Daily Crunch: Amazon unveils its own game-streaming platform

Amazon announces a new game service and plenty of hardware upgrades, tech companies team up against app stores and United Airlines tests a program for rapid COVID-19 testing. This is your Daily Crunch for September 24, 2020.

The big story: Amazon unveils its own game-streaming platform

Amazon’s competitor to Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud is called Luna, and it’s available starting today at an early access price of $5.99 per month. Subscribers will be able to play games across PC, Mac and iOS, with more than 50 games in the library.

The company made the announcement at a virtual press event, where it also revealed a redesigned Echo line (with spherical speakers and swiveling screens), the latest Ring security camera and a new, lower-cost Fire TV Stick Lite.

You can also check out our full roundup of Amazon’s announcements.

The tech giants

App makers band together to fight for App Store changes with new ‘Coalition for App Fairness’ — Thirteen app publishers, including Epic Games, Deezer, Basecamp, Tile, Spotify and others, launched a coalition formalizing their efforts to force app store providers to change their policies or face regulation.

LinkedIn launches Stories, plus Zoom, BlueJeans and Teams video integrations as part of wider redesignLinkedIn has built its business around recruitment, so this redesign pushes engagement in other ways as it waits for the job economy to pick up.

Facebook gives more details about its efforts against hate speech before Myanmar’s general election — This includes adding Burmese language warning screens to flag information rated false by third-party fact-checkers.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Why isn’t Robinhood a verb yet? — The latest episode of Equity discusses a giant funding round for Robinhood.

Twitter-backed Indian social network ShareChat raises $40 million — Following TikTok’s ban in India, scores of startups have launched short-video apps, but ShareChat has clearly established dominance.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek pledges $1Bn of his wealth to back deeptech startups from Europe — Ek pointed to machine learning, biotechnology, materials sciences and energy as the sectors he’d like to invest in.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

3 founders on why they pursued alternative startup ownership structures — At Disrupt, we heard about alternative approaches to ensuring that VCs and early founders aren’t the only ones who benefit from startup success.

Coinbase UX teardown: 5 fails and how to fix them — Many of these lessons, including the need to avoid the “Get Started” trap, can be applied to other digital products.

As tech stocks dip, is insurtech startup Root targeting an IPO? — Alex Wilhelm writes that Root’s debut could clarify Lemonade’s IPO and valuation.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

United Airlines is making COVID-19 tests available to passengers, powered in part by Color — United is embarking on a new pilot project to see if easy access to COVID-19 testing immediately prior to a flight can help ease freedom of mobility.

Announcing the final agenda for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 — TechCrunch reporters and editors will interview some of the top leaders in transportation.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Here’s everything Amazon announced at its latest hardware event

From new Ring flying indoor drone cameras to an adorable new kids version of one of its most popular Amazon home products, Jeff Bezos’ Seattle retailer unveiled a slew of new hardware goodies just ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Echo updates

Image Credits: Amazon

Amazon kicked off its latest hardware showcase by unveiling a new version of the company’s Echo devices, which now include spherical speakers (with a version for kids featuring cute animal graphics). Amazon also unveiled an updated, more personalized Echo capabilities and a new tracking feature for its Show 10 that mirrors Facebook’s Portal in its ability to follow users as they move around a room.

Ring’s new things

Ring also had plenty to pitch at the Amazon hardware show. The security camera company is updating its line with the Always Home Cam, a diminutive drone that can be scheduled to fly preset paths, which users can determine themselves.

It also rolled out new hardware for the automotive market with three different devices focused on car owners. A Ring Car Alarm that will retail for $59.99; and the Car Cam and Car Connect will both be $199.99. Ring Car Alarm provides basic features that work with the Ring app, sending alerts to trigger a series of potential responses. The alarm also integrates with other Ring devices or Amazon Alexa hardware and connects using Amazon’s low-bandwidth Sidewalk wireless network protocol.

Meanwhile, the Car Cam allows users to check in on their car via video as long as users are in range of a wifi network, or opt-in to the additional LTE companion plan Ring is selling. The cam also includes an Emergency Crash Assist feature that alerts first responders, and a recording feature that turns on if a user says “Alexa, I’m being pulled over”. Finally, the car connect is an API that manufacturers, starting with Tesla, can use to provide Ring customers with mobile alerts for events detected around vehicles or watch footage recorded with onboard cameras.

