Automating your life on this week’s episode of CTRL+T

People are lazy. Well, let me speak for myself. I am lazy. So it’s no wonder why on this week’s episode of CTRL+T, I was drawn to some news items that touched on home assistants and personal assistants for when you’re out in the wild.

Amazon’s Echo Dot was the top-selling product on all of Amazon this holiday season and startup Fin recently launched its human/AI personal assistant.

Henry Pickavet, TC editorial director and CTRL+T co-host, and I also explored the HQ Trivia craze. This past week, HQ Trivia launched its Android app in Canada and opened up pre-registration for U.S.-based Android users. HQ plans to launch its Android app in the U.S. on January 1.

In the vein of getting people or AI to do things for you, I spoke with Omni founder and CEO Thomas McLeod about his on-demand storage and rental startup. McLeod described Omni as an “operating system for things.”

For example, Omni is going to start building out a service where you can get services performed, like dry cleaning for your suit, before Omni delivers it to you from storage. Down the road, McLeod envisions an ATM of sorts, where you put a bike in storage in San Francisco and then have access to a bike somewhere across the world.

“It’s more about having access to things and not necessarily your things,” he said.

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You can now pick up an iMac Pro in-store, for $4,999 and up


Apple’s super-powered iMac Pro hit the company’s online store just ahead of Christmas. Now those who’d prefer to pick one up in-person can do so by paying a visit to one of its various retail establishments. Availability was first spotted by MacRumors earlier today, and you can check it for yourself by entering your zip code over on the company’s site.

At $4,999 and up, this isn’t check out line impulse buy territory, but the professional version of the company’s well-regarded all-in-one packs a wallop. Matthew spent some time around the machine around its official launch, calling it “a love letter to developers,” adding that the company, “decided to see exactly how ridiculous it could get with iMac performance inside what is essentially the exact same shell as the current machines — with a nice coat of color treatment and a few additional cosmetic differences.”

With the Mac Pro still in a state of limbo, the company has focused on the AIO desktop form factor to deliver some crazy high-end tech specs for users looking to perform truly CPU taxing tasks like editing 4K video and creating VR content. The iMac Pro represents a sort of recommitment to the developers and creative types that have long formed a core user base — which Microsoft has been actively courting with its own Surface line.

The computers appear to be pretty well seeded out there in Apple Stores, though I suspect not every location is going to have every single configuration, so you’re going to want to call ahead. Of course, if you’re not willing to make the $4,999+ commitment, there’s apparently already a ridiculously inflated second-hand market for those limited edition space gray accessories

Still living under the tyranny of the password in 2017


When I lost access to my Google account recently, it left a gaping hole in my digital life and showed me just how tenuous the link to our online world can be. One thing I learned from the story I wrote last week about my experience was that I was far from alone. I got more than a dozen emails and tweets from folks who had been similarly locked out of Google, Facebook or Amazon Prime, and couldn’t figure out how to find their way back.

It raises a valid question about identity itself online, something I’ve been thinking about for some time. How do we prove who we are and how do we avoid my problem (and that of many others, apparently)? How much responsibility lies with the service provider, even when that service is free? How many forms of proof should be enough to prove identity?

At some point it should become an exercise in probability for the vendor. In my case with Google, I provided proof by email, mobile and security questions — and it still wasn’t enough. If you consider I was also using a similar IP address and the same devices I always use, that constitutes even further proof.

When you provide all this data, shouldn’t that be enough proof for any vendor? I found out the hard way that it’s not, and I’m not alone. I also found out the vendor often doesn’t have any means of resolving these issues — and that could be the worst part of this.

Killing the password

Back in September, 2015 I wrote a post on TechCrunch called Kill the password in which I argued it was time to replace the password because it didn’t really work. Hackers stole them, people used ridiculous ones like 1234 and it was simply not a deterrent to accessing our online accounts.

Yet our services and our digital lives require protection. In that same piece, I implored the vendors to find a way to prove who we were without putting the burden on us to remember something. Leaving security to the user is a fool’s errand. Here was partly how I concluded that piece in the context of 2015:

The key is to find a way to secure our personal information without putting undue hardship on the user, while making it difficult — ideally impossible — to steal. That would require automated ever-changing passwords or perhaps something like a fingerprint or eye scan.

