hardware

The iRobot Roomba s9+ and Braava m6 are the robots you should trust to clean your house well

Posted by | Assistant, contents, Gadgets, Google, hardware, home, home appliances, Home Automation, iRobot, Reviews, robot, robotic vacuum cleaner, robotics, Roomba, samsung galaxy s9, smart devices, TC, Vacuum | No Comments

This holiday season, we’re going to be looking back at some of the best tech of the past year, and providing fresh reviews in a sort of ‘greatest hits’ across a range of categories. First up: iRobot’s top-end home cleaning robots, the Roomba s9+ robot vacuum, and the Braava m6 robot mop and floor sweeper. Both of these represent the current peak of iRobot’s technology, and while that shows up in the price tag, it also shows up in performance.

iRobot Roomba S9+

The iRobot Roomba S9+ is actually two things: The Roomba S9, which is available separately, and the Clean Base that enables the vacuum to empty itself after a run, giving you many cleanings before it needs you to actually open up a bin or replace a bag. Both the vacuum and its base are WiFi-connected, and controllable via iRobot’s app, as well as Google Assistant and Alexa. Combined, it’s the most advanced autonomous home vacuum you can get, and it manages to outperform a lot of older or less sophisticated robot vacuums even in situations that have historically been hard for this kind of tech to handle.

Like the Roomba S7 before it (which is still available and still also a great vacuum, for a bit less money), the S9 uses what’s called SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping), and a specific variant of that called vSLAM (the stands for ‘visual’). This technology means that as it works, it’s generating and adapting a map of your home to ensure that it can clean more effectively and efficiently.

After either a few dedicated training runs (which you can opt to send the vacuum on when it’s learning a new space) or a few more active vacuum runs, the Roomba S9 will remember your home’s layout, and provide a map that you can customize with room dividers and labels. This then turns on the vacuum’s real smart superpowers, which include being able to vacuum just specific rooms on command, as well as features like letting it easily pick up where it left off if it needs to return to its charging station mid-run. With the S9 and its large battery, the vacuum can do an entire run of my large two-bedroom condo on a single charge (the i7 I used previously needed two charges to finish up).

The S9’s vSLAM and navigation systems seem incredibly well-developed in my use: I’ve never once had the vacuum become stuck, or confused by changes in floor colouring, even going from a very light to a very dark floor (this is something that past vacuums have had difficulty with). It infallibly finds its way back to the Clean Base, and also never seems to be flummoxed by even drastic changes in lighting over the course of the day.

So it’s smart, but does it suck? Yes, it does – in the best possible way. Just like it doesn’t require stops to charge up, it also manages to clean my entire space with just one bin. There’s a lot more room in here thanks to the new design, and it handles even my dog’s hair with ease (my dog sheds a lot, and it’s very obvious light hair against dark wood floors). The new angled design on the front of the vacuum means it does a better job with getting in corners than previous fully round designs, and that shows, because corners are were clumps of hair go to gather in a dog-friendly household.

The ‘+’ in the S9+ is that Clean Base as I mentioned – think of it like the tower of lazy cleanliness. The base has a port that sucks dirt from the S9 when it’s done a run, shooting it into a bag in the top of the tower that can hold up to 30 full bins of dirt. That ends up being a lot in practice – it should last you months, depending on house size. Replacement bags cost $20 for three, which is probably what you’ll go through in a year, so it’s really a negligible cost for the convenience you’re getting.

Braava m6

The Roomba S9’s best friend, if you will, is the Braava m6. This is iRobot’s latest and greatest smart mop, which is exactly what it sounds like: Whereas Roomba vacuums, the Braava uses either single use disposable, or microfibre washable/reusable pads, as well as iRobot’s own cleaning fluid, to clean hardwood, tile, vinyl, cork and other hard surface floors once the vacuuming is done. It can also just run a dry sweep, which is useful for picking up dust and pet hair, as a finishing touch on the vacuum’s run.

iRobot has used its unique position in offering both of these types of smart devices to have them work together – if you have both the S9 and the Braava m6 added to your iRobot Home app, you’ll get an option to mop the floors right after the vacuum job is complete. It’s an amazing convenience feature, and one that works fairly well – but there are some differences in the smarts powering the Braava m6 and the Roomba s9 that lead to some occasional challenges.

The Braava m6 doesn’t seem to be quite as capable when it comes to mapping and navigating its surroundings. My condo layout is relatively simple, all one level with no drops or gaps. But the m6 has encountered some scenarios where it doesn’t seem to be able to cross a threshold or make sense of all floor types. Based on error messages, it seems like it’s identifying some surfaces as ‘cliffs’ or steep drops when transitioning back from lighter floors to darker ones.

What this means in practice is that a couple of times per run, I have to reposition the Braava manually. There are ways to solve for this, however, built into the software: Thanks to the smart mapping feature, I can just direct the Braava to focus only on the rooms with dark hardwood, or I can just adjust it when I get an alert that it’s having difficulty. It’s still massively more convenient than mopping by hand, and typically the m6 does about 90 percent of the apartment before it runs into difficult in one of these few small trouble areas.

If you’ve read online customer reviews fo the m6, you may also have seen complaints that it can leave tire marks on dark floors. I found that to be true – but with a few caveats. They definitely aren’t as pronounced as I expected based on some of the negative reviews out there, and I have very dark floors. They also only are really visible in direct sunlight, and then only faintly. They also fade pretty quickly, which means you won’t notice them most of the time if you’re mopping only once ever few vacuum runs. In the end, it’s something to be aware of, but for me it’s not a dealbreaker – far from it. The m6 still does a fantastic job overall of mopping and sweeping, and saves me a ton of labor on what is normally a pretty back-hostile manual task.