Ring also added new opt-in end-to-end video encryption for those users who want it.

New ways to Fire TV

Image Credits: Amazon

The company’s TV platform got several updates. The biggest is probably the addition of the new, lower cost Fire TV Stick Lite at $29.99. For $39.99, meanwhile, you can pick up the new Fire TV Stick, which features a process that’s 50% faster. The platform is also adding Video Calling — a nice addition in the era of working from home — along with a new, improved layout.

Amazon goes ga-ga for gaming

Last, but certainly not least, Amazon announced its new game-streaming platform, Luna.

The long-awaited gaming competitor to Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud is launching an early access version at a price of $5.99 per-month, the company said. Users will be able to stream titles wirelessly without downloading games and can play across PC, Mac, and iOS (via the web).

Initially, the company will have more than 50 titles in the Luna+ app, including at least one Sonic title and Remedy Entertainment’s control. There’s a partnership with Ubisoft in the works, but access to those games may require a separate subscription.

 

Here’s everything Amazon announced at its latest hardware event

From new Ring flying indoor drone cameras to an adorable new kids version of one of its most popular Amazon home products, Jeff Bezos’ Seattle retailer unveiled a slew of new hardware goodies just ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Echo updates

Image Credits: Amazon

Amazon kicked off its latest hardware showcase by unveiling a new version of the company’s Echo devices, which now include spherical speakers (with a version for kids featuring cute animal graphics). Amazon also unveiled an updated, more personalized Echo capabilities and a new tracking feature for its Show 10 that mirrors Facebook’s Portal in its ability to follow users as they move around a room.

Ring’s new things

Ring also had plenty to pitch at the Amazon hardware show. The security camera company is updating its line with the Always Home Cam, a diminutive drone that can be scheduled to fly preset paths, which users can determine themselves.

It also rolled out new hardware for the automotive market with three different devices focused on car owners. A Ring Car Alarm that will retail for $59.99; and the Car Cam and Car Connect will both be $199.99. Ring Car Alarm provides basic features that work with the Ring app, sending alerts to trigger a series of potential responses. The alarm also integrates with other Ring devices or Amazon Alexa hardware and connects using Amazon’s low-bandwidth Sidewalk wireless network protocol.

Meanwhile, the Car Cam allows users to check in on their car via video as long as users are in range of a wifi network, or opt-in to the additional LTE companion plan Ring is selling. The cam also includes an Emergency Crash Assist feature that alerts first responders, and a recording feature that turns on if a user says “Alexa, I’m being pulled over”. Finally, the car connect is an API that manufacturers, starting with Tesla, can use to provide Ring customers with mobile alerts for events detected around vehicles or watch footage recorded with onboard cameras.

Ring also added new opt-in end-to-end video encryption for those users who want it.

New ways to Fire TV

Image Credits: Amazon

The company’s TV platform got several updates. The biggest is probably the addition of the new, lower cost Fire TV Stick Lite at $29.99. For $39.99, meanwhile, you can pick up the new Fire TV Stick, which features a process that’s 50% faster. The platform is also adding Video Calling — a nice addition in the era of working from home — along with a new, improved layout.

Amazon goes ga-ga for gaming

Last, but certainly not least, Amazon announced its new game-streaming platform, Luna.

The long-awaited gaming competitor to Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud is launching an early access version at a price of $5.99 per-month, the company said. Users will be able to stream titles wirelessly without downloading games and can play across PC, Mac, and iOS (via the web).

Initially, the company will have more than 50 titles in the Luna+ app, including at least one Sonic title and Remedy Entertainment’s control. There’s a partnership with Ubisoft in the works, but access to those games may require a separate subscription.

 

Amazon announces Luna game-streaming platform

At its Devices and Services event, Amazon launched its own cloud gaming competitor to Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud . It’s called Luna.

The company is launching the product in early access at an introductory price of $5.99 per month. Users will be able to stream titles wirelessly without downloading the games and can play across PC, Mac and iOS (via the web). Users in the United States can request early access starting today.

Amazon says they will be launching with more than 50 games in the Luna+ app, including at least one Sonic title and Remedy Entertainment’s Control. The company has also partnered with Ubisoft but it seems users will have to subscribe separately to get access to those titles. The whole service is powered by AWS. Amazon says that users will be able to play titles at up to 4K 60fps performance.