The password becomes even more ridiculous in a mobile context where entering a strong password is a burden on a device where typing is not ideal. Certainly biometrics has advanced since then and we are seeing increasing usage of the fingerprint and the beginnings of the Apple face scan on iPhone X. All of this makes the password less and less needed, but it is still the primary means of identification in many instances — and that needs to change.

Perhaps I’ll see you on the blockchain

Like so many things, we make proving identity more complicated because we don’t trust the process, but what if we put identity on the blockchain? Two years after writing that first piece suggesting we kill the password, I wrote another called The promise of managing identity on the blockchain in September this year. If the blockchain is an immutable and irrefutable record then it suggests it would be a good place to manage identity, but there remain a range of opinions. As I wrote:

Like any emerging technology, there are going to be a range of opinions on its viability. Using the blockchain as an identity management system is no different. It will probably begin to take on some role over the next five years because the promise is just so great, but how extensive that will be depends on how the industry solves some of the outstanding issues.

When you put all of this in the context of losing your identity online, it brings us back to where the burden belongs.  It is of course incumbent upon online services (and offline for that matter) to ensure you are a valid user with proper credentials, but surely there must be better ways to do this without forcing us through a password gate.

In a discussion of the getting locked out of Google story on Hacker News, one commenter, WhyNotHugo, suggested emailing log-in links that bypassed the need for a password altogether:

These are precisely the kinds of steps companies should be taking to remove the burden from the end user. Yet we are two years further down the road from when I wrote that first piece about killing the password, and we are still facing the same issues. The vendors need to step up and figure out new ways to prove identity just like those login links and stop putting the burden on us as users.

Service, please

Short of providing password alternatives, services like Google have to offer ways to access a human customer service person, whether that means paying a one-time fee or simply putting an investment in a human contact center to resolve these very kinds of issues Everyone should have equal access to this service and it shouldn’t be limited to people like me who have contacts inside these organizations because of my job.

While Google and Facebook (and other similar essential services) are free, they can hardly hide behind that idea when it comes to helping end users  when they need it. They are multi-billion dollar, highly profitable operations and it’s time they stepped up and provide a level of customer service to help resolve these kinds of issues in a timely fashion.

We are surely getting better at online identity, but as my experience showed, we still have a ways to go. Even Google with all its resources, still struggles with this. I can’t tell you why proving identity remains a challenge as we head into in 2018, but we need to figure this out, and we need to do it soon. Too many people have experienced the pain I did of being locked out and that just shouldn’t be the case anymore.

Featured Image: Ned Potter/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE

Microsoft

President Obama warns against getting ‘cocooned’ in bias via social media


Former President Barack Obama sat down with the UK’s Prince Harry for an extended and far-ranging interview with the BBC this week, and their conversation touched on social media, the use thereof, and Obama’s take on what the current state of social media means for human discourse.

The full interview covers a lot of ground, but the breakouts regarding social media include an admonition against those “in leadership” using it in ways that prevent establishing “a common space on the internet,” which seems an oblique reference to Donald Trump and his use of Twitter, which is often divisive, and seemingly intentionally so.

“One of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities,” Obama told the Prince, according to the BBC. “They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases.”

Obama never overtly named Trump in his comments, but he did make reference to a need for us to “harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices” without leading to “a Balkinisation of society,” per the news agency’s transcript.

The former U.S. President didn’t go so far as to completely condemn social media — in fact, he referenced it as a “really powerful tool for people of common interest to convene and get to know each other and connect.” But, he also said that people should then take that further and meet and become familiar in public spaces, too, in order to deepen their mutual understanding.

Featured Image: SAUL LOEB / Staff/Getty Images

Debt-laden tech firm LeEco’s founder ordered to return to China by securities commission


The founder of beleaguered tech conglomerate LeEco is facing yet another huge headache. Jia Yueting has been ordered by the China Securities Regulatory Commission’s Beijing branch to return to the country by the end of this month and deal with the company’s debts. In an unusual public letter posted Monday, the CSRC said its failure to repay debts is “a serious violation of the legal rights and interests of listed companies and the interests of investors, with an extremely negative social impact.”