Bottom line

These iRobot home cleaning gadgets are definitely high-end, with the s9 starting at $1,099.99 ($1,399.99 with the cleaning base) and the m6 staring at $499.99. You can get a bundle with both staring at $1439.98, but even that is still a lot for cleaning appliances. This is definitely a case where the ‘you get what you pay for’ maxim proves true, however. Either rate s9+ alone, or the combo of the vacuum and mop represent a huge convenience, especially when used on a daily or similar regular schedule, vs. doing the same thing manually. The s9 also frankly does a better job than I ever could wth my own manual vacuum, since it’s much better at getting into corners, under couches, and cleaning along and under trip thanks to its spinning brush. And asking Alexa to have Roomba start a cleaning run feels like living in the future in the best possible way.

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Intel and Argonne National Lab on ‘exascale’ and their new Aurora supercomputer

Posted by | aurora, exascale, Gadgets, hardware, High Performance Computing, Intel, ponte vecchio, supercomputers, TC | No Comments

The scale of supercomputing has grown almost too large to comprehend, with millions of compute units performing calculations at rates requiring, for first time, the exa prefix — denoting quadrillions per second. How was this accomplished? With careful planning… and a lot of wires, say two people close to the project.

Having noted the news that Intel and Argonne National Lab were planning to take the wrapper off a new exascale computer called Aurora (one of several being built in the U.S.) earlier this year, I recently got a chance to talk with Trish Damkroger, head of Intel’s Extreme Computing Organization, and Rick Stevens, Argonne’s associate lab director for computing, environment and life sciences.

The two discussed the technical details of the system at the Supercomputing conference in Denver, where, probably, most of the people who can truly say they understand this type of work already were. So while you can read at industry journals and the press release about the nuts and bolts of the system, including Intel’s new Xe architecture and Ponte Vecchio general-purpose compute chip, I tried to get a little more of the big picture from the two.

It should surprise no one that this is a project long in the making — but you might not guess exactly how long: more than a decade. Part of the challenge, then, was to establish computing hardware that was leagues beyond what was possible at the time.

“Exascale was first being started in 2007. At that time we hadn’t even hit the petascale target yet, so we were planning like three to four magnitudes out,” said Stevens. “At that time, if we had exascale, it would have required a gigawatt of power, which is obviously not realistic. So a big part of reaching exascale has been reducing power draw.”

Intel’s supercomputing-focused Xe architecture is based on a 7-nanometer process, pushing the very edge of Newtonian physics — much smaller and quantum effects start coming into play. But the smaller the gates, the less power they take, and microscopic savings add up quickly when you’re talking billions and trillions of them.

But that merely exposes another problem: If you increase the power of a processor by 1000x, you run into a memory bottleneck. The system may be able to think fast, but if it can’t access and store data equally fast, there’s no point.

“By having exascale-level computing, but not exabyte-level bandwidth, you end up with a very lopsided system,” said Stevens.

And once you clear both those obstacles, you run into a third: what’s called concurrency. High performance computing is equally about synchronizing a task between huge numbers of computing units as it is about making those units as powerful as possible. The machine operates as a whole, and as such every part must communicate with every other part — which becomes something of a problem as you scale up.

“These systems have many thousands of nodes, and the nodes have hundreds of cores, and the cores have thousands of computation units, so there’s like, billion-way concurrency,” Stevens explained. “Dealing with that is the core of the architecture.”

How they did it, I, being utterly unfamiliar with the vagaries of high performance computing architecture design, would not even attempt to explain. But they seem to have done it, as these exascale systems are coming online. The solution, I’ll only venture to say, is essentially a major advance on the networking side. The level of sustained bandwidth between all these nodes and units is staggering.

Making exascale accessible

While even in 2007 you could predict that we’d eventually reach such low-power processes and improved memory bandwidth, other trends would have been nearly impossible to predict — for example, the exploding demand for AI and machine learning. Back then it wasn’t even a consideration, and now it would be folly to create any kind of high performance computing system that wasn’t at least partially optimized for machine learning problems.

“By 2023 we expect AI workloads to be a third of the overall HPC server market,” said Damkroger. “This AI-HPC convergence is bringing those two workloads together to solve problems faster and provide greater insight.”

To that end the architecture of the Aurora system is built to be flexible while retaining the ability to accelerate certain common operations, for instance the type of matrix calculations that make up a great deal of certain machine learning tasks.

“But it’s not just about performance, it has to be about programmability,” she continued. “One of the big challenges of an exacale machine is being able to write software to use that machine. oneAPI is going to be a unified programming model — it’s based on an open standard of Open Parallel C++, and that’s key for promoting use in the community.”

Summit, as of this writing the most powerful single computing system in the world, is very dissimilar to many of the systems developers are used working on. If the creators of a new supercomputer want it to have broad appeal, they need to bring it as close to being like a “normal” computer to operate as possible.

“It’s something of a challenge to bring x86-based packages to Summit,” Stevens noted. “The big advantage for us is that, because we have x86 nodes and Intel GPUs, this thing is basically going to run every piece of software that exists. It’ll run standard software, Linux software, literally millions of apps.”

