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Today — August 21st 2019Your RSS feeds

Peak Design’s Travel Duffel 35L is as simple or as powerful as you need it to be

By Darrell Etherington

A good, solid duffel bag is a mainstay for many travelers — especially those who like packing up a car for a weekend away, or frequent flyers who disdain the thought of checking a bag. Peak Design introduced its own take on the duffel bag this year, with a couple of different twists on the concept. The Peak Design Travel Duffel 35L is the most fundamental of the company’s options, and it delivers a lot of packing space and support for Peak’s packing tools if you want to get real serious about space optimization.

I’m an unabashed fan of Peak Design’s Everyday camera bags, its capture clips and basically its entire ecosystem. This is a company that you can tell things deeply about the problems it’s aiming to solve for its customers — because they’re the problems shared by the company’s founders themselves. The Travel Duffel is actually probably a bit more mainstream and less specialized than most of their offerings, but that only makes it more appealing, not less.

Peak Travel Duffel 35 2

You’ll find the same weatherproof nylon coating in this bag that Peak uses in its other packs, and it’s a very durable material that also looks great both up close and at a distance. If there’s a complaint here, it’s that the black color I prefer tends to pretty easily pick up dust, but it also wipes or washes off just as easily. The heavy-duty nylon canvas shell should also stand up to the elements well, and the zipper is the especially weather sealed kind, plus there’s a waterproof bottom liner in case you’re less than careful about where you drop your pack while en route.

Peak Travel Duffel 35 3

Peak Travel Duffel 35 4

The Duffel includes both hand straps and a longer padded shoulder strap, and the unique connector hardware system means you can reposition the straps in a number of ways to suit your carrying preferences. The hand straps double as shoulder straps for wearing it like a backpack and though this is a bit tight for my larger frame, it’s still a way to quickly alleviate shoulder or hand strain for longer treks with the bag in tow. The connectors here are also super smart — there are no moving parts, they just snap on and off the sewn-in loops placed around the bag — which means added durability and ease of use.

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Plenty of pockets inside and out give you lots of divided storage options, and there’s also a security loop feature on the main zipper to make it much harder for someone to quickly yank the bag open and grab what’s inside if they’re targeting a quick theft opportunity. A dedicated ID card holder is a nice touch that tells you exactly who this is ideal for, too.

As I alluded to above, there’s also support for the rest of Peak’s packing tools. I’ve got their small camera cube in the bag width-wise in the photo below, and it should be able to fit up to three of these in this orientation. Peak also offers packing cubes, dop kits and more, and you can use the slide hooks provided with those with internal elastic attachment points if you want to ensure things won’t shift around. But the best part about this bag is that it has everything you need in a straightforward duffel out of the box — the rest of the packing tools are totally optional and don’t take away form its fundamental effectiveness at all.

Peak Travel Duffel 35 6

The 35L carrying capacity of this bag is perfect for a weekend trip, or even a few days longer if you’re an economical packer. At $129.95, it’s actually very reasonable for a high-quality duffel bag, too, and definitely one of the better bargains in the Peak lineup when it comes to value for the money.

Raspberry Pi 4 Review: A Powerful New Pi

By Scott Gilbertson
You can buy the latest Raspberry Pi as a Desktop PC Kit if you want, making it more useful than ever.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

RYU’s line of backpacks offer style and function for exploring the city or weekends away

By Darrell Etherington

Yes, it’s Bag Week, where we celebrate all the best bags of the year here at TechCrunch. And there is little more satisfying than finding a basic black one that’s functional, stylish and unique. Luckily, Canadian urban athletic apparel maker RYU makes three such bags, and while each one has its own particular appeal depending on what you’re looking for in a backpack, they’re also all winners that elevate the basic black backpack to new heights.

Quick Pack Lux 18L ($185)

RYU bags 3 Locker Pack 18LRYU’s “just right” offering for me is the Quick Pack Lux 18L capacity bag that’s pretty much perfect as a general-use day pack in terms of cargo space, and that can also serve well for a one or two-night trip, depending on how lightly you pack.

The RYU’s signature feature, and what makes it my favorite day pack in terms of everyday use around the city, is its profile — a silhouette that is made all the better because RYU uses an internal molded shell to ensure that it never flattens down or loses its shape, regardless of how full or empty the bag actually is. This is actually a huge selling point for me, and one that makes the RYU Quick Pack Lux 18L almost certain to become my go-to daily bag. Inside, there are a few pockets, including a laptop sleeve that can fit up to a 15-inch MacBook Pro — another rarity in a day pack this low-profile.

In addition to the integrated frame, the Quick Pack Lux is kitted out with premium materials, like the leather accent patch on the top flap, leather shoulder straps, an outer layer of poly-cotton blend that covers a wax-treated canvas and nylon interior for water resistance and durability. The materials definitely feel premium, though the outermost layer resembles kind of a yoga pant material, and in my house definitely attracts and picks up my dog’s easily shed white hairs with reckless abandon. I’m more than happy to get out the lint roller once and a while as a trade-off for just how good looking the bag is, however.

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It wears slightly long, but tight to the back (for reference when sizing up the photos above, I’m 6’2″ and quite a bit of that is torso). The removable chest strap helps keeps the profile pretty seamless, and there’s a handle on top for easy carrying when not on the back.

Another unique feature of the Quick Pack Lux is that it opens from the front, with the flap at the top unbuckling to reveal two zippers that run the length of the bag. Undo these, and you get basically a duffel-style cargo loading method, which is great for arranging your stuff without having to layer or dig down as you would in a top-loading pack.

Locker Pack Lux 24L ($215)

RYU bags 2 Locker Pack 24L 1The Locker Pack Lux 24L is the more spacious version of the Quick Pack Lux, with 6L extra volume for packing your gear. It’s designed more for those overnights or two-day trips, and yet it doesn’t really add that much in the way of bulk if you’re looking for something that can serve flexibly as both day pack and weekender.

The Locker Pack Lux has the same materials combination as the Quick Pack, but is a bit longer and so is probably better suited for taller people. It still offers a very slim profile, and has the same internal structural components, which means it’ll keep its shape, but it has a bit more leeway for expansion, too, letting you pack in a surprising amount of stuff via the front-loading, double zipper stowage and packing flap.

