Bengaluru: Amazon Alexa turned three in India Monday and the customer interactions with the virtual assistant increased 67 per cent in 2020. The customers said ‘I love you’ to Alexa 19,000 times a day, up a massive 1,200 per cent from 2019, according to the company.
More customers in non-metro cities brought home an Echo device, accounting for over 50 per cent of India’s Alexa users.
“Be it the Echo device in the living room, 100+ Alexa built-in devices or your favourite smartphone, it is heart-warming to see users across the length and breadth of the country across age groups find value and adopt Alexa in their daily lives”, said Puneesh Kumar, Country Leader for Alexa, Amazon India.
“For us, it is always Day 1 as we learn from our customers and continue to add new features, improving Alexa’s understanding on topics that matter to users locally,” he said in a statement.
Customers from over 85 per cent pin codes purchased Echo smart speakers in 2020.
On Alexa’s third anniversary, Amazon said it will make the digital assistant affordable, more accessible for customers looking to welcome the voice service in their homes.
“Starting 12 midnight on February 15, for 24 hours, sellers on Amazon.in will have blockbuster offers on best-selling Echo Devices, attractive smart home bundles and more. Customers can also shop from a curation of smart-home accessories from some of India’s biggest consumer electronic brands,” the company announced.
Leading smartphone brands in India now offer Alexa built-in phones. Currently, there are six smartphones including Redmi Note 9 Pro and OnePlus Nord that offer built-in Alexa..
In 2020, Alexa debuted on the Amazon Shopping App (Android only) and responded to over 5.8 Lakh requests every day to search for products, best deals, and music.
Last year, customers in India asked Alexa to control a smart home gadget 8.6 lakh times every day, preferring voice to control their smart home gadgets.
Led by Amazon Echo devices, the shipments of smart home speakers were expected to cross 7.5 lakh units in India by the end of 2020, which is an all-time high, according to market research firm techARC.
The market is primarily led by Amazon Echo Smart Speakers, which had a massive 95.9 per cent cumulative market share for the January-September period.
Our current list of best smart home products features 12 products, and seven of them are Amazon or Google devices — or devices made by Amazon- or Google-owned (or funded) companies. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They’re all solid gadgets and we heartily recommend them. As much as Google and Amazon (the latter especially) deserve credit for bringing some much needed organization to the smart home category via their popular voice assistants, it’s easy to forget that the smart home industry is bigger than these two companies.
That’s part of the purpose of this post — to look at the smart home in a different way and to see what else is out there when you remove some of the most obvious players. That said, Alexa and Google Assistant are compatible with…well, pretty much every smart home gadget at this point. For better or for worse, this would be an exceptionally short list if we stuck to devices that are totally independent from Google Assistant and Alexa compatibility. It would be even shorter if we left off products that use backend support like Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud.
I had to draw a line somewhere for this story, so for the purposes of this product roundup, Amazon, Ring, Blink, Eero, Ecobee, Google and Nest-branded devices are out.
Of course, the brands I list here aren’t impervious to data breaches either. Apple, which I nominate below for best smart speaker and best smart display display, had an iPhone security flaw that allowed hackers to gather personal information from websites. And an issue with Apple’s FaceTime app made it possible to listen to a person receiving a call, even if they didn’t answer the call.
Still, this is a particularly great list if you have concerns about the privacy of Amazon and Google products.
Now that all of that is out of the way, let’s get into this list of the top smart home devices that aren’t made by Amazon or Google.
CNET Smart Home and Appliances
Get smart home reviews and ratings, video reviews, buying guides, prices and comparisons from CNET.
Apple’s smart speaker — the HomePod — hit stores in early 2018. It delivers excellent sound quality and solid, albeit limited, third-party Siri voice integrations for controlling smart home devices. Pair two HomePods together to create a stereo pair or set up multiple HomePods throughout your home for multi-room audio.
Over the two years since the HomePod launched, Apple has dropped its price from $349 to $299 and added new features to remain competitive. It also recently launched the new $99 HomePod Mini.
Even so, the HomePod — much like Apple’s smart home platform, HomeKit — still lags behind Amazon and Google’s ever-growing lineup of branded smart speakers and partnerships with other companies that enable so many integrations with a simple “Alexa” or “Hey, Google” command.
There is one potential benefit to HomeKit and the HomePod’s slow third-party growth: improved security.
Again, this doesn’t mean Apple is immune to privacy breaches, but its smart home has remained relatively untouched when you consider the Amazon and Google headlines. That makes the HomePod a decent option for someone who’s a bit leery of smart speakers, particularly when it comes to user privacy.
We’re also keeping an eye on crowdfunded smart speakers, like the Mycroft Mark II, which claims to give “you the power of voice while maintaining privacy and data independence.” Interesting.
Netgear took a significant departure in price from the inaugural Orbi it introduced back in 2016 with this new Orbi Mesh Wi-Fi System. We liked the original model, but it cost a whopping $400. Fast-forward three years and Netgear is back with a whole new Orbi, this time for just $150.
For your money, you get a two-pack Orbi system that’s designed to cover up to 3,000 square feet and works with Alexa and Google Assistant voice commands. 3,000 square feet isn’t quite enough to blanket the large CNET Smart Home in Wi-Fi, but Netgear does offer three- and four-pack kits for $230 and $300 if you have more ground to cover.
At close range, the Orbi clocked the faster top speeds during our testing, impressing us with its signal strength and general ability to keep up with the pricier Nest Wi-Fi and Eero systems.
The Netgear app could use a redesign, but the Orbi Mesh Wi-Fi System offers a great overall value and is well worth considering if you’re not quite ready to make the move to Wi-Fi 6 (but want a solid Wi-Fi connection throughout your house).
If you’ve overlooked the lowly smart plug up until now, you might want to reconsider. The $30 TP-Link Kasa Smart Plug Mini, available for less on Amazon (as of writing this, it’s just $15), makes it incredibly easy to control everyday household devices.
Connect your smart plug to a wall outlet, then plug in a desk fan, lamp, or other small electronic device for easy on/off control straight from your phone — or with an Alexa or Google Assistant voice command. In addition to the Kasa Smart Plug Mini’s reliable performance, I really like that this particular smart plug doesn’t block any other outlets — something that strangely isn’t always the case (including with TP-Link’s own Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Plug with Energy Monitoring).
