Why Do Android Flashlight Apps Need Dozens of Permissions?


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No one should be downloading a flashlight app in the Year of Our Lord 2019 — that’s why both Google and Apple have integrated the ability into their devices as part of the base operating system. Avast security researcher Luis Corrons decided to evaluate the security of flashlight apps after the wave of concern around the Russian-owned Faceapp software. According to his work, there are still 937 flashlight applications on Google Play, despite the fact that Flashlight capabilities are baked into the Android OS. Many of these applications request far more permissions from end users than they ever need to function.

Instead of being limited to the functions you’d expect a flashlight to need (access the LED flash itself, download ads from the internet, and lock-screen access so the flashlight can be turned on or off without unlocking the device), many of these apps request far more. The average number of permissions requested by app is 25. 408 applications request 10 permissions or fewer, but 262 of them require 50 permissions or more. The table below shows the worst offenders:

Now, just because an application is requesting a lot of permissions doesn’t necessarily mean it is requesting them for nefarious purposes. But when Corrons dug deeper, the issues kept getting worse. A massive number of applications request permission to kill background processes, access your fine-grained location data, control Bluetooth connections, record audio, download data without notification, and write to your contacts list. A few even process incoming calls.

As Corrons discusses, the reason these apps have such ludicrous permissions isn’t because they’re actually trying to hook you up with Nigerian princes with large fortunes to dispose of. It’s undoubtedly so they can gather data and then sell it to other firms as part of their efforts to endlessly monetize all of human existence. He steps through how some of these apps are developed by studios with multiple multi-million downloads on the app store. All of the apps require the same invasive permissions, and they’re almost certainly funneling data to the same invisible group of partners.

Google, of course, could stop this kind of garbage in its tracks by forcing app developers to only request permissions that they can plausibly prove they need, and by tightening the approval process to make this kind of rampant data-collecting against its own terms of service. Google doesn’t, because that would alert people to how much of their own daily device usage is uploaded to third-party corporations in the first place. The companies that take advantages of loose user permission requirements aren’t exploiting a loophole; they’re using the system in the manner in which it’s intended to operate. Corrons notes that it’s extremely important for users to be aware of what kind of permissions their applications request. This is true, but it also puts the impetus of fixing the problem solely on the end-user.

Google has allowed its app store to be abused by people who are running massive data harvesting regimes — and it’s on Google to fix that problem, not end-users. Nobody should be downloading a flashlight app on a modern device. But Google shouldn’t be allowing applications to request permissions that they have no business requesting, either.

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Gmail App’s Dark Theme Is Finally Rolling Out


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Google has been on a tear lately, updating all its mobile apps with the new Material Theming design style. In practice, that means a lot of blindingly bright apps. There is, unexpectedly, a method to Google’s madness. Moving to the new Material Theme is necessary to implement dark app themes. Gmail, one of the most popular Google apps, finally has a dark theme on Android, but not all phones have it right away. 

Gmail has been blinding smartphone users longer than most apps. As a largely text-based experience, there’s always been ample white space all through the inbox and emails themselves. Google made Gmail even brighter when it rolled out the big redesign a while back. The red accent colors were replaced with, you guessed it, more white. 

Dark themes have been a running joke among Android enthusiasts because of the way Google keeps teasing it. The last few Android betas have included a dark theme that didn’t make it to the final version. Finally, Android 10 (previously known only as Android Q) finally has a real dark theme. The Gmail rollout is only the latest example of Google apps picking up a dark theme that plugs into Android 10. 

The first version of Gmail that has a dark UI mode is 2019.08.18.267044774, but even having that version doesn’t guarantee you’ll have the dark theme. There’s also a server-side component that rolls out at Google’s behest. So far, a small number of users have the feature, but everyone should be able to flip to dark mode soon enough. 

Gmail’s Dark Theme, image via 9to5Google

Gmail’s dark theme uses a very dark gray rather than completely black, which can actually make reading white text straining. The inbox and most emails should use this same color scheme. One notable exception would be emails that include HTML. Those will probably still render with other colors, probably white. 

