me from biking anywhere, though it did mean some rides weren’t automatically tracked. Importantly, you can also track your bike’s whereabouts through the app and VanMoof touts this feature combined with its alarm system and recovery team for helping people get their bikes back.

VanMoof X3 e-bike

Overall, something great about the X3 is that the tech features aren’t just fancy tricks — they really enhance the experience. And even so, they’re optional. You can ride the bike and benefit from the power assistance without using the app. You can use a regular lock and skip the alarm system if you choose to, or use a physical button code to disable it manually. You can change the power assistance mode with the same button. This is all huge and lets you use the e-bike how you want to. Personally, I’d never buy an e-bike that required connectivity, a phone or an app to operate it; that’s just asking for trouble.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Shipping and Assembly: The VanMoof X3 and S3 come in the mail in a big box. The assembly process was almost painless — except for this one really fiddly bit you have to slide into another fiddly bit which took me the better part of an hour and some searching on the VanMoof subreddit (not the only one with this problem!)

Extra Support: VanMoof offers three paid plans to keep your bike in working order and in your possession. You can buy a three-year maintenance plan for $348, a three-year theft recovery plan for $398 or a combined plan for $690 (broken down via VanMoof below).

VanMoof support plans

Maintenance: Where you live should be a major consideration when thinking about buying a VanMoof. In my time testing it for reliability over an extended period, I was surprised by how few problems came up. I had to mess around with re-centering the front wheel at some point because a brake pad was rubbing, but aside from occasional app connectivity issues, that was pretty much it. Of course, significant wear and tear means any bike could benefit from a pro tune up from someone who knows the model.

VanMoof has full-fledged stores in Amsterdam, London, Paris, Berlin, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Tokyo. Beyond its flagship stores, the company relies on an expanding network of service centers and “certified workshops” to maintain its bikes, so be sure to check what’s near you. Personally, I’d want to be near enough to a VanMoof store or at least a service center to guarantee my $2,000+ investment and its many, many technological bits could be maintained in perfect health. Nobody wants to ship a bike back for repairs, especially a heavy, technologically complex one.

Prior to testing out the X3, e-bikes aren’t something I’d thought a lot about and I wasn’t really sure who they were for. I first heard of VanMoof a couple of years ago when a close friend and much more serious biker than me bought one for towing her dog (the goodest girl) on a long work commute. We rode to the farmer’s market together and I admired her VanMoof, but I was skeptical that something with so much technology under the hood could prove reliable over time.

Bikes are mechanical and simple — that’s something wonderful about them! Could an e-bike really translate the joyful simplicity of biking into something much more high tech? As it turns out, yes. After test riding the VanMoof X3 to get a sense of its reliability and how its features hold up in normal day-to-day use, I regret my early skepticism.

I don’t know if I can overstate how much riding an e-bike, specifically this e-bike, enhanced my life in small ways for the better while I tried it out. Biking more — and e-bikes do get people biking more — makes me happier and healthier. Biking more has helped me ease out of an intensely sedentary pandemic period into new habits that make me feel more connected to the world around me. I’m seeing my city with fresh eyes, biking to new neighborhoods I’ve never explored and appreciating all of the little things I took for granted. My only e-bike regret is not hopping on one sooner.

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Amazon and Google face UK CMA probe over fake reviews

By Natasha Lomas

The UK’s competition watchdog, the CMA, has opened another investigation into Big Tech — this one targeted at Amazon and Google over how they handle (or, well, don’t) fake reviews.

The Competition and Markets Authority has taken an interest in online reviews for several years, as far back as 2015.

It also went after eBay and Facebook back in 2019 to try to squeeze the trade in fake reviews it found thriving on their marketplaces. After continuing to pressure those platforms the watchdog was given pledges they’d do more. Albeit, in the case of Facebook, it took until April 2021 for it to take down 16,000 groups that had been trading fake reviews — and the CMA expressed disappointment that it had taken Facebook over a year to take meaningful action.

Now the CMA has Amazon and Google in its sites, both of which control platforms hosting user reviews — saying it will be gathering evidence to determine whether they may have broken UK law by taking insufficient action to protect shoppers from fake reviews.

Businesses that mislead consumers or don’t take action to prevent consumers being misled may be in breach of UK laws intended to protect consumers from unfair trading.

The CMA says its investigation into Amazon and Google follows an initial probe, which it started in May 2020, which was focused on assessing several platforms’ internal systems and processes for identifying and dealing with fake reviews.