One of the big selling points for the platform will be its Twitch integration, which will theoretically allow gamers to dive right into the titles they just saw their favorite streamers playing. This will depend heavily on coaxing streamers to play the limited subsection of titles that are present on Luna, however. Google made much the same pitch with Stadia and YouTube Gaming, but that dream hasn’t been fully realized yet.

Much like Google Stadia, Amazon will also be selling a custom controller that connects directly to the service to reduce latency. The Alexa-enabled Luna Controller will go for $49.99 during the early access period.

With this entrance, now Google, Microsoft and Amazon are each competing to define a new gaming platform. It’s apparent that Microsoft has a huge advantage given its existing relationships with developers and its own network of Microsoft-owned studios, but we’ll see what Amazon can cook up during the platform’s early access period.

Microsoft commits to putting more water than it consumes back into the ecosystems where it operates by 2030

One good trend in 2020 has been large technology companies almost falling over one another to make ever-bolder commitments regarding their ecological impact. A cynic might argue that just doing without most of the things they make could have a much greater impact, but Microsoft is the latest to make a commitment that not only focuses on minimizing its impact, but actually on reversing it. The Windows-maker has committed to achieving a net positive water footprint by 2030, by which it means it wants to be contributing more energy back into environment in the places it operates than it is drawing out, as measured across all “basins” that span its footprint.

Microsoft hopes to achieve this goal through two main types of initiatives: First, it’ll be reducing the “intensity” of its water use across its operations, as measured by the amount of water used per megawatt of energy consumed by the company. Second, it will also be looking to actually replenish water in the areas of the world where Microsoft operations are located in “water-stressed” regions, through efforts like investment in area wetland restoration, or the removal and replacement of certain surfaces, including asphalt, which are not water-permeable and therefore prevent water from natural sources like rainfall from being absorbed back into a region’s overall available basin.

The company says that how much water it will return will vary, and depend on how much Microsoft consumes in each region, as well as how much the local basin is under duress in terms of overall consumption. Microsoft isn’t going to rely solely on external sources for this info, however: It plans to put its artificial intelligence technology to work to provide better information around what areas are under stress in terms of water usage, and where optimization projects would have the greatest impact. It’s already working towards these goals with a number of industry groups, including The Freshwater Trust.

Microsoft has made a number of commitments towards improving its global ecological impact, including a commitment from earlier this year to become ‘carbon negative’ by 2030. Meanwhile, Apple said in July that its products, including the supply chains that produce them, will be net carbon neutral by 2030, while Google made a commitment just last week to use only energy from carbon-free sources by that same year.

Osso VR raises $14 million to bring virtual reality to surgical and medical device training

It seems that distance learning is even coming for the healthcare industry.

As remote work becomes the order of the day in the COVID-19 era, any tool that can bring training and education services to folks across industries is gaining a huge amount of investor interest — and that includes healthcare.

Virtual reality tools like those on offer from Osso VR have been raising investor dollars at a rapid clip, and now the Palo Alto, Calif.-based virtual reality distribution platform joins their ranks with a $14 million round of financing.

The money came from a clutch of investors led by the investment arm of Kaiser Permanente, a healthcare giant whose network of managed care facilities and services spans the country. Previous backers and new investors like SignalFire, GSR, Scrum Ventures, Leslie Ventures and OCA Ventures, also participated in the funding. 

Osso has seen its adoption skyrocket during the pandemic as medical device manufacturers and healthcare networks turn to training tools. that don’t require a technician to be physically present.

According to company founder Dr. Justin Barad, the market for medical device education services alone is currently around $3 billion to $5 billion and growing rapidly.

Staffed by a team that comes from Industrial Light and Magic, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, and Apple, Osso VR makes generic educational content for training purposes and then produces company specific virtual reality educational videos for companies like Johnson and Johnson. Those productions can run the gamut from instructional videos on vascular surgery to robotic surgery training tips and tricks.

While Kaiser Permanente Ventures’ Amy Belt Raimundo said that the strategic investor’s decisions to commit capital aren’t based on what Kaiser Permanente uses, necessarily, the organization does take its cues from what employees want.

