Roku has the best new gadget of the year so far, but Apple and Samsung are coming up soon

April 14, 2021, 1:51 PM UTC

Maybe the slowly approaching end of the pandemic has emboldened the tech market, or maybe the silicon chip shortage is easing, or maybe the Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal was filled with gadgets. Whatever the case, after a first quarter almost devoid of new gear, this week it’s suddenly raining tech.

For sure you caught Apple’s announcement that Robert mentioned yesterday. The company will hold its first new product event of 2021 on April 20, dubbed Spring Loaded. (The phrase “Spring Loaded” reminds me of the time one of my kids went to the local hardware store to buy powerful springs to juice his Nerf gun with extra range.) I’m thinking Apple will stick to its usual Spring array of new iPads, new iMacs, and possibly the rumored new smart speaker with a camera. Not to be outdone, Samsung announced it will hold a Galaxy Unpacked event on April 28 that looks like it will focus on new laptops or convertible tablets.

But those are really just teasers. We also got a deluge of actual products this week. Dell updated its Inspiron laptop line with the latest Intel and AMD processors plus claimed improvements in web cams and microphones, the better to Zoom you with. Microsoft also issued its 4th generation Surface laptop with similar improvements, but didn’t stop there. It’s addressing the new Zoom world with a $70 standalone web cam that can plug into any laptop and an oval-shaped $100 speaker that’s meant to broadcast your meetings across the room. The speaker also has a dedicated button for launching Microsoft’s Teams app. Anker, the Chinese gadget maker known for its portable chargers, came out with a slightly more expensive webcam, but says the $130 device has its own A.I. chip to improve image quality.

Some of the week’s announcements tilted more towards play than work. Spotify’s Car Thing is a four-inch touch screen that mounts, you guessed it, in your car and can control the Spotify app on your phone. Pitchfork’s Noah Yoo dubbed it a “glorified Bluetooth remote for your phone.” Does not seem worth $80. Also drawing scorn is the first smartwatch from challenger phone brand OnePlus. Reviews out on Tuesday ranged from “not a very good product right now” to “big, basic, and boring.”

On the other hand, Roku’s tiny new Express 4K+ streaming box costs only $40, includes the company’s great remote control that takes voice commands, and offers up to 4K resolution, no surprise. There’s a good reason why Roku is killing everyone in the streaming hardware department, especially Apple, and this latest full-featured box at a low price just puts the company further ahead. Roku’s stock price, which quadrupled over the past year, gained another 5% on Tuesday. Of everything that’s come out so far in 2021, a hyper-useful streaming box at a low price wins best new product of the year so far from me.

Interestingly—or maybe disappointingly—none of the new products we’ve seen so far reflect much deep innovation or reconsideration after our year of lockdown and virtual work. Everyone is suffering from Zoom gloom but none of these new web and laptop cams are different from what came before. No one is addressing Cal Newport’s hyperactive hive mind challenge. And smartwatches, laptops, and set top boxes are all pretty mature markets at this point.

Guess we’ll have to wait a bit longer for something truly eye-opening like augmented reality glasses or an A.I. box that judges when to block unnecessary notifications and calls.

Aaron Pressman

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Call for the lady with ethereum purse. Early crypto services market leader Coinbase will start trading in its direct listing later today (stock symbol: COIN). The startup's "reference price," a mostly meaningless figure, was set at $250 a share valuing Coinbase at over $65 billion. But we'll have to wait for the first trade to see what investors really think. Elsewhere in the digital currency scene, Ethereum blockchain studio Consensys raised $65 million from Mastercard, UBS, and JPMorgan Chase among others.

Conscious uncoupling. Two years ago, the major wireless carriers announced they would jointly offer a big improvement to text messaging known as Rich Communications Services, or RCS. But the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative to implement RCS at Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile never made much headway and telecom news site Light Reading reported on Tuesday that it's now dead. Still, RCS is built into Google's Messages app, which T-Mobile users with Android phones get by default now.

The empire strikes back. Some clever anti-hackers at the FBI had a novel idea when they found a way to access a malware server connected to a wave of attacks against Microsoft Exchange installations that started in January. With court approval, they issued a command through the server to delete the web shells hackers had added to gain illicit access to hundreds of victims' computers.

Bigmouth strikes again. When Spotify signed controversial podcast host Joe Rogan to that $100 million deal, many wondered how the streaming giant would deal with Rogan's propensity for offending. Turns out they don't like it. Spotify has deleted 42 of Rogan's past shows from its catalog, including episodes where Bulletproof Coffee founder Dave Asprey made strange anti-aging claims, episodes with raunchy jokes, and episodes with right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Digital Music News discovered.

In the name of fashion. Stitch Fix founder Katrina Lake is stepping down as CEO of the personal styling company. Lake will shift to the role of executive chairperson and focus on social impact work. President Elizabeth Spaulding, who joined a little over a year ago from Bain & Co., takes over as CEO on August 1. Shares of Stitch Fix, already down 16% in 2021, lost another 2% in pre-market trading on Wednesday.


The pandemic has been brutal for workers. University of Washington business professor Kira Schabram and doctoral candidate Yu Tse Heng explore how to start undoing the damage in an essay for Harvard Business Review called "Your Burnout Is Unique. Your Recovery Will Be, Too."

To effectively overcome burnout, employees must feel empowered to take control over their own lives and decisions. For example, if an employee is feeling burned out because of a lack of social connections, there are steps managers can take to alleviate that — but past research has shown that such interventions are tricky to execute: They’re often ineffective, and they may even increase the burden on your already burned out employees.

Our work suggests that a more effective approach in these cases is for employees to reaffirm their own social networks. Rather than having bosses organize endless happy hours to artificially foster connections or herd burned-out employees into forced team-building activities, real recovery comes when managers give employees the space to pursue their own restorative opportunities — whether that’s explicitly encouraging them to take personal time to check in with a colleague, providing resources to build a mentoring network, or even just showing by example that the organization values self-care.


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Crypto millionaires’ love of NFTs is a boon for the aging art market—but galleries may miss out By Simon Willis

Data-labeling company Scale AI valued at $7.3 billion with new funding By Jeremy Kahn

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With all the action on Mars this year, we have maybe quoted David Bowie's various lyrics about the red planet a bit excessively. But no need to ponder an earth man's thoughts about spiders on Mars anymore. Some researchers at MIT have created actual music from spiders by assembling melodies from the structure of their webs. It's kind of eery, kind of pleasant, and definitely otherworldly. Give a listen.

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