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Many smart home device makers still won’t say if they give your data to the government

By Zack Whittaker

A year ago, we asked some of the most prominent smart home device makers if they have given customer data to governments. The results were mixed.

The big three smart home device makers — Amazon, Facebook and Google (which includes Nest) — all disclosed in their transparency reports if and when governments demand customer data. Apple said it didn’t need a report, as the data it collects was anonymized.

As for the rest, none had published their government data-demand figures.

In the year that’s past, the smart home market has grown rapidly, but the remaining device makers have made little to no progress on disclosing their figures. And in some cases, it got worse.

Smart home and other internet-connected devices may be convenient and accessible, but they collect vast amounts of information on you and your home. Smart locks know when someone enters your house, and smart doorbells can capture their face. Smart TVs know which programs you watch and some smart speakers know what you’re interested in. Many smart devices collect data when they’re not in use — and some collect data points you may not even think about, like your wireless network information, for example — and send them back to the manufacturers, ostensibly to make the gadgets — and your home — smarter.

Because the data is stored in the cloud by the devices manufacturers, law enforcement and government agencies can demand those companies turn over that data to solve crimes.

But as the amount of data collection increases, companies are not being transparent about the data demands they receive. All we have are anecdotal reports — and there are plenty: Police obtained Amazon Echo data to help solve a murder; Fitbit turned over data that was used to charge a man with murder; Samsung helped catch a sex predator who watched child abuse imagery; Nest gave up surveillance footage to help jail gang members; and recent reporting on Amazon-owned Ring shows close links between the smart home device maker and law enforcement.

Here’s what we found.

Smart lock and doorbell maker August gave the exact same statement as last year, that it “does not currently have a transparency report and we have never received any National Security Letters or orders for user content or non-content information under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).” But August spokesperson Stephanie Ng would not comment on the number of non-national security requests — subpoenas, warrants and court orders — that the company has received, only that it complies with “all laws” when it receives a legal demand.

Roomba maker iRobot said, as it did last year, that it has “not received” any government demands for data. “iRobot does not plan to issue a transparency report at this time,” but it may consider publishing a report “should iRobot receive a government request for customer data.”

Arlo, a former Netgear smart home division that spun out in 2018, did not respond to a request for comment. Netgear, which still has some smart home technology, said it does “not publicly disclose a transparency report.”

Amazon-owned Ring, whose cooperation with law enforcement has drawn ire from lawmakers and faced questions over its ability to protect users’ privacy, said last year it planned to release a transparency report in the future, but did not say when. This time around, Ring spokesperson Yassi Shahmiri would not comment and stopped responding to repeated follow-up emails.

Honeywell spokesperson Megan McGovern would not comment and referred questions to Resideo, the smart home division Honeywell spun out a year ago. Resideo’s Bruce Anderson did not comment.

And just as last year, Samsung, a maker of smart devices and internet-connected televisions and other appliances, also did not respond to a request for comment.

On the whole, the companies’ responses were largely the same as last year.

But smart switch and sensor maker Ecobee, which last year promised to publish a transparency report “at the end of 2018” did not follow through with its promise. When we asked why, Ecobee spokesperson Kristen Johnson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Based on the best available data, August, iRobot, Ring and the rest of the smart home device makers have hundreds of millions of users and customers around the world, with the potential to give governments vast troves of data — and users and customers are none the wiser.

Transparency reports may not be perfect, and some are less transparent than others. But if big companies — even after bruising headlines and claims of co-operation with surveillance states — disclose their figures, there’s little excuse for the smaller companies.

This time around, some companies fared better than their rivals. But for anyone mindful of their privacy, you can — and should — expect better.

North ending production of current Focals smart glasses to focus on Focals 2.0

By Darrell Etherington

Smart glasses maker North announced today that it will be ending production of its first-generation Focals glasses, which it brought to market for consumers last year. The company says it will instead shift its focus to Focals 2.0, a next-generation version of the product, which it says will ship starting in 2020.