Shares of LeEco’s parent, Leshi Internet Information and Technology Corp., were traded on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange until April, when trading was halted to allow the company to review a restructuring plan. Leshi was launched in 2004 by Jia as a video streaming service. In 2016, it embarked on an ambitious expansion plan under the LeEco brand, which included an agreement to buy American TV maker Vizio for $2 billion (the acquisition was later called off), the launch of smartphones, smart bikes and other consumer electronics and a financial partnership with Los Angeles-based electric vehicle startup Faraday Future. To fund those ventures, LeEco borrowed billions of dollars from investors, with Jia using his own shares in Leshi Internet as collateral to secure funds from securities brokerages.

LeEco’s expansion failed to take off, however, and as pressure from lenders mounted, in July Jia resigned as chairman of Leshi Internet after promising on his social media accounts to repay the LeEco’s debts.

The CSRC said that it has sent letters to Jia asking him to return to China since September, but “so far have not seen any action taken by [Jia].” Earlier this month, Jia was placed on China’s official list of debt defaulters after he failed to pay back more than 470 million yuan ($71 million) to Ping An Securities Group and last week Hong Kong media reported that LeEco’s local branch had filed a petition with the territory’s high court to begin liquidation.

LeEco has been emailed for comment.

Featured Image: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Julian Assange’s Twitter account goes offline, returns


It’s a Christmas miracle of sorts. Julian Assange’s Twitter account disappeared from the site, returned, and now there’s a bouncing baby Corgi up top. The account appears to have gone offline around 7:00/8:00PM ET on Christmas Eve, a silent night for the Wikileaks founder.

Attempts to access the page overnight were met with a “Sorry, that page doesn’t exist!” message. The site’s official account, meanwhile, stayed online, with several of its most recent posts soliciting donations.

As of 10AM ET this morning, Assange’s account is back up — though at present, his follower count has dipped precipitously, dropping below 10,000.

Around half an hour after going back online, the newly restored account posted another donation solicitation, this time with a short video of an excited Corgi. Neither accounts have addressed the several hours of downtime. We’ve reached out to Twitter about the incident, but unsurprisingly have yet to hear back — Christmas morning and all.

Assange’s account was down long enough to draw a good deal speculation that it may have been pulled for a specific reason. CBS news reports that another unverified account claiming to be Assange popped up in his absence, suggesting the original had been pulled ahead of a blockbuster Wikileaks release. That one, however, has since been suspended by the service.

If it was, indeed, an imposter, it would hardly be the first time someone made waves pretending to be Assange on the social network. And, of course, this is hardly the first time a high profile political account disappeared from the site without explanation this year. 

Featured Image: New Media Days / Peter Erichsen/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 3.0 LICENSE

The AI chip startup explosion is already here


All eyes may have been on Nvidia this year as its stock exploded higher thanks to an enormous amount of demand across all fronts: gaming, an increased interest in data centers, and its major potential applications in AI.

But while Nvidia’s stock price and that chart may have been one of the more eye-popping parts of 2017, a year when AI continued its march toward being omnipresent in technology, something a little more subtle was happening in the AI world that may have even deeper ramifications.

This year, an array of startups that are all working on their own variations of hardware that will power future devices built on top of AI received enormous amounts of funding. Some of these startups have nowhere near a massive install base (or have yet to ship a product) but already appear to have no trouble raising financing.

Looking to optimize inference and machine training — two key parts of processes like image and speech recognition — startups have sought to find ways to pick away at these processes in ways that will make them faster, more power-efficient, and generally better suited for the next generation of artificial intelligence-powered devices. Instead of the traditional computational architecture we’ve become accustomed to with CPUs, the GPU has become one of the go-to pieces of silicon for processing the rapid-fire calculations required for AI processes. And these startups think they can do that even better.