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Unlike the Quick Pack Lux, you also get external access to the laptop compartment in the Locker Pack, which gives you an easy way to get at up to a 15-inch notebook. The leather-accented top flap closes down over this compartment, too, to give you some protection against the elements in the case of light showers (RYU also sells a dedicated rain hood separately).

Express Pack 15L ($90)

RYU bags 4 Express Pack 15L

The Express Pack is the smallest of these RYU backpacks in terms of packing volume, but it’s also probably the best option when it comes to an all-around city day pack that will fit you regardless of height and frame. The extremely minimal aesthetic is great for the city, especially with the polyurethane outer coating that wraps a middle canvas layer for the bag’s body.

This is a very lightweight bag, but the internal pocket can actually fit a lot of stuff when needed, and there’s a single woven pocket on one side of the exterior for stowing a water bottle. This adds an asymmetrical look, which is also pretty cool looking. Inside, there’s a zippered mesh block and a fully zippered front pocket for separating your sweaty gym gear, plus a laptop compartment that can fit a full, 15-inch MacBook Pro without issue.

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The bag is comfortable to wear, but doesn’t have the internal structure of the other two, so if it’s empty it’ll hug a lot closer to the body. If there’s one thing I’d change about it, it’s the RYU branding — but it does actually recede to being barely visible in less direct lighting, and is more subtle overall than it looks here.

Overall, RYU’s bag lineup is impressive, and offers something for everyone. The Vancouver-based company has done a great job of delivering highly functional designs that also offer great style with pretty much universal appeal. The company also offers non-Lux versions of both the Quick Pack and the Locker Pack, which drop the leather accents and embedded waxed canvas, but which also offer some decent discounts if the prices above strike you as too high.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ review

By Brian Heater

It’s true, you’ve got the Galaxy Note to thank for your big phone. When the device hit the scene at IFA 2011, large screens were still a punchline. That same year, Steve Jobs famously joked about phones with screens larger than four inches, telling a crowd of reporters, “nobody’s going to buy that.”

In 2019, the average screen size hovers around 5.5 inches. That’s a touch larger than the original Note’s 5.3 inches — a size that was pretty widely mocked by much of the industry press at the time. Of course, much of the mainstreaming of larger phones comes courtesy of a much improved screen to body ratio, another place where Samsung has continued to lead the way.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

In some sense, the Note has been doomed by its own success. As the rest of the industry caught up, the line blended into the background. Samsung didn’t do the product any favors by dropping the pretense of distinction between the Note and its Galaxy S line.

Ultimately, the two products served as an opportunity to have a six-month refresh cycle for its flagships. Samsung, of course, has been hit with the same sort of malaise as the rest of the industry. The smartphone market isn’t the unstoppable machine it appeared to be two or three years back.

Like the rest of the industry, the company painted itself into a corner with the smartphone race, creating flagships good enough to convince users to hold onto them for an extra year or two, greatly slowing the upgrade cycle in the process. Ever-inflating prices have also been a part of smartphone sales stagnation — something Samsung and the Note are as guilty of as any.

So what’s a poor smartphone manufacturer to do? The Note 10 represents baby steps. As it did with the S line recently, Samsung is now offering two models. The base Note 10 represents a rare step backward in terms of screen size, shrinking down slightly from 6.4 to 6.3 inches, while reducing resolution from Quad HD to Full HD.

The seemingly regressive step lets Samsung come in a bit under last year’s jaw dropping $1,000. The new Note is only $50 cheaper, but moving from four to three figures may have a positive psychological effect for wary buyers. While the slightly smaller screen coupled with a better screen to body ratio means a device that’s surprisingly slim.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

If anything, the Note 10+ feels like the true successor to the Note line. The baseline device could have just as well been labeled the Note 10 Lite. That’s something Samsung is keenly aware of, as it targets first-time Note users with the 10 and true believers with the 10+. In both cases, Samsung is faced with the same task as the rest of the industry: offering a compelling reason for users to upgrade.

Earlier this week, a Note 9 owner asked me whether the new device warrants an upgrade. The answer is, of course, no. The pace of smartphone innovation has slowed, even as prices have risen. Honestly, the 10 doesn’t really offer that many compelling reasons to upgrade from the Note 8.

That’s not a slight against Samsung or the Note, per se. If anything, it’s a reflection on the fact that these phones are quite good — and have been for a while. Anecdotally, industry excitement around these devices has been tapering for a while now, and the device’s launch in the midst of the doldrums of August likely didn’t help much.

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The past few years have seen smartphones transform from coveted, bleeding-edge luxury to necessity. The good news to that end, however, is that the Note continues to be among the best devices out there.

The common refrain in the earliest days of the phablet was the inability to wrap one’s fingers around the device. It’s a pragmatic issue. Certainly you don’t want to use a phone day to day that’s impossible to hold. But Samsung’s remarkable job of improving screen to body ratio continues here. In fact, the 6.8-inch Note 10+ has roughly the same footprint as the 6.4-inch Note 9.

The issue will still persist for those with smaller hands — though thankfully Samsung’s got a solution for them in the Note 10. For the rest of us, the Note 10+ is easily held in one hand and slipped in and out of pants pockets. I realize these seem like weird things to say at this point, but I assure you they were legitimate concerns in the earliest days of the phablet, when these things were giant hunks of plastic and glass.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Samsung’s curved display once again does much of the heavy lifting here, allowing the screen to stretch nearly from side to side with only a little bezel at the edge. Up top is a hole-punch camera — that’s “Infinity O” to you. Those with keen eyes no doubt immediately noticed that Samsung has dropped the dual selfie camera here, moving toward the more popular hole-punch camera.

The company’s reasoning for this was both aesthetic and, apparently, practical. The company moved back down to a single camera for the front (10 megapixel), using similar reasoning as Google’s single rear-facing camera on the Pixel: software has greatly improved what companies can do with a single lens. That’s certainly the case to a degree, and a strong case can be made for the selfie camera, which we generally require less of than the rear-facing array.

