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Canonical’s Anbox Cloud puts Android in the cloud

Posted by | Android, canonical, chrome os, Cloud, engineer, Enterprise, Google, Intel, linus torvalds, linux, operating system, operating systems, Ubuntu | No Comments

Canonical, the company behind the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution, today announced the launch of Anbox Cloud, a new platform that allows enterprises to run Android in the cloud.

On Anbox Cloud, Android becomes the guest operating system that runs containerized applications. This opens up a range of use cases, ranging from bespoke enterprise apps to cloud gaming solutions.

The result is similar to what Google does with Android apps on Chrome OS, though the implementation is quite different and is based on the LXD container manager, as well as a number of Canonical projects like Juju and MAAS for provisioning the containers and automating the deployment. “LXD containers are lightweight, resulting in at least twice the container density compared to Android emulation in virtual machines – depending on streaming quality and/or workload complexity,” the company points out in its announcements.

Anbox itself, it’s worth noting, is an open-source project that came out of Canonical and the wider Ubuntu ecosystem. Launched by Canonical engineer Simon Fels in 2017, Anbox runs the full Android system in a container, which in turn allows you to run Android application on any Linux-based platform.

What’s the point of all of this? Canonical argues that it allows enterprises to offload mobile workloads to the cloud and then stream those applications to their employees’ mobile devices. But Canonical is also betting on 5G to enable more use cases, less because of the available bandwidth but more because of the low latencies it enables.

“Driven by emerging 5G networks and edge computing, millions of users will benefit from access to ultra-rich, on-demand Android applications on a platform of their choice,” said Stephan Fabel, director of Product at Canonical, in today’s announcement. “Enterprises are now empowered to deliver high performance, high density computing to any device remotely, with reduced power consumption and in an economical manner.”

Outside of the enterprise, one of the use cases that Canonical seems to be focusing on is gaming and game streaming. A server in the cloud is generally more powerful than a smartphone, after all, though that gap is closing.

Canonical also cites app testing as another use case, given that the platform would allow developers to test apps on thousands of Android devices in parallel. Most developers, though, prefer to test their apps in real — not emulated — devices, given the fragmentation of the Android ecosystem.

Anbox Cloud can run in the public cloud, though Canonical is specifically partnering with edge computing specialist Packet to host it on the edge or on-premise. Silicon partners for the project are Ampere and Intel .

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Intel and Google plot out closer collaboration around Chromebooks and the future of computing

Posted by | Apple, CES 2020, chrome os, chromebook, computing, Gadgets, GM, Google, google-chrome, hardware, Intel, laptops, Samsung, smartphone, TC | No Comments

Intel, the chip-making giant, has been on the road of refocusing its strategy in recent months. While it has sold its mobile chip operation to Apple and is reportedly looking for a buyer for its connected home division, it’s also been going through the difficult task of rethinking how best to tackle the longtime bread and butter of its business, the PC.

Part of that latter strategy is getting a big boost this week at CES 2020. Here, Intel is today announcing a deeper partnership with Google to design chips and specifications for Chromebooks built on Project Athena. Project Athena is framework first announced last year that covers both design and technical specs, with the aim of building the high-performance laptops of tomorrow that can be used not just for work, but media streaming, gaming, enterprise applications and more, all on the go — powered by Intel, naturally.

(The specs include things like requiring ‘fast wake’ using fingerprints or push-buttons or lift lids; using Intel Core i5 or i7 processors; “Ice Lake” processor designs; better battery life and charging; WiFi 6; touch displays; 2-in-1 designs; narrow bezels and more.)

Earlier today, the first two Chromebooks built on those Athena specifications — from Samsung and Asus — were announced by the respective companies, and Intel says that there will be more to come. And on stage, Google joined Intel during its keynote to also cement the two companies’ commitment to the mission.

“We’re going a step further and deepening our partnership with Google to bring Athena to Chromebooks,” Gregory Bryant, the EVP and GM of Intel’s client computing group, said in an interview with TechCrunch ahead of today. “We’ve collaborated very closely with Google [so that device makers] can take advantage of these specs.”

For Intel, having a Chromebook roster using Athena is important because these have been very popular, and it brings its processors into machines used by people who are buying Chromebooks to get access to Google services around security and more, and its apps ecosystem.