I asked about the costs involved, since it’s something of a mystery with a system like this how that a half-billion dollar budget gets broken down. Really I just thought it would be interesting to know how much of it went to, say, RAM versus processing cores, or how many miles of wire they had to run. Though both Stevens and Damkroger declined to comment, the former did note that “the backlink bandwidth on this machine is many times the total of the entire internet, and that does cost something.” Make of that what you will.

Aurora, unlike its cousin El Capitan at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, will not be used for weapons development.

“Argonne is a science lab, and it’s open, not classified science,” said Stevens. “Our machine is a national user resource; We have people using it from all over the country. A large amount of time is allocated via a process that’s peer reviewed and priced to accommodate the most interesting projects. About two thirds is that, and the other third Department of Energy stuff, but still unclassified problems.”

Initial work will be in climate science, chemistry, and data science, with 15 teams between them signed up for major projects to be run on Aurora — details to be announced soon.

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Logitech accessory kit makes the Xbox Adaptive Controller even more accessible

Posted by | accessibility, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, Logitech, Microsoft, TC, xbox, xbox adaptive controller | No Comments

Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller was a breath of fresh air in a gaming world that has largely failed to consider the needs of people with disabilities. Now Logitech has joined the effort to empower this diverse population with an expanded set of XAC-compatible buttons and triggers.

Logitech’s $100 Adaptive Gaming Kit comes with a dozen buttons in a variety of sizes, two large analog levers to control the triggers, and a Velcro-style pad to which they can all be securely attached. It’s hopefully the start of a hardware ecosystem that will be at least a significant fraction of the diversity available to the able population.

The visibility of gamers with disabilities has grown both as the communities have organized and communicated their needs, and as gaming itself has moved towards the mainstream. Turns out there are millions of people who, for one reason or another, can’t use a controller or mouse and keyboard the way others can — and they want to play games too.

Always one of the more reliably considerate companies when it comes to accessibility issues, Microsoft began developing the XAC a couple years back — though admittedly after years of, like the rest of the gaming hardware community, failing to accommodate disabled gamers.

Logitech was an unwitting partner, having provided joysticks for the project without being told what they were for. But when the XAC was unveiled, Logitech was stunned and chagrined.

“This is something that, shame on us, we didn’t think about,” said Mark Starrett, Logitech G’s senior global product manager. “We’ve been trying to diversify gaming, like getting more girls to play, but we totally did not think about this. But you see the videos Microsoft put out, how excited the kids are — it’s so motivating to see that, it makes you want to continue that work.”

And to their credit, the team got in contact with Microsoft soon after and said they’d like to collaborate on some accessories for the system.

In some ways this wouldn’t be particularly difficult: The XAC uses 3.5mm headphone jacks as its main input, so it can accept signals from a wide range of devices, from its own buttons and sticks to things like blow tubes, so there’s no worries about proprietary connections, for instance. But when it comes to accessible devices and systems like this, there are often other rigorous standards in place that need to be upheld throughout, so it’s necessary to work closely with both the platform provider (Microsoft) and, naturally, the people who will actually be using them.

“This community, you can’t make anything for them without doing it with them,” said Starrett. “When we design a gaming keyboard or mouse, we engage pros, players, all that stuff, right? So with this, it’s absolutely critical to watch them with every piece.”

“The biggest takeaway is that everybody is so different: every challenge, every setup, everyone we talked to,” he continued. “We had a 70, 80 year old guy who plays Destiny and has arthritis — all we really needed to do was put a block on the back of his controller, because he couldn’t pull the trigger. Then we worked with a girl who has a quadstick, she was playing Madden like a pro with something you just puff and blow on. Another guy played everything with his feet. So we spent a lot of time on the site just watching.”

The final set of buttons they arrived at includes three very large ones, four smaller ones (though still big compared with ordinary controller buttons), four “light touch” buttons that can be easily activated by any contact, and two big triggers. Because they knew different gamers would use the sets differently, there’s a set of labels in the box that can be applied however they like.

Then there are two hook and loop (i.e. Velcro) mats to which the buttons can be attached, one rigid and the other flexible, so it can be draped over a leg, the arm of a couch, etc.

Even the packaging the buttons come in is accessible: A single strip of tape pulls out and causes the whole box to unfold, and then everything is in non-sealed reusable bags. The guide is wordless so it can be used in any country, by any player.

It’s nice to see such consideration at work, and no doubt the players who will benefit from these products will be happy to have a variety of options to choose from. I was starting to think I could use a couple of these buttons myself.

Starrett seemed very happy with the results, and also proud that the work had started something new at Logitech.

“The groups we talked to brought a lot of different things to mind for us,” he said. “We’re always updating things, but now we’re updating everything with an eye to accessibility. It’s helped Logitech as a company to learn about this stuff.”

You can pick up Logitech’s Adaptive Gaming kit here for $100.

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The new AirFly Pro is the perfect travel buddy for your AirPods Pro

Posted by | AirPods, Apple, audio engineering, audio equipment, Bluetooth, electrical engineering, Gadgets, hardware, headphones, iPad, iPhone, Reviews, sound cards, TC, technology, TwelveSouth, usb, USB-C | No Comments

Accessory maker TwelveSouth has a solid lineup of gadgets, many of which fill a niche that their products uniquely address — and address remarkably well. The AirFly Pro ($54.99) is a new iteration on one of those, providing a way to connect Bluetooth headphones to any audio source with a 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s being sold at Apple Stores, too, as part of its launch today — and there’s good reason for that: This is the ideal way to make sure you can use your AirPods Pro just about everywhere, including with airplane seatback entertainment systems.