Before we get to the class of startups, let’s quickly review the aforementioned Nvidia chart, just to get a sense of the scale of what’s happening here. Even with the blip at the end of the year, shares of Nvidia are up nearly 80 percent heading into 2018:

So, naturally, we’d probably see a whole class of startups that are looking to pick away at Nvidia’s potential vulnerabilities in the AI market. Investors, too, would also take notice of this.

We first broke the news that Cerebras Systems had picked up funding from Benchmark Capital in December last year when it raised around $25 million. At the time, it seemed like the AI chip industry was not quite as obvious as it was today — though, as the year went on, Nvidia’s dominance of the GPU market was a clear indicator that this would be a booming space. Then Forbes reported in August this year that the company was valued at nearly $900 million. Obviously, there was something here.

Graphcore, too, made some noise this year. It announced a new $50 million financing round in November this year led by Sequoia Capital, shortly after a $30 million financing round in July led by Atomico. Graphcore still, like Cerebras Systems, doesn’t have a splashy product on the market yet like Nvidia. And yet this startup was able to raise $80 million in a year, though hardware startups face many more challenges than ones built on the back of software.

There’s also been a flurry of funding for Chinese AI startups: Alibaba poured financing into a startup called Cambricon Technology, which is reportedly valued at $1 billion; Intel Capital led a $100 million investment in Horizon Robotics; and a startup called ThinkForce raised $68 million earlier this month.

That’s to say nothing of Groq, a startup run by former Google engineers that raised around $10 million from Social+Capital, which seems small in the scope of some of the startups listed above. Mythic, yet another chip maker, has raised $9.3 million in financing.

So we can see not just one or two but seven startups gunning for similar areas of this space, many of which have raised tens of millions of dollars, with at least one startup’s valuation creeping near $900 million. Again, these are hardware startups, and it is next-generation hardware, which may require a lot more financing. But this is still a space that cannot be ignored at all.

Moving beyond the startups, the biggest companies in the world are also looking to create their own systems. Google announced its next-generation TPU in May earlier this year geared toward inference and machine training. Apple designed its own GPU for its next-generation iPhone. Both of these will go a long way toward trying to tune the hardware for their specific needs, such as Google Cloud applications or Siri. Intel also said in October it would ship its new Nervana Nueral Network Processor by the end of 2017. Intel bought Nervana for a reported $350 million in August last year.

All of these represent massive undertakings by both the startups and the larger companies, each looking for their own interpretation of a GPU. But unseating Nvidia, which has begun the process of locking in developers onto its platform (called Cuda), may be an even more difficult task. That’s going to be doubly true for startups that are trying to press their hardware into the wild and get developers on board.

When you talk to investors in Silicon Valley, you’ll still find some skepticism. Why, for example, would companies look to buy faster chips for their training when older cards in an Amazon server may be just as good for their training? And yet there is still an enormous amount of money flowing into this area. And it’s coming from firms that are the same ones that bet big on Uber (though there’s quite a bit of turbulence there) and WhatsApp.

Nvidia is still a clear leader in this area and will look to continue its dominance as devices like autonomous cars become more and more relevant. But as we go into 2018, we’ll likely start to get a better sense as to whether these startups actually have an opportunity to unseat Nvidia. There’s the tantalizing opportunity of creating faster, lower-power chips that can go into internet-of-things thingies and truly fulfill the promise of those devices with more efficient inference. And there’s the opportunity of making those servers faster and more power-efficient when they look to train models — like ones that tell your car what a squirrel looks like — may also turn out to be something truly massive.

Featured Image: Vasin Lee/Shutterstock

The Best Chromebook for Students – December 2017

When it comes to shopping for the best all-around Chromebook, the Asus Chromebook Flip C302 doesn’t just enter the competition—it destroys it. Not only, in our opinion, is the Chromebook Flip the best Chromebook for college and high school students, but it also happens to be the best Chromebook on the market today period, with great performance, all-day battery life, a premium build, and a price tag that undercuts much of the premium market. First launched earlier this year as the successor to Asus’s original Chromebook Flip, a solid $250 device that was capable of basic browsing but not much else. That product was one of the first to receive the Google Play Store on its build of Chrome OS, and with this C302 model, that device has finally been retired for a product that, while raising the price from the original $249, has simultaneously become a must-have device in our eyes. Let’s take a look at what makes the C302 so special.

