Gadgets

Now you’re journaling with power! (with this Mario-branded Moleskine gear)

Posted by | Gadgets, Gaming, moleskine, Nintendo, stationery, TC | No Comments

Although this isn’t a stationery news site (how I should like that!), the latest collection from Moleskine is Mario-related, so technically I can write about it. There’s even a phone case and a rolltop backpack!

It’s pretty much exactly what you expect: the usual solid Moleskine notebooks with a Nintendo flourish. They’re all Mario-related, but have different styles: a cartridge and Game Boy for the pocket-size notebooks, and stylized NES graphics on the larger ones. Unfortunately there’s no planner (hint hint, Moleskine).

“It’s a newstalgic mixture of contemporary technology and timeless paper,” reads the press release. “Nostalgic” already implies both new and old so there’s no need for a portmanteau, and a Game Boy isn’t exactly “contemporary,” but they got the paper thing right.

Actually, the notebooks have some pretty dope detailing. The small ones are embossed with cartridge ridges and Game Boy controls. All of them have internal illustrations and come with a sticker pack.

I would have loved to have these in the old days, though some SMB3 gear would probably have been more timely.

In addition to the notebooks, there’s a solid-looking, candy-red phone case that you can only get in stores and a truly 🔥 backpack. Look at these details (click for the gallery):

Wear that at E3 and people will bow down. Well, it’s better than carrying around a giant swag bag from Atlus, anyway.

You can buy everything but the phone case online; you’ll have to find Moleskine dealers to get that for some reason.

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‘Underwater Pokéball’ snatches up soft-bodied deep dwellers

Posted by | Gadgets, harvard, science, wyss institute | No Comments

Creatures that live in the depths of the oceans are often extremely fragile, making their collection a difficult affair. A new polyhedral sample-collection mechanism acts like an “underwater Pokéball,” allowing scientists to catch ’em all without destroying their soft, squishy bodies in the process.

The ball is technically a dodecahedron that closes softly around the creature in front of it. It’s not exactly revolutionary, except in that it is extremely simple mechanically — at depths of thousands of feet, the importance of this can’t be overstated — and non-destructive.

Sampling is often done via a tube with moving caps on both ends into which the creature must be guided and trapped, or a vacuum tube that sucks it in, which as you can imagine is at best unpleasant for the target and at worst, lethal.

The rotary actuated dodecahedron, or RAD, has five 3D-printed “petals” with a complex-looking but mechanically simple framework that allows them to close up simultaneously from force applied at a single point near the rear panel.

“I was building microrobots by hand in graduate school, which was very painstaking and tedious work,” explained creator Zhi Ern Teoh, of Harvard’s Wyss Institute, “and I wondered if there was a way to fold a flat surface into a three-dimensional shape using a motor instead.”

The answer is yes, obviously, since he made it; the details are published in Science Robotics. Inspired by origami and papercraft, Teoh and his colleagues applied their design knowledge to creating not just a fold-up polyhedron (you can cut one out of any sheet of paper) but a mechanism that would perform that folding process in one smooth movement. The result is the network of hinged arms around the polyhedron tuned to push lightly and evenly and seal it up.

In testing, the RAD successfully captured some moon jellies in a pool, then at around 2,000 feet below the ocean surface was able to snag squid, octopus and wild jellies and release them again with no harm done. They didn’t capture the octopus on camera, but apparently it was curious about the device.

Because of the RAD’s design, it would work just as well miles below the surface, the researchers said, though they haven’t had a chance to test that yet.

“The RAD sampler design is perfect for the difficult environment of the deep ocean because its controls are very simple, so there are fewer elements that can break,” Teoh said.

There’s also no barrier to building a larger one, or a similar device that would work in space, he pointed out. As for current applications like sampling of ocean creatures, the setup could easily be enhanced with cameras and other tools or sensors.

“In the future, we can capture an animal, collect lots of data about it like its size, material properties, and even its genome, and then let it go,” said co-author David Gruber, from CUNY. “Almost like an underwater alien abduction.”

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The best Amazon Prime Day deals you can still grab

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Prime Day, Column, Gadgets, Wirecutter | No Comments
Makula Dunbar
Contributor

Makula Dunbar is a writer with Wirecutter.

Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions. Read Wirecutter’s continuously updated list of deals here.

Amazon Prime Day this year, despite its slow start, broke records and boosted the fortunes of its competitors. And now that it’s over, we found some deals you can still take advantage of.

Asus ROG Swift PG279Q 27 Inch

Street Price: $740; Deal Price: $690

A new low price on our gaming monitor pick for Nvidia graphics card users. While it only beats our previous low by a few bucks, this monitor has been stubborn about sticking to $740.

The Asus ROG Swift PG279Q 27 Inch is our G-Sync pick in our guide to the best gaming monitors. David Murphy wrote, “Our pick had the best contrast ratio and lowest measured black levels among our finalists, which helps bring out detail in movies and games; it has all the input connections you need, as well as a built-in USB 3.0 hub; and it’s incredibly adjustable.”

AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable (15 foot)

Street Price: $11; Deal Price: $7

At $7 for a 15 foot cable, this is a new low price. We haven’t seen any discount for this particular size since 2017 and the street price typically sticks to $11.

The AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable is the top pick in our guide to cheap, great HDMI cables. “The AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable is a no-frills HDMI cable, but with HDMI, frills aren’t necessary,” Geoffrey Morrison wrote. “The cable is sturdily built and works with any video signal of today (and probably ones into the near future). Both the 3- and 15-foot lengths passed all our tests, including HDR tests.”

DJI Spark Fly More Combo

Street Price: $550; Deal Price: $500

Down to $500 in all available colors, this is a solid drop from a typical price of $550 for the DJI Spark Fly More Combo, a bundle that includes the Spark, controller, extra battery and other accessories.

The DJI Spark is our entry-level pick for drone photography in our guide to the best drones. “If all you want is something to capture aerial footage on occasion for personal use and social-media sharing, you can save several hundred dollars by getting the DJI Spark,” Mike Perlman wrote. “Despite weighing half as much as the Mavic and folding up to about the size of your hand, it has all the important features you need from a video drone: 1080p video recording, image and flight stabilization, collision-avoidance technology and an included controller, and smart-flight modes like ActiveTrack (tracks and follows a subject) and gesture controls all come standard.”

Lutron Caséta (2 of our top in-wall wireless light switch and dimmer pick + control hub + 2 remotes)

Street Price: $160; Deal Price: $120

If you’re looking for a Lutron Caséta starter kit this is a good deal on one that includes two switches, one bridge and two remotes. Usually priced at $160, the price drops to $120 at checkout, this matches the lowest price we’ve seen.

The Lutron Caséta Wireless In-Wall Dimmer and the Lutron Caséta Smart Bridge are the top picks in our guide to the best in-wall wireless light switch and dimmer. Rachel Cericola wrote, “After spending more than 30 hours swapping out switches, flipping switches, programming timers, and talking to experts, we’ve decided that the Lutron Caséta Wireless In-Wall Dimmer is the best wireless in-wall dimmer switch for most people. It’s phase-adaptive, so it can work with any lighting load; it’s the easiest to physically install; and like the other eight units we tested, it features straightforward remote control and scheduling.”

Philips Hue White A19 4-Pack 60W

Street Price: $50; Deal Price: $40

For those of you who want a set of smart LED light bulbs but don’t want or need the added price for color, a 4-pack of 60W Philips Hue bulbs is an excellent deal matching the previous lowest price on the white variant of our top pick for best smart LED light bulbs.

“Setting up Hue lights requires a few simple steps, much like any other smart-home device. The gateway connects to your home router or network switch via a wired Ethernet port,” Grant Clauser wrote. “This connects the system to your network and allows you to control the lights with a smartphone or tablet connected wirelessly to the same network.”

Q Acoustics 3020

Street Price: $270; Deal Price: $243

At $243 from a street price of $270, this is the lowest price we’ve seen for a pair of Q Acoustics 3020 in either the American Walnut finish or graphite color. These colors are typically priced lower than the black and white colors, but if you absolutely must have either of those, they are also down to the lowest price we’ve seen at $289 from $320.

The Q Acoustics 3020 is the top pick in our guide to the best bookshelf speakers for most stereos. “The Q Acoustics 3020 pair reproduces music of all genres with great detail and clarity on a wide soundstage. Despite each speaker’s compact size, the set delivers both strong bass and accurate vocals,” Chris Heinonen wrote. “These speakers are efficient, too, which means they can play louder with less-powerful receivers and amplifiers. The compact, rounded-corner design comes in four finishes to help this set fit in with a wider variety of decors.”