The company’s gone increasingly minimalist with the design language — something I appreciate. Over the years, as the smartphone has increasingly become a day to day utility, the product’s design has increasingly gotten out of its own way. The front and back are both made of a curved Gorilla Glass that butts up against a thin metal form with a total thickness of 7.9 millimeters.

On certain smooth surfaces like glass, you’ll occasionally find the device gliding slightly. I’d say the chances of dropping it are pretty decent with its frictionless design language, so you’re going to want to get a case for your $1,000 phone. Before you do, admire that color scheme on the back. There are four choices in all. Like the rest of the press, we ended up with Aura Glow.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

It features a lovely, prismatic effect when light hits it. It’s proven a bit tricky to photograph, honestly. It’s also a fingerprint magnet, but these are the prices we pay to have the prettiest phone on the block.

One of the interesting footnotes here is how much the design of the 10 will be defined by what the device lost. There are two missing pieces here — both of which are a kind of concession from Samsung for different reasons. And for different reasons, both feel inevitable.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

The headphone jack is, of course, the biggie. Samsung kicked and screamed on that one, holding onto the 3.5mm with dear life and roundly mocking the competition (read: Apple) at every turn. The company must have known it was a matter of time, even before the iPhone dropped the port three years ago.

Courage.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Samsung glossed over the end of the jack (and apparently unlisted its Apple-mocking ads in the process) during the Note’s launch event. It was a stark contrast from a briefing we got around the device’s announcement, where the company’s reps spent significantly more time justifying the move. They know us well enough to know that we’d spend a little time taking the piss out of the company after three years of it making the once ubiquitous port a feature. All’s fair in love and port. And honestly, it was mostly just some good-natured ribbing. Welcome to the club, Samsung.

As for why Samsung did it now, the answer seems to be two-fold. The first is a kind of critical mass in Bluetooth headset usage. Allow me to quote myself from a few weeks back:

The tipping point, it says, came when its internal metrics showed that a majority of users on its flagship devices (the S and Note lines) moved to Bluetooth streaming. The company says the number is now in excess of 70% of users.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Also, as we’re all abundantly aware, the company put its big battery ambitions on hold for a bit, as it dealt with…more burning problems. A couple of recalls, a humble press release and an eight-point battery check later, and batteries are getting bigger again. There’s a 3,500mAh on the Note 10 and a 4,300mAh on the 10+. I’m happy to report that the latter got me through a full day plus three hours on a charge. Not bad, given all of the music and videos I subjected it to in that time.

There’s no USB-C dongle in-box. The rumors got that one wrong. You can pick up a Samsung-branded adapter for $15, or get one for much cheaper elsewhere. There is, however, a pair of AKG USB-C headphones in-box. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Samsung doesn’t get enough credit for its free headphones. I’ve been known to use the pairs with other devices. They’re not the greatest the world, but they’re better sounding and more comfortable than what a lot of other companies offer in-box.

Obviously the standard no headphone jack things apply here. You can’t use the wired headphones and charge at the same time (unless you go wireless). You know the deal.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

The other missing piece here is the Bixby button. I’m sure there are a handful of folks out there who will bemoan its loss, but that’s almost certainly a minority of the minority here. Since the button was first introduced, folks were asking for the ability to remap it. Samsung finally relented on that front, and with the Note 10, it drops the button altogether.

Thus far the smart assistant has been a disappointment. That’s due in no small part to a late launch compared to the likes of Siri, Alexa and Assistant, coupled with a general lack of capability at launch. In Samsung’s defense, the company’s been working to fix that with some pretty massive investment and a big push to court developers. There’s hope for Bixby yet, but a majority of users weren’t eager to have the assistant thrust upon them.

Instead, the power button has been shifted to the left of the device, just under the volume rocker. I preferred having it on the other side, especially for certain functions like screenshotting (something, granted, I do much more than the average user when reviewing a phone). That’s a pretty small quibble, of course.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Bixby can now be quickly accessed by holding down the power button. Handily, Samsung still lets you reassign the function there, if you really want Bixby out of your life. You can also hold down to get the power off menu or double press to launch Bixby or a third-party app (I opted for Spotify, probably my most used these days), though not a different assistant.

Imaging, meanwhile, is something Samsung’s been doing for a long time. The past several generations of S and Note devices have had great camera systems, and it continues to be the main point of improvement. It’s also one of few points of distinction between the 10 and 10+, aside from size.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

The Note 10+ has four, count ’em, four rear-facing cameras. They are as follows:

  • Ultra Wide: 16 megapixel
  • Wide: 12 megapixel
  • Telephoto: 12 megapixel
  • DepthVision

Samsung Galaxy Note10

That last one is only on the plus. It’s comprised of two little circles to the right of the primary camera array and just below the flash. We’ll get to that in a second.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

The main camera array continues to be one of the best in mobile. The inclusion of telephoto and ultra-wide lenses allow for a wide range of different shots, and the hardware coupled with machine learning makes it a lot more difficult to take a bad photo (though believe me, it’s still possible).

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The live focus feature (Portrait mode, essentially) comes to video, with four different filters, including Color Point, which makes everything but the subject black and white.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

Samsung’s also brought a very simple video editor into the mix here, which is nice on the fly. You can edit the length of clips, splice in other clips, add subtitles and captions and add filters and music. It’s pretty beefy for something baked directly into the camera app, and one of the better uses I’ve found for the S Pen.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

Note 10+ with Super Steady (left), iPhone XS (right)

Ditto for the improved Super Steady offering, which smooths out shaky video, including Hyperlapse mode, where handshakes are a big issue. It works well, but you do lose access to other features, including zoom. For that reason, it’s off by default and should be used relatively sparingly.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

Note 10+ (left), iPhone XS (right)

Zoom-on Mic is a clever addition, as well. While shooting video, pinch-zooming on something will amplify the noise from that area. I’ve been playing around with it in this cafe. It’s interesting, but less than perfect.

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Zooming into something doesn’t exactly cancel out ambient noise from outside of the frame. Everything still gets amplified in the process and, like digital picture zoom, a lot of noise gets added in the process. Those hoping for a kind of spy microphone, I’m sorry/happy to report that this definitely is not that.