But stepping up the specifications for Chromebooks is as important for Google as it is for Intel in terms of the bottom line and growing business.

“This is a significant change for Google,” said John Solomon, Google’s VP of ChromeOS, in an interview ahead of today. “Chromebooks were successful in the education sector initially, but in the next 18 months to two years, our plan is to go broader, expanding to consumer and enterprise users. Those users have greater expectations and a broader idea of how to use these devices. That puts the onus on us to deliver more performance.”

The renewed effort comes at an interesting time. The laptop market is in a generally tight spot these days. Overall, the personal computing market is in a state of decline, and forecast to continue that way for the next several years.

But there is a slightly brighter picture for the kinds of machines that are coming out of collaborations like the one between Intel, Google, and their hardware partners: IDC forecasts that 2-in-1 devices — by which it means convertible PCs and detachable tablets — and ultra-slim notebook PCs “are expected to grow 5% collectively over the same period,” versus a compound annual growth rate of -2.4% between 2019 and 2023. So there is growth, but not a huge amount.

Up against that is the strength of the smartphone market. Granted, it, too, is facing some issues as multiple markets reach smartphone saturation and consumers are slower to upgrade.

All that is to say that there are challenges. And that is why Intel, whose fortunes are so closely linked to those of personal computing devices since it makes the processors for them, has to make a big push around projects like Athena.

Up to this month, all of the laptops built to Athena specs have been Windows PCs — 25 to date — but Intel had always said from the start Chromebooks would be part of the mix, to help bring the total number of Athena-based devices up to 75 by the end of this year (adding 50 in 2020).

Chromebooks are a good area for Intel to be focusing on, as they seem to be outpacing growth for the wider market, despite some notable drawbacks about how Chrome OS has been conceived as a “light” operating system with few native tools and integrations in favor of apps. IDC said that in Q4 of 2019, growth was 19% year-on-year,  and from what I understand the holiday period saw an even stronger rise. In the US, Chromebooks had a market share of around 27% last November, according to NPD/Gfk.

What’s interesting is the collaborative approach that Intel — and Google — are taking to grow. The Apple -style model is to build vertical integration into its hardware business to ensure a disciplined and unified approach to form and function: the specifications of the hardware are there specifically to handle the kinds of services that Apple itself envisions to work on its devices, and in turn, it hands down very specific requirements to third parties to work on those devices when they are not services and apps native to Apple itself.

While Google is not in the business of building laptops or processors (yet?), and Intel is also far from building more than just processors, what the two have created here is an attempt at bringing a kind of disciplined specification that mimics what you might get in a vertically integrated business.

“It’s all about building the best products and delivering the best experience,” Bryant said.

“We can’t do what we do without Intel’s help and this close engineering collaboration over the last 18 months,” Solomon added. “This is the beginning of more to come in this space, with innovation that hasn’t previously been seen.”

Indeed, going forward, interestingly Bryant and Solomon wouldn’t rule out that Athena and their collaboration might extend beyond laptops.

“Our job is to make the PC great. If we give consumers value and a reason to buy a PC we can keep the PC alive,” said Bryant, but he added that Intel is continuing to evolve the specification, too.

“From a form factor you’ll see an expansion of devices that have dual displays or have diff kinds of technology and form factors,” he said. “Our intention is to expand and do variations on what we have shown today.”

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

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Kid-focused STEM device startup Kano sees layoffs as it puts Disney e-device on ice

Posted by | Amazon, Barclays, China, Collaborative Fund, computing, Disney, Education, Europe, Gadgets, Google, hardware, harry potter, Intel, Kano, London, Marc Benioff, Microsoft, microsoft windows, TC, United States | No Comments

London-based STEM device maker Kano has confirmed it’s cutting a number of jobs which it claims is part of a restructuring effort to shift focus to “educational computing”.

The job cuts — from 65 to 50 staff — were reported earlier by The Telegraph. Kano founder Alex Stein confirmed in a call with TechCrunch that Kano will have 50 staff going into next year. Although he said the kid-focused learn to code device business is also adding jobs in engineering and design, as well as eliminating other roles as it shifts focus.

He also suggested some of the cuts are seasonal and cyclical — related to getting through the holiday season.