The AirFly Pro will work with any Bluetooth headphones, not just AirPods Pro — but the latest noise-canceling earbuds from Apple are among the best available when it comes to both active noise cancellation and sound quality, both great assets for frequent travelers and people more likely to encounter an in-flight entertainment system. But the AirFly Pro has additional tricks up its sleeve that earn it the “Pro” designation.

This is the first version of the product from TwelveSouth that offers the ability to stream audio in, as well as out. That means you can use it with a car stereo system that only has auxiliary audio in, for instance, to stream directly from your iPhone to the vehicle’s sound system. The AirFly Pro can also serve that function for home stereo sound equipment, speakers or other audio equipment that accepts audio in, but not Bluetooth streaming connections.

One other neat trick the AirFly Pro packs: audio sharing, so that you can connect two pairs of headphones at once. This is similar to the native audio sharing feature that Apple introduced for its own AirPod line in the most recent iOS update, but it works through the AirFly with any audio source, and any Bluetooth headphones. That’s yet another great feature for when you’re traveling with a partner.

I’ve had a bit of time to spend with the AirFly Pro, and so far it has been rock solid, with easy pairing and setup, and a convenient keychain ring/3.5mm connector cap for making it easier to keep with you. It charges via USB-C, and there’s a USB-A to USB-C cable included, too. The on-board battery lasts for 16 or more hours, which is more than enough time for even the longest of flights, and again, you’re getting that audio sharing feature which is super handy even around the house for just checking something out on the iPad on your couch.

Alongside the AirFly Pro, TwelveSouth also introduced new AirFly Duo and AirFly USB-C models. The difference is that neither of these offer that wireless audio input mode — but you get up to four more hours of battery life for the trade-off. The USB-C model also offers USB-C audio compatibility, for connecting to devices that use that connection for sound instead of 3.5mm, and both of these still offer dual headphone connectivity, for $5 less, at $49.99 each.

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Motorola throws back to the future with a foldable Razr reboot

Posted by | foldable smartphone, foldables, Gadgets, hardware, lenovo, Motorola, Motorola Razr, smartphones, TC | No Comments

The rebirth of the Razr has been rumored for several months now. And honestly, such a product is a bit of a no-brainer. The Lenovo-owned company is embracing the burgeoning (if sputtering) world of foldables with the return of one of its most iconic models.

While it’s true that Motorola’s kept the Razr name alive in some form or another well into the Android era, everything that’s come since has failed to recapture the magic of the once-mighty brand.

From the looks of things, however, the newly announced Razr is a lovely bit of symmetry. The product, which was announced earlier today in Los Angeles, leans into the lackluster criticism that foldables are simply a return of the once-ubiquitous clamshell design.

Motorola Razr

Motorola Razr

According to Motorola, the company has been toying around with flexible technology for some time now. Per a press release: “In 2015, a cross functional team, comprised of engineers and designers from both Motorola and Lenovo, was assembled to start thinking about how we could utilize flexible display technology.”

The device swaps the horizontal design of its best-known competitor, the Samsung Galaxy Fold. The vertical form factor looks to be a match made in foldable heaven. Certainly it loses some of the uber-thin design that made the original Razr such a hit so many years back, but makes the ultra-wide (21:9) 6.2-inch screen compact enough to fit in a pocket.

As with the Galaxy Fold, there’s another small display on the front for getting a glimpse of notifications and the like. It’s another design feature that mirrors the O.G. Razr. Predictably, the device runs Android — Android 9 (for now), to be precise.

For full throwback appeal, there’s also a “Retro Razr” mode, which mimics the original metallic button design for the bottom half of the screen. It’s a skin that does, indeed, double as a number pad, usable with an Android messaging app. Motorola clearly put a lot of love into the design, and it shows. If nothing else, the new Razr could go a ways toward proving that retro handsets can be more than just nostalgic novelty for bygone tech.

After the whole Samsung kerfuffle, you’d be right to question the device’s durability, though Motorola says it’s less concerned, citing an “average” smartphone time span for the product. Only one way to find out, I guess. Also like the Fold, price is a pretty big obstacle to any sort of mainstream adoption for this first-gen product. The Razr will run $1,499 when it launches in January of next year.

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Apple’s Mac Pro ships in December with maximum 8TB of storage

Posted by | Apple, apple inc, computers, computing, Gadgets, hardware, mac pro, macbook, macbook pro, macintosh, Steve Jobs, TC | No Comments

Apple is making its Mac Pro and Apple Pro Display available in December, it announced today. The machine was announced earlier this year, but no availability window had been set.

In addition to the previously announced specs, Apple also noted that it would be able to be ordered with up to an 8TB SSD. Apple’s Pro Workflow Team continues to take feedback about wants and needs of its pro customers, and Apple says that the Mac Pro can now handle up to six streams of 8K Pro Res video, up from three streams quoted back in June. 

Apple also says that Blackmagic will have an SDI to 8K converter for productions using a serial digital interface workflow on set or in studio. This was a question I got several times after Apple announced its reference monitor to go along with the Mac Pro. This makes it more viable for many on-set applications that use existing workflows. 

I was able to get a look at the Mac Pro running the SDI converter box as well as a bunch of other applications like Final Cut Pro, and it continues to be incredibly impressive for pro workflows. One demo showed six 8K Pro Res streams running with animation and color coding in real time in a pre-rendered state. Really impressive. The hardware is also still wildly premium stuff. The VESA mount for the Pro Display XDR alone feels like it has more engineering behind it than most entire computers.