If you’re on Android 10 (almost no one is), you’ll be able to automatically flip to the dark theme when you enable the system-level toggle. In addition to that option, the Gmail app includes a manual light and dark toggle. So, even if you’re on an older version of Android, you can manually change Gmail to the dark them by digging into the settings. This is a step in the right direction, but plenty of Google apps still lack a dark theme. Even the newly white-themed Play Store is still lacking dark mode. 

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Despite Brexit, UK startups can compete with Silicon Valley to win tech talent – gpgmail


Brexit has taken over discourse in the UK and beyond. In the UK alone, it is mentioned over 500 million times a day, in 92 million conversations — and for good reason. While the UK has yet to leave the EU, the impact of Brexit has already rippled through industries all over the world. The UK’s technology sector is no exception. While innovation endures in the midst of Brexit, data reveals that innovative companies are losing the ability to attract people from all over the world and are suffering from a substantial talent leak. 

It is no secret that the UK was already experiencing a talent shortage, even without the added pressure created by today’s political landscape. Technology is developing rapidly and demand for tech workers continues to outpace supply, creating a fiercely competitive hiring landscape.

The shortage of available tech talent has already created a deficit that could cost the UK £141 billion in GDP growth by 2028, stifling innovation. Now, with Brexit threatening the UK’s cosmopolitan tech landscape — and the economy at large — we may soon see international tech talent moving elsewhere; in fact, 60% of London businesses think they’ll lose access to tech talent once the UK leaves the EU.

So, how can UK-based companies proactively attract and retain top tech talent to prevent a Brexit brain drain? UK businesses must ensure that their hiring funnels are a top priority and focus on understanding what matters most to tech talent beyond salary, so that they don’t lose out to US tech hubs. 

Brexit aside, why is San Francisco more appealing than the UK?


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Google Express to close in a few weeks, will become part of Google Shopping – gpgmail


Google’s failed online shopping service Google Express is closing in a few weeks, as its features will be merged into a revamped version of Google Shopping, Google says in an email sent to its customers this week. The company had already announced its plans to shutter the Google Express brand, as part of a wider redesign of how it approached online shopping. This included new advertising options for brands and online sellers, as well as a universal shopping cart across its platform of services, like Search, Shopping, Images, and even YouTube.

While Google is characterizing Google Express’s closure as an “integration,” it’s really more of a sunsetting of a failed product and brand.

Google Express was Google’s high-profile attempt to compete with Amazon for online shopping clicks and ad dollars buy creating a virtual mall on the web filled with top retailers’ products. Because Google is not a retailer itself, it did what it knows best — it organized information. At Google Express, you could find products from thousands of retailers — including big names like Walmart, Target, Walgreens, Best Buy, and others. And you could shop through a dedicated online storefront on the web, a Google Express mobile app, or even Google Assistant.

In the latter case, Google Express partnered with retailers like Walmart and Target for deep integrations for voice-enabled shopping. As direct competitors with Amazon, these retailers didn’t want to offer third-party skills for Echo users or others on Amazon’s Alexa platform. Google represented a safer third-party platform for their experiments with voice commands and personalized shopping.

But even several years after launch, Google Express had failed to offer any real threat to Amazon. Its retail partners, meanwhile, were building out their own fulfillment businesses for their customers’ online orders — like Walmart Grocery’s curbside pickup and delivery, for example, or Target’s Shipt, Drive Up, and Restock.

Not too much later, Target and Walmart were pulling out of Google Express.

Google has tried to downplay the news of Google Express’s demise by including it as just another part to the larger Google Shopping revamp. After all, it’s not a shutdown, the company implied. Its features were simply becoming a part of Google Shopping! Nothing to see here! Just a rebrand!

But clearly, Google Express had been unable to establish itself in consumers’ minds as its own dedicated shopping destination. If customers wanted an online mall, they already had one with either Amazon or Walmart and their vast third-party marketplaces where you could find just about anything you’d need. Nor had Google innovated (or acquired) across key areas like warehousing or logistics, while others like Amazon, Target and Walmart had been spending billions.

With Google Shopping, Google goes back to its search engine roots. It aims to simply capture consumers’ clicks, ad dollars and now conversions no matter where they are on Google’s sites — whether that’s shopping from Merch shelves under YouTube videos, browsing photos in a Pinterest-y manner on Google Images, or through more traditional Google searches for products where ads become shoppable, and shopping carts follow you around Google’s part of the web.