Roku Streaming Stick

Street Price: $45; Deal Price: $35

Recently we’ve been seeing a lot of price fluctuations between $40 and $50, so it’s nice to see this media streaming device down to a new low price of $35. Prior to this deal the best price we’ve seen is $39.

The Roku Streaming Stick is the runner-up pick (if you don’t need 4K) in our guide to the best media streaming devices. Chris Heinonen wrote, “If you don’t need to stream UltraHD 4K content, the Roku Streaming Stick is the best option available today. It is almost identical to the Streaming Stick+, but supports only 1080p resolution and doesn’t have the external Wi-Fi antenna. If you know you aren’t going to get a 4K TV in the future, or are just looking to upgrade an existing 1080p TV or projector, it offers the same content selection, search, and performance of our main pick.”

Fujifilm X-T2

Street Price: $1500; Deal Price: $1,100

The high-end Fujifilm camera we recommend is down to a new low price of $1,100 from a street price of $1,500. The deal is for the black color and only the body without a lens. Prior to this sale the lowest price we’ve seen is $1,400, although there were some deals around Black Friday for the camera with a lens.

The Fujifilm X-T2 is the top pick for experienced shooters and pros in our guide to the best Fujifilm cameras. Amadou Diallo wrote, “The Fujifilm X-T2 represents a significant investment into your photography, and that’s before you even consider adding any of Fujifilm’s well-regarded lenses. But its sensor outperforms what you get in many DSLRs, providing impressively detailed images in even very dark lighting conditions.”

ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet

Street Price: $190; Deal Price: $130 w/ code AMUZISNW

Use the code AMUZISNW to get this price. It’s the lowest price we’ve seen so far, and only $8 more than our top pick, but with 30 percent more mAh/charge.

The ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet is our runner-up pick for laptop charging in our guide to the best portable AC battery pack. “If our top pick is unavailable or you need a little more power to keep a larger laptop going, get the ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet,” Mark Smirniotis wrote. “It has the same 85 W output as the Jackery PowerBar, so it can power the same types of laptops and electronics, but with an extra 25 percent capacity, this ChargeTech model will last a bit longer—handy if you’re frequently on long-haul flights or working in the field.”

littleBits Rule Your Room Kit

Street Price: $80; Deal Price: $40

Down to $40 when typically it’s priced around $85, this is an all-time low price for this electronics kit. Prior to this deal the lowest price we’ve seen is $56. We doubt this deal will last more than a few days, at most, so don’t wait — grab it at this low price if you know a would-be inventor.

The littleBits Rule Your Room Kit is the upgrade pick in our guide to the best electronics kits for kids and beginners. “Kids can create a piggy-bank alarm, a catapult, or an invention of their own using modular pieces that snap together magnetically. Each project takes more time and produces a more satisfying, practical device than those in the other kits we tested,” Signe Brewster wrote. “The Rule Your Room Kit comes with the fewest pieces and sample projects among our field of competitors, but because littleBits encourages the incorporation of everyday items into the projects, the kit feels like it offers more possibilities than other kits of similar size.”

Acton Blink Lite

Street Price: $225; Deal Price: $200

Back down to $200, this is a nice deal on this recommended electric skateboard. The Acton Blink Lite is our budget pick for lighter riders in our guide to the best electric skateboard. If you’re a sub-180-pound rider who isn’t looking to spend a ton, this is a good opportunity to save some cash. While the street price has dropped in recent months, it’s still a solid discount.

“The Acton Blink Lite may not be the most powerful board around, but it’s a phenomenal value considering its price, and it would be a good gift for the young skater in your life,” Jack Smith wrote. “But despite the lack in power, we found riding the Blink Lite to be a blast, largely due to its nimble mini-cruiser design and small size. It’s also significantly cheaper than most other boards available.”

Because great deals don’t just happen on Prime Day, sign up for our daily deals email and we’ll send you the best deals we find every weekday. Also, deals change all the time, and some of these may have expired. To see an updated list of current deals, please go here.