“We don’t tie our investment to a deployment or customer contract, but we look for the same signals within Kaiser Permanente,” said Belt Raimundo. But the organization did have employees interested in using the Osso technology. “We made the announcement that we are looking at [Osso VR] technology for use. And that’s where the investment and commercial decision was signaling off of each other, because the response showed that there was an unmet need there,” she said.

Osso VR currently has around 30 customers, 12 of which are in the medical device space. The company uses Oculus Quest headsets and is deployed in 20 teaching hospitals across 20 different countries. In a recent validation study, surgeons training with Osso VR showed a 230 percent improvement in overall surgical performance, the company said in a statement.

The goal, according to Barad, a lifelong coder with a game development credit from Activision/Blizzard, is to democratize healthcare. “This is about improving patient outcomes, democratizing access, and improving education,” said Barad. “Now that the technology is growing and maturing and VR is growing as a platform, we can attack the broader problems,” in healthcare, he said.

 

Homeland Security issues rare emergency alert over ‘critical’ Windows bug

Homeland Security’s cybersecurity advisory unit has issued a rare emergency alert to government departments after the recent disclosure of a “critical”-rated security vulnerability in server versions of Microsoft Windows.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, better known as CISA, issued an alert late on Friday requiring all federal departments and agencies to “immediately” patch any Windows servers vulnerable to the so-called Zerologon attack by Monday, citing an “unacceptable risk” to government networks.

It’s the third emergency alert issued by CISA this year.

The Zerologon vulnerability, rated the maximum 10.0 in severity, could allow an attacker to take control of any or all computers on a vulnerable network, including domain controllers, the servers that manage a network’s security. The bug was appropriately called “Zerologon,” because an attacker doesn’t need to steal or use any network passwords to gain access to the domain controllers, only gain a foothold on the network, such as by exploiting a vulnerable device connected to the network.

With complete access to a network, an attacker could deploy malware, ransomware, or steal sensitive internal files.

Security company Secura, which discovered the bug, said it takes “about three seconds in practice” to exploit the vulnerability.

Microsoft pushed out an initial fix in August to prevent exploitation. But given the complexity of the bug, Microsoft said it would have to roll out a second patch early next year to eradicate the issue completely.

But the race is on to patch systems after researchers reportedly released proof-of-concept code, potentially allowing attackers use the code to launch attacks. CISA said that Friday that it “assumes active exploitation of this vulnerability is occurring in the wild.”

Although the CISA alert only applies to federal government networks, the agency said it “strongly” urges companies and consumers to patch their systems as soon as possible if not already.

How the NSA is disrupting foreign hackers targeting COVID-19 vaccine research

The headlines aren’t always kind to the National Security Agency, a spy agency that operates almost entirely in the shadows. But a year ago, the NSA launched its new Cybersecurity Directorate, which in the past year has emerged as one of the more visible divisions of the spy agency.

At its core, the directorate focuses on defending and securing critical national security systems that the government uses for its sensitive and classified communications. But the directorate has become best known for sharing some of the more emerging, large-scale cyber threats from foreign hackers. In the past year the directorate has warned against attacks targeting secure boot features in most modern computers, and doxxed a malware operation linked to Russian intelligence. By going public, NSA aims to make it harder for foreign hackers to reuse their tools and techniques, while helping to defend critical systems at home.

But six months after the directorate started its work, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and large swathes of the world — and the U.S. — went into lockdown, prompting hackers to shift gears and change tactics.

“The threat landscape has changed,” Anne Neuberger, NSA’s director of cybersecurity, told TechCrunch at Disrupt 2020. “We’ve moved to telework, we move to new infrastructure, and we’ve watched cyber adversaries move to take advantage of that as well,” she said.

Publicly, the NSA advised on which videoconferencing and collaboration software was secure, and warned about the risks associated with virtual private networks, of which usage boomed after lockdowns began.

But behind the scenes, the NSA is working with federal partners to help protect the efforts to produce and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19, a feat that the U.S. government called Operation Warp Speed. News of NSA’s involvement in the operation was first reported by Cyberscoop. As the world races to develop a working COVID-19 vaccine, which experts say is the only long-term way to end the pandemic, NSA and its U.K. and Canadian partners went public with another Russian intelligence operation aimed at targeting COVID-19 research.