The first thing you’ll notice with this product is the build. This is a premium feeling device with an all-aluminum build, and it makes a major difference in day-to-day usage. The design and feel of the machine is similar to something you’d find on a MacBook Pro or a Surface Laptop, albeit not as thin as the latter product. The anodized finish is also similar to the MacBook line of products, avoiding the textured feel of some other metal Chromebooks on the market today. The entire device is fairly thin and light, too, weighing in at only 2.65 pounds, lighter than a 2013 MacBook Air, though not as light as the 2016 and 2017 12″ MacBook models. At only half an inch thick, the laptop is incredibly to hold in your hand or carry around in your backpack. When it comes to displays, Asus included a 1080p eDP panel, which looks good, crisp, and colorful, though we’d be lying if we said that the display was better than the screen on the Samsung Chromebook Plus, reviewed below. Still, this laptop screams premium, and considering it’s priced under $500, that’s a good thing.

Let’s talk specs and port selection, because for a Chromebook released in 2017, this thing is actually pretty well off when it comes to what you need a laptop to do. Along the sides of the laptop, you have two USB-C 3.1 ports that are used for data transfers, charging, and even video out, along with a 3.5mm headphone jack and a microSD card slot for expandable storage on your device. Though that may feel like limited port selections overall, having USB-C truly future-proofs this device, and even allows it to charge using the same charger as most modern Android phones. As far as specs go, the Flip is powered by an Intel Core m3-6Y30 processor, which uses low-power consumption to ensure the C302 has solid battery life and doesn’t require the use of a fan. Outside of that processor, you’ll find 4GB of RAM, which is enough for most multitasking on a Chromebook, and 64GB of internal storage, a solid amount compared to most budget Chromebooks. Considering Chrome OS syncs closely with Google Drive and doesn’t rely on external storage outside of app installations, it’s not ridiculous to say that this is more than enough for most everyday usage—especially when we’re considering a standard college student using this machine.

The specs don’t matter if the day to day usage isn’t good, and we’re happy to say that putting this device through everyday use is a great experience. Asus is no stranger to the Chromebook game; they’ve long manufactured quality Chromebooks for quite some time, and we’re happy to report that this is their best yet. Performance is solid, with the processor and RAM combination able to keep a good amount of tabs open at once without any noticeable slowdown. The touchpad is solid for navigating around the display, with a large size and decent responsiveness. The keyboard is similarly comfortable and well-spaced out, and the inclusion of backlighting means that it’s a great device for lugging to class and taking notes with. Battery life isn’t quite as long-lasting as the original Chromebook Flip from 2015, but you should expect about 8 hours of mixed usage on the device—more than enough to make it through the day, and with the use of a standard USB-C port, it’s easy to top off throughout the day.

Speaking of taking notes, it’s important to talk about the “Flip” part of the Chromebook Flip. The Flip is capable of turning around 360 degrees to become a makeshift tablet, complete with the ability to use the 12.5″ display’s touchscreen to its full potential. This means you can use the Flip as a way to take notes with a third-party stylus, and you can use the device in all sorts of different configurations, including as a pop-up using the keyboard as a base, or in tent mode for watching media. The Flip, unfortunately, doesn’t feature Android apps out of the box, though it’s easy to switch to the Chrome Beta channel to use the Google Play Store until it makes its way to the stable channel. Chrome OS mostly plays well with Android apps, and support is improving, but despite this program being more than a year old, Play Store apps in Chrome are still occasionally buggy and unpredictable. It’s clear that Google didn’t think porting apps to the platform would be this difficult, but here we are. Regardless, being able to use Play Store apps on a Chromebook with a touchscreen is still better than being stuck with only web apps at your disposal, and we call this a positive overall.