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Microsoft to launch new Xbox hardware next month

Posted by | Gadgets, Microsoft, playstation, xbox | No Comments

Microsoft is teasing new Xbox hardware and accessories will launch at Gamescom in Germany next month. Details are limited. The word comes from a Microsoft blog post about the event in which it lists the date and time of the August 21 event, which will feature “lots of news, all-new Xbox hardware and accessories, and features on upcoming titles.”

Don’t expect the successor to the Xbox One, though.

There are several options here and most signs point to a new Xbox Elite controller. Rumors have been swirling that the updated controller will feature USB-C charging, Windows 10 compatibility and updated mechanisms for the triggers and buttons. The timing is right, too. If announced in the middle of August, Microsoft will have plenty of time to get the expensive controller into retail stores for the holiday season.

Microsoft just released the 4K Xbox One X last year. This model is still competitive with the latest PlayStation 4. A lower price, or a redesigned low-end Xbox One S, could also be on tap.

Whatever is announced on August 21 at Gamescom, we’ll pass along the word.

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This $20 DIY kit makes your NES, SNES or Mega Drive controller wireless

Posted by | 8bitdo, Gadgets, Gaming, Hack, hardware | No Comments

I have to hand it to 8BitDo. At first I thought they were just opportunistically hawking cheap hunks of plastic in an era of unparalleled nostalgia for retro games, but… well, who am I kidding? That’s exactly what they’re doing. But they’re doing it well. And these new DIY kits are the latest sign that they actually understand their most obsessive customers.

While you can of course purchase fully formed controllers and adapters from the company that let your retro consoles ride the wireless wave of the future, not everyone is ready to part with their original hardware.

I, for example, have had my Super Nintendo for 25 years or so — its yellowing, cracked bulk and controllers, all-over stains and teeth marks compelling all my guests to make an early exit. I consider it part of my place’s unique charm, but more importantly I’m used to the way these controllers feel and look — they’re mine.

8BitDo understands me, along with the rest of the wretches out there who can’t part with the originals out of some twisted concept of loyalty or authenticity. So they’re giving us the option to replace the controllers’ aging guts with a fresh new board equipped with wireless connectivity, making it a healthy hybrid of the past and present.

If you’re the type (as I am) that worries that a modern controller will break in ways that an SNES controller would find laughable, if it could laugh, then this will likely strike your fancy. All you do is take apart your gamepad (if you can stand to do so), pull out the original PCB (and save it, of course), and pop in the new one.

You’ll be using more or less all the same parts as these famously durable controllers came with (check out this teardown). The way the buttons feel shouldn’t change at all, since the mechanical parts aren’t being replaced, just the electronics that they activate. It runs on a rechargeable battery inside that you recharge with an unfortunately proprietary cable that comes with the kit.

If you’re worried about latency… don’t be. On these old consoles, control latency is already like an order of magnitude higher than a complete wireless packet round trip, so you shouldn’t notice any lag.

You will, however, need to pick up a Bluetooth adapter if you want to use this on your original console — but if you want to use the controller with a wireless-equipped setup like your computer, it should work flawlessly.

If you buy it and don’t like it, you can just slot the original PCB back into its spot and no harm is done!

There are conversion kits for the NES and SNES, the new Classic Editions of both, and the Sega Mega Drive. At $20 each it’s hardly a big investment, and the reversible nature of the mod makes it low risk. And hey, you might learn something about that controller of yours. Or find a desiccated spider inside.

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Airobotics makes autonomous drones in a box

Posted by | Aircraft, aviation, drone, Emerging-Technologies, Flirtey, Gadgets, Startups, surveillance, TC, unmanned aerial vehicles | No Comments

Not far from Tel Aviv a drone flies low over a gritty landscape of warehouses and broken pavement. It slowly approaches its home — a refrigerator-sized box inside a mesh fence, and hovers, preparing to dock. It descends like some giant bug, whining all the way, and disappears into its base where it will be cleaned, recharged and sent back out into the air. This drone is doing the nearly impossible: it’s flying and landing autonomously and can fly again and again without human intervention — and it’s doing it all inside a self-contained unit that is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time.