Focals are North’s first product since rebranding the company from Thalmic Labs and pivoting from building smart gesture control hardware to glasses with a built-in heads-up display and smartphone connectivity. CEO and founder Stephen Lake told me in a prior interview that the company realized in developing its Myo gesture control armband that it was actually more pressing to develop the next major shift in computing platform before tackling interface devices for said platforms, hence the switch.

Focals 2.0 will be “at a completely different level” and “the most advanced smart glasses ever made,” Lake said in a press release announcing the new generation device. In terms of how exactly it’ll improve on the original, North isn’t sharing much but it has said that its made the 2.0 version both lighter and “sleeker,” and that it’ll offer a much sharper, “10x improved” built-in display.

North began selling its Focals smart glasses via physical showrooms that it opened first in Brooklyn and Toronto. These, in addition to a number of pop-up showroom locations that toured across North America, provided in-person try-ons and fittings for the smart glasses, which must be tailor-fit for individual users in order to properly display content from their supported applications. More recently, North also added a Showroom app for iOS devices, that included custom sizing powered by more recent iPhone front-facing depth sensing camera hardware.

North’s first-generation Focals smart glasses.

To date, North hasn’t revealed any sales figures for its initial Focals device, but the company did reduce the price of the glasses form $999 to just under $600 (without prescription) relatively soon after launch. Their cost, combined with the requirement for an in-person fitting prior to purchase (until the introduction of the Showroom app) and certain gaps in the product feature set like an inability to support iMessage on iOS natively, all point to initial sales being relatively low volume, however.

To North’s credit, Focals are the first smart glasses hardware that manage to have a relatively inconspicuous look. Despite somewhat thicker than average arms on either side where the battery, projection and computing components are housed, Focals resemble thick acrylic plastic frames of the kind popularized by Warby Parker and other standard glasses makers.

With version 2.0, it sounds like Focals will be making even more progress in developing a design that hews closely to standard glasses. One of the issues also cited by some users with the first-generation product was a relatively fuzzy image produced by the built-in projector, which required specific calibration to remain in focus, and it sounds like they’re addressing that, too.

The Focals successor will still have an uphill battle when it comes to achieving mass appeal, however. It’s unlikely that cost will be significantly reduced, though any progress it can make on that front will definitely help. And it still either requires non-glasses wearers to opt for regularly donning specs, or for standard glasses wearers to be within the acceptable prescription range supported by the hardware, and to be willing to spend a bit more for connected glasses features.

The company says the reason it’s ending Focals 1.0 production is to focus on the 2.0 rollout, but it’s not a great sign that there will be a pause in between the two generations in terms of availability. Through its two iterations as a company, Thalmic Labs and now North have not had the best track record in terms of developing hardware that has been a success with potential customers – Focals 2.0, whenever they do arrive, will have a lot to prove in terms of iterating enough to drive significant demand.

The iRobot Roomba s9+ and Braava m6 are the robots you should trust to clean your house well

By Darrell Etherington

This holiday season, we’re going to be looking back at some of the best tech of the past year, and providing fresh reviews in a sort of ‘greatest hits’ across a range of categories. First up: iRobot’s top-end home cleaning robots, the Roomba s9+ robot vacuum, and the Braava m6 robot mop and floor sweeper. Both of these represent the current peak of iRobot’s technology, and while that shows up in the price tag, it also shows up in performance.

iRobot Roomba S9+

The iRobot Roomba S9+ is actually two things: The Roomba S9, which is available separately, and the Clean Base that enables the vacuum to empty itself after a run, giving you many cleanings before it needs you to actually open up a bin or replace a bag. Both the vacuum and its base are WiFi-connected, and controllable via iRobot’s app, as well as Google Assistant and Alexa. Combined, it’s the most advanced autonomous home vacuum you can get, and it manages to outperform a lot of older or less sophisticated robot vacuums even in situations that have historically been hard for this kind of tech to handle.