Per Stein, jobs are being taking out as the company moves from building atop the Raspberry Pi platform — where it started, back in 2013, with its crowdfunded DIY computer — to a Windows-based learning platform.

Other factors he pointed to in relation to the layoffs include a new manufacturing setup in China, with a “simpler, larger contract manufacturer”; fewer physical retail outlets to support, with Kano leaning more on Amazon (which he said is “cheaper to support”); fewer dependencies on large partners and agencies, with Stein claiming 18% of US parents with kids aged 6-12 are now familiar with the brand, reducing its marketing overhead; and a desire to shrink the number of corporate managers vs makers on its books as “we’ve seen a stronger response to our first-party Kano products — Computer Kit, Pixel Kit, Motion Sensor Kit — than expected this year”.

“We have brought on some roles that are more focused on this new platform [Kano PC], and some roles that were focused on the Raspberry Pi are no longer with us,” he also told TechCrunch.

Kano unveiled its first Windows-based PC this fall. The 11.6-inch touch-enabled, Intel Atom-powered computer costs $300 — which puts it in the ballpark price-range of Google’s Chromebook.

The tech giant has maintained a steady focus on the educational computing market — putting a competitive squeeze on smaller players like Kano who are trying to carve out a business selling their own brand of STEM-focused hardware. Against the Google Goliath, Stein touts factors such as relative repairability and attention to computing performance for the Kano PC (which he claims is “on a par with the Surface Go”), in addition to having now thrown its lot in with rival giant, Microsoft.

“The more and more we got into school environments the more and more we were in conversations with major North American distributors to schools, the more we saw that people wanted that ‘DIY’… product design, they wanted the hackability and extensibility of the kit, they wanted the tools to be open source and manipulable but they also wanted to be able to run Photoshop and to run Class Dashboard and to run Microsoft Office. And so that was when we struck the partnership with Microsoft,” said Stein.

“The Windows computing is packed with content and curriculum for teachers and an integration with Microsoft Teams which requires a different sort of development capability,” he added.

“The roles we’re adding are around subscription, they’re around the computer, building new applications and tools for the computer and continuing to enrich the number of projects that are available for our members now — so we’re doing things like allowing people to connect the sensors in their wands to household IoT device. We’re introducing, over the Christmas period, a new collaborative drawing app.”

According to Stein, Kano is “already seeing demand for 60,000 units in this next calendar year” for its Windows-based PC — which he said is “well beyond what we expect… given the price-point.

Although he did not put a figure on exact sales to date of the Kano PC.

He also confirmed Kano will be dialling back the range of products it offers next year.

It recently emerged that an own-brand camera device, which Kano first trailed back in 2016, will not now be shipping. Stein also told us that another co-branded Disney product they’d been planning for 2020 is being “put back” — with no new date for release as yet.

Stein denied sales have been lacklustre — claiming the current Star Wars and Frozen e-products have “done enough for us”. (While a co-branded Harry Potter e-wand is selling faster than expected, per Stein, who said they had expected to have stock until March but are “selling out”.)

“The reorganization we’ve done has nothing to do with growth and users,” he told us. “We are on track to sell through more units as well as products at a higher average selling price this fiscal year. We’re selling out of Wands when we expected to have stock all the way to March. We have more pre-launch demand for the Kano PC than anything we’ve ever done.”

Of the additional co-branded Disney e-product which is being delayed — and may not now launch at all next year, Stein told us: “The fact is we’re in negotiations with Disney around this — and around the timing of it. Given that we’re not certain we’re going to be doing it in 2020 some of the contractor roles in particular that we brought on to do the licensing sign off pieces, to develop some of the content around those brands, some of the apparatus set up to manage those partnerships — we don’t need any more.”

“We introduced three new hardware SKUs this year. I don’t think we’ll do three new hardware SKUs next year,” he added, confirming the intention is to trim the number of device launches in 2020 to focus on the Kano PC.

One source we spoke to suggested Kano is considering sunsetting its partner strategy entirely. However Stein did not go that far in his comments to us.

“We’ve been riding a certain bear for a few years. We’re jumping to a new bear. That’s always going to create a bit of exhilaration. But I think this is a place of real promise,” was how he couched the pivot.