The new Mac Pro starts at $5,999 for the base configuration, which includes 32GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a Radeon Pro 570X graphics card. The Pro Display XDR 32-inch reference-quality monitor that Apple will sell alongside it starts at $4,999.

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MacBook Pro 16” first impressions: Return of the Mack

Posted by | airport, amd, Apple, apple inc, computers, computing, Gadgets, hardware, Intel, iPad, iPhone, Laptop, macbook, macbook air, macbook pro, macintosh, new york city, RAM, retina display, Speaker, TC, writer | No Comments

In poker, complacency is a quiet killer. It can steal your forward momentum bit by bit, using the warm glow of a winning hand or two to cover the bets you’re not making until it’s too late and you’re out of leverage. 

Over the past few years, Apple’s MacBook game had begun to suffer from a similar malaise. Most of the company’s product lines were booming, including newer entries like the Apple Watch, AirPods and iPad Pro. But as problems with the models started to mount — unreliable keyboards, low RAM ceilings and anemic graphics offerings — the once insurmountable advantage that the MacBook had compared to the rest of the notebook industry started to show signs of dwindling. 

The new 16” MacBook Pro Apple is announcing today is an attempt to rectify most, if not all, of the major complaints of its most loyal, and vocal, users. It’s a machine that offers a massive amount of upsides for what appears to be a handful of easily justifiable trade-offs. It’s got better graphics, a bigger display for nearly no extra overall size, a bigger battery with longer life claims and yeah, a completely new keyboard.

I’ve only had a day to use the machine so far, but I did all of my research and writing for this first-look piece on the machine, carting it around New York City, through the airport and onto a plane where I’m publishing this now. This isn’t a review, but I can take you through some of the new stuff and give you thoughts based on that chunk of time. 

This is a re-think of the larger MacBook Pro in many large ways. This is a brand new model that will completely replace the 15” MacBook Pro in Apple’s lineup, not an additional model. 

Importantly, the team working on this new MacBook started with no design constraints on weight, noise, size or battery. This is not a thinner machine, it is not a smaller machine, it is not a quieter machine. It is, however, better than the current MacBook Pro in all of the ways that actually count.

Let’s run down some of the most important new things. 

Performance and thermals

The 16” MacBook Pro comes configured with either a 2.6GHz 6-core i7 or a 2.3GHz 8-core i9 from Intel . These are the same processors as the 15” MacBook Pro came with. No advancements here is largely a function of Intel’s chip readiness. 

The i7 model of the 16” MacBook Po will run $2,399 for the base model — the same as the old 15” — and it comes with a 512GB SSD drive and 16GB of RAM. 

Both models can be ordered today and will be in stores at the end of the week.

The standard graphics configuration in the i7 is an AMD Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB of memory and an integrated Intel UHD graphics 630 chip. The system continues to use the dynamic hand-off system that trades power for battery life on the fly.  


The i9 model will run $2,799 and comes with a 1TB drive. That’s a nice bump in storage for both models, into the range of very comfortable for most people. It rolls with an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 4GB of memory.

You can configure both models with an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 8GB of GDDR6 memory. Both models can also now get up to 8TB of SSD storage — which Apple says is the most on a notebook ever — and 64GB of 2666 DDR4 RAM, but I’d expect those upgrades to be pricey.

The new power supply delivers an additional 12w of power and there is a new thermal system to compensate for that. The heat pipe that carries air in and out has been redesigned; there are more fan blades on 35% larger fans that move 28% more air compared to the 15” model. 

The fans in the MacBook Pro, when active, put out the same decibel level of sound, but push way more air than before. So, not a reduction in sound, but not an increase either — and the trade is better cooling. Another area where the design process for this MacBook focused on performance gains rather than the obvious sticker copy. 

There’s also a new power brick, which is the same physical size as the 15” MacBook Pro’s adapter, but which now supplies 96w up from 87w. The brick is still as chunky as ever and feels a tad heavier, but it’s nice to get some additional power out of it. 

Though I haven’t been able to put the MacBook Pro through any video editing or rendering tests, I was able to see live demos of it handling several 8K streams concurrently. With the beefiest internal config, Apple says it can usually handle as many as four, perhaps five un-rendered Pro Res streams.

A bigger display, a thicker body

The new MacBook Pro has a larger 16” diagonal Retina display that has a 3072×1920 resolution at 226 ppi. The monitor features the same 500 nit maximum brightness, P3 color gamut and True Tone tech as the current 15”. The bezels of the screen are narrower, which makes it feel even larger when you’re sitting in front of it. This also contributes to the fact that the overall size of the new MacBook Pro is just 2% larger in width and height, with a .7mm increase in thickness. 

The overall increase in screen size far outstrips the increase in overall body size because of those thinner bezels. And this model is still around the same thickness as the 2015 15” MacBook Pro, an extremely popular model among the kinds of people who are the target market for this machine. It also weighs 4.3 lbs, heavier than the 4.02 lb current 15” model.

The display looks great, extremely crisp due to the increase in pixels and even more in your face because of the very thin bezels. This thing feels like it’s all screen in a way that matches the iPad Pro.

This thick boi also features a bigger battery, a full 100Whr, the most allowable under current FAA limits. Apple says this contributes an extra hour of normal operations in its testing regimen in comparison to the current 15” MacBook Pro. I have not been able to effectively test these claims in the time I’ve had with it so far. 