In an email to Google Express shoppers that was sent this week, Google says Google Express will be integrated with Shopping in a few weeks’ time.

The redesigned Google Shopping will then be available across the web and through apps for iOS and Android later this month. At that point, the Google Express apps will automatically update to become Google Shopping, if you already had them installed.

The full email about Google Express’ closure is below:

 


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Kubernetes co-founder Craig McLuckie is as tired of talking about Kubernetes as you are – gpgmail


“I’m so tired of talking about Kubernetes . I want to talk about something else,” joked Kubernetes co-founder and VP of R&D at VMware Craig McLuckie during a keynote interview at this week’s Cloud Foundry Summit in The Hague. “I feel like that 80s band that had like one hit song — Cherry Pie.”

He doesn’t quite mean it that way, of course (though it makes for a good headline, see above), but the underlying theme of the conversation he had with Cloud Foundry executive director Abby Kearns was that infrastructure should be boring and fade into the background, while enabling developers to do their best work. “We still have a lot of work to do as an industry to make the infrastructure technology fade into the background and bring forwards the technologies that developers interface with, that enable them to develop the code that drives the business, etc. […] Let’s make that infrastructure technology really, really boring. ”

What McCluckie wants to talk about is developer experience and with VMware’s intend to acquire Pivotal, it’s placing a strong bet on Cloud Foundry as one of the premiere development platforms for cloud native applications. For the longest time, the Cloud Foundry and Kubernetes ecosystem, which both share an organizational parent in the Linux Foundation, have been getting closer, but that move has accelerated in recent months as the Cloud Foundry ecosystem has finished work on some of its Kubernetes integrations.

McCluckie argues that the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, the home of Kubernetes and other cloud-native open-source projects, was always meant to be a kind of open-ended organization that focuses on driving innovation. And that created a large set of technologies that vendors can choose from. “But when you start to assemble that, I tend to think about you building up this cake which is your development stack, you discover that some of those layers of the cake, like Kubernetes, have a really good bake. They are done to perfection,” said McLuckie, who is clearly a fan of the Great British Baking show. “And other layers, you look at it and you think, wow, that could use a little more bake, it’s not quite ready yet. […] And we haven’t done a great job of pulling it all together and providing a recipe that delivers an entirely consumable experience for everyday developers.”

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He argues that Cloud Foundry, on the other hand, has always focused on building that highly opinionated, consistent developer experience. “Bringing those two communities together, I think, is going to have incredibly powerful results for both communities as we start to bring these technologies together,” he said.

With the Pivotal acquisition still in the works, McCluckie didn’t really comment on what exactly this means for the path forward for Cloud Foundry and Kubernetes (which he still talked about with a lot of energy, despite being tired of it), but it’s clear that he’s looking to Cloud Foundry to enable that developer experience on top of Kubernetes that abstracts all of the infrastructure away for developers and makes deploying an application a matter of a single CLI command.

Bonus: Cherry Pie.




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Web feature developers told to dial up attention on privacy and security – gpgmail


Web feature developers are being warned to step up attention to privacy and security as they design contributions.

Writing in a blog post about “evolving threats” to Internet users’ privacy and security, the W3C standards body’s technical architecture group (TAG) and Privacy Interest Group (PING) set out a series of revisions to the W3C’s Security and Privacy Questionnaire for web feature developers.

The questionnaire itself is not new. But the latest updates place greater emphasis on the need for contributors to assess and mitigate privacy impacts, with developers warned that “features may not be implemented if risks are found impossible or unsatisfactorily mitigated”.

In the blog post, independent researcher Lukasz Olejnik, currently serving as an invited expert at the W3C TAG; and Apple’s Jason Novak, representing the PING, write that the intent with the update is to make it “clear that feature developers should consider security and privacy early in the feature’s lifecycle” [emphasis theirs].

“The TAG will be carefully considering the security and privacy of a feature in their design reviews,” they further warn, adding: “A security and privacy considerations section of a specification is more than answers to the questionnaire.”

The revisions to the questionnaire include updates to the threat model and specific threats a specification author should consider — including a new high level type of threat dubbed “legitimate misuse“, where the document stipulates that: “When designing a specification with security and privacy in mind, all both use and misuse cases should be in scope.”