Like the Roomba S7 before it (which is still available and still also a great vacuum, for a bit less money), the S9 uses what’s called SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping), and a specific variant of that called vSLAM (the stands for ‘visual’). This technology means that as it works, it’s generating and adapting a map of your home to ensure that it can clean more effectively and efficiently.

After either a few dedicated training runs (which you can opt to send the vacuum on when it’s learning a new space) or a few more active vacuum runs, the Roomba S9 will remember your home’s layout, and provide a map that you can customize with room dividers and labels. This then turns on the vacuum’s real smart superpowers, which include being able to vacuum just specific rooms on command, as well as features like letting it easily pick up where it left off if it needs to return to its charging station mid-run. With the S9 and its large battery, the vacuum can do an entire run of my large two-bedroom condo on a single charge (the i7 I used previously needed two charges to finish up).

The S9’s vSLAM and navigation systems seem incredibly well-developed in my use: I’ve never once had the vacuum become stuck, or confused by changes in floor colouring, even going from a very light to a very dark floor (this is something that past vacuums have had difficulty with). It infallibly finds its way back to the Clean Base, and also never seems to be flummoxed by even drastic changes in lighting over the course of the day.

So it’s smart, but does it suck? Yes, it does – in the best possible way. Just like it doesn’t require stops to charge up, it also manages to clean my entire space with just one bin. There’s a lot more room in here thanks to the new design, and it handles even my dog’s hair with ease (my dog sheds a lot, and it’s very obvious light hair against dark wood floors). The new angled design on the front of the vacuum means it does a better job with getting in corners than previous fully round designs, and that shows, because corners are were clumps of hair go to gather in a dog-friendly household.

The ‘+’ in the S9+ is that Clean Base as I mentioned – think of it like the tower of lazy cleanliness. The base has a port that sucks dirt from the S9 when it’s done a run, shooting it into a bag in the top of the tower that can hold up to 30 full bins of dirt. That ends up being a lot in practice – it should last you months, depending on house size. Replacement bags cost $20 for three, which is probably what you’ll go through in a year, so it’s really a negligible cost for the convenience you’re getting.

Braava m6

The Roomba S9’s best friend, if you will, is the Braava m6. This is iRobot’s latest and greatest smart mop, which is exactly what it sounds like: Whereas Roomba vacuums, the Braava uses either single use disposable, or microfibre washable/reusable pads, as well as iRobot’s own cleaning fluid, to clean hardwood, tile, vinyl, cork and other hard surface floors once the vacuuming is done. It can also just run a dry sweep, which is useful for picking up dust and pet hair, as a finishing touch on the vacuum’s run.

iRobot has used its unique position in offering both of these types of smart devices to have them work together – if you have both the S9 and the Braava m6 added to your iRobot Home app, you’ll get an option to mop the floors right after the vacuum job is complete. It’s an amazing convenience feature, and one that works fairly well – but there are some differences in the smarts powering the Braava m6 and the Roomba s9 that lead to some occasional challenges.

The Braava m6 doesn’t seem to be quite as capable when it comes to mapping and navigating its surroundings. My condo layout is relatively simple, all one level with no drops or gaps. But the m6 has encountered some scenarios where it doesn’t seem to be able to cross a threshold or make sense of all floor types. Based on error messages, it seems like it’s identifying some surfaces as ‘cliffs’ or steep drops when transitioning back from lighter floors to darker ones.

What this means in practice is that a couple of times per run, I have to reposition the Braava manually. There are ways to solve for this, however, built into the software: Thanks to the smart mapping feature, I can just direct the Braava to focus only on the rooms with dark hardwood, or I can just adjust it when I get an alert that it’s having difficulty. It’s still massively more convenient than mopping by hand, and typically the m6 does about 90 percent of the apartment before it runs into difficult in one of these few small trouble areas.