The company that makes the drone, Airobotics, invited us into their headquarters to see their products in action. In this video we talk with the company about how the drones work, how their clients use the drones for mapping and surveillance in hard-to-reach parts of the world and the future of drone autonomy. It’s a fascinating look into technology that will soon be appearing in jungles, deserts and war zones near you.

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When in Rome is the first Alexa-powered board game

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, arkansas, Gadgets, Rome, TC, voice technology | No Comments

Years ago, in the heyday of home video, I played a board games that used VHS tapes and electronic parts to help spur the action along. From Candy Land VCR to Captain Power, game makers were doing the best they could with a new technology. Now, thanks to Alexa, they can try something even cooler — board games that talk back.

The first company to try this is Sensible Object. Their new game, When in Rome, is a family board game that pits two teams against each other in a race to travel the world. The game itself consists of a board and a few colored pieces; the real magic comes from Alexa. You start the game by enabling the When in Rome skill, then you start the game. Alexa then prompts you with questions as you tool around the board.

The rules are simple because Alexa does most of the work. The game describes how to set up the board and gets you started, then you just trigger it with your voice as you play.

The company’s first game, Beasts of Balance, was another clever hybrid of AR and real-life board-game action. Both games are a bit gimmicky and a bit high-tech — you won’t be able to play these in a cozy beach house without internet, for example — but it’s a fun departure from the norm.

Like the VCR games of yore, When in Rome depends on a new technology to find a new way to have fun. It’s a clever addition to the standard board-game fare and our family had a good time playing it. While it’s not as timeless as a bit of Connect 4 or Risk, it’s a great addition to the board-games shelf and a cool use of voice technology in gaming.

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Living with the new 15-inch MacBook Pro

Posted by | Apple, Gadgets, hardware, macbook, macbook pro, Reviews | No Comments

When reviewing hardware, it’s important to integrate it into your life as much as possible. If you can, swap it in for your existing devices for a few days or a week, to really get an idea of what it’s like to use it day to day.

There are certain nuances you can only discover through this approach. Of course, that’s easier said than done in most cases. Switching between phones and computers every week isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds, especially when juggling multiple operating systems.

As a MacBook Pro owner, however, this one was a fair bit easier. In fact, there’s very little changed here from an aesthetic standpoint, and beyond the quieter keyboard and Siri integration, there’s not a lot that’s immediately apparent in the 2018 MacBook Pro refresh for me. That’s because I’m not the target demographic for the update. I write words for a living. There are large portions of my job that I could tackle pretty easily on an Apple IIe (please, no one tell the IT department).

This upgrade is for a different class of user entirely: the creative professional. These are the people long assumed to be the core user base for the Mac ecosystem. Sure, they only account for around 15 percent of Mac users, according to the company’s estimates, but they’re the people who use the machines to make art. And as such, it’s precisely the group of influencers the company needs to court.

In recent years, however, some vocal critics have accused the company of taking that key demo for granted. Apple has seemed more focused on a populist approach to its technology. The simplification of pro software like Final Cut X and the seeming abandonment of the Mac Pro have been regarded as exhibits A and B.

For the first time in recent memory, the company has serious competition for the hearts and minds of creative pros, including Microsoft, which has made the category a focus with its high-end Surface line.

But the last two years have seen Apple fighting back. The company was uncharacteristically open about the status of the Mac Pro line, which has been undergoing a fundamental rethink. In the meantime, it released the iMac Pro and added a bunch of new features to macOS aimed firmly at that category.

The new MacBook Pro continues that trend; the form factor remains the same, and the changes are largely under the hood. But these are in fact extremely powerful machines built around the premise that, in 2018, one shouldn’t have to compromise power in order to go portable. Well, maybe a little — but in those cases where you need some intense graphical processing, there’s always an external GPU, which makes the machine capable of VR and other process-intensive tasks.

The new Pros top out at a bank-breaking $6,699, presenting a healthy jump over the highest-end models money could buy last year. For the rest of us, however, the starting price remains the same, at $1,799 for the 13-inch and $2,399 for the 15.

Keys to quiet

There’s a lot going on here. First, as many pointed out in the initial announcement, Apple didn’t alter the fundamentals here — they just made the loud typing a bit quieter. That was a surprise to many, given everything that’s happened on that front over the last several months. After all, if the company was going to go out of its way to update the technology, wasn’t a fundamental rethink in order here?