The Kasa Smart Plug Mini can also be set to control a device automatically on a schedule. For example, if you want your entryway lamp to turn on at 6 p.m. and off at 10 p.m., just go to the app and schedule it. As long as your Wi-Fi connection is solid, your TP-Link Kasa Smart Plug Mini will control your devices for you, so you can focus on more important things.
The Wyze Bulb is an unassuming choice for best light bulb. It only costs $8, a fraction of what Philips or Lifx charges — and yet, it earned top marks in our testing. That only makes its incredible value all the more impressive.
Wyze’s smart bulb is a dimmable white-light LED with a scheduling function and an adjustable color temperature.
Download the Wyze app, screw in the Wyze Bulb and follow the simple setup steps — and you’re just a few minutes away from having app-controlled lighting. Wyze Bulbs work with Alexa and Google Assistant as well, if you want to use a voice command to adjust them.
While the app is easy to use and the dimming, scheduling and color temperature settings work well, I do wish the app had a sunrise/sunset setting that automatically adjusted the schedule based on the time of year. I have three Wyze bulbs in covered outside light fixtures and have to occasionally adjust my schedule to account for the changing seasons.
Still, they’re excellent bulbs at a great price; we highly recommend them.
Note: Wyze Bulbs are technically indoor lights, so make sure to follow Wyze’s guidelines when you install these yourself.
The $200 Honeywell Home T9 is a nice-looking smart thermostat at a reasonable price — especially because it comes with a remote sensor that tracks temperature, humidity and motion. The remote sensor, called a “Smart Room Sensor,” is powered by two AAA batteries and is supposed to have a 200-foot range. Additional sensors cost $40 each (steep, I know) and you can add up to 20.
If you aren’t interested in buying the T9 bundled with a Smart Room Sensor, the thermostat costs $170 on its own.
The Honeywell Home T9 Smart Thermostat is easy to install and the app provides straightforward step-by-step instructions to get it connected to your Wi-Fi and paired to the app. As always, make sure to consult an electrician if you have any questions about how this thermostat will work with your particular home setup.
If you want to branch out from the app, the T9 thermostat also works with Alexa and Google Assistant voice commands.
Let’s get the annoying stuff out of the way first. At $500 for a two-camera pack, the Arlo Pro 3 is expensive (it’s currently discounted to $450 on the Arlo online store). That $500 kit also includes a required hub that you have to connect to your router. Arlo claims the hub helps extend the Wi-Fi range of its Pro 3 cameras and improves the battery life of each camera’s rechargeable battery, but feel superfluous compared to all of the non-hub Wi-Fi security cameras out there.
That said, the Arlo Pro 3 is my favorite home security camera. It’s weatherproof and can go anywhere, as long as your Wi-Fi network reaches it. It has easy-to-remove rechargeable batteries that can last for months on a single charge (battery life will vary based on use). And the camera itself has a built-in spotlight and siren to startle potential intruders.
With an Arlo Smart subscription, starting at $3 per month, you’ll receive custom motion alerts that tell you whether it sees a person, a car, an animal or a package — and get 30 days of access to recorded motion clips. Arlo cameras are compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant.
Simplisafe bridges the gap between professional security systems like Vivint or ADT and standalone home security devices like the Arlo Pro 3 camera. It’s a complete, scalable home security system you install yourself. The $229 “Foundation” security kit comes with basics, including a hub, a keypad, a door/window sensor and a motion sensor. Add extra sensors and other devices as needed.
For $25 per month, you get professional security monitoring from a remote call center and access to the Simplisafe app where you can also check in on things yourself. Unlike professional security companies, Simplisafe doesn’t come with an “early termination” fee — or otherwise lock you into a contract. If you decide to cancel, or decide to move, you can either move your system to your new home or cancel without extra charges.
Simplisafe’s security system recently underwent a design overhaul, too, making it much easier on the eyes than the last version. Overall, it’s an ideal system for someone craving the accessory options of an ADT without the contract.
Unlike the pricey (but awesome) Arlo Pro 3, the $150 Arlo Video Doorbell is reasonably priced for a smart doorbell. The Arlo Video Doorbell has all the basics, including HD live streaming, motion alerts, night vision and two-way audio. It also has a wide 180-degree field of view in a 1:1 aspect ratio (meaning it’s easier to see packages left on the front porch than a traditional landscape view).
When the doorbell detects motion, or if someone rings the bell, a motion alert goes to your phone so you can see who’s there — and talk to them. The doorbell also comes with prerecorded messages if you don’t want to talk to them directly.
This hardwired doorbell has a built-in siren like the Arlo Pro 3 camera and offers the same optional Arlo Smart cloud subscription plan, starting at $3 a month. With Arlo Smart, you’ll get 30 days of saved custom video clips that specify whether the motion was a person, a car, an animal or a package being delivered.
The $229 August Smart Lock Pro is a Bluetooth-enabled smart lock. It comes bundled with a plug-in Connect Wi-Fi module so you can also control your lock beyond Bluetooth range from the August app. Like other locks from August, which is owned by the same company as Yale, this model retrofits over most existing deadbolts and makes for a simple installation.
In addition to the lock and the Connect module, the Smart Lock Pro kit includes a door sensor and a related feature called “Door Sense.” With this feature, you can confirm whether your door is open or closed, as well as locked or unlocked straight from your phone. The app is easy to use, from following the step-by-step instructions to install your lock, to checking whether your door is open or closed — and customizing your lock’s feature in the settings menu. The August Smart Lock Pro supports Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri voice commands.
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Google’s threatened shutdown of its search engine in Australia over a proposed content licensing law would ripple across industries, saddling partners like Apple with a sudden revenue gap and retailers as varied as affordable Kmart to upmarket David Jones with a supply of potentially useless gadgets.
The Alphabet Inc-owned company last month said it would likely pull its core search function from Australia if the government pushes ahead with a plan to require it and Facebook Inc to pay media companies an indeterminate fee for news snippets shown on their services.