If you’ve read online customer reviews fo the m6, you may also have seen complaints that it can leave tire marks on dark floors. I found that to be true – but with a few caveats. They definitely aren’t as pronounced as I expected based on some of the negative reviews out there, and I have very dark floors. They also only are really visible in direct sunlight, and then only faintly. They also fade pretty quickly, which means you won’t notice them most of the time if you’re mopping only once ever few vacuum runs. In the end, it’s something to be aware of, but for me it’s not a dealbreaker – far from it. The m6 still does a fantastic job overall of mopping and sweeping, and saves me a ton of labor on what is normally a pretty back-hostile manual task.

Bottom line

These iRobot home cleaning gadgets are definitely high-end, with the s9 starting at $1,099.99 ($1,399.99 with the cleaning base) and the m6 staring at $499.99. You can get a bundle with both staring at $1439.98, but even that is still a lot for cleaning appliances. This is definitely a case where the ‘you get what you pay for’ maxim proves true, however. Either rate s9+ alone, or the combo of the vacuum and mop represent a huge convenience, especially when used on a daily or similar regular schedule, vs. doing the same thing manually. The s9 also frankly does a better job than I ever could wth my own manual vacuum, since it’s much better at getting into corners, under couches, and cleaning along and under trip thanks to its spinning brush. And asking Alexa to have Roomba start a cleaning run feels like living in the future in the best possible way.

The ONNX format becomes the newest Linux Foundation project

By Frederic Lardinois

The Linux Foundation today announced that ONNX, the open format that makes machine learning models more portable, is now a graduate-level project inside of the organization’s AI Foundation. ONNX was originally developed and open-sourced by Microsoft and Facebook in 2017 and has since become somewhat of a standard, with companies ranging from AWS to AMD, ARM, Baudi, HPE, IBM, Nvidia and Qualcomm supporting it. In total, more than 30 companies now contribute to the ONNX code base.

It’s worth noting that only the ONNX format is included here, not the ONNX runtime, which Microsoft open-sourced a year ago. The runtime is an inference engine for models in the ONNX format and I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point, Microsoft put that under the guidance of a foundation, too… but for now, that’s not the case.

“ONNX is not just a spec that companies endorse, it’s already being actively implemented in their products,” said Dr. Ibrahim Haddad, executive director of the LF AI Foundation, in today’s announcement. “This is because ONNX is an open format and is committed to developing and supporting a wide choice of frameworks and platforms. Joining the LF AI shows a determination to continue on this path, and will help accelerate technical development and connections with the wider open source AI community around the world.”

In its own announcement, Microsoft stressed that it remains committed to ONNX and highlights the work it did on making it easier to generate ONNX models from popular frameworks like PyTorch, TensorFlow, Keras and SciKit-Learn. “We are proud of the progress that ONNX has made and want to recognize the entire ONNX community for their contributions, ideas, and overall enthusiasm,” wrote Eric Boyd, the corporate VP at Microsoft in charge of Azure AI (not Microsoft AI). “We are excited about the future of ONNX and all that is to come.”

GitHub launches a mobile app, smarter notifications and improved code search

By Frederic Lardinois

At its annual Universe conference today, Microsoft -owned GitHub announced a couple of new products, as well as the general availability of a number of tools that developers have been able to test for the last few months. The two announcements that developers will likely be most interested in are the launch of GitHub’s first native mobile app and an improved notifications experience. But in addition to that, it is also taking GitHub Actions, the company’s workflow automation and CI/CD solution, as well as GitHub Packages, out of beta. GitHub is also improving its code search, adding scheduled reminders and launching a pre-release program that will allow users to try out new features before they are ready for a wider rollout.

GitHub is also extending its sponsor program, which until now allowed you to tip individual open-source contributors for their work, to the project level. With GitHub Sponsors, anybody can help fund a project and the members of that project then get to choose how to use the money. These projects have to be open source and have a corporate or nonprofit entity attached to it (and a bank account).