Screen Shot 2019 08 16 at 5.43.43 PM 2

The DepthVision Camera is also pretty limited as I write this. If anything, it’s Samsung’s attempt to brace for a future when things like augmented reality will (theoretically) play a much larger role in our mobile computing. In a conversation I had with the company ahead of launch, they suggested that a lot of the camera’s AR functions will fall in the hands of developers.

For now, Quick Measure is the one practical use. The app is a lot like Apple’s more simply titled Measure. Fire it up, move the camera around to get a lay of the land and it will measure nearby objects for you. An interesting showcase for AR potential? Sure. Earth shattering? Naw. It also seems to be a bit of a battery drain, sucking up the last few bits of juice as I was running it down.

3D Scanner, on the other hand, got by far the biggest applause line of the Note event. And, indeed, it’s impressive. In the stage demo, a Samsung employee scanned a stuffed pink beaver (I’m not making this up), created a 3D image and animated it using an associate’ movements. Practical? Not really. Cool? Definitely.

It was, however, not available at press time. Hopefully it proves to be more than vaporware, especially if that demo helped push some viewers over to the 10+. Without it, there’s just not a lot of use for the depth camera at the moment.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

There’s also AR Doodle, which fills a similar spot as much of the company’s AR offerings. It’s kind of fun, but again, not particularly useful. You’ll likely end up playing with it for a few minutes and forget about it entirely. Such is life.

The feature is built into the camera app, using depth sensing to orient live drawings. With the stylus you can draw in space or doodle on people’s faces. It’s neat, the AR works okay and I was bored with it in about three minutes. Like Quick Measure, the feature is as much a proof of concept as anything. But that’s always been a part of Samsung’s kitchen-sink approach — some combination of useful and silly.

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That said, points to Samsung for continuing to de-creepify AR Emojis. Those have moved firmly away from the uncanny valley into something more cartoony/adorable. Less ironic usage will surely follow.

Asked about the key differences between the S and Note lines, Samsung’s response was simple: the S Pen. Otherwise, the lines are relatively interchangeable.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Samsung’s return of the stylus didn’t catch on for handsets quite like the phablet form factor. They’ve made a pretty significant comeback for tablets, but the Note remains fairly singular when it comes to the S Pen. I’ve never been a big user myself, but those who like it swear by it. It’s one of those things like the ThinkPad pointing stick or BlackBerry scroll wheel.

Like the phone itself, the peripheral has been streamlined with a unibody design. Samsung also continues to add capabilities. It can be used to control music, advance slideshows and snap photos. None of that is likely to convince S Pen skeptics (I prefer using the buttons on the included headphones for music control, for example), but more versatility is generally a good thing.

If anything is going to convince people to pick up the S Pen this time out, it’s the improved handwriting recognition. That’s pretty impressive. It was even able to decipher my awful chicken scratch.

Note 10

You get the same sort of bleeding-edge specs here you’ve come to expect from Samsung’s flagships. The 10+ gets you a baseline 256GB of storage (upgradable to 512), coupled with a beefy 12GB of RAM (the regular Note is a still good 8GB/256GB). The 5G version sports the same numbers and battery (likely making its total life a bit shorter per charge). That’s a shift from the S10, whose 5G version was specced out like crazy. Likely Samsung is bracing for 5G to become less of a novelty in the next year or so.

The new Note also benefits from other recent additions, like the in-display fingerprint reader and wireless power sharing. Both are nice additions, but neither is likely enough to warrant an immediate upgrade.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Once again, that’s not an indictment of Samsung, so much as a reflection of where we are in the life cycle of a mature smartphone industry. The Note 10+ is another good addition to one of the leading smartphone lines. It succeeds as both a productivity device (thanks to additions like DeX and added cross-platform functionality with Windows 10) and an everyday handset.

There’s not enough on-board to really recommend an upgrade from the Note 8 or 9 — especially at that $1,099 price. People are holding onto their devices for longer, and for good reason (as detailed above). But if you need a new phone, are looking for something big and flashy and are willing to splurge, the Note continues to be the one to beat.

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Dell XPS 13 (2019) Review: A Great Compact Laptop

By Scott Gilbertson
With that dreaded nose cam fixed, the Dell latest XPS 13 is an ultraportable delight to use. Read our full laptop review.

Facebook still full of groups trading fake reviews, says consumer group

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook has failed to clean up the brisk trade in fake product reviews taking place on its platform, an investigation by the consumer association Which? has found.

In June both Facebook and eBay were warned by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) they needed to do more to tackle the sale of fake product reviews. On eBay sellers were offering batches of five-star product reviews in exchange for cash, while Facebook’s platform was found hosting multiple groups were members solicited writers of fake reviews in exchange for free products or cash (or both).

A follow-up look at the two platforms by Which? has found a “significant improvement” in the number of eBay listings selling five-star reviews — with the group saying it found just one listing selling five-star reviews after the CMA’s intervention.

But little appears to have been done to prevent Facebook groups trading in fake reviews — with Which? finding dozens of Facebook groups that it said “continue to encourage incentivised reviews on a huge scale”.

Here’s a sample ad we found doing a ten-second search of Facebook groups… (one of a few we saw that specify they’re after US reviewers)

Screenshot 2019 08 06 at 09.53.19

Which? says it found more than 55,000 new posts across just nine Facebook groups trading fake reviews in July, which it said were generating hundreds “or even thousands” of posts per day.

It points out the true figure is likely to be higher because Facebook caps the number of posts it quantifies at 10,000 (and three of the ten groups had hit that ceiling).

Which? also found Facebook groups trading fake reviews that had sharply increased their membership over a 30-day period, adding that it was “disconcertingly easy to find dozens of suspicious-looking groups in minutes”.

We also found a quick search of Facebook’s platform instantly serves a selection of groups soliciting product reviews…

Screenshot 2019 08 06 at 09.51.09

Which? says looked in detail at ten groups (it doesn’t name the groups), all of which contained the word ‘Amazon’ in their group name, finding that all of them had seen their membership rise over a 30-day period — with some seeing big spikes in members.