We really only have two major complaints with the Flip. First, though 2.65 pounds is fairly light for a laptop, it’s far too heavy to use as a tablet for long periods of time. The iPad Pro 12.9″ is a similar size in body to this device, but weighs more than a pound less than the Chromebook Flip. Part of this can be chalked up to the fact that the device has a keyboard built into the chassis of the Chromebook, but regardless, it’s still a major complaint. Even worse, however, are the side-mounted speakers on this device. Both the left and right speakers are tinny and, at loud volumes, rattle and distort in a way that’s uncomfortable to listen to for a long time. It’s unfortunate that the speakers are as bad as they are, and truthfully, few outside of Apple get speakers right on laptops, but these are bad even by Chromebook standards. You’ll want external speakers or headphones for this device.

Despite a few shortcomings, Asus got nearly everything right with the Chromebook Flip C302. The screen is good, the build and design are excellent (even if the machine isn’t so much inspired by Apple’s line of MacBooks as it is directly aping off of them), battery life is solid, and the ability to use Android apps on the device is great. This is the perfect machine for taking to college or keeping around the house to study or catch up on some light reading, and if it weren’t for the speakers, it would be perfect for media consumption too (it still is if you’re okay with using headphones). Any student in the market for a premium device while remaining budget friendly, this is the best model to buy today—and frankly, the best Chromebook under $500 we’ve seen so far. If performance is important to you, you could also jump at the Core m5 model of the Chromebook Flip, though at $649 for that version, you’re better off saving your money and spending the extra $200 on all those textbooks you’ll need for class.

Pros

  • Great build quality and design
  • Good screen
  • Solid battery life

Cons

  • Terrible speakers
  • Weight makes tablet mode difficult

Original Content podcast: Confronting the light and dark side of ‘The Last Jedi’

This week, TechCrunch’s Original Content podcast takes a break from reviewing the latest streaming titles to tackle the big movie of the week (and arguably the year) — Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

One of your hosts (that’s Anthony) laid out his initial reaction in a post, while the other (that’s Darrell) has already seen The Last Jedi twice, and formed very different opinions each time. We offer some general thoughts on the quality of the movie before launching into a spoiler-filled discussion for all of you who’ve already seen it, too. And of course, we had to weigh in on the intense backlash from some fans.

The episode doesn’t ignore the streaming world entirely. We also discuss Apple’s upcoming space drama from the creator of Battlestar Galactica, plus Netflix’s plans to turn its original film Bright into a franchise (despite some pretty harsh reviews).

You can listen in the player above, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You also can send us feedback directly.

The Best Remote Control Apps for Android – December 2017

While Roku’s app for Android may not be the first thing you think of when looking for a remote control application for your phone or tablet, there’s a good reason to look at Roku’s app as a great way to control your television. While there are plenty of applications on the Play Store that properly function as universal remotes for your television, cable box, Blu-Ray player, and more, you’ll need the proper hardware to support it, and unfortunately, phones that include IR blasters are becoming less and less frequent. The last mainstream phone released in the United States with an IR blaster included in the hardware was the LG V20 at the end of 2016, and since then, Huawei and ZTE have been the only manufacturers of compatible devices. Phones like Samsung’s Galaxy S-line (after the S5 and Note 4), Google’s Pixel series, and all of Motorola’s lineup of devices won’t work with a standard IR-compatible app.

This leads us to Roku’s own application for Android. While it isn’t what some users might be looking for in a mobile-friendly remote application for your phone, it’s the most accessible, user-friendly remote app on the market today. The only requirement to use it is a Roku player, and with their cheapest device starting at only $29, it’s easy to jump into the Roku ecosystem. Once you have your Roku device programmed, you’ll likely find controlling your television with Roku’s app is nearly flawless.

Design

Roku’s app design has improved over the last several years, even if it’s nothing to write home about. Inoffensive is a good way to describe the purple-clad software, which features the Roku branding along the top of the application. With a bottom-based navigation system containing five separate tabs, it’s fairly easy to navigate through your content, though a refreshed app design that brings it closer to something like Google’s Home application would be welcomed. The main display features a full list of your device’s installed channels, like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Video. Whatever you add to your device is what you’ll find here, and each icon acts as a quick launch for the application, immediately waking your Roku and opening the app. The icons look good, each featuring the correct icon for the corresponding app.