“I think what Kano does better than anyone else in the world is crafting an experience around technology that opens up its attributes to a wider audience,” Stein also said when asked whether hardware or software will be its main focus going forward. “The hardware element is crucial and beautiful and we make some of the world’s most interesting dynamic physical products. It’s an often told story that hardware’s very hard and is brutal — and yeah, because you get it right you change the fabric of society.

“It’s hard for me to draw a line between hardware and software for the business because we’ve always been asked that and seven years into the business we’ve found the greatest things that people do with the products… it’s always when there’s a combination of the two. So we’re proud that we’re good at combining the two and we’re going to continue to do it.”

The STEM device space has been going through bumpy times in recent years as early hype and investment has failed to translate into sustained revenues at every twist and turn.

The category is certainly filled with challenges — from low barrier to entry leading to plentiful (if varied quality) competition, to the demands of building safe, robust and appealing products for (fickle) kids that tightly and reliably integrate hardware and software, to checking all the relevant boxes and processes to win over teachers and support schools’ curriculum requirements that’s essential for selling direct to the education market.

Given so many demands on STEM device makers it’s not surprising this year has seen a number of these startups exiting to other players and/or larger electronics makers — such as Sphero picking up littleBits.

A couple of years ago Sphero went through its own pivot out of selling co-branded Disney ‘learn to code’ gizmos to zoom in on the education space.

While another UK-based STEM device maker — pi-top — has also been through several rounds of layoffs recently, apparently as part of its own pivot to the US edtech market.

More consolidation in the category seems highly likely. And given the new relationship between Kano and Microsoft joining Redmond via acquisition may be the obvious end point for the startup.

Per the Telegraph’s report, Kano is in the process of looking to raise more funding. However Stein did not comment when asked to confirm the company’s funding situation.

The startup last reported a raise just over two years ago — when it closed a $28M Series B round led by Thames Trust and Breyer Capital. Index Ventures, the Stanford Engineering Venture Fund, LocalGlobe, Marc Benioff, John Makinson, Collaborative Fund, Triple Point Capital, and Barclays also participated.

TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden contributed to this report 

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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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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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Daily Crunch: Yep, Apple is buying Intel’s modem business

Posted by | Apple, Daily Crunch, hardware, Intel, Mobile | No Comments

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Apple acquiring most of Intel’s smartphone modem business in $1B deal

Apple has entered into a deal to acquire a majority of Intel’s modem business, including Intel IP, equipment, leases and employees — it’s bringing over 2,200 new roles and 17,000 wireless technology patents.

The deal confirms earlier rumors that Apple would acquire the business in order to permanently uncouple itself from Qualcomm, the source of much contention for both parties over the last several years.

2. SoftBank announces AI-focused second $108 billion Vision Fund with LPs including Microsoft, Apple and Foxconn

Worth noting: The second Vision Fund’s list of expected limited partners does not currently include any participants from the Saudi Arabia government.

3. Twitter Q2 beats on sales of $841M and EPS of $0.20, new metric of mDAUs up to 139M

The U.S. continues to be Twitter’s revenue engine, the company said. It accounted for $455 million of its sales, up 24%, while international revenue was $386 million, up just 12%.

(Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

4. Trump threatens Apple with tariffs, Google with investigation on Twitter

The president of the United States called out two of the nation’s largest tech firms in a pair of tweets this morning.

5. Google says it doubled Pixel sales year-over-year

It looks like the mid-range Pixel 3a is the hit Google surely hoped it would be. The news came as part of the solid earnings that parent company Alphabet reported yesterday.

6. SpaceX succeeds with first untethered StarHopper low altitude ‘hop’ test

StarHopper is a scaled-down test vehicle designed to help SpaceX run crucial preparation trials for the new Raptor engine ahead of building its full-scale Starship reusable spacecraft.

7. Africa’s ride-hail markets are hot spots for startups and VC

The big players such as Uber and Bolt are competing in Kampala and Nairobi — where, in addition to car service, they offer rickshaw taxis. Meanwhile, many ride-hail companies in Africa are adapting unique product solutions to local transit needs. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

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This year’s Computex was a wild ride with dueling chip releases, new laptops and 467 startups

Posted by | amd, artificial intelligence, asus, chips, computers, Computex, Computex 2019, Gadgets, Gaming, GPUS, Innovex, Intel, nvidia, Processors, Qualcomm, taipei, taiwan, TC, trade show | No Comments

After a relatively quiet show last year, Computex picked up the pace this year, with dueling chip launches by rivals AMD and Intel and a slew of laptop releases from Asus, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Lenovo and other companies.

