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Now that Amazon and Google have shipped tens of millions of smart speakers, they're moving onto smart displays as the next big thing.

Amazon's Echo Show display has been around for more than a year, but a second-generation version with a larger screen started shipping this month. Companies like Lenovo and JBL have been shipping Google-powered smart displays since this summer, and Google's own Home Hub display will launch soon. Even Facebook is joining in with its own smart display called Portal, ongoing privacy crisis be darned.

All of these devices essentially act like super-powered versions of smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. You can still use voice commands to play music, set timers, control smart home devices, and get basic questions answered, but the addition of a screen makes these interactions easier.

With kitchen timers, for instance, you can see how much time is left instead of having to ask or guess. With music, you get album art and can tap the screen to control playback. For the weather, you can glance at full forecast details. For smart home controls, Google and Amazon now provide dashboards where you can quickly turn things on or off. The display can even show upcoming reminders and calendar appointments so you don't have to ask for them.

Smart displays can even do some things that a speaker alone cannot, such as showing live feeds from supported security cameras and showing live channels from supported streaming video services. Amazon's new Echo Show even doubles as a ZigBee smart home hub, so you can set up light bulbs and sensors that would otherwise require a separate hub or bridge device. Meanwhile, Google-powered smart displays double as Chromecast devices, so you can send video or music to them from a phone or tablet.

Best of all, smart displays make for excellent digital picture frames. Displays powered by Google can pull up images from Google Photos, and a new feature called Live Albums can automatically show the latest photos of specific faces. The Echo Show can display albums from Amazon Photos (which offers unlimited photo storage for Prime members), and Facebook's Portal will supposedly grab images from the social network.

As for which smart display is worth getting, that largely depends on which other devices and services you already own. Amazon's Echo Show can play synchronized multi-room audio with other Echo devices, supports a broad range of security cameras, and can play live video from several live TV streaming services. Google's device and service support is more limited--it only works with Nest cameras and YouTube TV for live channels at the moment--but supports whole-home audio with other Google Home speakers and Chromecast devices, and its Google Photos integration is killer.

One other thing to note: Most of these devices also have built-in cameras for video chat, and Facebook is pitching video chat as the main feature of its Portal smart displays. I've never found much use for this feature--chatting on a phone or tablet is just easier in most cases--and putting a camera in your kitchen or bedroom is even creepier than having a smart speaker that's always listening for "Alexa" or "Hey Google." You can always disable the camera on these devices, and some, like Lenovo's Smart Display and Facebook's Portal, even come with physical camera shutters, but it might be better if these devices omitted the camera entirely. Google's Home Hub does just that.

Most of these devices hover in the $150 to $250 range, with Google's Home Hub on the low end and Lenovo's 10-inch Smart Display on the high end. It's worth springing for a larger smart display if you plan to use its photo frame features, but I suspect we'll see some prices fall as the holidays approach. In the meantime, don't hesitate to email me with any smart display questions you might have.
 

A few weeks ago, I performed some long-overdue Windows surgery and disabled the Insert key on my keyboard. If you do any amount of typing on an external keyboard, you know how annoying an accidental Insert press can be. Suddenly, any letters you type in between two words will replace whatever letters come after them. This mode of typing, called "overtype," is useful in a few niche circumstances, but not useful enough for me to spare it from obliteration.

To disable the key yourself, you'll have to edit the Windows Registry. If you're comfortable doing this on your own, instructions are available here. Otherwise, I've created a file that will make the necessary Registry edits for you. Just download it here, then run it. (Make sure to select "Run" and "Yes" when prompted, assuming you trust me.)

 

Facebook hack fallout: Last week, Facebook provided more details on the major security breach I wrote about in the previous issue. By exploiting a series of vulnerabilities, attackers stole the digital keys, or "access tokens," to 30 million accounts, effectively allowing them to view all kinds of private information. That's down from Facebook's original estimate of 50 million affected accounts.

Among the affected accounts, Facebook believes the attackers accessed 15 million users' names and contact information. For another 14 million users, the attackers accessed more detailed information, including "username, gender, locale/language, relationship status, religion, hometown, self-reported current city, birthdate, device types used to access Facebook, education, work, the last 10 places they checked into or were tagged in, website, people or Pages they follow, and the 15 most recent searches." (Facebook believes the attackers didn't access the other 1 million accounts.)