A couple of things. First, things (and lawsuits) didn’t really start getting hot and heavy on that front until recently. The first major class-action suit was filed back in May. Hardware iteration happens slowly, especially with a massive company that supports so many users. After all, you want to get things right — especially when correcting a known issue. A couple of months is hardly sufficient lead time.


Old keyboard

Second, Apple says the actual instances of real keyboard failure are a small minority. I’m inclined to believe that’s the case, though the internet certainly has the tendency to amplify these kinds of things. But still, there seems a reasonable possibility that some bigger fix is in the works.

The company will also point out that, in spite of pushback, many users like the new keyboards. Based on the multiple threads of discussion we had after the news was announced, I can tell you that this is anecdotally true among the TechCrunch staff.

Things got better with gen two, and I’ve certainly become more used to typing on it. I still didn’t love it at first, but I’d say I’m pretty much keyboard-agnostic at this point.

New keyboard

Along with the mechanics, the key travel is the same. So if you had issues with the typing being too shallow for your liking, sorry, you’re out of luck here. An early teardown points to a thin, silicone membrane sitting on top of the keyboard switch that serves to help protect the undercarriage from spills, food particles and the like. I once got a small piece of something stuck under there and it hampered movement entirely.

In my case, it was nothing that a blast of canned air couldn’t fix (we don’t all have one lying around, but we really should), but clearly not everyone has been so lucky on that front. It seems as though the muffling of the sound and the extra sense of tactile pushback was a happy accident of a kind here, but hey, we’ll take it.

Here’s a longish thing we wrote after getting our hands on the system. We enlisted Anthony Ha, TechCrunch’s Loud Typing World Champion five years running (they tried to recruit him out of college, but the allure of writing about VCs was too strong) to try it out. Even with Anthony downright punishing the keys, the result was noticeable.

The new keys aren’t silent, but they’re a lot less likely to get you kicked out of the library. There’s not a huge difference between the actual decibel levels between the two, but the older model’s more staccato typewriter clacking sound has become more dull and less harsh on the ears, which likely makes it sound that much quieter.

Another tidbit here for people who focused on such things: The keys’ cap color is ever-so-slightly lighter than the last. I thought I was going crazy at first, but there you go. I mean, I still think I’m losing my mind, but for non-keyboard-related reasons.

About those specs

Apple didn’t hold back on the specs with the review unit it sent along. The model sports:

  • 2.9 GHz Intel Core i9
  • 32 GB of DDR4 memory
  • Radeon Pro 560X
  • 4TB of storage

Configured on Apple’s site, that will run you a cool $6,669 — about the same as the monthly rent on a studio apartment in San Francisco, from what I understand. It’s worth noting here that it’s the SSD storage that really pushes the cost into the stratosphere. That’s an additional $3,200 over the default 512GB.

Again, 4TB is probably overkill for the vast majority of users. All of the above configurations are, really, but they’re there if you want/need them. Apple was able to push memory up to 32GB courtesy of finally introducing DDR4 to the MacBook. That move does come with a hit to the battery life, however, so the company went ahead and increased the battery size to offset that hit.

The company says the laptop gets around 10 hours of use in its testing. I admittedly put it through something a bit more rigorous than standardized testing when incorporating it into my daily usage — recording a podcast on Skype, listening to music while working/browsing the web (it’s part of my job, I swear) — and got a few hours less than that.

As for performance, Apple’s not messing around here. Running Geekbench 4 (a popular PC benchmark), I got an impressive 5540 on the single core and 23345 with the multi-core test. Geekbench got similar — if slightly lower — results in its own tests on the high end. Here’s founder John Poole on the findings:

For the 15-inch models, single-core performance is up 12-15%, and multi-core performance is up 39-46%. Since the underlying processor architecture hasn’t significantly changed between the 2017 and 2018 models, the increases in performance are due to higher Turbo Boost frequencies, more cores, and DDR4 memory.

The 2018 MacBook Pro is the most substantial upgrade (at least regarding performance) since the introduction of quad-core processors in the 2011 MacBook Pro.

Taken together, that represents a significant upgrade from last year’s model. Individual performance will vary depending on a lot of different topics, but there’s no doubt these are powerful machines.