“Developers are what’s driving us and we’re building the tools and the experiences to help them come together to create the world’s most important technologies and to do it on an open platform and ecosystem,” GitHub SVP of Product Shanku Niyogi told me. Today’s announcements, he said, are driven by the company’s mission to improve the developer experience. Over the course of the last year, the company launched well over 150 new features and enhancements, Niyogi stressed. For its Universe show, the company decided to highlight the new mobile app and notification enhancements, though.

The new mobile app, which is now out in beta for iOS, with Android support coming soon, offers all of the basic features you’d want from a mobile app like this. The team decided to focus squarely on the kind of mobile use cases that would make the most sense for a developer on the go, so you’ll be able to share feedback on discussions, review a few lines of code and merge changes, but this isn’t meant to be a tool that replicated the full GitHub experience, though at least on the iPad, you do get a bit more screen real estate to work with.

“When you start to look at the tablet experience, that then extends out because you now got more space,” explained Niyogi. “You can look at the code, you can navigate some of that, we support some of the key same keyboard shortcuts that github.com does to be able to look at a larger amount of content and a larger amount of code. So, the idea is the experience scales with the mobile devices you have, and but it’s also designed for the things you’re likely to do when you’re not using your computer.”

Others have built mobile apps for GitHub before, of course, and it turns out that the developers of GitHawk, which was launched by a group of engineers from Instagram, recently joined GitHub to help the company in its efforts to get this new app off the ground.

The second major new feature is the improved notifications experience. As every GitHub user on even a medium-sized team knows, GitHub’s current set of notifications can quickly become overwhelming. That’s something the GitHub team was also keenly aware of, so the company decided to build a vastly improved system that includes filters, as well as an inbox for all of your notifications right inside of GitHub.

“The experience for developers today can result in an inbox in Gmail or whatever email client you use with tons and tons of notifications — and it can end up being kind of hard to know what matters and what’s just noise,” Kelly Stirman, GitHub’ VP of Strategy and Product Management, said. “We’ve done a bunch of things over the last year to make notifications better, but what we’ve done is a big step. We’ve reimagined what notifications should be.”

Using filters and rules, developers can zero in on the notifications that matter to them, all without flooding your inbox with unnecessary noise. Developers can customize these filters to their hearts’ content. That’s also where the new mobile experience fits in well. “Many times, the notification will be sent to you when you’re not at your computer, when you’re not at your desktop,” noted Stirman. “And that notification might be somebody asking for your help to unblock something. And so it’s natural we think that we need to extend the GitHub experience beyond the desktop to a mobile experience.”

Talking about notifications: GitHub also today announced a new feature in a limited preview that adds a few more notifications to your inbox. You can now set up scheduled reminders for pending code reviews.

Among the rest of today’s announcements, the improved code search stands out because that’s definitely an area where some improvements were necessary. This new code search is currently in limited beta, but should roll out to all users over the next few months. It’ll introduce a completely new search experience, the company says, that can match special characters and casing, among other things.

Also new are code review assignments, now in public beta, and a new way to navigate code on GitHub.

Mozilla partners with Intel, Red Hat and Fastly to take WebAssembly beyond the browser

By Frederic Lardinois

Mozilla, Intel, Red Hat and Fastly today announced the launch of the Bytecode Alliance, a new open-source group that focuses on “creating new software foundations, building on standards such as WebAssembly and WebAssembly System Interface (WASI).”

Mozilla has long championed WebAssembly, the open standard that allows browsers to execute compiled programs in the browser. This allows developers to write their applications in languages like C, C++ and Rust and have those programs execute at native speed, all without having to rely on JavaScript, which would take much longer to parse and execute, especially on mobile devices.

Today, support for WebAssembly is part of all the major browser engines. Companies like Figma and Autodesk have experimented with it or are using it in production. I do not get the sense that mass adoption of the technology is near, though, and the barrier to entry is high for most developers. Indeed, today’s announcement probably marks the first time I’ve heard about WebAssemly this year.

