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The Best of IFA 2017

The IFA trade show in Berlin is Europe's version of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Every September electronics manufacturers all over the world come to Germany to show off their latest devices. It's the biggest source of major industry announcements of the fall, and we've been on the ground to cover it.

IFA takes place at Messe Berlin, a sprawling convention center with 25 separate halls scattered across multiple buildings. It's a labyrinthine schlep through hundreds of booths and displays showing off the newest appliances, hardware, phones, smart home tech, and wearables.

PCMag analysts Matthew Buzzi, Ajay Kumar, and Victoria Song spent the week in Berlin to survey the tech landscape as it shifts and evolves. And they came up with a handful of top picks from the show.

Remember, IFA is just the start. We're heading into autumn, and that means a lengthy holiday season with plenty of buildup to the shopping frenzy of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the holiday month after. Then, after the New Year, we head to Las Vegas for CES to keep you on the cutting-edge of technology for 2018.

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  • 1

    Best Big-Screen Phone: LG V30

    The LG V30 is the heavyweight phone of the show, and LG's primary competitor to the Samsung Galaxy Note 8. It boasts a 6-inch Quad HD OLED display, a Snapdragon 835 processor, and dual camera sensors with a slew of software customizations for taking crystal-clear photos and cinematic video, especially in low light. Throw in some high-resolution audio playback and a top-tier microphone array for recording, and you have a multimedia powerhouse.

  • 2

    Best Small-Screen Phone: Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact

    Despite a petite build, Sony's 4.6-inch Xperia XZ1 Compact is powered by a Snapdragon 835 processor, making it the most powerful small phone at the show. It also has the same 3D-scanning camera capabilities of its larger sibling, along with a wide-angle selfie mode. The Compact is easily the most promising sub-5-inch phone to come out of IFA, and could very well become your best alternative to big-screen phablets.

  • 3

    Best Tablet: Acer Switch 7 Black Edition

    This Surface alternative impressed us in our hands on, with a clever kickstand that automatically extends when you push the spine against your desk or table. And when you want to stand it back up, it resets itself to rigid once it reaches a certain angle. Add to that an in-glass fingerprint reader and a fan-less design—a first for a tablet with discrete graphics—and it looks like a winner.

  • 4

    Best Desktop: Acer Aspire S24

    One of the most aesthetically pleasing products we saw at IFA, the super-slim all-in-one Aspire S24 desktop looks like another great entry in a category that still has room for improvement. Its 23.8-inch IPS display is only 0.23-inch thick, and gold trim gives it a sharp look. Though the Full HD resolution could be higher, it helps with another of the machine’s main draws—a $999 price point. Add in Intel's eighth-generation processors and a wireless charging base, and you've got quite an attractive package, in more ways than one.

  • 5

    Best Laptop: Lenovo Yoga 920

    Another great-looking system, the thin and convertible Yoga 920 is the most striking laptop we saw. The Yoga line is well-oiled at this point, and this looks another slick entry, with fresh Intel CPUs and up to 4K resolution for a 13.9-inch display. It also includes far-field mics for hollering at Cortana, as well as two Thunderbolt 3 ports and Dolby Atmos. There are even some sweet Star Wars lid designs available for super fans.

  • 6

    Best Gaming Machine: Asus ROG Chimera

    There were a number of appealing gaming systems at IFA—Acer's Predator Orion 9000 desktop among them—but the Chimera does something worth recognizing. It's the first laptop with a 144Hz refresh rate display, which it couples with Nvidia's G-Sync technology. Gamers pay big for monitors with these features, so building one right into a laptop (and combining it with a GTX 1080 and a Core i7-7820HK CPU) is a head-turning proposition. It's sure to be expensive, but it's a notable step forward.

  • 7

    Best AR: Lenovo Mirage and Star Wars: Jedi Challenge

    What kid hasn’t dreamed about being a Jedi? The Lenovo Mirage AR headset can finally make that dream a reality. Well, an augmented reality. Star Wars: Jedi Challenge bundles a Mirage headset with a lightsaber touch controller with haptic feedback and a tracking sensor. It gives you a wide range of gameplay options including duels, grand strategy battles, and Holochess straight from the movies. You'll need a compatible smartphone and some open space, but that's a small price to pay to become a Jedi Knight.

  • 8

    Best Smartwatch: Fitbit Ionic

    Technically Fitbit announced its first official smartwatch, the Ionic, right before IFA, but it's still one of the buzziest wearables in Berlin. It’s set to ship in October and will feature NFC payments, its own app gallery, customizable clock faces, and an open SDK for third-party developers. It also adds two red LEDs in addition to the typical optical heart rate sensor, which opens it up to monitoring for sleep apnea in the future.

  • 9

    Best Fitness Watch: Samsung Gear Sport

    The Gear Sport took center stage at Samsung’s press conference. It has the same distinctive bezel as the Gear S3, but a slimmer profile for a sleeker look. And swimmers rejoice. The Sport is water resistant to 5 ATM, or 165 feet, and comes with an exclusive Speedo On app to track your laps, strokes, and splits.

  • 10

    Best Fitness Tracker: Garmin Vivomove HR

    While Garmin already has some serious street cred among, it hasn’t exactly won points among the fashion crowd. Until now. The Vivomove HR is a comfortable hybrid smartwatch complete with GPS, continuous heart rate monitoring, and subtle on-screen notifications. Best of all, it’s wrapped up in a chic, classic design.