Google and Facebook are fighting the first-of-its-kind “News Media Bargaining Code” as other countries consider similar efforts to aid publishers that have lost ad sales to the tech companies. In a sign of the Australian effort’s potential to shake up the industry, Microsoft Corp – whose Bing search engine stands to benefit from any Google retreat – on Thursday called for the United States to adopt a similar law.
Australian lawmakers have said the law is needed to help media firms stay afloat and so will press forward despite the threat, which Google formalised in a securities filing last week that stated forced bargaining “could result in our having to alter or withdraw products and services”. Final passage of the legislation could come as early as next week.
Google is pitching its own payment program with terms it can better control, and last month reached a deal with major publishers in France as well as Reuters.
In Australia, Google users, advertisers and business partners have begun to worry about losing Google, which has a 94% share of the country’s search market. The interconnected nature of Google’s products means that devices including Android phones, Chromebook laptops and Nest smart speakers could be impaired without search.
“If Google’s search function no long longer exists in Australia, that will remove a lot of the features I use on Google Nest,” said Margaret Morgan, a screenwriter from Sydney who keeps a speaker in most rooms of her house and owns a Google Pixel smartphone.
Google declined to comment for this story. The company has argued that being able to link to other websites for free is essential to search and many other free services that benefit Australians.
REASON TO WORRY
The many companies that get paid in one way or another from Google search revenue have reason to worry, too. Apple Inc, for one, receives billions of dollars globally to set Google as the default search program on iPhones, the Safari web browser and the Siri voice assistant, U.S. antitrust authorities have said.
Browser makers including Mozilla and Opera get revenue share from Google, as do internet carriers in Australia such as TPG Telecom Ltd’s iinet, Singapore Telecommunications Ltd’s Optus and Telstra Corp.
The various partners did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment.
Exact terms of such deals could not be learned, but estimates based on publicly available information showed that half-a-billion dollars or more could be at stake.
Total search ad revenue in Australia is pegged at about $3 billion for 2021 by researcher eMarketer, with almost all of that going to Google. The company paid out about 22% of its global ad revenue to search and other partners last year, financial statements showed.
In the United Kingdom, with about 2-1/2 times the population of Australia, Google spent $1.5 billion to become the default search engine on a variety of devices in 2019.
Australian electronics chains such as JB Hi-Fi Ltd, Harvey Norman Holdings Ltd and Wesfarmers Ltd-owned Officeworks could also take a hit because they stock gadgets that have Google’s search engine built-in. The same goes for department store chains like Wesfarmers’ Kmart, Woolworths Group Ltd’s Big W, and David Jones, which is owned by South Africa’s unrelated Woolworths Holdings Ltd.
Though Pixel phones hold just 2% of Australia’s smartphone market, Nest speakers dominate with a 61% share, or 1.6 million households. Nearly a million Australians among a population of 25 million use five or more Google-owned services, technology analysis firm Telsyte said.
Search is “fundamental to Google’s business model across all its products,” said Foad Fadaghi, managing director of Telsyte.
Retailers have began seeking reassurance from Google about its products’ functionality if search disappears, though none have cancelled or returned orders, two people with knowledge of the communications told Reuters.
Google also has smaller search partnerships. Software vendors Hey You and Redcat enable restaurants to solicit orders via buttons that accompany search results, and the Australian Football League has let fans vote on awards through search.
Redcat sales and marketing director Lawrence Pelletier said the year-old search integration drives 15,000 orders a month, mostly from new customers.
“Would it be crippling if Google left? No. Would it be frustrating? Yes,” Pelletier said.
Hey You Chief Executive Uzair Moosa said he is exploring alternatives, but Google’s largest search rival, Bing, does not offer a comparable tool.
Catherine Rowlands, a nurse from Sydney with a Pixel phone, told Reuters she feared what was to come.
“My phone without Google,” she said, “might as well be an old Nokia or something that just makes phone calls.”
Reporting by Byron Kaye in Sydney and Paresh Dave in Oakland, Calif.; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Christopher Cushing
Every January, huge crowds descend on Las Vegas for the CES gadget show, an extravaganza of tech and glitz intended to set the tone for the coming year in consumer technology. CES kicks off this week, but thanks to the pandemic, it will be in a radical new format — a “virtual” show taking place only in cyberspace.
Yes, that means everyone can still get a glimpse of the future, but only by via technology of the future — aka video streams and chat. If all goes well, attendees will be able to marvel at COVID-fighting “coronabots,” artificial intelligence-powered avatars and transparent TVs.
But it’s still not entirely clear exactly how all this all is going to work, or whether the show will generate anything resembling its usual boosting impact on the tech industry.
“It’s different. Obviously we’re not going to be in Las Vegas, we’ll be spread out around the world,” said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association, the trade group that produces CES. “But I think there’s an attitude that because of COVID that we’re all in this together and that is what the CES is about. It’s really the shared experience of the industry. Everyone just wants to come together.”
The show will be a trade-off, Shapiro said. Forget the attention-getting spectacles, like dazzling wall-high TV displays and Google’s theme-park ride from two years ago. Instead, Shapiro said, there will be a chance for a more personalized experience that attendees can set up in advance based on their particular interests.
That’s the optimistic view. On the flip side, smaller exhibitors are less likely to get noticed without a show floor. Serendipitous meetings between entrepreneurs and investors, potential acquirers and acquirees, job-seekers and employers — all common to the world’s largest tech show — will probably be scarce.
More than 150,000 attendees and 1,800 exhibitors will take part in CES from Monday to Thursday, a show that will now consist of virtual keynote speeches, product demonstrations and panel discussions. Plus, there’s the opportunity to network in virtual meeting rooms. Last year in the physical show, there were about 170,000 attendees and 4,400 exhibitors. The number of exhibitors were capped this year at 2,000 to insure the online experience, which is being run by Microsoft, was optimal.
Tim Bajarin, president of consultancy Creative Strategies, insists that not much has changed about CES for him, despite the fact that he’ll be staring at screens rather than haunting meeting rooms and pacing the convention floor. He’s still researching products he wants to see demos of, scheduling meetings with people he wants to talk to one-on-one and focusing on keynotes and sessions to attend.
“The difference is I’m not there physically having to walk 10 miles a day and I’m not paying exorbitant high hotel fees,” he said. “I’m not having to battle people shoulder-to-shoulder to navigate the show floors.”