The mission of this new group goes beyond the browser, though. It wants to establish “a capable, secure platform that allows application developers and service providers to confidently run untrusted code, on any infrastructure, for any operating system or device, leveraging decades of experience doing so inside web browsers.” The argument here is that there is plenty of potential for WebAssembly outside of the browser because it allows untrusted code components to interact with trusted code inside of a sandboxed environment. Indeed, a Mozilla spokesperson noted that WebAssembly has generated more interest from businesses that are interested in this use case than from the traditional application developers and web technologists. Hence this new alliance.

When Mozilla and others launched the WebAssembly format, Microsoft and Google were also part of that group. They are not members of the new Bytecode Alliance, though.

Some of the code the various members are contributing to the Alliance include Wasmtime, a runtime for WebAssemble and WASI, as well as Fastly’s Lucet, Intel’s WebAssembly Micro Runtime and code generator Cranelift.

“WebAssembly is changing the web, but we believe WebAssembly can play an even bigger role in the software ecosystem as it continues to expand beyond browsers,” explained Luke Wagner, Distinguished Engineer at Mozilla and co-creator of WebAssembly. “This is a unique moment in time at the dawn of a new technology, where we have the opportunity to fix what’s broken and build new, secure-by-default foundations for native development that are portable and scalable. But we need to take deliberate, cross-industry action to ensure this happens in the right way.”

 

Two security researchers earned $60,000 for hacking an Amazon Echo

By Zack Whittaker

Two security researchers have been crowned the top hackers in this year’s Pwn2Own hacking contest after developing and testing several high profile exploits, including an attack against an Amazon Echo.

Amat Cama and Richard Zhu, who make up Team Fluoroacetate, scored $60,000 in bug bounties for their integer overflow exploit against the latest Amazon Echo Show 5, an Alexa-powered smart display.

The researchers found that the device uses an older version of Chromium, Google’s open-source browser projects, which had been forked some time during its development. The bug allowed them to take “full control” of the device if connected to a malicious Wi-Fi hotspot, said Brian Gorenc, director of Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative, which put on the Pwn2Own contest.

The researchers tested their exploits in a radio-frequency shielding enclosure to prevent any outside interference.

“This patch gap was a common factor in many of the IoT devices compromised during the contest,” Gorenc told TechCrunch.

Amat Cama (left) and Richard Zhu (right), who make up Team Fluoroacetate. (Image: ZDI)

An integer overflow bug happens when a mathematical operation tries to create a number but has no space for it in its memory, causing the number to overflow outside of its allotted memory. That can have security implications for the device.

When reached, Amazon said it was “investigating this research and will be taking appropriate steps to protect our devices based on our investigation,” but did not say what measures it would take to fix the vulnerabilities — or when.

The Echo wasn’t the only internet-connected device at the show. Earlier this year the contest said hackers would have an opportunity to hack into a Facebook Portal, the social media giant’s video calling-enabled smart display. The hackers, however, could not exploit the Portal.

Huawei calls hackers to Munich for secret bug bounty meeting

By Zack Whittaker

Chinese tech giant Huawei has asked some of the world’s best phone hackers to a secret meeting in Munich later this month as the company tries to curry favor with global governments, TechCrunch has learned.

Sources with knowledge of the November 16 meeting said Huawei will privately present its new bug bounty program, which would allow researchers to get financial rewards for submitting security vulnerabilities. The sources said the bug bounty will be focused on past and future mobile devices, as well as its new mobile operating system, HarmonyOS, Huawei’s Android competitor.

Other phone makers, including Apple, Google, and Samsung, also have bug bounties.

The move comes at a time of increased pressure on Huawei over its links to the Chinese government. Huawei has denied U.S.-led claims that it could be forced to spy on behalf of Beijing. But that hasn’t stopped the federal government from imposing sanctions and obstacles from operating in the United States. That pressure has led companies like Google from pulling its support for Android, which Huawei relies on for its phones, prompting the tech giant to find or build alternatives.

One source described the event as similar to a secret meeting hosted by Apple in August, in which the tech giant handed its most prized security researchers special “dev” iPhones to hack and find security weaknesses.