“We’re part of a partnership across the U.S. government, we each have different roles,” said Neuberger. “The role we play as part of ‘Team America for Cyber’ is working to understand foreign actors, who are they, who are seeking to steal COVID-19 vaccine information — or more importantly, disrupt vaccine information or shake confidence in a given vaccine.”

Neuberger said that protecting the pharma companies developing a vaccine is just one part of the massive supply chain operation that goes into getting a vaccine out to millions of Americans. Ensuring the cybersecurity of the government agencies tasked with approving a vaccine is also a top priority.

Here are more takeaways from the talk, and you can watch the interview in full below:

Why TikTok is a national security threat

TikTok is just days away from an app store ban, after the Trump administration earlier this year accused the Chinese-owned company of posing a threat to national security. But the government has been less than forthcoming about what specific risks the video sharing app poses, only alleging that the app could be compelled to spy for China. Beijing has long been accused of cyberattacks against the U.S., including the massive breach of classified government employee files from the Office of Personnel Management in 2014.

Neuberger said that the “scope and scale” of TikTok’s app’s data collection makes it easier for Chinese spies to answer “all kinds of different intelligence questions” on U.S. nationals. Neuberger conceded that U.S. tech companies like Facebook and Google also collect large amounts of user data. But that there are “greater concerns on how [China] in particular could use all that information collected against populations other than its own,” she said.

NSA is privately disclosing security bugs to companies

The NSA is trying to be more open about the vulnerabilities it finds and discloses, Neuberger said. She told TechCrunch that the agency has shared a “number” of vulnerabilities with private companies this year, but “those companies did not want to give attribution.”

One exception was earlier this year when Microsoft confirmed NSA had found and privately reported a major cryptographic flaw in Windows 10, which could have allowed hackers to run malware masquerading as a legitimate file. The bug was so dangerous that NSA reported the vulnerability to Microsoft, which patched the bug.

Only two years earlier, the spy agency was criticized for finding and using a Windows vulnerability to conduct surveillance instead of alerting Microsoft to the flaw. The exploit was later leaked and was used to infect thousands of computers with the WannaCry ransomware, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage.

As a spy agency, NSA exploits flaws and vulnerabilities in software to gather intelligence on the enemy. It has to run through a process called the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, which allows the government to retain bugs that it can use for spying.

Microsoft Surface Duo review

In the early days, Microsoft had misgivings about calling the Surface Duo a phone. Asked to define it as such, the company has had the tendency to deflect with comments like, “Surface Duo does much more than make phone calls.” Which, to be fair, it does. And to also be fair, so do most phones. Heck, maybe the company is worried that the idea of a Microsoft Phone still leaves a bitter taste in some mouths.

The Duo is an ambitious device that is very much about Microsoft’s own ambitions with the Surface line. The company doesn’t simply want to be a hardware manufacturer — there are plenty of those in the world. It wants to be at the vanguard of how we use our devices, going forward. It’s a worthy pursuit in some respects.

After all, for all of the innovations we’ve seen in mobile in the past decade, the category feels static. Sure there’s 5G. Next-gen wireless was supposed to give the industry a temporary kick in the pants. That it hasn’t yet has more to do with external forces (the pandemic caught practically everyone off guard), but even so, it hardly represents some radical departure for mobile hardware.

What many manufacturers do seem to agree on is that the next breakthrough in mobile devices will be the ability to fit more screen real estate into one’s pocket. Mobile devices are currently brushing up against the upper threshold of hardware footprint, in terms of what we’re capable of holding in our hands and willing to carrying around in our pockets. Breakthroughs in recent years also appear to have gotten us close to a saturation point in terms of screen-to-body ratio.

Foldable screens are a compelling way forward. After years of promise, the technology finally arrived as screens appeared to be hitting an upper limit. Of course, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold stumbled out of the gate, leaving other devices like the Huawei Mate X scrambling. That product finally launched in China, but seemed to disappear from the conversation in the process. Motorola’s first foldable, meanwhile, was a flat-out dud.

Announced at a Surface event last year, the Duo takes an entirely different approach to the screen problem — one that has strengths and weaknesses when pitted against the current crop of foldables. The solution is a more robust one. The true pain point of foldables has always been the screen itself. Microsoft sidesteps this by simply connecting two screens. That introduces other problems, however, including a sizable gap and bezel combination that puts a decided damper on watching full-screen video.