“Including this threat into the Security and Privacy Questionnaire is meant to highlight that just because a feature is possible does not mean that the feature should necessarily be developed, particularly if the benefitting audience is outnumbered by the adversely impacted audience, especially in the long term,” they write. “As a result, one mitigation for the privacy impact of a feature is for a user agent to drop the feature (or not implement it).”

Features should be secure and private by default and issues mitigated in their design,” they further emphasize. “User agents should not be afraid of undermining their users’ privacy by implementing new web standards or need to resort to breaking specifications in implementation to preserve user privacy.”

The pair also urge specification authors to avoid blanket treatment of first and third parties, suggesting: “Specification authors may want to consider first and third parties separately in their feature to protect user security and privacy.”

The revisions to the questionnaire come at a time when browser makers are dialling up their response to privacy threats — encouraged by rising public awareness of the risks posed by data leaks, as well as increased regulatory action on data protection.

Last month the open source WebKit browser engine (which underpins Apple’s Safari browser) announced a new tracking prevention policy that takes the strictest line yet on background and cross-site tracking, saying it would treat attempts to circumvent the policy as akin to hacking — essentially putting privacy protection on a par with security.

Earlier this month Mozilla also pushed out an update to its Firefox browser that enables an anti-tracking cookie feature across the board, for existing users too — demoting third party cookies to default junk.

Even Google’s Chrome browser has made some tentative steps towards enhancing privacy — announcing changes to how it handles cookies earlier this year. Though the adtech giant has studiously avoided flipping on privacy by default in Chrome where third party tracking cookies are concerned, leading to accusations that the move is mostly privacy-washing.

More recently Google announced a long term plan to involve its Chromium browser engine in developing a new open standard for privacy — sparking concerns it’s trying to both kick the can on privacy protection and muddy the waters by shaping and pushing self-interested definitions which align with its core data-mining business interests.

There’s more activity to consider too. Earlier this year another data-mining adtech giant, Facebook, made its first major API contribution to Google’s Chrome browser — which it also brought to the W3C Performance Working Group.

Facebook does not have its own browser, of course. Which means that authoring contributions to web technologies offers the company an alternative conduit to try to influence Internet architecture in its favor.

The W3C TAG’s latest move to focus minds on privacy and security by default is timely.

It chimes with a wider industry shift towards pro-actively defending user data, and should rule out any rubberstamping of tech giants contributions to Internet architecture which is obviously a good thing. Scrutiny remains the best defence against self-interest.




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Paytm’s annual loss doubles to $549M – gpgmail


Running a payments business in India is not cheap. Just ask Paytm . One of India’s largest payment companies reported a net loss of Rs 3959 crore ($549 million) for the financial year that ended in March, up 165% over 1490 crore ($206 million) in the same period last year.

During the same period, the company’s revenue rose to Rs 3232 crore ($448 million), compared to Rs 3052 crore ($423 million) in the year before. The firm’s debt also surged to Rs 695 crore ($96 million), One97 Communications, the parent firm of Paytm, told investors in its annual report.

One97 Communications also runs an e-commerce business, which recently raised money from eBay, and Paytm Money, that runs mutual funds business. On a consolidated basis, the 9-year-old firm reported an annual loss of Rs 4217.20 crore ($584 million), up from Rs 1604.34 crore ($222 million) from the year before.

Indian news outlet BloombergQuint first reported (paywalled) the financial performance of Paytm.

The loss should worry Paytm, whose CEO Vijay Shekhar Sharma said in a conference last week that the firm would begin to work on going public in the next 22 to 24 months. The level of competition that Paytm faces today is only about to increase in the coming future, and unlike earlier, the Indian firm is not facing off financially weaker local rivals.

Paytm, which has raised over $2 billion to date from a range of investors including SoftBank, Alibaba, and Berkshire Hathaway, continues to be the largest mobile wallet app provider in India, but increasingly users are moving to government-backed UPI payments infrastructure. In UPI land, Paytm competes with Flipkart’s PhonePe and Google Pay, both of which are heavily-backed.

As of July, both PhonePe and Google Pay commanded a bigger market share across UPI apps than Paytm.