  • 11

    Best Smart Home Device: Neato Botvac D7 Connected

    Roomba might be the more recognizable name, but Neato threw down the gauntlet at IFA with the Botvac D7 Connected. Rather than having to use "virtual walls" to cordon off a section of your home you don’t want vacuumed, the D7 will map your space in an app and you can simply draw a line where you don't want it to go. Plus it supports integration with If This Then That (IFTTT) and has its own chatbot for Facebook Messenger.Neato Botvac D7 Connected

  • 12

    Best Speaker: Sony LF-S50G

    Sony’s LF-S50G isn't exactly a name that rolls off the tongue, but “Ok Google” might suit you better. The LF-S50G is an attractive wireless speaker (yes, it looks like the Apple HomePod) powered by Google Assistant. Aside from the excellent search capabilities and machine learning protocols the AI assistant is known for, the speaker supports useful gesture controls that replace physical navigation buttons. It also has Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, dual-band Wi-Fi, and Chromecast support, providing you with no shortage of ways to stay connected.

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Does Google’s Duplex violate two-party consent laws?

Google’s Duplex, which calls businesses on your behalf and imitates a real human, ums and ahs included, has sparked a bit of controversy among privacy advocates. Doesn’t Google recording a person’s voice and sending it to a data center for analysis violate two-party consent law, which requires everyone in a conversation to agree to being recorded? The answer isn’t immediately clear, and Google’s silence isn’t helping. Let’s take California’s law as the example, since that’s the state where Google is based and where it used the system. Penal Code section 632 forbids recording any “confidential communication” (defined more or less as any non-public conversation) without the consent of all parties. (The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has a good state-by-state guide to these laws.) Google has provided very little in the way of details about how Duplex actually works, so attempting to answer this question involves a certain amount of informed speculation. To begin with I’m going to consider all phone calls as “confidential” for the purposes of the law. What constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy is far from settled, and some will have it that you there isn’t such an expectation when making an appointment with a salon. But what about a doctor’s office, or if you need to give personal details over the phone? Though some edge cases may qualify as public, it’s simpler and safer (for us and for Google) to treat all phone conversations as confidential. What we know about Google’s Duplex demo so far As a second assumption, it seems clear that, like most Google services, Duplex’s work takes place in a data center somewhere, not locally on your device. So fundamentally there is a requirement in the system that the other party’s audio will be recorded and sent in some form to that data center for processing, at which point a response is formulated and spoken. On its face it sounds bad for Google. There’s no way the system is getting consent from whomever picks up the phone. That would spoil the whole interaction — “This call is being conducted by a Google system using speech recognition and synthesis; your voice will be analyzed at Google data centers. Press 1 or say ‘I consent’ to consent.” I would have hung up after about two words. The whole idea is to mask the fact that it’s an AI system at all, so getting consent that way won’t work. But there’s wiggle room as far as the consent requirement in how the audio is recorded, transmitted and stored. After all, there are systems out there that may have to temporarily store a recording of a person’s voice without their consent — think of a VoIP call that caches audio for a fraction of a second in case of packet loss. There’s even a specific cutout in the law for hearing aids, which if you think about it do in fact do “record” private conversations. Temporary copies produced as part of a legal, beneficial service aren’t the target of this law. This is partly because the law is about preventing eavesdropping and wiretapping, not preventing any recorded representation of conversation whatsoever that isn’t explicitly authorized. Legislative intent is important. “There’s a little legal uncertainty there, in the sense of what degree of permanence is required to constitute eavesdropping,” said Mason Kortz, of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “The big question is what is being sent to the data center and how is it being retained. If it’s retained in the condition that the original conversation is understandable, that’s a violation.” For instance, Google could conceivably keep a recording of the call, perhaps for AI training purposes, perhaps for quality assurance, perhaps for users’ own records (in case of time slot dispute at the salon, for example). They do retain other data along these lines. But it would be foolish. Google has an army of lawyers and consent would have been one of the first things they tackled in the deployment of Duplex. For the onstage demos it would be simple enough to collect proactive consent from the businesses they were going to contact. But for actual use by consumers the system needs to engineered with the law in mind. What would a functioning but legal Duplex look like? The conversation would likely have to be deconstructed and permanently discarded immediately after intake, the way audio is cached in a device like a hearing aid or a service like digital voice transmission. A closer example of this is Amazon, which might have found itself in violation of COPPA, a law protecting children’s data, whenever a kid asked an Echo to play a Raffi song or do long division. The FTC decided that as long as Amazon and companies in that position immediately turn the data into text and then delete it afterwards, no harm and, therefore, no violation. That’s not an exact analogue to Google’s system, but it is nonetheless instructive. “It may be possible with careful design to extract the features you need without keeping the original, in a way where it’s mathematically impossible to recreate the recording,” Kortz said. If that process is verifiable and there’s no possibility of eavesdropping — no chance any Google employee, law enforcement officer or hacker could get into the system and intercept or collect that data — then potentially Duplex could be deemed benign, transitory recording in the eye of the law. That assumes a lot, though. Frustratingly, Google could clear this up with a sentence or two. It’s suspicious that the company didn’t address this obvious question with even a single phrase, like Sundar Pichai adding during the presentation that “yes, we are compliant with recording consent laws.” Instead of people wondering if, they’d be wondering how. And of course we’d all still be wondering why. We’ve reached out to Google multiple times on various aspects of this story, but for a company with such talkative products, they sure clammed up fast.

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