But smaller companies and startups might find it harder to stand out. While CES has gone to great lengths to let attendees search through exhibitors by topic and interest categories, the site still can be tricky to navigate. When the show is in Las Vegas, its “Eureka Park” is an area where you can wander — aimlessly or with purpose — through hundreds of booths extolling new internet-connected gadgets, unglamorous back-end technology services, or anything else you might want.
Online, you can search for “Eureka Park” or “startup.” But what you get is a seemingly endless set of pages bearing the logos of 600 companies, 12 at a time — and no description of any of them.
Qeexo, a machine-learning platform startup, exhibited during CES in 2019 and 2020, but has decided to sit 2021 out. The company entered the CES innovation awards and won an honour, but won’t have even a virtual booth after participating in other virtual events it didn’t find effective.
“The benefit of having an onsite booth is you get real time feedback, after showing a live demo,” said CEO Sang Won Lee. The company already has an online demo at its own website, and doesn’t see the point of additional investment. “It’s difficult to get engaged (online) when you can’t really talk to people directly,” Lee said.
Mark Ely, vice-president of product strategy at Roku, which is announcing technology that lets electronics makers create their wireless soundbars that work with Roku TVs, says changes to the show seem similar to the adjustments everyone has had to make over the past 10 months due to the coronavirus.
“In some ways our meetings approach is the same as it would have been over past few months doing Zoom calls,” he said. So they are adjusting to meetings at CES the same way they’ve adjusted to meetings during the pandemic, by going virtual. “The benefit is everyone shows up on time, which is always challenging at CES,” he said. “The downside is you don’t get the chance to engage with a broader range of partners.”
Tuong Nguyen, senior principal analyst at Gartner, said this year’s CES is taking more planning.
“The biggest challenge is sort of the ad hoc interactions that I usually have, walking the floor to catch someone doing something interesting,” he said. “I’m trying to do some more targeted outreach.”
But he’s not sure how his week will pan out. The experience reminds him of his first CES, an overwhelming extravaganza punctuated by huge crowds, chance meetings, big parties, endless walking and long taxi lines. “You don’t really know what’s going to happen,” he said.
AP Business Writer Joseph Pisani in New York contributed to this report
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Smart home devices, like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Nest, as well as 5G wireless networks, are transforming homes. They’re no longer static shelters, but rather, personal spaces for hyper-connected living.
According to McKinsey’s “The Connected Home Market” report, consumers are most motivated by utility management, as well as security and safety when buying connected home technologies. For example, the most common purchases are smoke detectors, remote video, smart thermostats and connected locks.
Wireless tech is becoming a permanent home companion. However, these systems bring a few challenges and risks that we explore below.
Brands don’t like to talk about it, but incompatibility is the biggest problem with smart home technology. Installing many devices and platforms leads to the unfortunate realization that gadgets won’t communicate with each other. A manufacturer such as Amazon likes to design devices made for their proprietary platform (Echo or Alexa); therefore, Jeff Bezos’ tech often won’t work with non-native systems like Google Home, Apple Home or Bose.
The marketplace is incentivized to keep ecosystems incompatible. It’s a way for companies to thwart rivals. Consumers are coerced to purchase Amazon’s or Google’s smart home platform instead of buying competing products. The practice also defends a proprietary ecosystem from copycats, such as cheap knock-offs.
Homeowners should carefully consider which platform makes sense long-term as they add speakers, televisions and other connected gear to a personal collection. Where possible, it may be prudent to buy a single brand to avoid hours of attempted troubleshooting.
Hacking through the cloud
The cloud is often used as a euphemism for sensitive information that is openly transmitted and/or stored on internet-accessible systems. Tech companies like to use the term “cloud” to disguise the risks involved with such unsecured broadcasts and storage.
Hackers aren’t fooled. Cloud-based gadgets are vulnerable to cyberattacks because many unsafely transmit data over the web. Unfortunately, some of these transmissions aren’t even necessary.
“Cloud devices can pose security problems for homeowners since data, such as video data for cameras, are not encrypted when sent over the internet. Thus, cloud hardware is a target for cyber intrusions,” says Ruslan Vinahradau, CEO of smart-home technology firm Zorachka, a big advocate of secure home systems. “Homeowners should investigate technologies that come with internal storage, as well as encryption. These features make it harder for cybercriminals to hack your data or household.”
According to a 2019 Pew survey, 54% of smart speaker owners (or 13% of all U.S. adults) said they’re concerned about the amount of personal data their speakers collect. And 49% said it’s unacceptable for manufacturers to share audio recordings with law enforcement.
If you’re a first-time smart homeowner, discard the “set it and forget it” feature of many infomercial products. Connected gadgets are only “smart” when there’s battery power.
With wireless home tech, expect to change batteries once every few weeks, depending on usage. Many gadgets require continued maintenance, particularly those that are utilized daily, such as security cameras, motion sensors, connected locks, lamps, thermostats, speakers, etc.
It’s prudent to seek compatible backup batteries for the most-used devices so they can operate continuously. There are risky situations to avoid, such as not having any light, a non-functioning smoke detector or thermostat or a blacked-out security camera.
As long as batteries are handy, users of connected home devices enjoy an advantage over non-users in managing a household. With non-users, 51% accidentally left lights on, 41% left appliances on and 35% accidentally left the air-conditioning on, according to McKinsey.
Granting permissions without understanding the fine print
Apps and devices will constantly seek permission to access other apps, camera, microphone, connected locks and personal data. Some apps will tell users that such permission is essential to personalizing a user’s experience.
That may be true, but unless you read the voluminous fine print, it would be difficult to truly assess the security threats of granting such access. What if an app gets hacked and your connected lock or thermostat won’t function? What if your personal data is sold to big tech companies? Complexity begets more complexity, and that’s the reality of smart systems that homeowners will need to accept. Nonetheless, call the manufacturer and ask if it’s possible to opt-out of data harvesting.
Companies are reducing the hassles of daily life by assisting us in various home errands and chores. Seamless connectivity means the ability to manage the demands of home life with the press of an iPhone. There will be bumps along the way, and homeowners should always use common sense and judgment in situations where technology may potentially make outcomes worse, not better.