The source said that Huawei’s bug bounty meeting was likely a way to show governments that it’s willing to work with hackers and security researchers to bolster the security of its products.

Huawei, which also makes networking equipment for telecom networks, came under fire by U.K. authorities earlier this year for failing to address “serious and systematic defects” in its software at a time it’s trying to prove it’s technologies are do not pose a national security threat.

Chase Skinner, a spokesperson for Huawei, did not respond to a request for comment.

DJI Mavic Mini Review

By Matt Burns

The $399 Mavic Mini lives in a sweet spot of core features and a low price. It packs everything critical to be a quality drone. It has a good camera, good range, and a good controller. It holds up well in the wind and is quick enough to be fun. And it’s so small that you’re more likely to throw it in your bag and take it on Instagram adventures.

The small size is the Mavic Mini’s main selling point. It weighs 249 grams, and that odd number isn’t an accident. Drones that weight 250 grams and above have to be registered to fly. And yet, even though the Mavic Mini is lightweight and foldable, it’s packed with core features: 30 minute flight time, 4 km HD video transmission, 3-axis gimbal holding a 2.7K camera, and a physical controller that works with Android and iOS devices. At $399, it’s a lot of drone for the money even though it’s missing features found in DJI’s other drones.

There are more expensive drones packed with a lot of features. I own most of those drones. They’re fun, but several years ago, feature creep started sneaking into DJI’s products. Now, with a convoluted product line, a spreadsheet is needed to deceiver DJI’s drones. Most come loaded with countless features owners will likely never use. The Mavic Mini is something different. It’s basic, and I dig it.

Here’s what’s missing: collision detection, ultra-long-range connection, 4k camera, gesture control, and advanced camera features like trackable follow, panoramic, timelapse, and optical zoom.

The Mavic Mini is quick enough to be fun, but it won’t win any races. It’s responsive and fast enough. Light and easy. Compared to a Mavic 2, it feels smaller and less powerful — because it is — and yet it never feels too small or underpowered. The Mavic Mini is well balanced, and owners should find it enjoyable to fly.

Despite its tiny size, the Mavic Mini holds up well in high wind. I took it up to 200m on a windy fall day in the Midwest. The wind was clearing leaves off the trees, and I was bundled up in hat and gloves. It was gusty. The Mavic Mini didn’t care. It took off like a drone much larger and stood tall against the wind. What’s more, the video didn’t suffer. The gimbal held the camera steady as it recorded the autumn landscape.

The drone uses DJI’s new app, and I’m using a beta version to test the drone. Called DJI Fly, it’s a streamlined version of DJI Go and packs several enhancements. Safe fly zones are better integrated into the app and have an additional level of detail over the older app. DJI also better built-in support for its social community app, SkyPixel. However, as this version is streamlined, it lacks a lot of information standard on the Go version, most notable, a mini-map in the bottom corner of the screen. I’m hoping DJI adds more features to this app after it launches.

[gallery ids="1907926,1907927,1907929,1907932,1907930,1907931"]

The camera is good for the price. The pictures here were taken from the drone and not altered or adjusted. They were taken on cloudy and sunny days. The range is surprisingly good as the drone can capture blue skies and dark highlights. Occasionally in direct sunlight, the camera colors become washed out.

They say the best camera is the one you have with you. That’s where the Mavic Mini comes in. The best drone is the one you have with you. For years, I lugged around a massive Pelican case containing Phantom 2 and later a Phantom 3. I thought I was the coolest. At a moment’s notice, I could go to my car’s trunk and retrieve a suitcase containing a flying camera. A few minutes later, after my phone synced to the drone, and the controller joined the drone’s network, I had 15 minutes of flight time. Then came the foldable Mavic, which fit alongside my camera gear like a large telephoto lens. Other drones came and went. I liked the GoPro Karma for a time.

The tiny Mavic Mini is a game-changer. It’s small enough that I’ll bring it everywhere. It’s small and light enough that it feels like a large point and shoot in my computer bag.