Founded in 1981, the trade show, which took place last week from May 28 to June 1, is one of the ICT industry’s largest gatherings of OEMs and ODMs. In recent years, the show’s purview has widened, thanks to efforts by its organizers, the Taiwan External Trade Development Council and Taipei Computer Association, to attract two groups: high-end computer customers, such as hardcore gamers, and startups looking for investors and business partners. This makes for a larger, more diverse and livelier show. Computex’s organizers said this year’s event attracted 42,000 international visitors, a new record.

Though the worldwide PC market continues to see slow growth, demand for high-performance computers is still being driven by gamers and the popularity of esports and live-streaming sites like Twitch. Computex, with its large, elaborate booths run by brands like Asus’ Republic of Gaming, is a popular destination for many gamers (the show is open to the public, with tickets costing NTD $200, or about $6.40), and began hosting esport competitions a few years ago.

People visit the ASUS stand during Computex at Nangang exhibition centre in Taipei on May 28, 2019. (Photo by Chris STOWERS / AFP) (Photo credit should read CHRIS STOWERS/AFP/Getty Images)

The timing of the show, formally known as the Taipei International Information Technology Show, at the end of May or beginning of June each year, also gives companies a chance to debut products they teased at CES or preview releases for other shows later in the year, including E3 and IFA.

One difference between Computex now and ten (or maybe even just five) years ago is that the increasing accessibility of high-end PCs means many customers keep a close eye on major announcements by companies like AMD, Intel and Nvidia, not only to see when more powerful processors will be available but also because of potential pricing wars. For example, many gamers hope competition from new graphic processor units from AMD will force Nvidia to bring down prices on its popular but expensive GPUs.

The Battle of the Chips

The biggest news at this year’s Computex was the intense rivalry between AMD and Intel, whose keynote presentations came after a very different twelve months for the two competitors.

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Science publisher IEEE bans Huawei but says trade rules will have ‘minimal impact’ on members

Posted by | Android, Asia, China, Education, fedex, Gadgets, huawei, IEEE, Intel, New York, Policy, Qualcomm, smartphone, telecommunications, U.S. government | No Comments

The IEEE’s ban on Huawei following new trade restrictions in the United States has sent shock waves through global academic circles. The organization responded saying the impact of the trade policy will have limited effects on its members, but it’s hard at this point to appease those who have long hailed it as an open platform for scientists and professors worldwide to collaborate.

Earlier this week, the New York-headquartered Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers blocked Huawei employees from being reviewers or editors for its peer-review process, according to screenshots of an email sent to its editors that first circulated in the Chinese media.

Unbelievable, IEEE is forced to ban Huawei employees from peer-reviewing papers or handling papers as editors. pic.twitter.com/pkvQeOUI07

— Junhui Qian (@qian_junhui) May 29, 2019

The IEEE later confirmed the ban in a statement issued on Wednesday, saying it “complies with U.S. government regulations which restrict the ability of the listed Huawei companies and their employees to participate in certain activities that are not generally open to the public. This includes certain aspects of the publication peer review and editorial process.”

In mid-May, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security added Huawei and its affiliates to its “Entity List,” effectively barring U.S. firms from selling technology to Huawei without government approval.

It’s unclear what makes peer review at the IEEE a technology export, but the science association wrote in its email to editors that violation “may have severe legal implications.”

Whilst it’s registered in New York, the IEEE bills itself as a “non-political” and “global” community aiming to “foster technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.”

Despite its removal of Huawei scientists from paper vetting, the IEEE assured that its compliance with U.S. trade restrictions should have “minimal impact” on its members around the world. It further added that Huawei and its employees can continue to participate in other activities as a member, including accessing the IEEE digital library; submitting technical papers for publication; presenting at IEEE-sponsored conferences; and accepting IEEE awards.

As members of its standard-setting body, Huawei employees can also continue to exercise their voting rights, attend standards development meetings, submit proposals and comment in public discussions on new standards.