That work raised specific concerns about whether the two tech giants have been doing enough to:

  • Detect fake and misleading reviews or suspicious patterns of behaviour. For example, where the same users have reviewed the same range of products or businesses at similar times to each other and there is no connection between those products or businesses – or where the review suggests that the reviewer has received a payment or other incentive to write a positive review.
  • Investigate and, where necessary, remove promptly fake and misleading reviews from their platforms.
  • Impose adequate sanctions on reviewers or businesses to deter them and others from posting fake or misleading reviews on their platforms – including those who have published these types of reviews many times.

The regulator also said it’s concerned that Amazon’s systems have been “failing adequately to prevent and deter some sellers from manipulating product listings” — such as, for example, by co-opting positive reviews from other products.

And, well, who hasn’t been browsing product reviews on Amazon, only to be drawn up short by a reviewer earnestly referring to product attributes that clearly bear no relation to the sale item in question?

While the user reviews that pop up on, for example, Google Maps after a search for a local business can also display unusual patterns of 5-starring (or 1-starring) behaviour.

Commenting on its investigation into concerns that Amazon and Google are not doing enough to combat the problem of fake reviews the CMA’s CEO Andrea Coscelli had this to say, in a statement:

“Our worry is that millions of online shoppers could be misled by reading fake reviews and then spending their money based on those recommendations. Equally, it’s simply not fair if some businesses can fake 5-star reviews to give their products or services the most prominence, while law-abiding businesses lose out.

“We are investigating concerns that Amazon and Google have not been doing enough to prevent or remove fake reviews to protect customers and honest businesses. It’s important that these tech platforms take responsibility and we stand ready to take action if we find that they are not doing enough.”

Amazon and Google were contacted for comment.

A Google Spokesperson sent us this statement:

“Our strict policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and when we find policy violations, we take action — from removing abusive content to disabling user accounts. We look forward to continuing our work with the CMA to share more on how our industry-leading technology and review teams work to help users find relevant and useful information on Google.”

An Amazon spokesperson also said:

“To help earn the trust of customers, we devote significant resources to preventing fake or incentivized reviews from appearing in our store. We work hard to ensure that reviews accurately reflect the experience that customers have had with a product.  We will continue to assist the CMA with its enquiries and we note its confirmation that no findings have been made against our business. We are relentless in protecting our store and will take action to stop fake reviews regardless of the size or location of those who attempt this abuse.”

In a blog post earlier this month, Amazon — likely aware of the CMA’s attention on the issue — discussed the problem of bogus online reviews, claiming it “relentlessly innovates to allow only genuine product reviews in our store”; and offering up some illustrative stats (such as that, in 2020 alone, it stopped more than 200M “suspected fake reviews” before they were seen by any customers, mostly via the use of “proactive detection”).

However the blog post was also heavily on the defensive — with the ecommerce giant seeking to spread the blame for the fake reviews problem — saying, for example, that there’s an “increasing trend of bad actors attempting to solicit fake reviews outside Amazon, particularly via social media services”. 

It sought to frame fake reviews as an industry-wide problem, needing a coordinated, industry-wide solution — while reserving its heaviest fire for (unnamed) “social media companies” (cough Facebook cough) — and suggesting, for example, that they are the weak link in the chain:

We need social media companies whose services are being used to facilitate fake reviews to proactively invest in fraud and fake review controls, partner with us to stop these bad actors, and help consumers shop with confidence. It will take constant innovation and partnership across industries and law enforcement to fully protect consumers and our honest selling partners.”

Amazon’s blog post also called for coordinated assistance from consumer protection regulators “around the world” to support its existing efforts to litigate against “bad actors”, aka “those who have purchased reviews and the service providers who provided them”.

The company also told us it has won “dozens” of injunctions against providers of fake reviews across Europe — adding that it won’t shy away from taking legal action. (It noted, for example, a lawsuit it filed on June 9 with the London Commercial Court against the owners of the websites, AMZ Tigers and TesterJob — seeking a prohibitory injunction and damages.)

In light of the CMA’s investigation being opened now, Amazon’s blog post calling for regulatory assistance to support litigation against purveyors of fake reviews looks like a pre-emptive plea to the CMA to swivel its gaze back onto Facebook’s marketplace — and check back in on how the trade in fake reviews is looking over there.

We reached out to the CMA to ask whether its investigation into Amazon and Google will dig into the role that review trading groups hosted elsewhere, such as on social media platforms, may play in exacerbating the issue and will update this port with any response.

The CMA has been increasingly active in regulating Big Tech as it dials up attention on digital markets to prepare for planned UK reforms to competition law that look set to usher in an ex ante regime for dealing with competition-denting platform power.

The watchdog has a number of other open investigations into Big Tech — including into Google’s planned deprecation of tracking cookies. It also recently initiated a market study into Apple and Google’s dominance of the mobile ecosystem.