“One Facebook group tripled its membership over a 30-day period, while another (which was first started in April 2018) saw member numbers double to more than 5,000,” it writes. “One group had more than 10,000 members after 4,300 people joined it in a month — a 75% increase, despite the group existing since April 2017.”

Which? speculates that the surge in Facebook group members could be a direct result of eBay cracking down on fake reviews sellers on its own platform.

“In total, the 10 [Facebook] groups had a staggering 105,669 members on 1 August, compared with a membership of 85,647 just 30 days prior to that — representing an increase of nearly 19%,” it adds.

Across the ten groups it says there were more than 3,500 new posts promoting inventivised reviews in a single day. Which? also notes that Facebook’s algorithm regularly recommended similar groups to those that appeared to be trading in fake reviews — on the ‘suggested for you’ page.

It also says it found admins of groups it joined listing alternative groups to join in case the original is shut down.

Commenting in a statement, Natalie Hitchins, Which?’s head of products and services, said: ‘Our latest findings demonstrate that Facebook has systematically failed to take action while its platform continues to be plagued with fake review groups generating thousands of posts a day.

“It is deeply concerning that the company continues to leave customers exposed to poor-quality or unsafe products boosted by misleading and disingenuous reviews. Facebook must immediately take steps to not only address the groups that are reported to it, but also proactively identify and shut down other groups, and put measures in place to prevent more from appearing in the future.”

“The CMA must now consider enforcement action to ensure that more is being done to protect people from being misled online. Which? will be monitoring the situation closely and piling on the pressure to banish these fake review groups,” she added.

Responding to Which?‘s findings in a statement, CMA senior director George Lusty said: “It is unacceptable that Facebook groups promoting fake reviews seem to be reappearing. Facebook must take effective steps to deal with this problem by quickly removing the material and stop it from resurfacing.”

“This is just the start – we’ll be doing more to tackle fake and misleading online reviews,” he added. “Lots of us rely on reviews when shopping online to decide what to buy. It is important that people are able to trust they are genuine, rather than something someone has been paid to write.”

In a statement Facebook claimed it has removed 9 out of ten of the groups Which? reported to it and claimed to be “investigating the remaining group”.

“We don’t allow people to use Facebook to facilitate or encourage false reviews,” it added. “We continue to improve our tools to proactively prevent this kind of abuse, including investing in technology and increasing the size of our safety and security team to 30,000.”

BedJet 3 Review: A Better Way to Blow Warm (or Cool) Air Between Your Sheets

By Christopher Null
The third generation of the novel device is smaller and has a much-improved remote control.

Specialized Turbo Creo SL Expert EVO Review: An Electric Gravel Grinder

By Stephanie Pearson
This high-performance electric bike is built to meet the demands of long trips across gravel roads and trails.

Sony Xperia 1 Review: Big, Tall, and Expensive

By Scott Gilbertson
Sony's latest flagship Android phone is nice—just not nice enough to justify its $950 price tag.

Hasselblad X1D II Review: A Compact Hasselblad

By Scott Gilbertson
Hasselblad greatly improves its X1D mirrorless medium format camera, which can do things DSLR's can't, but it's still slow and pricey compared to rivals.

Unagi Model One Review: A Light and Portable Urban Scooter

By Adrienne So
As long as the roads aren’t too bad, Unagi’s electric ride can help keep your car in the garage until you truly need it.

DJI Robomaster S1 Review: It Goes Pew Pew and Teaches Coding

By Scott Gilbertson
DJI's new wheeled drone doesn't fly, but it does offer loads of educational fun with Scratch/Python programming, a turret, and innovative wheels.

Tour the Factory Where Bentley Handcrafts Its Luxury Rides

By Eric Adams
While a major auto plant can stamp out thousands of cars a day, Bentley makes just a few dozen, with a heavy dose of TLC.

Analogue’s Mega Sg is the Sega Genesis Mini alternative for the discerning retro gaming fan

By Darrell Etherington

The official Sega Genesis Mini is coming in September and hopes to capitalize on some of the retro gaming hype that turned the Super Nintendo and NES Mini Classic editions into best-sellers. But there’s already a modern piece of hardware out there capable of playing Sega Genesis games on your HDTV — plus Mega Drive, Master System and Sega CD, too.

The Analogue Mega Sg is the third in a series of reference-quality, FPGA-based retro consoles from Analogue, a company that prides itself on accuracy in old-school gaming. It provides unparalleled, non-emulated gameplay with zero lag and full 1080p output to work with your HD or even 4K TV in a way no other old-school gaming hardware can.

For $189.99 (which is just about double the asking price of the Sega Genesis Mini), you get the console itself, an included Master System cartridge adapter, an HDMI cable and a USB cable for power supply (plus a USB plug, though, depending on your TV, you might be able to power it directly). The package also includes a silicon pad should you want to use it with original Sega CD hardware, which plugs into the bottom of the SG hardware just like it did with the original Genesis. It includes two ports that support original wired Genesis controllers, or you can also opt to pick up an 8bitdo M30 wireless Genesis controller and adapter, which retails for $24.99.

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Like the Nt mini did for NES, and the Super Nt did for SNES before it, the Mega Sg really delivers when it comes to performance. Games look amazing on my 4K LG OLED television, and I can choose from a variety of video output settings to tune it to my liking, including adding simulated retro scaliness and more to make it look more like your memory of playing on an old CRT television.

Sound is likewise excellent — those opening notes of Ecco the Dolphin sounded fantastic rendered in 48KHz 16-bit stereo coming out of my Sonos sound system. Likewise, Sonic’s weird buzzsaw razor whine came through exactly as remembered, but definitely in higher definition than anything that actually played out of my old TV speakers as a kid.

Even if you don’t have a pile of original Sega cartridges sitting around ready to play (though I bet you do if you’re interested in this piece of kit), the Mega Sg has something to offer: On board, you get a digital copy of the unreleased Sega Genesis game “Hardcore,” which was nearly complete in 1994 but which went unreleased. It’s been finished and renamed “Ultracore,” and you can run it from the console’s main menu as soon as you plug it in and fire it up.