A number of Chinese professors have reprimanded the IEEE’s decision, flagging the danger of letting politics meddle with academic collaboration. Zhang Haixia, a professor at the School of Electronic and Computer Engineering of China’s prestigious Peking University, said in a statement that she’s quitting the IEEE boards in protest:

This is Haixia Zhang from Peking University, as an old friend and senior IEEE member, I am really shocked to hear that IEEE is involved in “US-Huawei Ban” for replacing all reviewers from Huawei, which is far beyond the basic line of Science and Technology which I was trainedand am following in my professional career till now.

…today, this message from IEEE for “replacing all reviewers from Huawei in IEEE journals” is challenging my professional integrity. I have to say that, As a professor, I AM NOT accept this. Therefore, I decided to quit from IEEE NANO and IEEE JMEMS editorial board untill one day it come back to our common professional integrity.

The IEEE freeze on Huawei adds to a growing list of international companies and organizations that are severing ties or clashing with the Chinese smartphone and telecom giant in response to the trade blacklist. That includes Google, which has blocked select Android services from Huawei; FedEx, which allegedly “diverted” a number of Huawei packages; ARM, which reportedly told employees to suspend business with Huawei; as well as Intel and Qualcomm, which also reportedly cut ties with Huawei. 

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Devices built with Intel’s Ice Lake and Project Athena specifications will be available in time for the holidays

Posted by | chips, Computex, Computex 2019, Gadgets, Ice Lake, Intel, lenovo, Project Athena, semiconductors, TC | No Comments

Even before Computex officially launched today, AMD and Qualcomm threw down the gauntlet at Intel with a new chip and a 5G PC, respectively. Today Intel responded in kind during its keynote presentation in Taipei, introducing new processors and laptops, in addition to unveiling Ice Lake, its 10th generation Intel Core chips.

Now shipping to OEMs, the 10-nm processors will increase speeds for AI computing tasks and graphics and boost wireless speeds up to three times, Intel says. Built on Intel’s Sunny Cove architecture and Gen11 graphics engine, the series includes chips with up to 4 cores and 8 threads, up to 4.1 max turbo frequency and up to 1.1GHz graphics frequency. Gen11 will enable faster graphics in laptops, 4K HDR in a billion colors and games with up to two times faster frames per second, Intel claims. With Thunderbolt 3 and Intel Wi-Fi 6 (Gig+) inside, the company says the chips will also enable up to three times faster wireless speeds. Devices powered by Ice Lake are expected to be available for purchase by the holidays.

The company also unveiled Intel’s new class of laptops, Project Athena. Laptops built to Athena 1.0 specifications wake from sleep in less than a second, claim battery life of 9 or more hours under real-life conditions based on Intel’s testing conditions (with default settings, display brightness set to 250nits and continuous Internet connection with apps like Office 365 and Google Chrome running in the background) or 16 or more hours in local video playback mode. They are built with Thunderbolt 3, Intel Wi-Fi 6 (Gig+) and OpenVINO and scheduled to be available in time for this holiday season.

Lenovo’s senior vice president of consumer devices Johnson Jia, who helped launch Qualcomm’s first Snapdragon-powered 5G laptop yesterday, returned to the stage with Intel to showcase the the ultra-lightweight (1.2kg) Yoga S940 laptop, built on Project Athena, scheduled to go on sale in time for (you guessed it) the holidays.

Yesterday, AMD revealed the 12-core Ryzen 9 3900X, retailing for just half of Intel Core i9 9920X’s $1,100 starting price. Intel recaptured some thunder with its Intel Core i9-9900KS processor. Part of its 9th-generation chip series, the eight-core Core i9-9900KS is aimed at gamers who want to play and livestream at the same time. Like Intel’s other 9th-generation chips, it features mobile 5Ghz, and can run all eight cores at 5GHz all the time. Pricing has not been disclosed, but Intel announced that it will also be available by the holidays.

For gamers, Intel showed off its 9th-generation Intel Core-powered laptops Alienware M15 and M17, which boost mobile Ghz, a 8-core, 16-thread processor and faster frame rates and reaction times. The two laptops are expected to begin selling on June 11 at a starting price of $1,500.

Intel also announced that the Intel Performance Maximizer will be available for free download next month. The software makes overclocking more accessible by testing every core in a 9th-generation desktop processors and bringing it to maximum frequency.

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