While Facebook says it will directly notify affected users in the "coming days," you don't have to wait for the potentially bad news. Instead, just head to this webpage while logged into your account, then read the bottom blue box that reads, "Is my Facebook account impacted by this security issue?"

For affected users, there aren't any easy answers on what to do. While the answer to most hacks is to change your password and move on, the information stolen here could be central to your identity. As a result, the hack could make you a target of "phishing" schemes that try to trick you into revealing bank account logins or other sensitive information. (These scams have become more clever lately, with fraudsters using stolen personal information to help pass themselves off as real customer service agents.) The hack could also help attackers answer the "security questions" that banks love to make you provide, or convince unwitting customer service agents to turn over the keys to your accounts.

All of this means you'll have to be more vigilant about online security in general. As a rule, avoid providing any login information through links in your emails, and never give out bank account information over the phone if you haven't initiated the call yourself. And for sensitive accounts such as email, consider setting up two-factor authentication using an authenticator app instead of your phone number.

That's admittedly a lot to take in. If you've been affected by this and need more advice, please reach out and I'll be glad to help.

On a lighter note, let's talk about some hardware.

Last week, Microsoft announced the Surface Pro 6 tablet, Surface Laptop 2, and Surface Studio 2 all-in-one PC. None are major upgrades--the Surface Pro and Laptop have faster Intel processors, while the Surface Studio has a faster graphics card and solid state storage--but in some cases the value has improved. With the Surface Pro 6, for instance, the Core i5 model with 8 GB of RAM now starts at $899, which is $100 less than before. The Surface Laptop 2 also has double the RAM (8 GB) of the original, so it can handle more tasks without slowing down. The only surprise announcement was a set of $349 Surface Headphones, which offer adjustable noise cancellation, touch controls for music playback, and voice controls from Microsoft's Cortana assistant.

Microsoft has developed a knack for making slick hardware that presents Windows in its best possible light, so the new devices are worth a look if you're willing to spend more on a nice PC. Still, these launches always seem to come with firmware issues, which may explain why Consumer Reports temporarily stopped recommending Surface products from last summer to last month. Waiting a few months past launch for bugs to shake out isn't a bad idea.

Also last week, Google announced a pair of new Pixel phones, a Pixel Slate laptop-tablet hybrid, and the Home Hub that I mentioned earlier.

I've been using a Pixel 2 XL as my main phone since it launched last year, and I've been happy with it despite some widespread complaints about display quality. It's a capable rival to the iPhone, especially if you prefer Google Assistant over Siri and want unlimited Google Photos storage at full quality. The new Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL fix the previous version's display issues while also making some camera improvements, including dual-lens selfie lens cam lets you zoom out for a wider shot. The smaller Pixel 3 also has a slicker design than last year's model, with smaller bezels and gently-curved glass around the edges, and the Pixel 3 XL extends its display to the top corners (leaving a fat camera notch in the middle). Both phones also trade the Pixel 2's matte metal finish for more elegant frosted glass on the back.

The Pixel Slate tablet, meanwhile, is Google's attempt to take on Apple's iPad Pro and Microsoft's Surface line, with an optional keyboard cover and stylus. It runs Chrome OS, which lets you use the full desktop Chrome browser, but it also lets you install Android apps from the Google Play Store. Those apps will certainly make the Pixel Slate more appealing as a tablet, but they do introduce complications for laptop use. I wrote a bit about that over at Fast Company.
 

 
 
 

Now's a good time to buy some additional storage for your camera, Android phone, Nintendo Switch, or anything else that accepts a MicroSD or SD card. Newegg has a 128 GB MicroSDXC card for $21 and a 64 GB card for $10, both with free shipping. If you prefer to spend more for bigger name brands, Samsung's 64 GB card is on sale for $15, while SanDisk's 128 GB card is on sale for $24.

You may have noticed that these newsletters have been getting a bit longer lately. That's a reflection of both the busy news season and my ability to dedicate more time to Advisorator as the subscriber base grows. I'm still doing my best to be concise, but if you feel the newsletter is getting too unwieldy--or that it's still not lengthy enough--please let me know.

Friday at 3 p.m. seems to be settling in as a desirable time for the live chat room, so let's go with that time again for this week, October 19. Use this link to join, and click here if you'd like a reminder before the session starts.

Know anyone who might enjoy Advisorator? Get them to sign up, and you'll both get a $10 credit.

Catch you in a couple weeks,

Jared
 
 
 
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