But it is encouraging that Apple has proven willing to make the iPhone 11 Pro and the new MacBook a bit thicker in order to deliver better performance and battery life. Most of these devices are pretty much thin enough. Performance, please.

Speakers and microphone

One other area where the 16” MacBook Pro has made a huge improvement is the speaker and microphone arrays. I’m not sure I ever honestly expected to give a crap about sound coming out of a laptop. Good enough until I put in a pair of headphones accurately describes my expectations for laptop sound over the years. Imagine my surprise when I first heard the sound coming out of this new MacBook and it was, no crap, incredibly good. 

The new array consists of six speakers arranged so that the subwoofers are positioned in pairs, antipodal to one another (back to back). This has the effect of cancelling out a lot of the vibration that normally contributes to that rattle-prone vibrato that has characterized small laptop speakers pretty much forever.

The speaker setup they have here has crisper highs and deeper bass than you’ve likely ever heard from a portable machine. Movies are really lovely to watch with the built-ins, a sentence I have never once felt comfortable writing about a laptop. 

Apple also vents the speakers through their own chambers, rather than letting sound float out through the keyboard holes. This keeps the sound nice and crisp, with a soundstage that’s wide enough to give the impression of a center channel for voice. One byproduct of this though is that blocking one or another speaker with your hand is definitely more noticeable than before.

The quality of sound here is really very, very good. The HomePod team’s work on sound fields apparently keeps paying dividends. 

That’s not the only audio bit that’s better now, though; Apple has also put in a 3-mic array for sound recording that it claims has a high enough signal-to-noise ratio that it can rival standalone microphones. I did some testing here comparing it to the iPhone’s mic and it’s absolutely night and day. There is remarkably little hiss present here and artists that use the MacBook as a sketch pad for vocals and other recording are going to get a really nice little surprise here.

I haven’t been able to test it against external mics myself, but I was able to listen to rigs that involved a Blue Yeti and other laptop microphones and the MacBook’s new mic array was clearly better than any of the machines and held its own against the Yeti. 

The directional nature of many podcast mics is going to keep them well in advance of the internal mic on the MacBook for the most part, but for truly mobile recording setups, the MacBook mic just went from completely not an option to a very viable fallback in one swoop. It really has to be listened to in order to get it. 

I doubt anyone is going to buy a MacBook Pro for the internal mic, but having a “pro-level” device finally come with a pro-level mic on board is super choice. 

I think that’s most of it, though I feel like I’m forgetting something…

Oh right, the keyboard

Ah yes. I don’t really need to belabor the point on the MacBook Pro keyboards just not being up to snuff for some time. Whether you weren’t a fan of the short throw on the new butterfly keyboards or you found yourself one of the many people (yours truly included) who ran up against jammed or unresponsive keys on that design — you know there has been a problem.

The keyboard situation has been written about extensively by Casey Johnston and Joanna Stern and complained about by every writer on Twitter over the past several years. Apple has offered a succession of updates to that keyboard to attempt to make it more reliable and has extended warranty replacements to appease customers. 

But the only real solution was to ditch the design completely and start over. And that’s what this is: a completely new keyboard.

Apple is calling it the Magic Keyboard in homage to the iMac’s Magic Keyboard (but not identically designed). The new keyboard is a scissor mechanism, not butterfly. It has 1mm of key travel (more, a lot more) and an Apple-designed rubber dome under the key that delivers resistance and springback that facilitates a satisfying key action. The new keycaps lock into the keycap at the top of travel to make them more stable when at rest, correcting the MacBook Air-era wobble. 

And yes, the keycaps can be removed individually to gain access to the mechanism underneath. And yes, there is an inverted-T arrangement for the arrow keys. And yes, there is a dedicated escape key.

Apple did extensive physiological research when building out this new keyboard. One test was measuring the effect of a keypress on a human finger. Specifically, they measured the effect of a key on the pacinian corpuscles at the tips of your fingers. These are onion-esque structures in your skin that house nerve endings and they are most sensitive to mechanical and vibratory pressure. 

Apple then created this specialized plastic dome that sends a specific vibration to this receptor making your finger send a signal to your brain that says “hey, you pressed that key.” This led to a design that gives off the correct vibration wavelength to return a satisfying “stroke completed” message to the brain.

There is also more space between the keys, allowing for more definitive strokes. This is because the keycaps themselves are slightly smaller. The spacing does take some adjustment, but by this point in the article I am already getting pretty proficient and am having more grief from the autocorrect feature of Catalina than anything else. 

Notably, this keyboard is not in the warranty extension program that Apple is applying to its older keyboard designs. There is a standard one-year warranty on this model, a statement by the company that they believe in the durability of this new design? Perhaps. It has to get out there and get bashed on by more violent keyboard jockeys than I for a while before we can tell whether it’s truly more resilient. 

But does this all come together to make a more usable keyboard? In short, yes. The best way to describe it in my opinion is a blend between the easy cushion of the old MacBook Air and the low-profile stability of the Magic Keyboard for iMac. It’s truly one of the best-feeling keyboards they’ve made in years, and perhaps ever in the modern era. I reserve the right to be nostalgic about deep throw mechanical keyboards in this regard, but this is the next best thing. 

Pro, or Pro

In my brief and admittedly limited testing so far, the 16” MacBook Pro ends up looking like it really delivers on the Pro premise of this kind of machine in ways that have been lacking for a while in Apple’s laptop lineup. The increased storage caps, bigger screen, bigger battery and redesigned keyboard should make this an insta-buy for anyone upgrading from a 2015 MacBook Pro, and a very tempting upgrade for even people on newer models that have just never been happy with the typing experience. 