Analogue plans to add more capabilities to the Mega Sg in the future, with cartridge adapters that will allow it to run Mark III, Game Gear, Sega MyCard, SG-1000 and SC-3000 games, too. These will all be supported by the FPGA Analogue designed for the Mega Sg, too, so they’ll also be running natively, not emulated, for a true recreation of the original gaming experience.

Analogue Mega Sg 8

If you’re really into classic games, and care a lot about accuracy, this is definitely the best way to play Sega games on modern TVs — and it’s also just super fun.

Sonos and Ikea’s Symfonisk wireless speakers are a symphony of sound and design

By Darrell Etherington

Sonos and Ikea’s Symfonisk collaboration took a lot of people by surprise when it was announced earlier this year, but the match up is less unlikely than it might appear at first glance. Ikea’s entire mission has been delivering practical, quality design concepts at price points that are more broadly accessible – and that’s exactly what it’s done with its collaboration with Sonos, albeit with sound instead of furniture. The new $99 Symfonisk WiFi bookshelf speaker, and the new $179 Symfonisk table lamp with WiFi speaker both deliver the excellent performance and sound quality that’s expected from the Sonos brand, in beguilingly practical everyday designs created by Ikea.

Symfonisk bookshelf speaker

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 10The descriptor “bookshelf speaker” in this case means more than it usually does – Ikea has designed these to either blend seamlessly in with hour actual book collection on existing shelf units, or to actually act as shelves themselves, using a simple add-on accessory kit that includes a flush wall mount and a rubber matt to protect its top surface while holding your gear (up to 6.6 lbs). They can also rail-mount on Ikea’s kitchen rail products for convenient kitchen installation, or they have rubberized pads on both the bottom and side surfaces for either horizontal or vertical surface mounting. Each speaker has two channels for cables to exit both vertically and horizontally for flush mounting, and there’s an Ethernet port on each and a cable in the box for hardwired connections to your home network.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 12At $99, they’re the new most affordable way to get into the Sonos system, undercutting the Play:1 by $50. Leaving aside their utility as free-floating shelves (with a decent 12″ x 6″ surface area, likely suitable for bedside tables for many), they’re a perfect introduction to the Sonos ecosystem for anyone who’s felt that Sonos hardware is too expensive. And they’re almost tailor-made to act as rear speakers in a Sonos surround sound home theater configuration. I paired mine with my existing Sonos Beam sounder and Sonos Sub, and they delivered to the point where you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the Symfonisk bookshelves and the Play:1 operating in that capacity.

That said, you do notice a difference between the Symfonisk bookshelf and the Play:1, or the Sonos One, when it comes to sound quality when they’re used on their own as individual or stereo-paired speakers. The bookshelf speakers contain entirely new internal speaker designs, since the form factor is nothing like any existing Sonos hardware on the market, and that means you end up with a different sound profile vs. the more squat, rotund Sonos One and Play:1.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 7To my ears, the Symfonisk bookshelf speaker sounds slightly worse when compared to the Sonos One and Play:1. This is not that surprising – those Sonos speakers are more expensive, for one, and they really out punch their weight class when it comes to overall sound quality. And even if the Symfonisk shelves are not quite up to par, they’re still excellent sounding wireless speakers for their price – without a doubt I would opt to pick these up in place of Play:1s for parts of my house where I don’t need the built-in Alexa or Google Assistant of the Sonos One, but want high-fidelity sound. In stereo pair configuration, the difference is even less noticeable.

The Symonisk shelf speaker design seems mostly focused on practicality, but it’s a good looking speaker (available in both black, as tested, and white). The rectangular box look is a bit harder to integrate as flexibly with your decor when compared to the Sonos One, in my opinion, but on the other hand there are some settings where the Symfonisk shelf fits far more seamlessly, like when wall mounted behind a couch to act as rears, or when acting as bookend on an existing bookshelf. The fabric speaker grill is removable, and you can expect Sonos to look at aesthetic updates to potentially change the look in future, too.

Because these are wireless speakers, there’s another aspect of performance that’s important: connectivity. Symfonisk’s speakers (both these and the table lamp, which I’ll talk more about later on) worked flawlessly during my multiple days of testing in this regard, with zero drop-outs that I noticed when it came to music playback, and flawless integration with my existing Sonos network of speakers. I’m also likely one of Sonos’ outlier customers in terms of the number of speakers I’m using – I have 14 active currently, including the Symfonisk speakers, all operating fully wireless and without the included Ethernet connection, and wireless playback has been rock solid during tests of this new Ikea line.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 8Set up is also a breeze, whether you’re new to Sonos or an existing user, and is handled via the Sonos app (Ikea will also eventually add it to its own smart home control software, the company tells me, and you’ll be able to control it from both). Once added to your app, you can also use them via Alexa or Google Assistant if you have those linked to your Sonos system, and they show up as AirPlay 2 speaker for iOS and macOS users, too.

Symfonisk table lamp speaker

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 4Like the bookshelf speaker, the Symfonisk table lamp is incredibly easy to setup and manage using the Sonos app, and works with Alexa/Google Assistant and AirPlay 2. It was also outstanding in terms of performance with wireless connection and working with other speakers, and you can use Sonos’ TruePlay sound tuning feature to ensure that it provides the right sound profile for your space with a quick adjustment process using your phone’s microphone (this also works with the shelf speakers, by the way, and I recommend it for any Sonos equipment).

The table lamp really impresses in two ways, including sound quality and – this might seem obvious – by virtue of it also being a great lamp as well as a speaker. The base of the lamp is where the speaker resides, and it’s wrapped in a removable fabric cover that looks great from afar and up close. The shade is a single piece of handcrafted opaque glass, which provides a very pleasant glow when lit from within, and which uses a bayonet mount to lock into place.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 13This mount and shade choice are not just about looks – Sonos and Ikea evaluated different options and found that this was easily the best when it came to minimizing reverb and rattle for a lamp that’s also capable of outputting a lot of high-volume sound. The choice appears to have been the good one – in testing, I never noticed anything that suggested there was anything rattling or shaking around as a result of even loud music being played through the Symfonisk lamp speaker.