Hey, Siri

The addition of hands-free Siri functionality didn’t get a lot of play here, but it’s an important one — if not for the computer itself, then for Apple’s broader ambitions. Like Google’s play, Siri was mobile first.

But Apple’s assistant has always been about building a broader ecosystem of contextual search that can help the company tailor its offerings to individual user needs. We saw this manifest itself last year with the addition of HomePod, a typically Apple high-end approach to the insanely popular world of smart speakers.

The assistant has actually been available on macOS since Sierra (10.12) rolled out back in late 2016. This, however, marks the first time hands-free voice interaction has been available on the desktop. Apple says it was the T2, introduced on the iMac Pro, which allowed for the capability — just one of an extremely long list of features the company has offloaded on the proprietary chip.

Like other key features, Siri is enabled during setup. If you’re the sort who sticks masking tape over your webcam, you can also simply opt out of having the MacBook’s microphones listening in for the wake word. And you can always untick the “Listen for ‘Hey Siri’” box in Settings.

Setup is more or less the same as on iOS. You’ll be prompted to speak a couple of phrases to train the AI on your voice. Device interaction functions similarly as other assistant hardware ecosystems. The moment you say, “Hey, Siri,” your iPhone/Mac/HomePod, et al. communicate with one another, prioritizing either the device that heard the query the best (likely the closest) or was most recently used.

I ended up disabling the feature on my phone in order to test it on the desktop, because there were too many instances of the phone picking it up or having Siri pop up on both at once and then disappearing on the one that was de-prioritized. When the feature was switched off the phone, however, its desktop counterpart was plenty responsive.

All of this leads to a key question: Is a desktop smart assistant ultimately very useful? The primary driver of voice functionality is the ability to free up your hands from having to type. Presumably, however, you’ve already got your hands at or near the keyboard if you’re close enough for Siri to hear you.

Multitasking seems to be the primary use-case here. Say you’re typing and want to know the weather or find movie times, you can definitely do that. Ditto for sports scores — it took a query or two, but “did the A’s win yesterday?” got me the answer I wanted, with a conversational reply, “the Athletics eked out a win over the Giants in the Bay Bridge Series by a score of 4 to 3 yesterday.”

Hey Siri, a win is a win, okay?

Multimedia functionality, which seems like one of the most logical applications, is still limited here. Siri will find and play things in Apple Music, but ask her to play something on Spotify and that’s a no-go — you’ll get an Apple Music link and Wikipedia entry instead. Siri knows which side her bread is buttered on. Ask her to play a movie and she’ll confess that she can’t do that.

More functionality is surely on the way. For now, however, Siri on the desktop is more a nice addition than necessary feature.

Toning it down

Like Siri, True Tone is opt-in during the setup process. You can toggle it on and off at the beginning, which I suggest, just so you know what you’re getting yourself into. And, like Siri, you can always go back into settings later to adjust if it’s not to your liking. Clicking Option and the Touch Bar bright icon will get you there, as well.

The effect, which debuted on the iPad Pro (and rolled out to other new iOS devices) utilizes a light sensor (new for the Mac) to determine the ambient color and brightness of its surroundings. It’s a sort of more sophisticated version of the brightness detection Apple computers have had on board for some time now.

If you’ve ever fiddled with a camera (even the one on your phone in most cases), you recognize the importance of white balance. That’s the thing that turns objects weird colors when you step into different lighting settings. It’s a key to perceiving contrast getting lifelike reproductions of images. I have two 15-inch MacBooks in front of me right now (that’s just how I roll), and it’s like night and day. You’ve got no idea how blue the screen you’ve been staring at is until you see it up against another True Tone-enabled display.

For a majority of us, it’s a nice feature, but for photographers, video producers and designers who rely on a MacBook for their work, it’s a much bigger deal. As recently published support documents point out, the feature will also work with a handful of secondary displays, including Apple’s own, and LG’s Ultrafine 4K and 5K.

Upgrade time?

I’m staring at my now 2017 MacBook Pro as I type this. It’s always tough to compete with the latest and greatest, especially when it’s been specced out like crazy. I’m going to miss the quieter keyboard and True Tone display, for sure. Hands-free Siri, I can really take or leave at the moment, based on current functionality.