Strangely, you’ll find a featured application taking up a large banner on your app regardless of whether you’ve properly downloaded the app. This is similar to the Roku home screen, which shows featured content to the right of your channels list, but considering the app isn’t listed as containing ads on Google Play, it’s strange to see these pop up here. Beyond the app screen, you’ll find the tabs below corresponding with features like the remote, the photo sharing service, and more. We’ll dive into the functionality of the remote below, but on a purely design level, it’s almost a complete mirror of the basic Roku remote that ships with their devices, rearranged slightly for an easier mobile experience. On its whole, Roku’s app isn’t the most attractive service we’ve seen, but it’s also not offensive or unusable in any way.

Remote

There are a ton of other features built into Roku’s remote application, but the remote options are the most important. The remote tab is in the bottom-center of the app, and launches in a full screen mode that makes it easy to use on any size device, from the Pixel 2 to a large, 10″ tablet. The D-Pad takes up the majority of the room on your virtual remote, with a large OK button in the center of the application that makes it easy to press. If your television has HDMI-CEC support, you can use the D-Pad to wake up your television by tapping on one of the buttons and waiting for your television to respond. Most modern televisions from manufacturers like Samsung or Vizio have HDMI-CEC support, but you’ll need to check with your television manufacturer.

Once your television is active, you can use the remote to control your Roku, just as you would with the physical remote included with the device. While the more premium devices sold by Roku include remotes with features like passthrough audio and voice search, more basic devices like the Roku Streaming Stick or Roku Express are designed to be as cheap as possible, including basic remotes without advanced features in the package. Roku’s Android app allows you to bypass some of the limitations of the cheaper devices by adding both passthrough audio and voice search to any compatible Roku device, which basically means any relatively modern Roku device can be given more advanced technology without having to pay additional cash for the more-advanced remote.

The only features that is included with the premium Roku remotes but left out by the mobile app is the addition of power and volume control on the higher-end Roku devices. Newer Roku boxes like the Roku Ultra, in addition to the audio passthrough feature and the voice search function, also include a power button on the top of the remote and volume rocker on the side of the device that can be used to control your television using HDMI-CEC. This, unfortunately, isn’t replicated in the mobile app. You can, as mentioned above, turn your display on, but turning off your television or controlling the volume will still have to be done with a universal remote, or the remote control that was included with your television. Overall, however, the remote function on Roku is a promising start—we’ll discuss our thoughts on the actual experience of using the remote below.

Features

Outside of the general remote experience, this app is loaded with features, including everything from photo streaming to the ability to shop for apps directly from your device without having to use the standard Roku user interface. To get the most out of your device, you’ll want to make sure you log in with your Roku account, as even browsing the channel store is impossible without first logging into your device. Once logged in, you’ll be able to view a full list of the channel store, similar to browsing through the “Streaming Channels” on your Roku device. Each channel shows the description, a gallery of what the app will look like on your device, and a star rating from other Roku users who have reviewed the product. Tapping on “Add Channel” will display a loading screen, and your channel will be synced to your device. Testing Filmstruck, a streaming service that contains films from sources like the Criterion Collection, it took about twelve seconds between tapping on the “Install App” button and seeing the app appear on our television.

The What’s On tab is similar to Google’s Home app, which includes a display showing brand new content that you can watch based on your suggestions and preferences. The Roku app makes it easy to watch your content through any application, and since Roku doesn’t own their own streaming app (with one notable difference), you can price compare between services. Selecting Dunkirk from the New Releases category, for example, loads a display that gives you the star rating for the movie, a quick synopsis of that the film is about, the rating, runtime, director, genre, cast list, and finally, options to view the film. Dunkirk, in this example, can be purchased through Amazon Video for $14.99, but on Vudu and FandangoNOW, the other two video carriers providing the movie through Roku, it costs users a fee of $19.99 to own. Rentals work the same as purchasing, allowing you to view every priced listing. Also included in this tab are suggested movies for the season, recommended family shows, and free movies and TV shows that can be viewed through Roku’s own channel and other services. For example, Titantic can be watched for free on the Roku Channel, but 300 (also listed as a free film) is available through Crackle.