People had to find new ways to work out when gyms shuttered and the supply chain for analog equipment ruptured (dumbbells are still in short supply, nearly a year later). Shiny objects like Mirror and Peloton became a significant part of the solution in addition to lower-cost options like Zoom workouts and fitness apps.
Our Health & Wellness newsletter puts the best products, updates and advice in your inbox.
For reference, Peloton was valued at $8 billion in January 2020 and at $35 billion in October 2020. That’s a lot of growth in a short time, and it reflects the changing landscape of the fitness industry.
And now, legacy companies like NordicTrack and Bowflex are responding to the new kids on the block with new products and services that the two companies showed off at CES 2021. Here’s what they’ve developed and a look at how eight other fitness brands are changing the way we do personal training.
Bowflex T22 tread
The first Bowflex product came about in 1986, and the brand has come a long way since that first resistance machine made of polymer rods. At CES 2021, Bowflex unveiled two upcoming products, an elliptical-stairclimber crossover called the M9 Max Trainer and the T22 Tread treadmill, which features a large 22-inch touchscreen — the largest screen on any Bowflex treadmill to date. It’s slated to launch on Jan. 15, 2021 on Bowflex.com first and at major retailers to follow.
How it works as a personal trainer: Both the M9 and T22 Tread are really a way to showcase JRNY, Bowflex’s stab at streaming fitness service with guided workouts. JRNY (pronounced “journey”) starts each new member off with an initial fitness assessment to find your cardio starting point.
The app then suggests workouts tailored to your fitness level, modifying suggestions as you get faster and fitter. On the T22 Tread, you can also run with trainers and opt into virtual coaching, which will give you an extra push on days you need help with motivation.
A new smart mirror comes from NordicTrack, a longstanding company that just released its newest high-tech device at CES 2021. Vault combines the best of Mirror and Tempo, with a 32-inch HD touchscreen, a swiveling 60-inch mirror and a cabinet that houses dumbbells, resistance bands, a workout mat, yoga accessories and kettlebells.
How it works as a personal trainer: Vault pairs with iFit, the workout app from Icon Health & Fitness (the parent company of iFit, NordicTrack and Proform) that powers all NordicTrack equipment.
iFit classes are led by highly qualified trainers from all around the world, and while Vault doesn’t provide real-time technique feedback like Tempo, it does stand out in one way: The massive 60-inch screen allows you to easily self-correct because you can see your entire body and the trainer’s entire body at the same time. On smaller fitness mirrors, images can feel kind of mashed up.
In addition to workout classes, iFit also offers a newly announced AI component called ActivePulse. This smart cardio technology is an advanced form of heart-rate tracking that automatically adjusts the speed and incline on a treadmill to keep your heart rate in an optimal zone.
iFit ActivePulse works with Freemotion, NordicTrack and ProForm treadmills and will launch on other cardio equipment, including stationary bikes and ellipticals, from the same brands.
How it works as a personal trainer: Heart-rate training is notoriously complicated and involves lots of calculations, but iFit ActivePulse does all the work for you. The heart rate monitor learns your body’s patterns and, according to a company news release, creates a “real-time feedback loop between a user’s measured heart rate and the treadmill’s speed and incline.”
Notably, ActivePulse doesn’t just assign you a single “optimal zone” to aim for every day — it creates the most effective workout possible by scaling the intensity to your heart rate at that given time (meaning it accounts for various factors such as fatigue and stress).
The “OG” of digital fitness, if you will, Mirror raised eyebrows back in 2018 when it launched, but it quickly proved fun and effective (albeit expensive) and has earned itself a loyal fan base.
This aptly named smart fitness mirror doubles as home decor and a home gym setup. With the $39/month subscription, you can access live and on-demand workout classes from cardio to barre to strength training.
How it works as a personal trainer: Mirror actually offers one-on-one, live personal training through the system’s video camera and two-way speakers. It functions just like traditional personal training, but without physical contact. It costs $40 per session on top of the $39 monthly membership and monthly device payment, if you finance it.
Similar to Mirror, Tempo utilizes a large vertical HD screen on which you can stream workouts. However, there’s a key difference: Tempo’s A-frame cabinet houses a 115-pound Olympic weight set complete with a barbell, effectively replicating traditional gym workouts. Also, Tempo tracks your form and reps whereas Mirror does not have those tracking capabilities.
How it works as a personal trainer: While it doesn’t offer one-on-one live personal training, the AI and 3D sensor technology provides real-time feedback on your technique. The device also offers suggestions for weight, reps, rest intervals and workouts based on your performance history. Notably, Tempo creates weekly customized programs based on the principle of progressive overload, a fundamental fitness concept that explains how your body improves in response to continuous increases in workout intensity.
Tonal is like the halfway point between Mirror and Tempo, because it’s a fitness mirror with weights, but not real weights: Instead, Tonal uses “digital weights,” a concept the company introduced with the launch of Tonal in 2018. Using electromagnetics to create electronic resistance, Tonal employs cables (much like the cable machines at gyms) to create up to 200 pounds of resistance.
How it works as a personal trainer: Like Tempo, Tonal uses AI technology to track your workout performance and make suggestions for future workouts. This alleviates much of the stress that comes with working out, because you don’t have to program for yourself — you can trust the technology to program for you. Tonal also sets your weights for you and increases weight automatically as you get stronger.
Ah, Peloton, the unicorn of 2020. After a treacherous 2019 holiday commercial, Peloton recovered and went on to become one of the most valuable companies in the fitness industry.
This wildly popular indoor stationary bike all but exploded when fitness junkies started grappling with gym closures. There’s also Peloton Tread, the connected treadmill, and Peloton Digital, the app that houses Peloton-exclusive workouts.
How it works as a personal trainer: It doesn’t, really, but that doesn’t stop people from using it like one. Peloton functions more as a group fitness instructor than a personal trainer, because there aren’t any true one-on-one or real-time feedback opportunities. Sure, Peloton enlists some of the best trainers worldwide to teach its classes and group classes can be energizing — but there’s still a risk of injury for beginners, especially with resistance training workouts.