Microsoft is far from the first company to take a dual-screen approach, of course. ZTE’s Axon M springs to mind. In that case — as with others — the device very much felt like two smartphones stuck together. Launched at the height of ZTE’s experimental phase, it felt like, at best, a shot in the dark. Microsoft, on the other hand, immediately sets its efforts apart with some really solid design. It’s clear that, unlike the ZTE product, the Duo was created from the ground up.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The last time I wrote about the Duo, it was a “hands-on” that only focused on the device’s hardware. That was due, in part, to the fact that the software wasn’t quite ready at the time of writing. Microsoft was, however, excited to show off the hardware — and for good reason. This really looks and feels nice. Aesthetically, at least, this thing is terrific. It’s no wonder that this is the first device I’ve seen in a while that legitimately had the TechCrunch staff excited.

While the Surface Duo is, indeed, a phone, it’s one that represents exciting potential for the category. And equally importantly, it demonstrates that there is a way to do so without backing into the trappings of the first generation of foldables. In early briefings with the device, Surface lead Panos Panay devoted a LOT of time to breaking down the intricacies of the design decisions made here. To be fair, that’s partially because that’s pretty much his main deal, but I do honestly believe that the company had to engineer some breakthroughs here in order to get hardware that works exactly right, down to a fluid and solid hinge that maintains wired connections between the two displays.

There are, of course, trade-offs. The aforementioned gap between screens is probably the largest. This is primarily a problem when opening a single app across displays (a trick accomplished by dragging and dropping a window onto both screens in a single, fluid movement). This is likely part of the reason the company is positioning this is as far more of a productivity app than an entertainment one — in addition to all of the obvious trappings of a piece of Microsoft hardware.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The company took great pains to ensure that two separate apps can open on each of the screens. And honestly, the gap is actually kind of a plus when multitasking with two apps open, creating a clear delineation between the two sides. And certain productivity apps make good use of the dual screens when spanning both. Take Gmail, which offers a full inbox on one side and the open selected message on the other. Ditto for using the Amazon app to read a book. Like the abandoned Courier project before it, this is really the perfect form factor for e-book reading — albeit still a bit small for more weary eyes.

There are other pragmatic considerations with the design choices here. The book design means there’s no screen on the exterior. The glass and mirror Windows logo looks lovely, but there’s no easy way to preview notifications. Keep in mind the new Galaxy Fold and Motorola Razr invested a fair amount in the front screen experience on their second-generation devices. Some will no doubt prefer to have a device that’s offline while closed, and I suppose you could always just keep the screens facing outward, if you so chose.

You’ll probably also want to keep the screens facing out if you’re someone who needs your device at the ready to snap a quick photo. Picture taking is really one of the biggest pain points here. There’s no rear camera. Instead, I’m convinced that the company sees most picture taking on the device as secondary to webcam functionality for things like teleconferencing. I do like that experience of having the device standing up and being able to speak into it handsfree (assuming your able to get it to appropriate eye level).

[gallery ids="2043528,2043525,2043529,2043522,2043527,2043523,2043530"]

But when it came to walking around, snapping shots to test the camera, I really found myself fumbling around a lot here. You always feels like you’re between three and five steps away from taking a quick shot. And the fact of the matter is the shots aren’t great. The on-board camera also isn’t really up to the standards of a $1,400 device. Honestly, the whole thing feels like an afterthought. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled after using the Note 20’s camera for the last several weeks, but hopefully Microsoft will prioritize the camera a bit more the next go-round.

Another hardware disappointment for me is the size of the bezels. Microsoft says they’re essentially the minimal viable size so as to not make people accidentally trigger the touchscreen. Which, fair enough. But while it’s not a huge deal aesthetically, it makes the promise of two-hand typing when the device is in laptop mode close to impossible.

That was honestly one of the things I was excited for here. Instead, you’re stuck thumb-typing as you would on any standard smartphone. I have to admit, the Duo was significantly smaller in person than I imagined it would be, for better and worse. Those seeking a fuller typing experience will have to wait for the Neo.