As mentioned, the looks benefit from this design decision, too. This table lamp at first struck me as maybe a bit too modern in photos, but in situ it looks great and is easily now a favorite item among my overall home decor. I do have a few small complaints, like that the large dial on the side is actually a simple on/off switch, rather than a dimmer or a volume knob like I assumed it would be. The controls are on the front of the saucer-like base instead, which is a clever way to make the lamp look less like a gadget and more like furniture.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 14The light itself supports bulbs with E12-style threaded connectors and a max of 7 watts of energy consumption, which are more commonly seen in chandeliers. Ikea sent over one of its Tradfri smart bulbs, with wireless connectivity and adjustable white spectrum temperature control. It’s the perfect complement to the lamp, and I was even able to quickly connect it to my existing Philips Hue hub for control without an Ikea smart bridge. With a smart bulb, the Symfonisk speaker lamp offers voice-control for both the lightning and the speaker component.

Where the Symfonisk shelf speaker differs from its Sonos brethren a bit in sound profile, the Symfonisk lamp speaker is surprisingly similar to the Play:1 ($149) and Sonos One ($199) and sits right in between both at $179. The internals are largely leveraged from those devices, according to Sonos, which makes sense given its industrial design is also basically a somewhat squat cylinder. Regardless of how, the result is terrific – it’s a lamp that’s actually a fantastic speaker, and you can definitely pull a trick at parties of asking guests to try to figure out the source of your high-quality, room filling sound if you pick one or more of these up. As rears, they blend away seamlessly with the decor, solving the age-old problem of having to choose between quality surround sound and having a living room that doesn’t look like a Hi-Fi audio shop.

The Symfonisk lamp is big, however – it’s about two inches taller than a Sonos One without the shade, and wider both in terms of the base and the saucer-like bottom. The look, while appealing to me, also isn’t necessarily for everyone (though there are black and white versions depending on your preference) so that might be another reason to opt for other offerings in the Sonos line vs. this one. But this particular light/Sonos speaker combo is unique in the market, and definitely a strong value proposition.

Bottom line

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 3With the Symfonisk line, Ikea and Sonos have really pulled off something fairly amazing – creating practical, smart decor that’s also great audio equipment. It’s a blending of two worlds that results in very few compromises, and stands as a true example of what’s possible when two companies with a focus on human-centric design get together and really focus on establishing a partnership that’s much deeper than two names on a label.

Sonos and Ikea’s team-up isn’t just a limited collection, either – it’s a long-term partnership, so you can expect more from both down the road. For now, however, the Symfonisk bookshelf and Symfonisk table lamp speakers go on sale starting August 1 at Ikea.com and Ikea’s stores, and are very good options if you’re in the market for a smart speaker.

Sony WF-1000XM3 Review: The Perfect Travel Companion

By Adrienne So
The new premium earbuds from Sony have multiple noise-canceling modes, and it switches between them automatically depending on your environment.

BMW 2019 i8 review: Driving yesterday’s car of tomorrow, today

By Matt Burns

The BMW i8 is a lovely vehicle to drive even though it’s lacking. It hugs the road and commands attention. It’s thrilling in a way that few cars can achieve without speed. Sure, it’s quick, but it won’t set track records or quarter-mile times. It just feels great to drive.

By the numbers, there’s little reason to buy a $164,000 BMW i8 Roadster. Want speed? Buy a Porsche 911 Turbo for $161K or Corvette ZR1 for $123K or Nissan GT-R for $112K. Supercar aesthetics? Get an Acura NSX for $157K. Want all-electric? Get a Tesla Model S. All are faster and cheaper than the BMW i8.

The BMW i8 is just a stepping stone in BMW’s history. An oddball. It’s a limited-edition vehicle to try out new technology. From what I can tell, BMW never positioned the i8 as a top seller or market leader. It was an engineer’s playground. I love it.

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Review

BMW released the first i8 in 2014 when the automotive scene looked different. Tesla was still a fledgling startup with only the Model S in its lineup. GM was working on the second-generation Chevy Volt. Hybrid powertrains seemed to be the answer, and BMW followed suit with the dual-power in the i8.

In 2015 I took the just-launched i8 from Vegas to LA in an epic, one-day adventure that took me through the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park. It was a great way to appreciate the i8, and now that the model is on its way out, I wanted another go in the car.

This time, I had an i8 tester for a week. I took my kids to school in it, I got groceries with it and, in between rain storms, I lived my best life with the top down on in this $164,000 droptop.

It’s a lovely car and garners attention like nothing else in its price range. I noted this several years back when driving the i8 down the Vegas strip. The i8 is stunning and always draws a crowd. For my money, there isn’t a car that gets more attention.

The sheet metal flows as if a master glassmaker made it. It’s beautiful. The front end is aggressive and direct. The sides flow with precision to a back-end with some of the most unique tail lights available. The exhaust — remember, this is a hybrid — exits behind the rear window through a metal grate.

Don’t let its go-fast exterior oversell the capabilities though. The i8 is not as fast as it looks.

The i8 isn’t a quarter-mile racer. This is a hybrid sports car with the heart of a grand tourer. This isn’t a car you want to take to a drag strip, but it could be fun at a track day. It’s a carver. Its low center of gravity lets it embrace the road. It’s silky through flowing corners.

Behind the wheel, the i8 is easy to love. The hybrid powertrain is smooth and free of drama. Hit the gas and go. Click the transmission to sport mode and it’s quick, but not fast. And that’s okay with me.

BMW got the inside of the i8 right. For a two-seat exotic, the i8 is comfortable and functional as long as the driver doesn’t need to transport golf clubs. The scissor doors open with little effort and offer enough room to enter and exit the car. The seats are supportive and comfortable. This 2019 version is equipped with BMW’s latest infotainment system, which is among the best offered in the industry. There is very little storage available in the Roadster variant that ditches the back seats for the droptop storage. The trunk can hold four six-packs and nothing else.

When I drove the i8 in 2015, I stated that this was a car someone should buy only after they have their Porsche 911. That’s still true. While the i8 is easy to love, there are other vehicles available that offer more thrills and functionality.