Echelon started with bikes and rowers before moving into the fitness mirror category. The Echelon Reflect comes in two sizes, a 40-inch and a 50-inch, and with an Echelon membership, you can join live classes or stream on-demand classes. If you enjoy a little friendly competition, check in with Echelon’s leaderboard to see how you stack up against fellow exercisers in your classes.
How it works as a personal trainer: Again, it doesn’t, really. Like Mirror, the Reflect allows people to join instructor-led classes, which is better than working out alone (especially if you’re a beginner), but not quite on the same level as personal training. Tracking your workouts with Apple Health or another integrated app will help continuously level up, since you can go back and see your performance history.
Another tech-analog hybrid, Hyfit launched in mid-2020 with its take on smart fitness. The company places a strong emphasis on do-anywhere fitness, and its first (and currently only) product is a smart resistance band set called Hyfit Gear1.
This product offers limited workout options compared to other smart fitness devices, considering you can only perform basic bodyweight resistance exercises. However, the system allows you to continually increase the resistance you work with, preventing fitness plateaus.
How it works as a personal trainer: The Gear1 resistance bands contain sensors that track your repetitions, volume (total weight lifted) and calories burned. When you pair the bands to your phone and download the Hyfit app, this data is automatically collected, which makes workout tracking a breeze. The smart sensors also track your form and the app can tell you which type of workout, such as strength, endurance or flexibility, you should focus on.
Another legacy fitness company that’s produced quality equipment for decades, ProForm dipped its toes into the smart fitness business with Vue, a product akin to Mirror, Tempo, Reflect and Tonal. This smart mirror comes equipped with a pivoting 60-inch-by-24-inch mirror, part of which also functions as a touchscreen. It also comes with a barbell, dumbbells, weight plates and resistance bands.
How it works as a personal trainer: ProForm is owned by Icon Health & Fitness along with NordicTrack, and like the new NordicTrack Vault, the ProForm Vue is powered by iFit. When you stream iFit workouts, you won’t receive real-time feedback, but you can watch your trainer and self-correct. Vue automatically stores your workout performance and uses AI to suggest future workouts.
Personal training: Then and now
Personal training used to work in one of two ways: Either you met your trainer at the gym, or the trainer met you at your house. You’d complete 30-minute or 60-minute sessions with real-time, hands-on feedback and form correction, schedule your next session and be on your way. Many clients had little to no contact with their trainer in between sessions.
Fast-forward a couple decades and personal training shifts online. Fitness pros start training clients through video chat software or by delivering customized programs by the week or month.
Zoom through another few years and the internet explodes with fitness influencers, some of which are trained professionals, some of which are not. Regardless, a spunky online presence drove sales of done-for-you programs created by trainers and influencers. Free workout videos go up on Instagram and YouTube, and new fitness apps crop up every month.
By the early 2010s, the brick-and-mortar fitness industry is grappling with the reality that digital fitness is snapping up members left and right. Then 2020 happened, and the imminent shift accelerated, leading us to today and the 10 high-tech personal trainers above.
More fitness and health advice
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.
Samsung’s Galaxy S21 lineup boasts a ton of updated features: Better cameras, faster 5G, a new design and even S Pen support on the Ultra model. The most notable difference from last year’s Galaxy S20, however, is the lower price. It’s also the flagship device’s biggest advantage in an increasingly crowded 5G phone market. (Here are CNET’s Galaxy S21 review and Galaxy S21 Ultra review.)
Samsung on Thursday said it’s cut the starting price of its three new smartphones by $200 from last year’s Galaxy S20, S20 Plus and S20 Ultra. The Galaxy S21 will start at $800, while the S21 Plus will retail for $1,000. The top-end Ultra will cost $1,200. Last year’s Galaxy S20 lineup, which marked the first time 5G came standard in all US variants of Samsung’s phone, started at $1,000 for the lowest-end version and $1,400 for the Ultra. (In the UK, the S21 will start at £769, just £30 cheaper than the S20.)
The change was largely caused by three factors: Lower component costs, some minor tradeoffs in the S21 and S21 Plus, and the world we now live in.
Now playing: Watch this:
Our first look at the new Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus
The move is a reversal from a few years ago, when Apple and Samsung made $1,000 the standard starting price for high-end phones. At first, many people accepted the hike, though plenty of others balked at the cost. Many held onto their older phones longer than before — about three years in the US — or sought out budget versions of iPhones and Galaxy phones. When 5G and more advanced materials were added to the devices, the companies again found it easier to justify the prices. Having the latest and greatest innovations isn’t cheap.
This year’s S21 lineup meets “sweet spots” in the market when it comes to pricing and features, Blackard said.
“For people who want the highest end, Ultra experience, we still have that, and we’re not sacrificing [the features] based on price point,” Blackard said. “For people who want value and an amazing flagship experience at the same time, we still have a great offering for them with the S21. And then we’ve got something kind of in between for people who want a little bit of both.”
But the coronavirus pandemic has forced companies to reevaluate their launch plans and drop pricing for 5G phones much more quickly than expected. Companies have introduced mainstream devices alongside or shortly after pricier flagship models. And even premium models, like Samsung’s Galaxy S20 lineup, have seen steep discounts. Lower pricing is the only way for 5G to become mainstream, something carriers and device makers want to happen as quickly as possible.
After CES 2021’s launch of the TCL 20 5G, priced at 300 euros in Italy ($365), Stefan Strait, general manager of global marketing for TCL’s phone business, hinted at an even more affordable price for devices this year. “For the second half of the year, we could possibly do another step down,” he said in an interview with CNET ahead of CES.
Even Apple, known for its pricey lineup, didn’t price its 5G-enabled iPhone 12 family as high as it might have. It kept prices steady for its two highest-end devices — $999 for the iPhone 12 Pro and $1,099 for the iPhone 12 Pro Max — but increased the iPhone 12’s price by $100 over last year’s $699 iPhone 11. For that same starting price of $699, users can now get a device with a smaller display, the iPhone 12 Mini.
Samsung’s pricing plans
Early in 2020, Samsung introduced a less expensive A Series lineup of smartphones in the US. They cost significantly less than the S Series — the Galaxy A51 5G is $500 at AT&T and T-Mobile, but costs $550 at Verizon for the mmWave technology — though they also have fewer high-end features. Still, they’ve proved so popular with buyers that Samsung likely will introduce new A Series devices in the US this year.