Many of Apple’s devices with the label Pro lately have fallen into the bucket of “the best” rather than “for professionals.” This isn’t strictly a new phenomenon for Apple, but more consumer-centric devices like the AirPods Pro and the iPhone Pro get the label now than ever before. 

But the 16” MacBook Pro is going to alleviate a lot of the pressure Apple has been under to provide an unabashedly Pro product for Pro Pros. It’s a real return to form for the real Mack Daddy of the laptop category. As long as this new keyboard design proves resilient and repairable I think this is going to kick off a solid new era for Apple portables.

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Review: Samsung’s Space Monitor is handsome and minimal — if you have the desk for it

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, Monitors, Reviews, Samsung, TC | No Comments

When Samsung announced the Space Monitor, I knew in an instant that it was going to be something I had to try out in person. Now that I’ve had time to do so, I’m happy to say it’s much as advertised, a streamlined and solid monitor with a smart new design — but not necessarily one for everybody.

Samsung Space Monitor

Pros:

  • Clever space-saving design
  • Quiet, attractive look
  • Solid color out of the box

Cons:

  • Doesn’t rotate and height depends on distance from wall
  • Sub-par viewing angles
  • Doesn’t work with every desk

Price: $400 (27-inch); $500 (32-inch)

We don’t review a lot of monitors at TechCrunch — none, really. This was more of a curiosity to me. I’m interested in design and monitors are usually ugly at best. But I was impressed with Samsung’s approach here and wanted to see if it worked in real life.

The big advance of the Space Monitor is its very low-profile mount, which grips the edge of your desk on the wall side and can be folded up flat against said wall. It can rotate up and down, the monitor tilting to taste — not so far as the Surface Studio, but with that same general range of motion.

The monitor itself comes in two varieties: a larger 32-inch 4K one and a smaller 27-inch one at 2560×1440. I reviewed the smaller one, as the large one has a lower refresh rate and I really don’t have any use for 4K in my workflow.

The ideal situation for this thing is a relatively small work space where having the monitor actually sitting on your desk kind of invalidates all the space around it. With the Space Monitor, the stand is flush with the wall, clearing up the area below and in front of it even when it’s folded outwards. It’s easier than piercing the wall for a free-floating display.

The performance of the monitor, as far as I am able to tell, is good but not great. The colors are vibrant and the default settings are solid, if perhaps a little warm (easily adjusted, of course). The refresh rate goes up to 144 Hz, which is more than enough for gaming, and can easily be tweaked to 120 for those of us who are very picky about video pulldown and other deep frame rate stuff.

One thing that isn’t impressive is the viewing angle. I feel like the sweet spot for this monitor is far narrower than on the Dell Ultrasharp IPS panel I’ve used for years. If you’re not sitting directly in front of it, you’re going to get color and brightness falloff at the edge you’re farthest from.

The bezel is narrow, a bit more than a quarter inch, a little thicker on the bottom side. It’s also nearly flush on the top and sides so you don’t feel like the bezels protrude toward you. All in all it’s a very handsome and understated design, as these things go. It’s worth noting that Samsung appears to have fudged the press imagery a bit and the microscopic bezel you see in official images is not actually what you get.

Installation isn’t quite as easy as just setting something down on your desk, but if you have a compatible desk, it’s literally as easy as sliding the clamp on and tightening it. A custom cable (optional, but convenient) combines HDMI and power into one, and fits into a groove on the back of the stand, eliminating clutter.

But you’ll want to take a good look at your desk to make sure it is compatible. I didn’t, and had to jury-rig a solution.

Basically, unless your desk is more or less solid and has a ledge that the clamp can close down on, you might have a problem. My desk is solid and about an inch and a half thick, but has a sort of wall that juts down about two more inches. I removed and reattached the bottom part of the clamp so it could just barely be slipped around the wall, but then the screw wouldn’t reach the bottom surface of the desk, so I had to fill the gap with a book. (It’s okay, I’ve got lots.)

The stand is plenty stiff and the monitor stays exactly where you’ve put it, but it is a little wobbly — understandable, given that it sits at the very tip of a 14-inch-long arm. I only really noticed when I was typing very hard or bumped the desk, when I noticed it wobbled more and longer than the Dell on its traditional stand.

Now, if you’ve looked closely at the way this monitor and stand is set up, you may have noticed something else: this thing can’t rotate. Yes, unfortunately, the nature of the Space Monitor means that it must always be parallel to the desk edge it’s attached to, and can only move directly perpendicular to it. There is also no way to slide the monitor up and down, or rather to do so you must also move it toward or away from you.

For some this is unacceptable. And although it’s fine for me as a primary monitor, it would never work as a secondary one, like the Dell I now have angled toward me adjacent to the Samsung.

That does significantly limit its use cases, and the spaces in which it works well. But I still feel it’s a great option for some. If you have limited space and plan to primarily work from the sweet spot directly in front of it, this is a solid monitor big enough for productivity, movies and games.

For those seeking a low-profile, space-saving alternative to the usual monitors, the Space Monitor is a great option. But for multiple-monitor setups or people who shift the angle a lot, it probably isn’t the best. At $400 it has strong competition from the usual suspects, but for some people the slight increase in image quality or the ability to slide the monitor up and down isn’t worth losing the desk space or having a clunky design. The Space Monitor is available now, at Samsung’s site or your usual electronics retailer.

