Gadgets – TechCrunch Matt Burns

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

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

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

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

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

Gadgets – TechCrunch Matt Burns

Don’t look now, but the PC might not be dead. According to Gartner, collector of marketshare and industry metrics, worldwide shipments of personal computers just experienced the first year-over-year growth since 2012. Shipments totaled 62.1 million units, which is a 1.4 percent increase from the same time period in 2017. The report states “experienced some growth compared with a year ago” but goes on to caution declaring the PC industry as in recovery just yet.

The top five PC vendors all experienced growth with Lenovo seeing the largest gains of 10.5% — though that could be from Lenovo completing a joint venture with Fujitsu. HP grew 6.1%, Dell 9.5%, Apple 3% and Acer 3.1%. All good signs for an industry long thought stagnate. This report excludes Chromebooks from its data. PC vendors experienced growth without the help of Chromebooks, which are the latest challenger to the notebook computer.

Gartner points to the business market as the source of the increased demand. The consumer market, it states, is still decreasing as consumers increasing use mobile devices. Yet growth in the business sector will not last, it says.

“In the business segment, PC momentum will weaken in two years when the replacement peak for Windows 10 passes.” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner said in the report. “PC vendors should look for ways to maintain growth in the business market as the Windows 10 upgrade cycle tails off.”

Consumers will likely continue, for the most part, to keep a computer around but since the web is the new desktop, the upgrade cycle for a causal user will keep getting longer. As long as a home has a computer that can run Chrome, that’s likely good enough for most people.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

Newer Sonos devices and “rooms” now appear as AirPlay 2-compatible devices, allowing you to stream audio to them via Apple devices. The solution is a long time coming for Sonos which promised AirPlay 2 support in October.

You can stream to Sonos One, Sonos Beam, Playbase, and Play:5 speakers and ask Siri to play music on various speakers (“Hey Siri, play some hip-hop in the kitchen.”) The feature should roll out to current speakers today.

I tried a beta version and it worked as advertised. A set of speakers including a Beam and a Sub in my family room showed up as a single speaker and a Sonos One in the kitchen showed up as another. I was able to stream music and podcasts to either one.

Given the ease with which you can now stream to nearly every device from every device it’s clear that whole-home audio is progressing rapidly. As we noted before Sonos is facing tough competition but little tricks like this one help it stay in the race.

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Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.

The post is well worth a a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.

“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.

The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.

Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for fifteen years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.

Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.

Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.

On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.

Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.

Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

When we last met UDOO, the team was building a powerful Raspberry Pi-based DIY board with a bunch of impressive features, including more ports and a better processor. Now the team behind the first units has released the UDOO BOLT, a DIY board that can run “AAA games” thanks to a built-in AMD Ryzen Embedded V1202B 3.2 GHz SoC processor and a Radeon Vega 3 graphics card. The system is also Arduino compatible so you can connect it to your robotics and other electronics projects.

The BOLT, when outfitted with a chunk of RAM, is, according to the creators, “almost twice as powerful as a MacBook Pro 13-inch equipped with an Intel i5, and three times more powerful than a Mac Mini.” Because it is nearly a fully fledged computer, you can stick it into a case and treat it like a mini-workstation with a USB keyboard and mouse and HDMI out to a monitor. The BOLT can drive four monitors at once, two via 4K HDMI and two via USB-C. It runs Linux or Windows.

The team plans to ship in December 2018. The starter kit costs $298 on Kickstarter and includes a power supply and 4GB of RAM. The 8GB unit with SATA and Wireless costs $409.

Is a DIY board with a massive processor and graphics card a bit of overkill? Absolutely. However, because the system is designed for experimentation and on-the-fly design, you can easily repurpose a board like this for a kiosk, store display or workstation. Because it is so portable, you could slap a few of these on school desks and give the kids powerful computers that run nearly everything you can throw at them. Plus, it’s pretty cool to be able to play VR games on a machine the size of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

UDOO has been adding onto the traditional Raspberry Pi/Arduino stack for so long that they’ve become experts at making basic boards much more powerful. Given their earlier models could run drones and control multi-legged robots all while running Android, this new product should be a real treat.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Matt Burns

Right now, the cable that comes with a new iPhone does not plug into a new MacBook Pro without a dongle. #donglelife is for real. If this leak is correct, though, that wrong might soon be righted.