But I’m not ready for an upgrade just yet. For a majority of users, the upgrades on the high end will mostly amount to overkill. Thankfully, however, the low-end price points remain the same at $1,799 and $2,399 for the 13- and 15-inch, respectively.

Those who expect a lot more from their machines will no doubt be excited to see what these laptops can do. The new MacBooks aren’t a fundamental rethink by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re a welcome acknowledgment that the company still considers creative pros a key part of its DNA.

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Roku unveils $200 wireless speakers made for Roku TV

Posted by | Gadgets, Media, roku, roku tv | No Comments

Roku is getting into the speaker business with today’s announcement of Roku TV Wireless Speakers.

Mark Ely, the company’s vice president of product management, said Roku is trying to address a growing consumer problem — the fact that as TVs get thinner, you end up buying “this beautiful TV, but it sounds bad.” To address this, you may end up purchasing a soundbar or creating a more elaborate home theater setup, but Ely argued that many consumers find this process confusing and intimidating.

So as the name suggests, Roku has created wireless speakers specifically for Roku TVs, the company’s lineup of partner-built smart TVs. Ely described them as speakers that deliver “really premium sound in a really compact package,” and at an affordable price. (They’re about seven inches tall and weigh four pounds each, he said.)

Roku says it should be easy to pair these speakers wirelessly with a Roku TV using Roku Connect, and since the company controls both the video and audio experience, it can ensure that they’re sync’d up perfectly, without lag. To minimize those moments when you’re frantically reaching for the remote to adjust the volume, the speakers also come with Automatic Volume Leveling to lower the sound in particularly loud scenes and boost the sounds when it gets too quiet.

Couple on Couch

Ely said the product takes advantage of Roku’s acquisition last year of Danish audio startup Dynastrom: “The goal has been to have audio be a real center of excellence for the company.”

“Our fundamental belief here is that by delivering a better sound experience, you get a better entertainment streaming experience,” he added.

The speakers will also come with a new remote called the Roku Touch, which is designed to emphasize voice controls without fully giving up the benefits of a regular remote — you can press-and-hold to deliver voice commands, but it still has buttons for playback control and others that you can preset.

Smart speakers from big tech companies like Apple and Amazon are seen as one main ways to get into the voice-powered home assistant market. Roku has its own voice assistant (which it’s making available to manufacturing partners), but Ely and Director of Consumer PR Seana Norvell said it’s really focused on understanding your entertainment needs — rather than, say, telling you the weather or helping you order products online.

End of Entertainment Center

While Roku says the speakers will ship in late October at a price of $199.99, they’re available for pre-order now, with pricing at $149.99 until July 23, and then $179.99 until October 15.

Ely said the company is only selling the speakers from the Roku website, at least initially, because that allows it to “market directly to Roku TV customers” while ensuring that other Roku customers (namely, those who have a Roku streaming device but not a Roku TV) don’t end up buying these speakers, which won’t work for them.

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iFixit finds dust covers in latest MacBook Pro keyboard

Posted by | Apple, apple inc, apple keyboard, Computer Hardware, computing, Gadgets, Keyboard, macbook, macintosh, Steve Jobs | No Comments

Apple released a refreshed MacBook Pro this week and top among the new features is a tweaked keyboard. Apple says its quieter than the last version and in our tests, we agree. But iFixit found something else: thin, silicone barriers that could improve the keyboard’s reliability.

This is big news. Users have long reported the butterfly switch keyboard found in MacBook Pros were less reliable than past models. There are countless reports of dust and lint and crumbs causing keys to stick or fail. Personally, I have not had any issues, but many at TechCrunch have. To date Apple has yet to issue a recall for the keyboard..

iFixit found a thin layer of rubberized material covering the new butterfly mechanism. The repair outlet also points to an Apple patent for this exact technology that’s designed to “prevent and/or alleviate contaminant ingress.”

According to Apple, which held a big media unveiling for new models, the changes to the keyboard were designed to address the loud clickity-clack and not the keyboard’s tendency to get mucked up by dust. And that makes sense, too. If Apple held an event and said “We fixed the keyboards” it would mean Apple was admitting something was wrong with the keyboards. Instead Apple held an event and said “We made the keyboards quieter” admitting the past keyboards were loud, and not faulty.

We just got our review unit and will report back on the keyboard’s reliability after a day or two at the beach. Because science.

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