The i8 is easy. Drivers shouldn’t be afraid to push the powertrain. It won’t bite, but it will provide plenty of excitement in sport mode. The i8 doesn’t require the skill of other vehicles in its price range. If a Porsche 911 Turbo or Corvette ZR-1 is too much car, look at the i8. Or the Audi R8 — another sports car I found easy to boss around.

After a week of living with the i8, its performance was secondary to the experience. I’m convinced that the i8 doesn’t need raw speed to be enjoyable.

In 2014 BMW proclaimed the i8 to be the car of tomorrow, available today. And in some regards it was. The i8 was one of the first mass-production vehicles to pair an electric powertrain to a gas engine in the name of performance. Since then, nearly every exotic automaker is doing the same in various formats.

The i8 still feels like it’s a different type of vehicle than anything else available. It feels green. It feels healthy. But in the end, the i8 still relies on a dirty internal combustion engine while there are faster, better-equipped vehicles available that run on just electric motors.

Rumor is BMW is not making a direct successor to the i8, but the automaker will likely make an all-electric sports car. Eventually. And that would change everything. With just electric motors, a BMW coupe could offer serious speed while being more friendly to the environment. A pure electric i8 could be a game changer and a legitimate speed demon.

The 2019 i8 is a lovely vehicle and could bring serious enjoyment to the right person with its easy powertrain and stunning looks.


Video Review of BMW i8 (filmed in 2015)

Signpost nabs $52M to help SMBs collect reviews and marketing collateral like bigger rivals

By Ingrid Lunden

Creating products aimed at smaller business users is a promising but challenging category in the area of enterprise software — they make up the vast majority of businesses today, but collectively are a fragmented customer base that is price sensitive and individually represents small ARPU. Today, a company that has found a way to tap the opportunity and capitalise on some of the challenges has raised a significant round of growth funding to tap into the opportunity.

Signpost, which has built a platform that today is used by thousands of local businesses to compete better against bigger companies — by letting them collect their own and subsequently use product reviews, construct and provide offers and manage contact lists of customers — has closed a round of $52 million, money that it will use to expand its technology and customer base.

The funding is described as “late-stage financing” (similar to the round it raised in 2016) and comes from HighBar Partners and BMO Bank of Montreal with previous investors Georgian Partners and Spark Capital also participating. Signpost has been around for about a decade, and its other backers have included OpenView Venture Parnters, Scout Ventures and GV (when it was still Google Ventures and Signpost was focusing on the viral marketing of local deals).

The Google connection is interesting: Signpost has gone through a few different iterations as a business and years ago was described as the “AdSense for local businesses.” It’s raised about $110 million to date, with its most recent funding (in 2016) at around $100 million, according to PitchBook data.

While Signpost is not disclosing valuation, I’m guessing it’s definitely higher than this now, judging by the size of this latest round, and some of the other metrics the company is disclosing: the company cash flow break-even as of early 2019, with 43% year-over-year growth in its core product and less than one percent customer churn. Its also hiring in its three locations, New York (its HQ), Austin, and Denver.

The problem that the company is tackling is one that local, independent and brick-and-mortar stores may know all too well: they have it hard when it comes to marketing.

Traditionally, they have relied on word-of-mouth and (among physical businesses) incidental foot traffic to maintain and grow trade. But in the age of shopping malls, the internet and the economy of scale that comes with it in e-commerce, many of those small businesses have found themselves caught out in figuring out how best to connect with existing customers and reach new ones.

Added to this is the issue of user reviews. These have become an important — some would say essential — cornerstone for how people discover and decide to buy one product or service over another online, in conjunction with other services like Google Maps and Yelp.

Signpost notes stats that say at least 82% of smartphone shoppers conduct ‘near me’ searches and 90% are likely to click on the first set of results, but that those without reviews conversely getting nary a glance or attentive nudge from the ever-powerful search algorithm.

On the other hand, the rise of user reviews has led to a pernicious counter theme: the proliferation of fake reviews and spam. This is something that small businesses struggle to get a handle on, and I’ve seen more than once a business bemoaning the presence of these on Google Maps without knowing how best to try to fix the issue.

This is where a company like Signpost comes in, proving a platform that is easy to use to help those businesses get a grip on providing their own review and feedback tools, and taking charge of other kinds of basic marketing and CRM features, such as mailing lists and creating offers that introduce new customers and reward loyal, repeat ones.

These are all table stakes for bigger businesses, and the idea is that small businesses should have them, too.

“While large corporations have used powerful marketing technology to drive extraordinary growth for years, local businesses — which make up 99.7% of all U.S. businesses and account for nearly half of GDP — have been left behind,” said Stuart Wall, founder and CEO of Signpost, in a statement. “Signpost puts the power of the world’s largest marketing departments in the hands of local business owners and empowers them to instantly capture their customer data, get better online reviews, and win new repeat business automatically and effortlessly.”

And in another feature that helps put small businesses on par with larger rivals, Signpost is also a big data powerhouse.

Signpost says that it has gathered behavioral data from over 70 million US consumers across all its local business customers, which it uses to feed its own algorithms to determine when and where to send personalised messages to a businesses’ contacts to help drum up more sales. Signpost claims that its tools have led to a 34% rise in and revenue lifts of 14%, on average.

Brian Peters, Managing Director at HighBar Partners, is joining Signpost’s Board of Directors with this round.

“HighBar’s investment is a vote of confidence in the right approach to applying technology to level the playing field for local businesses,” he said in a statement. “The turnkey setup and level of automation in Signpost’s platform, as well as their ability to follow through on reviews and engage the modern customer well beyond their first interaction is what really sets them apart.”

“We are excited to be working alongside Signpost – they have created an innovative solution to help small businesses compete and drive revenue growth,” said Devon Dayton, Managing Director, Technology & Innovation Banking, BMO Bank of Montreal, in a statement. “The company has experienced a lot of momentum and we are looking forward to continuing this journey with them through their next phase of growth.”

Repour Wine Saver Review: A Cheap Way to Keep Your Wine from Spoiling

By Christopher Null
This simple gadget keeps a bottle of wine tasting fresh for days on end.
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