Photos have surfaced showing what is an engineering prototype of an Apple 18 W USB-C charger, which is supposedly to be bundled with the next iPhone. If correct, this will let owners take advantage of the iPhone’s fast charging capabilities without purchasing anything else. Plus, it will let users connect the iPhone to a MacBook Pro out of the box.

This rumor surfaced last year, too, though no photos ever surfaced to back up the claim.

If true, this adapter will mark the first major change in the iPhone’s wall charger. Apple has long bundled a 5W charger with the iPhone. It works fine, but does not supply the phone with the necessary power to charge at its fastest possible speed. Even if the photos here show something other than an official Apple product, chances are Apple is readying something similar. Previous leaks show something similar.

Apple included fast charging in the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X but didn’t include the necessary charger to take advantage of the technology. Owners have to buy a third-party charger of the $50 30W charger from Apple.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

Mining hardware is weird stuff. Either it’s commodity hardware used – inefficiently – for complex computation or specifically-designed, expensive boards that can be used to bring in Bitcoin and little else. Asus, a motherboard maker of some renown, is now helping bridge the gap.

The H370 Mining Master is a basic motherboard that supports 20 graphics cards, the boards used for Ethereum and other less resource-intensive scripts. The cards connect via PCIe-over-USB and each port has is individually controlled and managed by on-board diagnostics. This lets you ensure that each graphics card is running properly and fully connected.

From the release:

Less time maintaining your machine means more time mining with it, which is why the H370 Mining Master includes a suite of diagnostic features designed to make your platform easier to manage. Chief among them is GPU State Detection, which scans the system at boot and indicates whether each riser port is empty, connected to a functional graphics card, or experiencing problems. The updated State Detection GUI clearly identifies the location and status of each port along with the alphanumeric code that identifies it. Onboard diagnostics are augmented by individual debug LEDs that light up when there are problems with specific system components, like the CPU or memory.

The boards also has a number of cryptocurrency features that are activated “out of the box.”

The board ships in Q3 2018 for a few hundred dollars – a far cry from the massive costs associated with custom hardware. Now you just need to power all those massive graphics cards to keep the mining gear going.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Matt Burns

Generations ago, the internet spoke of an old saying that involved a man exhibiting excitement about hearing of a person’s love of an object, so he did favor, and put that something inside of something else. That’s what Netgear did here. Netgear heard people like the internet so much that the company put an internet modem inside a wifi router.

The Orbi WiFi System with Built-in Cable Modem is just that. It’s an Orbi wifi router with a DOCSIS® 3.0 cable modem built in. In theory this setup would make for easier setup and troubleshooting of internet issues while providing the home with great wifi.

I have an Orbi system in my house and it’s wonderful. The system does a far better job at covering my home with wifi than my previous single router setup. Including the cable modem in the setup, though, just makes sense and other networking companies would be smart to follow Netgear’s lead. Naturally, there’s a danger in including a cable modem in a router as one piece could become obsolete before the other but I would argue that most consumers upgrade their equipment every few years anyway.

This convinence comes at a cost. The router with built-in Orbi networking costs $299 and a system with an Orbi extender costs $399.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Jonathan Shieber

At Kaptivo, a company that’s bringing high-tech image recognition, motion capture and natural language processing technologies to the lowly whiteboard, executives are hoping that the second time is the charm.

The Cambridge, U.K. and San Mateo, Calif.-based company began life as a company called Light Blue Optics, and had raised $50 million in financing since its launch in 2004. Light Blue Optics was working on products like Kaptivo’s white board technology and an interactive touch and pen technology, which was sold earlier in the year to Promethean, a global education technology solutions company.

With a leaner product line and a more focused approach to the market, Kaptivo emerged in 2016 from Light Blue Optics’ shadow and began selling its products in earnest.

Founding chief executive Nic Lawrence (the previous head of Light Blue Optics) even managed to bring in investors from his old startup to Kaptivo, raising $6 million in fresh capital from Draper Esprit (a previous backer), Benhamou Global Ventures and Generation Ventures.

“The common theme has been user interfaces,” Lawrence said. “We saw the need for a new product category. We sold off parts of our business and pushed all our money into Kaptivo.”