And it specifically released the $700 Galaxy S20 FE in September as the coronavirus shut down the economy and cost millions of people their jobs. That device packs some high-end features found in the rest of the S20 lineup but starts at $300 less than the S20. The version for Verizon’s mmWave network brings the price up by $50 to $750.
“You’ll see more of the FE from Samsung, because it’s a brand that [has been] really successful since the launch late last year,” Blackard said. “We’re definitely committed to this through this year.”
Because companies like Samsung have been using similar high-end components — like 5G modems — for a while, higher volumes have resulted in lower prices.
Now playing: Watch this:
Galaxy S21 Ultra: Our first look at Samsung’s new premium…
“Getting into technologies early sometimes gives you bragging rights but not sales,” Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. “But then it also gives you leverage on the volumes you have.” Because Samsung has so many devices using high-end 5G chips, cameras and displays, it has “built a little more wiggle room from a pricing perspective” without sacrificing profits, she added.
All phones in the Galaxy S21 lineup in the US come with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 888 processor and integrated 5G modem. The new Snapdragon chip is more effective at connecting to all flavors of 5G, from the slower, more reliable nationwide variant offered by all the US carriers, or the speedier, but more finicky millimeter wave version touted by Verizon. The Ultra comes with four camera lens on the back, while the S21 and S21 Plus have three.
Discover the latest news and best reviews in smartphones and carriers from CNET’s mobile experts.
Preorders began Thursday at 8 a.m. PT, and devices arrive in stores Jan. 29.
Samsung made some slight trade-offs to reduce the price of its devices. It no longer includes a power charger or headphones in the box with its phones. (Like Apple, Samsung attributed the removal to environmental reasons. Both companies still providing charging cables with their phones.) None of Samsung’s new phones include a microSD slot to expand the flash storage.
The S21 and S21 Plus have lower-quality displays than their predecessors, but they get Corning’s Gorilla Glass Victus on the front. The S21 Plus also has the new type of glass on the back, while last year’s Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus had Gorilla Glass 5, a four-year-old technology at the time. Instead of glass, even old glass, the back of the Galaxy S21 has a high-end plastic called polycarbonate. The base models of the S21 and S21 Plus come with 8GB of RAM instead of 12GB.
The Ultra has Victus glass on both the front and back and comes with 12GB of RAM in the base model.
CNET reviewer Patrick Holland called the S21 and S21 Plus trade-offs “mostly smart” and said Ultra users aren’t sacrificing any features to get that lower starting price.
Overall, Samsung has planted a flag for the new base pricing for high-end flagship phones. Competitors may soon respond, giving consumers even more options for 5G phones that don’t cost a fortune.
“These phones reflect a maturing smartphone market and a maturing Samsung,” Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart said, calling the Galaxy S21’s prices “fantastic.”
But if you think Samsung’s immediately getting rid of the Galaxy FE or Note, the two series of phones most threatened by the new S21, you haven’t been paying attention to how the company operates.
The “S20 FE is really the core S20 model that we want to continue to drive through the balance of this year,” Drew Blackard, Samsung Electronics America’s vice president of product management, said in an interview ahead of Thursday’s Unpacked event that introduced the S21 lineup. “And and on top of that, I think you’re gonna see more FEs.”
Now playing: Watch this:
Samsung reveals S Pen with new S21 Ultra phone
Blackard wouldn’t say whether a new Note will launch this summer, but he emphasized that making the S Pen work with the S21 Ultra marks an expansion for the stylus. It not only works with the Note and now the S21 Ultra, but also with Samsung PCs and tablets.
Samsung has long flooded its customers with a myriad of choices — think of it as the opposite of the Steve Jobs-era Apple. But even as Apple expanded its family of products under Tim Cook, Samsung’s lineup has exploded. Samsung has products in multiple colors, storage levels, screen sizes, prices and feature sets. Instead of one phone line, Samsung has two flagship families in the US — the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note. Last year, it added the Galaxy Z foldables and inexpensive A Series phones, not to mention that cheaper FE variant of its S phones.
It’s a dizzying array of phones, but one Samsung thinks gives the company an edge.
“When it comes to shopping for new smartphones, first and foremost people want choice,” Blackard said. “That is both in terms of features and in terms of price points. So we’re really committed to driving a range of different devices that offer what we think is that diversity of needs that’s in the market today.”
The company released the $700 Galaxy S20 FE in September specifically as a response to the novel coronavirus pandemic and the price sensitivity of some consumers. That device packs some high-end features found in the rest of the S20 lineup but starts at $300 less than the S20. A mmWave Galaxy S20 FE for Verizon’s networks costs $750.
This year’s Galaxy S21 starts at $800. Now that the base model isn’t much more expensive than the FE, it would make sense for Samsung to get rid of the latter device entirely. It’s had one-off models in the past, including 2019’s $750 Galaxy S10E, the device from the past two years that most closely compares to the FE.
But that’s not Samsung’s plan, Blackard said.
He said that while he can’t “commit to any products” right now, “you’ll see more of the FE from Samsung, because it’s a brand that was really successful since the launch late last year, and we’re definitely committed to [that] through this year.”
As of now, Samsung said it’s not planning to lower the price of the Galaxy S20 FE, something that could make it harder to sell. But when it introduces new FE models, it’s possible the company will decide to have a lower starting price. As for the rest of the Galaxy S20 lineup, that’s going away when inventory is sold out.
As for the Note? This year, Samsung has brought support for its S Pen, a hallmark of the Galaxy Note lineup, to its Galaxy S family for the first time. Of the three new phones, only the S21 Ultra works with the S Pen, and it comes as a separate accessory that costs $40 for just the pen or $70 when bundled with a specially designed case that stores the stylus. Users can’t stow the S Pen away inside the S21 Ultra like they can with Notes, but they can use their old Note styluses with the S21 Ultra.
The initial new accessory doesn’t work with gestures or many of the other features found in the Note’s S Pen, which likely means the Note line isn’t dead quite yet, despite rumors that Samsung plans to get rid of the line this year.