Want more features and a better camera but keep the portable size? Earlier this year DJI announced the $919 foldable Mavic Air that has a 4k camera and 5 mile video transmission.

The Mavic Mini gets everything right. It’s small, comes with a lovely case, and in a $499 bundle, two extra batteries with a clever charging pack. The camera is surprisingly good though admittedly less powerful than DJI’s more expensive drones. The Mavic Mini is the perfect drone for a first-timer or experienced drone enthusiast. DJI stuff enough features into the 249 gram body to make this a fantastic drone for anyone.

[gallery ids="1907939,1907948,1907954,1907968,1907942,1907934,1907935,1907941"]

DJI Mavic Mini announcement

Microsoft launched Endpoint Manager to modernize device management

By Frederic Lardinois

Ever since the days of Windows NT, the Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (better known as ConfigMgr) has allowed companies to manage the increasingly large number of devices they issue to their employees. Then, back in 2011, the company also launched Intune, its cloud-based endpoint management system for corporate and BYOD devices. These days, most enterprises that use Microsoft’s tools use ConfigMgr to manage their PCs and then opt for Intune for mobile devices — and that’s a complex system to manage, even for sophisticated IT departments. So today, at its annual Ignite conference for IT professionals, Microsoft is announcing a way forward for these users to modernize their systems with the launch of the unified Microsoft Endpoint Manager.

As Brad Anderson, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Microsoft 365, told me, he takes some blame for this. “A lot of this falls on my shoulders because we just allowed everything to get complex. So we’re just simplifying everything,” he said. “So really at the core, what we think modern management is that modern management is it’s management that is driven by cloud intelligence.”

The general idea here, Anderson explained, is that in earlier eras of IT management, Microsoft and its partners didn’t have the tools to collect and analyze all of the signals it received from these management tools. That’s obviously not a problem anymore today and see the company can use the telemetry it gets from a company’s PC deployments, for example, to figure out where there are problems.

“One of the things that we’re able to do is be learned as cloud-scale as we can help organizations improve their end-user experience,” Anderson noted. Common issues with that experience could be extremely long boot times, which slow down and frustrate employees, or issues with the delivery of important security patches. Today, all of this is often still managed by spreadsheets and complex security policies that are administrated manually — and Anderson argues that these days, you always have to think about security and management together anyway.

To quantify this user experience, Microsoft is also introducing what it calls the Microsoft Productivity Score, which looks at both how employees are working and using their tools, as well as how their technology is enabling them (or not) to do so. “The Productivity Score is all about helping an organization understand the experience their users are having — and then giving them the insights and the actions on what they can do to improve that,” explained Anderson.

Over the course of the last few months, Microsoft actually worked with some large customers and took over the management of their Windows 365 and Office deployments, meaning those machines ran nothing but Microsoft 365 agents (and a control group that was managed in a more traditional way). The devices with the modern management system saw an 85 percent reduction in boot time and an 85 percent reduction in crashes and a doubling of battery life. Unsurprisingly, the employees that used the devices were also far happier.

As far as the device management experience goes, the new Endpoint Manager and the licensing changes that come with that are meant to not just simplify the branding but also the experience. And Microsoft definitely wants people to move to this modern system, so it’s giving everybody who has ConfigMgr licenses Intune licenses, too, so that they can co-manage their PCs with both tools and get access to the cloud-based features of Intune. The Microsoft Endpoint Manager console will show a single view of all devices managed by either product. “It’s all about simplifying — and we’re taking that simplifying deep and broad from a branding, licensing and product perspective,” said Anderson.

Today, ConfigMgr and Intune manage well over 190 million Windows, iOS and Android devices. Yet Microsoft knows that not every company is ready to move to this modern device management system just yet. That’s why it’s making these licensing changes to help get people on board, but also leaving the existing systems in place and giving them an onramp to move to provisioning new machines to be cloud-managed, for example.

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