Also in UPI land, you don’t make money on each transaction. So lately, every payments firm in India, including Paytm, has expanded it offering to include financial services such as a credit card, or loan, or insurance.

In many ways, this has created a level playing field for payment firms that did not dominate the wallet business.

In a statement, Paytm said it has been investing $1 billion per year for the last two years to “expand payments ecosystem in our country.” The company plans to invest a further $3 billion in the next two years.

“We believe India is at the inflection point of digital payments and Paytm’s sole focus is towards solving the merchant payments and offering them financial services. We will invest Rs 20,000 crore ($2.7 billion) in the next two years towards achieving this,” a company spokesperson said.

The biggest challenge for Paytm and other UPI payment apps has yet to emerge. Before the end of this year, WhatsApp, which has over 400 million users in India, plans to offer UPI payment option to all its years in the coming month.


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Apple Says Google Blew iPhone Hacking Report Out of Proportion


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Apple is used to promoting the security of its products in comparison to the competition, but it was on the defensive last week following a report from Google’s Project Zero. According to Google researchers, iOS was the target of a sophisticated attack for two years until Google alerted Apple in early 2019. However, Apple is now seeking to downplay the severity of the attack, claiming Project Zero has blown the whole thing out of proportion. 

The news of Apple’s iPhone vulnerability broke recently with an in-depth report from Project Zero, a group at Google that specializes in uncovering zero-day hacks that threaten internet users. According to the team, a number of websites had deployed hacks that could install malware with root access on the iPhone. The operators of the sites could steal data, monitor phone locations, and even access the user’s on-device password storage. Google said the attacks operated “over a period of at least two years” and covered almost every version of iOS active during that time. 

Apple issued a press release late last week disputing part of Google’s findings. The iPhone maker strenuously objects to Google’s claim that the attacks operated for two years. In fact, Apple says it was closer to two months. Furthermore, Apple says it already knew about the flaws and was conveniently already working on a fix. It’s impossible to verify that claim, but it does sound suspect. Google’s Project Zero researchers are cited in Apple’s official changelog from February as reporting the flaws. 

The timeline of iOS hacks from Project Zero.

Apple also says the attack focused on the Uyghur community, a group of ethnically Turkic Muslims living in western China. Uyghurs have been targeted for persecution and imprisonment by Chinese authorities for years. The government often uses technological means like the iPhone hack to track and investigate the Uyghur population. 

Apple seems to be suggesting that Google wanted to make the flaws look more severe than they were, but Project Zero has traditionally conducted its business in without favoritism. In response to Apple’s criticism, Project Zero has issued a statement standing by its “in-depth research which was written to focus on the technical aspects of these vulnerabilities.”

Google is used to getting publicly chastised for security vulnerabilities — Android is open source, but Apple has the benefit of quietly patching exploits as it finds them in its closed software. Perhaps the iPhone maker is just a little overly sensitive with its new iPhone unveiling this week.

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Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia are pushing an antitrust investigation against Google – gpgmail


Fifty attorneys general are pushing forward with an antitrust investigation against Google, led by the Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In an announcement on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building, Paxton and a gathering of attorneys general said that the focus of the investigation would be on Google’s advertising practices, but that other points of inquiry could be included in the investigation.

The investigation into Google comes as big technology companies find themselves increasingly under the regulatory microscope for everything from anticompetitive business practices to violations of users’ privacy and security, to accusations of political bias.

Last week, the New York State Attorney General launched an investigation into Facebook.

Action from the states follows movement from the federal government which is investigating just about every major technology company including Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook.

This story is developing.




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Google Nest Hub Max review – gpgmail


There were two standout features I really appreciated off the bat about the original Nest (nee Google Home) Hub: its compact size and its lack of camera. The new Nest Max has decidedly neither of those things.

After releasing a model that offered an interesting alternative to the Echo Show, Google’s taking Amazon’s flagship smart screen head-on with the Max. It’s a device that leverages the learnings of the earlier, smaller model, while applying new case users.

As far as design goes, Google decided not to mess with a good thing here. The Max is nearly identical to the Hub, albeit scaled up, from seven inches to ten. The form factor is the familiar tablet mounted atop a fabric speaker base. It’s simple, it’s subtle, and it will fit in with most decors. Lenovo’s given Google a run for its money with its own Assistant displays, but so far as I’m concerned the Nest line is still the best looking product in the category.