The Photos+ tab is more of a Chromecast-style app to allow you to stream content to your Roku box through your phone’s local storage. Everything from music saved on your device to your entire collection of photos and videos can be streamed. You’ll have to give the app permission to access your device’s storage, but once it can, you’ll be all set to start streaming. Everything works out of the box here with Roku; there’s no downloads or apps to install, and the app can even grab content that’s stored in the cloud in services like Google Photos. You can swipe through your content by using the left and right buttons on the bottom of the app, and play, pause, and stop are all listed as well. It’s not the prettiest interface, especially when playing music that you might have to start and stop often, but overall, it’s a decent way to stream material to to your television or sound system from a Roku.

Experience

Roku’s application is nearly perfect at recreating exactly what you would want from their remotes, and it’s the reason that their app, despite being designed for a specific piece of hardware, is our top pick for anyone looking to control their entertainment from their television. The D-pad on the remote is large and easy to use, and each button responds immediately, feeling only a tiny bit slower than its physical remote counterpart when used side by side. The advantage of using the remote on your phone is clear, however; since you aren’t pointing your phone at your television to hit an IR receptor on the device, your Roku can be hidden behind the television, and your remote application will still work. In another room? Hit pause or rewind without having to run back in. No issues whatsoever.

Voice search works well, though not as well as you might have hoped considering how well it works on other devices like the Fire Stick from Amazon. Instead of activating the voice search feature on your television, it brings the results up on your phone. When you tap on the icon in the upper-right corner, you’ll be prompted to speak your search. Once you’ve finished requesting your show, app, movie, or anything else, you need to tap on the button to stop the device from listening. The app will then search for your content, with each title having a year and a visual icon for the type of material next to it. Searching for The Santa Clause brings up Disney’s holiday trilogy, followed by Santa Claus Conquers the MartiansSanta Clause: The MovieThe Year Without a Santa Claus, and more listings. Tapping on one of these loads back into the store interface we saw with Dunkirk above, with a full list of viewing options available.

Normally, this would be an excellent way to queue up your favorite movies to watch on the big screen, but there’s a small problem. For whatever reason, Netflix has difficult casting the content from your phone to your Roku automatically from the Roku app. Whereas searching for Brooklyn 99 on Hulu allowed us to launch the app immediately into playback, searching for The Santa Clause and selecting Netflix’s streaming option redirects you to the Netflix app, where the film begins playing on your mobile device. Since Roku supports Netflix’s DIAL standard, it’s not the biggest deal in the world, since you can tap on the cast icon and begin watching on your television while maintaining playback controls on your smartphone, but the service would be better if it launched directly into Netflix.

Audio passthrough is far more successful when it comes to comparing features. You can set your app’s settings menu to automatically switch to passthrough audio when you connect headphones to your device while the Roku app is active, and you can switch the feature on and off by command by tapping on the headphones icon on the bottom of the app. There’s no noticeable audio lag between the display and the app, and unplugging the headphones switches the audio back to the television automatically. We should also mention the keyboard entry field works well, using your phone’s default keyboard and allowing for direct input of usernames, passwords, and more without having to deal with using the D-pad on the remote. Our only complaint for Roku’s remote is simple: the remote should feature haptic feedback to make the touchscreen feel like a real remote.

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Obviously, using a Roku device is not the first thing you think of when you look for a remote control application on Android. Believe us when we say, there are plenty of other IR sensor-based apps—including some on this list—that are able to be used for browsing your content, and if your phone still supports those devices, you should absolutely make the move to any of those apps. But with most major flagship devices now lacking the ability to use universal IR blasters, with LG having finally given up the ghost following 2016, it’s worth making the move to applications that use physical, web-enabled devices like the Roku to control your media landscape. Roku’s app isn’t perfect for this, considering it’s impossible to turn off your display or control the volume with your app. Still, the low cost of entry for the Roku hardware and the features presented by Roku’s remote application make it obvious: if you’ve moved to streaming your content from the web, a Roku is a must-have device for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and so much more.