“Having the S Pen on the Ultra makes sense,” Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. “It doesn’t really mean that the Note line goes away, but Samsung will have to clearly carve out what the Note means.”
Discover the latest news and best reviews in smartphones and carriers from CNET’s mobile experts.
Blackard pointed to the S-Pen’s compatibility with other Samsung products as a reason why you shouldn’t necessarily read too much into the S21 Ultra getting this feature.
“We’ve tried to kind of broaden its reach into other parts of our portfolio in a variety of different categories,” he said. He added that Samsung is “excited to “see where that goes with S series users,” but noted that the S Pen for the Note has more features not available in the standalone S21 Ultra accessory.
That’s a sentiment that TM Roh, the head of Samsung’s mobile business, echoed in a statement shared with reporters ahead of Samsung’s event.
“We’ve made the bold decision to expand the S Pen experience to Galaxy S21 Ultra and plan to expand the S Pen experience across additional device categories in the future,” he said. “We remain committed to providing the best mobile experience to our consumers and will continue to actively listen and consider consumer feedback in our product innovations.”
But later this year, Samsung will introduce a fully featured version of its stylus, called the S Pen Pro. It will have some of the Bluetooth-enabled features found in the Note’s stylus, like gestures. Samsung didn’t give a price or release date for the S Pen Pro, but once that accessory appears, it could take away the biggest feature setting the Note apart.
For now, fans of the Galaxy S20 FE and Galaxy Note lineups may be able to sleep a little better, knowing their favorite devices likely aren’t going away — at least not yet.
CNET’s Patrick Holland contributed to this report.
It’s 2021 and, well, little has changed. The hope, however, is that a rapid dissemination of the COVID-19 vaccine — still a big if at this point — may bring some normalcy to our lives, as well as a renewed appetite and appreciation for more creative and dynamic phones.
Because let’s face it, we could all use something to excite us again.
Discover the latest news and best reviews in smartphones and carriers from CNET’s mobile experts.
LG did its best with its tease during the first day of CES. It was the second brief look, this time offering up the name of the device, the on-the-nose LG Rollable. Curiously, LG executives didn’t even mention it during the press conference — glimpses of the phones were seen in quick promo reels that began and ended the event — but the LG Rollable is real and coming this year.
TCL, which has shown off multiple foldable prototypes over the last two years and which teased more rollable concepts during CES, will finally release a foldable phone to consumers this year, according to Stefan Strait, general manager of marketing for the company. The most notable aspect is his target of a $1,000 price tag. That’s in line with commentary from Samsung last month about more affordable foldables.
These foldable and rollable phones aren’t just gimmicks meant to generate some buzz. These new, experimental designs help move the industry forward when it comes to how mobile devices look and work in the years to come. Just like the iPhone caused handsets to evolve from flip and candy bar designs to sleek metal-and-glass slates, foldables may spark a change in how we interact with our phones down the line. Lower prices mean that these phones are somewhat more accessible for people.
“Form factor innovation is definitely a feature,” Ronan Dunne, CEO of Verizon’s consumer business, said in an interview Tuesday. He didn’t comment on the LG Rollable but noted he was “very impressed” with some of the innovations coming down the line.
But can that excitement match that initial burst of energy? Turn the clock back two years to 2019 and the foldable hype was at a fever pitch. Samsung kicked things off with an early look at its Galaxy Fold, followed a few days later by Huawei’s Mate X. Motorola capped off the year with the Razr. Things were supposed to ramp up in 2020, with more foldables coming.
We all know what happened next.
But the early activity at CES suggests we may be in store for more breakthroughs this year.
An evolution from foldable
The LG Rollable phone’s display harkens back to the Signature LG OLED R, the rollable TV that’s been a highlight of the past few CES LG conferences. Employing flexible displays in a large 65-inch television is impressive, but squeezing that technology into a handheld phone is another challenge.
“I can’t help but marvel at the technological innovation that goes into these,” said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC. “It says a lot about display technology and their resolution that can be tucked into such a flexible form factor.”
CES 2021’s coolest gadgets: Rollable phones, giant TVs, $16,000 bathtub and more
See all photos
While LG offered little information about the phone, revealing the name of the device suggests it’s ready to move forward with the product. The Rollable would mark another radical change in design over even the foldable phone and show the industry still has some new tricks up its sleeve.
LG isn’t the only one thinking about rollables. TCL’s display business also showed off two rollable concepts, one a smaller phone with a screen that extends upward to 6.7 inches while in portrait mode and the other a 17-inch display that unfurls from both ends like a treasure map.
TCL isn’t close to launching a rollable phone. Strait said in an interview ahead of the show that the company was still working on refining the mechanics of its prototype.
Despite the pandemic, LG didn’t stop experimenting last year, when it released in the fall the LG Wing, an odd phone with one screen stacked on top of another, able to swivel to a horizontal position, essentially creating a T-shaped display. As unusual as it sounds, CNET editor Lynn La said it actually helped with multitasking and video recording.
Even if it wasn’t a huge hit, it nudges the industry in a different direction.
Making foldables more accessible
After years of teasing wild prototypes, TCL is finally ready to get in the foldables game. While the company was mum about foldables during its CES presentation, Strait said the company plans to release one this year at the $1,000 price point.
“We’re 100% convinced that this allows us to be very disruptive,” Strait said in an interview ahead of CES.
As a result, Strait said that first foldable would use more of a conventional design than the wilder concepts that we’ve seen already. That suggests a design like a flip phone, which we’ve seen from Samsung and Motorola. Those kinds of devices come in at lower price points than larger phones with fold-out screens like the Galaxy Z Fold 2 or Huawei Mate X.
Now playing: Watch this:
TCL shows off new rollable phone and scrollable display…
“The Z Fold2 was praised as a smartphone that reimagines what’s possible with mobile technology and I’m excited to say, it’s just a hint of what’s to come as we continue to explore, evolve and expand this category-changing space,” said TM Roh, president of mobile communications for Samsung, in a blog post.
That falls in line with an ET News report that Samsung has four foldables coming this year, including two variants each of its Flip and Fold lineups.
The breadth of foldable phones coming suggests this won’t just be a showpiece or plaything for one-percenters and we may all be able to get a taste of where phones are heading over the next few years.