What initially began as a business licensing technology, Lawrence saw a massive market opening up in technologies that could transform the humble whiteboard into a powerful tool for digital business intelligence with the application of some off the shelf technology and Kaptivo’s proprietary software.

Kaptivo’s technology does more than just create a video of a conference room, Lawrence says.

“In real time we’re removing the people from the scene and enhancing the content written on the board,”  he said.”

Optical character recognition allows users to scribble on a white board and Kaptivo’s software will differentiate between text and images. The company’s subscription service even will convert text to other languages.

The company has a basic product and a three-year cloud subscription that it sells for $999. That’s much lower than the thousands of dollars a high-end smart conferencing system would cost, according to Lawrence. The hardware alone is $699, and a one-year subscription to its cloud services sells for $120, Lawrence said.

Kaptivo has sold more than 2,000 devices globally already and has secured major OEM partners like HP, according to a statement. Kaptivo customers include BlueJeans, Atlassian and Deloitte, as well as educational institutions including George Washington University, Stanford University and Florida Institute of Technology.

The product is integrated with Slack and Trello and BlueJeans video conferencing, Lawrence said. In the first quarter of 2018 alone, the company has sold about 5,000 units.

The vision is “to augment every existing whiteboard,” Lawrence said. “You can bring [the whiteboard] into the 21st century with one of these. Workers can us their full visual creativity as part of a remote meeting.”

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

The whole-home wireless craze peaked and waned last year with the rise of Orbi, Eero, Google WiFi, and Linksys’ Velop. These routers use mesh technology to blanket your home in soft, velvety Wi-Fi, ensuring that everything from the front camera/lamp to the Wi-Fi-connected grill in the back yard are connected to the Internet. I’ve tested a number of these so far and have settled on Orbi as the best of the bunch but the original tri-band Velop was excellent and this dual-band model – a cheaper but still speedy whole home solution – has maintained quality and value and holds the crown for the cheapest – and best – mesh network you can buy.

This new mesh kit, the Velop AC3900, costs $299 and is slightly smaller than the original AC4400, a tri-band solution that started at $349 for three units. Considering most routers hover around the $100 mark with some falling as low as $20, it was a hard sell and the story manufacturers told – your Wi-Fi was insufficient for your home and you needed multiple little routers instead of one in the living room – didn’t quite resonate. Linksys reacted to this by releasing this smaller, cheaper model onto a single-router world.

The result is the AC3900, a shorter, smaller device that can hide in your home (as long as its near an electrical outlet) or sit out as a high-design techno-tchotchke. The Velop can blanket up to 4,500 square feet and even act as a wired router for standalone devices. Setup is as easy as pulling a single unit out of the box and connecting to it while running the Linksys app. You can then add more units throughout the home.

The AC3900 devices are a few inches shorter than the AC4400 and they are missing a few of the high-end bells and whistles of the original models. First, these routers have less memory than the original models, with system memory halving from the original 512MB down to 256MB and internal Flash memory falling from 4GB to 256MB. The router also supports only two simultaneous bands while the original model supported three simultaneous bands. In practice I saw solid performance out of both models with the AC3900 maxing out at about 900Mbps internal network speeds which equates to some excellent Internet speeds when the entire system is working. Interestingly, you can also ask your voice assistants to turn on or off Velop’s guest network, a cute feature for when visitors come over.

The real question most people have regarding these whole home solutions is whether they work and whether they’re worth it. Most of them, except for a few exceptions I discovered in my trials, work very, very well. Velop is easy to set up – you just place it in a room and press a button – and once it’s installed you’ll throw away all of your other routers. For years I placed a single router in my living room and used some Apple Airports and wireline networking to connect things up to my attic. Now with mesh networking I get a solid signal throughout the house and even in the back yard.

The AC3900 comes with three units and costs the same as Linksys’ dual-unit AC4400. While the AC4400 are ostensibly better I would argue that the AC3900 is about the same and the added benefit of an extra unit makes the whole-home Internet even more widespread. Mesh routers are the way to go and this is a great way to try them out.

The only thing you really need to know about these units is that they work. Whether you’re dropping a bunch of Netgear Orbis around your house or starting up a Google Wifi unit, mesh networks make your wireless experience much better. Linksys, to their credit, just made that experience a little cheaper.

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