The addition of a camera is really the most radical difference here for a few reason. The most immediate is, of course, security. Google successful avoided inserting itself into that conversation with the original Hub. The reason was simple: it was a product designed to live on nightstands. Sure, the topic of privacy is a slippery slope that most of us have already tumbled halfway down, but for many the idea of introducing a cloud-connected camera into the bedroom was understandably a bridge or two too far.

Facebook, notably, stepped into yet another hornets’ nest when it launched its camera-sporting Portal device amid its own privacy scandal(s) — and rightfully so. Google, however, has inserted itself back into that conversation with Hub Max. Put in the company’s position, one would imagine doing as much as possible to ease users’ peace of mind about privacy concerns.

A physical shutter is a pretty quick and easy way to do precisely that. It’s a helpful sort of shorthand — heck, even Facebook included a clip-on shutter in hopes of nipping some of those concerns in the bud. It’s honestly a bit baffling that Google didn’t do the same — a strange oversight it appears to have made largely for aesthetic reasons.

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There is, of course, a switch in the rear, which turns off both the microphone and camera, illuminating a red light to the side of the camera in the process. That a red light can both indicate either camera off or record on different devices is a design conversation for another day, I suppose.

But Google’s decision to include a camera isn’t arbitrary. The truth is that it effectively unlocks a whole slew of new functionality here and further distinguishes Nest Hub products from Amazon’s offerings. And, naturally, it also unlocks further privacy concerns in the process. The biggest piece of the puzzle is a kind of personalization that wouldn’t be accessible through other means.

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During setup, the device walks you through a similar process that smartphones implement to enable unlock. Using your phone’s camera, it grabs a 3D image of your face. When the Nest Hub Max spots you, it will greet you with a note along the lines of “Good afternoon, Brian,” and the image of you associated with your Google profile. When you’re locked in, the device tailors all of its suggestions to you. It’s a clever way of swapping between accounts.

Of course, like so many other things, it feels like a piece of a slippery slope. Google, of course, has already identified the sound of your voice, which it can also use to provide bespoke content, but that’s a less dynamic approach to this kind of implementation. You can certainly opt out, though you’ll be missing out on a reasonably large piece of the puzzle here.

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The camera also brings the ability to video chat through Duo. The Hub Max utilizes a similar zoom feature as Facebook’s Portal — a dynamic pan that was initially positioned as that product’s killer app. Implementation here is similarly effective, moving and zooming out to follow the subject and included additional people at once. The digital zooming does notably degrade image quality, however.

The other big piece of the puzzle is security camera functionality. It is, after all, a Nest device. Given that it’s not a devoted security product, however, Google is positioning that feature as more of a supplement to existing Nest devices. In other words, you place your Nest Cam in key areas and use the Hub Max’s camera to fill in the gaps. It works similarly to those devoted devices (including features like geofencing), though it lacks some features like night vision.

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Handily, the device will let you know when it’s being used as a camera, sporting a “Nest Cam being viewed” notification, for added privacy. And, of course, it can be used with a variety of other connected cameras and smart home devices, serving as a kind of centralized control panel. There are a handful of compatible video services that can be added on set up, including HBO Now and CBS. No Netflix at the moment — and likely no Amazon Prime, ever, though Chromecast functionality addresses that to some degree.

The bottom speaker is bigger, louder and bassier (and stereo, to boot) than the original Home Hub. But it’s probably not sufficient for most as a standalone speaker. That said, the ability to pair it with another Home speaker makes it a nice companion to something like the Home Max, with the inclusion of a screen that displays and serves as a control panel while you’re listening to music.

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Notably, there are only two mics on board — fewer than many comparable smart home devices. In spite of the mics and improved sound, however, Google hasn’t built in the spatial-based level tuning you get on the higher-end Home Max.

At $229 (and available now), the Nest Hub Max is priced to compete with the Echo Show. It’s a stronger entry in most respects, and while the camera carries the aforementioned privacy concerns, it’s a clear sign of how Google’s strengths are coming together to create a superior smart home product.


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