The decision not to include 5G is a curious one. This seems to have been made, in part, over concerns around thinness and form factor. And while 5G isn’t exactly mainstream at this point in 2020, it’s important to attempt to future proof a $1,400 device as much as possible. This isn’t the kind of upgrade most of us make every year or so. By the time the cycle comes back around, LTE is going to feel pretty dated.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Battery life is pretty solid, owing to the inclusion of two separate batteries, each located beneath a screen. I was able to get about a day and a half of life — that’s also one of the advantages of not having 5G on board, I suppose. Performance also seemed solid for the most part, while working with multiple apps front and center. For whatever reason, however, the Bluetooth connection was lacking. I had all sorts of issues keeping both the Surface Buds and Pixel Buds connected, which can get extremely annoying when attempting to listen to a podcast.

These are the sorts of questions a second-generation device will seek to answer. Ditto for some of the experiential software stuff. There was some bugginess with some of the apps early on. A software update has gone a ways toward addressing much of that, but work needs to be done to offer a seamless dual-screen experience. Some apps like Spotify don’t do a great job spanning screens. Spacing gets weird, things require a bit of finessing on the part of the user. If the Duo proves a more popular form factor, third party developers will hopefully be more eager to fine tune things.

There were other issues, including the occasional blacked out screen on opening, though generally be resolved by closing and reopening the device. Also, Microsoft has opted to only allow one screen to be active at a time when they’re both positioned outward so as to avoid accidentally triggering the back of the touch screen. Switching between displays requires doubling tapping the inactive one.

But Microsoft has added a number of neat tricks like App Groups, which are a quick shortcut to fire up two apps at once. As for why Microsoft went with Android, rather than their own Windows 10, which is designed to be adaptable to a number of different form factors, the answer is refreshingly pragmatic and straightforward. Windows 10 just doesn’t have enough mobile apps. Microsoft clearly wants the Duo to serve as a proof of concept for this new form factor, though one questions whether the company will be able to sufficiently monetize the copycats.

For now, however, that means a lot more selection for the end user, including a ton of Google productivity apps. That’s an important plus given how few of us are tied exclusively to Microsoft productivity apps these days.

As with other experimental form factors, the first generation involves a fair bit of trial and error. Sure, Microsoft no doubt dogfooded the product in-house for a while, but you won’t get a really good idea of how most consumers interact with this manner of device — or precisely what they’re looking for. Six months from now, Microsoft will have a much better picture, and all of those ideas will go into refining the next generation product.

That said, the hardware does feels quite good for a first generation device — even if certain key sacrifices were made in the process. The software will almost certainly continue to be refined over the course of the next year as well. I’d wait a bit on picking it up for that reason alone. The question, ultimately becomes what the cost of early adoption is.

In the grand scheme of foldable devices, maybe $1,400 isn’t that much, perhaps. But compared to the vast majority of smartphone and tablet flagships out there, it’s a lot. Especially for something that still feels like a first generation work in progress. For now, it feels like a significant chunk of the price is invested in novelty and being an early adopter for a promising device.

Microsoft introduces monthly financing plan for its new Xbox consoles

Monthly financing isn’t an entirely new concept in the world of Xbox. Microsoft offered a similar plan for the Xbox One S a few years ago. The idea is pretty simple: pay a monthly fee for hardware and software for two years until you outright own the device. What’s new here, however, is that the company is introducing the plan for its brand new consoles due out later this year.

Along with its Series S announcement, Microsoft detailed two new plans designed to get the consoles in the hands of those unwilling or unable to shell out $299 or $499 for a new system up front. It’s a move that greatly expands the accessibility of the system, even beyond the recent announcement of the low-cost model.

The move is in line with a recent rekindled interest in a hardware as a service model. We’ve seen a number of companies like Zoom embrace this to varying degrees. Though really, the rent to own model shares a lot with smartphone contracts — even as those have begun to fall out of favor in the U.S. to some degree in recent years.

Here, $25 a month will get a Series S console, bundled with Game Pass Ultimate. For $35 a month, meanwhile, you get Game Pass Ultimate plus the Series X. There’s nothing to pay up front. Given how central the Game Pass streaming service is to the next-gen console, it’s a pretty solid deal. After all, Game Pass Ultimate will run you $15 a month without hardware access thrown in.

With estimates around PlayStation 5 pricing ranging from around $450-$550, Sony’s got a tough act to follow in terms of aggressive pricing. Even though the PS5 has arguably drummed up considerably more excitement thus far than the next generation Xbox, a $25/month entry point is tough to compete with.