Given the watchdog’s focus on major platforms — as well as its long standing interest in fake reviews — it’s interesting to speculate whether iOS maker Apple may not face some UK scrutiny on this issue.

Concerns have also been raised over fake ratings and reviews on its App Store.

Earlier this year, for example, iOS app developer, Kosta Eleftheriou, filed suit against Apple — alleging it enticed developers to build apps by claiming the App Store is a safe and trustworthy place but that it doesn’t protect legitimate developers against scammers profiting from their hard work.

The CMA already has an open investigation into Apple’s App Store. So it will be paying close attention to aspects of the store, saying back in March that it would be investigating whether Apple imposes unfair or anti-competitive terms on developers — which then ultimately result in users having less choice or paying higher prices for apps and add-ons.

For now, though, the watchdog’s attention toward the fake reviews issue has been publicly focused elsewhere.

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Amazon deflects responsibility on fake reviews but admits 200M were blocked last year

By Devin Coldewey

Amazon admits it has a fake review problem, but does its best to spread the blame around in a new post detailing the issue. After numerous reports for years that the online retail giant is overrun with knock-off products and faked or farmed reviews, the company aims to look as if it is finally putting its foot down, but no new efforts or rules are discussed — rather, it is others that need to step up their work to keep Amazon safe.

Amazon reviews have become notoriously unreliable as indicators of quality as the store has given itself over willingly to counterfeits, AliExpress resellers, and promotion of the company’s internal brands (developed with the benefit of seller data). Multiple reports have found organized efforts to spam the store with meaningless 5-star reviews in exchange for free products or cash. I have myself received such offers, or sellers promising payment for raising a star rating.

After the requisite preliminary palaver about being “obsessed with delighting customers” and all that, Amazon explains that it, like all big tech giants, uses automated systems to vet reviews before they go up. The company has always been cagey about the actual numbers, but in this post it drops a whopper: “In 2020, we stopped more than 200 million suspected fake reviews before they were ever seen by a customer.”

200 million is a lot no matter how you look at it, but it’s really a lot when you consider that Amazon told CNBC that same year that it “analyze[s] over 10 million review submissions weekly,” which adds up to somewhere north of 520 million submissions yearly. These two Amazon-provided numbers suggest that a third of all reviews submitted, at a minimum, are rejected as fake.

Hard numbers on Amazon’s total reviews are hard to come by. Speaking to Buzzfeed, Amazon listing analysis site ReviewMeta’s Tommy Noonan estimated that in 2020 Amazon hosted around 250 million reviews (of which, incidentally, he calculated about 9 percent were “unnatural”). But if over 500 million were submitted in 2020 and about 200 million of those were fake, that indicates a far larger total. I’ve asked Amazon for more precise information on this, and will update the post if I hear back, but the company is not communicative about these numbers in general.

Groups organizing on social media numbering in the tens of thousands have been repeatedly pointed out as major contributors to the fake review ecosystem. Amazon writes that in the first quarter of 2020, it reported 300 such groups to the platforms hosting them, and the same period in 2021 it reported over 1,000. Takedown times have increased, but it’s hard to take this increase as anything other than a thriving business model — certainly not something in the process of being stamped out.

“It is imperative for social media companies to invest adequately in proactive controls to detect and enforce fake reviews ahead of our reporting the issue to them,” Amazon declares. Indeed social media companies are being pressed from multiple directions to take more responsibility for what users do on their platforms, but they make the same noises Amazon does: “we’re doing what we can,” (and, it is left unsaid, clearly it’s not enough).

“We need coordinated assistance from consumer protection regulators around the world,” Amazon writes. But the company lobbied forcefully and successfully against the INFORM act, which would have helped identify sellers with bad intent and add transparency to online marketplaces (strangely, Amazon has taken some of the actions it objects to independently). And that line is suspiciously absent when it is Amazon that consumers need to be protected against.

“It is also critical that we hold bad actors—and the service providers that provide them with fake reviews—accountable for their activity,” the post continues. But while lawsuits and partnerships with law enforcement are part of that, once again the call to “work together” rings hollow when Amazon itself is where the activity occurs and the company is in complete control of that ecosystem. Though it has banned some major players from the store, innumerable others flout the rules with impunity.

Nowhere in the post does Amazon detail any new steps it will take to deter these bad actors or crack down on the pervasive gaming of the system for which it sets the rules. It will “continue to enhance” its detection tools, “streamline processes” for partnerships, and “work hard” at keeping scammers accountable. In other words, it will keep doing exactly what it has been doing this whole time — which is what put it in this position in the first place.

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