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Smartphone maker Realme is taking India and other emerging markets by storm

Posted by | Asia, Gadgets, hardware, india, oppo, Realme, Samsung, Samsung Electronics, Xiaomi | No Comments

As Xiaomi widens its smartphone lead over Samsung in India, a new competitor is increasingly posing a challenge.

Realme, a one-and-half-year-old smartphone vendor that spun out of Oppo, commanded 14.3% of the world’s second largest smartphone market in the quarter that ended in September, research firm IDC said on Monday.

While Xiaomi, with 27.1% of the local smartphone market share, still dominates the market, the volume of handsets that Realme has shipped in India rose at a staggering 401.3% since the same period last year, according to IDC.

Market share of smartphone vendors in India

What’s fascinating about Realme’s expansion in India is just how closely it is replicating Xiaomi’s playbook in the country. Like Xiaomi, Realme for a year sold phones only through an online channel to cut overhead costs. Last quarter, the company began selling phones in India through offline stores, which still account for more than two-thirds of all smartphone sales.

In terms of online-only shipment, the company’s market share has ballooned to 26.5% in Q3 2019 from 16.5% in Q2 this year, the research firm said.

Realme has launched more than a dozen aggressively priced smartphone models so far, all priced between $80 to $240 — the sweet spot in the local market. In fact, IDC says Realme’s C2, 3i and 3 models — priced between $80 and $110 — were the top-selling phones for the company in Q3 this year.

Like Xiaomi’s handsets, Realme smartphones pack above the punch — sporting some of the highest-end hardware modules for their price range. The $80 Realme C2 features a six-inch HD+ display, 3+2 rear megapixel cameras, 4,000 mAh battery, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of expandable storage — and it supports 4G networks and has a facial unlock feature.

Other markets

Realme today operates in 18 countries, including its home market China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam and Egypt. In May this year, the company entered the European region.

In a report Counterpoint shared with its clients recently, the research firm said that based on the number of smartphones that Realme has shipped, the company’s rank went from 47th in Q3 2018 to 7th as of September this year. By shipping more than 10 million smartphones, the Chinese firm’s shipment grew by a whopping 808% during this period, the research firm said.

India and Indonesia accounted for more than 80% of smartphones that Realme has shipped to date, according to Counterpoint.

“We expect realme to become a serious contender in the market next year as growth will continue in emerging markets and online channels. The value for money proposition is also powerful in times of stagnant economic growth globally,” Counterpoint analysts wrote.

The aggressive growth of Realme hasn’t gone unnoticed with Xiaomi. The two companies have already exchanged testy words with one another and made allegations.

Hey @FrancisRealme , as a fellow marketer I’m sure you’d value the time & creativity that goes into designs. Could you please ask your team to abstain from taking this close an inspiration.

Thanks 👍

Hope to catch up the next time you are in Bangalore 🙂pic.twitter.com/y7PovSBuw3

— Anuj Sharma (@s_anuj) October 1, 2019

And you thought smartphone wars were over.

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Adidas backpedals on robotic shoe production with Speedfactory closures

Posted by | Adidas, Gadgets, hardware, robotics | No Comments

An expensive experiment in global distribution has been abandoned by Adidas, which has announced that will close its robotic “Speedfactories” in Atlanta and Ansbach, Germany, within 6 months. The company sugar-coated the news with a promise to repurpose the technology used at its existing human-powered factories in Asia.

The factories were established in 2016 (Ansbach) and 2017 (Atlanta) as part of a strategy to decentralize its manufacturing processes. The existing model, like so many other industries, is to produce the product in eastern Asia, where labor and overhead is less expensive, then ship it as needed. But this is a slow and clumsy model for an industry that moves as quickly as fashion and athletics.

“Right now, most of our products are made out of Asia and we put them on a boat or on a plane so they end up on Fifth Avenue,” said Adidas CMO Eric Liedtke in an interview last year at Disrupt SF about new manufacturing techniques. The Speedfactories were intended to change that: “Instead of having some sort of micro-distribution center in Jersey, we can have a micro-factory in Jersey.”

Ultimately this seems to have proven more difficult than expected. As other industries have found in the rush to automation, it’s easy to overshoot the mark and overcommit when the technology just isn’t ready.

Robotic factories are a powerful tool but difficult to quickly reconfigure or repurpose, since it takes specialty knowledge to set up racks of robotic arms, computer vision systems, and so on. Robotics manufacturers are making advances in this field, but for now it’s a whole lot harder than training a human workforce to use standard tools on a different pattern.

In a press release, Adidas global operations head Martin Shankland explained that “The Speedfactories have been instrumental in furthering our manufacturing innovation and capabilities,” and that for a short time they even brought products to market in a hurry. “That was our goal from the start,” he says, though presumably things played out a bit differently in the pitch decks from 2016.

“We very much regret that our collaboration in Ansbach and Atlanta has come to an end,” Shankland said. Oechsler, the high-tech manufacturing partner that Adidas worked with, feels the same. “Whilst we understand adidas’ reasons for discontinuing Speedfactory production at Oechsler, we regret this decision,” said the company’s CEO, Claudius Kozlik, in the press release. The factories will shut down by April, presumably eliminating or shifting the 160 or so jobs they provided, but the two companies will continue to work together.

The release says that Adidas will “use its Speedfactory technologies to produce athletic footwear at two of its suppliers in Asia” starting next year. It’s not really clear what that means, and I’ve asked the company for further information.

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