Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

Researchers at Purdue University and the University of Virginia are now able to create “tiny, thin-film electronic circuits peelable from a surface,” the first step in creating an unobtrusive Internet-of-Things solution. The peelable stickers can sit flush to an object’s surface and be used as sensors or wireless communications systems.

The biggest difference between these stickers and traditional solutions is the removal of the silicon wafer that manufacturers use. Because the entire circuit is transferred right on the sticker there is no need for bulky packages and you can pull off and restick the circuits as needed.

“We could customize a sensor, stick it onto a drone, and send the drone to dangerous areas to detect gas leaks, for example,” said Chi Hwan Lee, Purdue assistant professor. From the release:

A ductile metal layer, such as nickel, inserted between the electronic film and the silicon wafer, makes the peeling possible in water. These thin-film electronics can then be trimmed and pasted onto any surface, granting that object electronic features.

Putting one of the stickers on a flower pot, for example, made that flower pot capable of sensing temperature changes that could affect the plant’s growth.

The system “prints” circuits by etching the circuit on a wafer and then placing the film over the traces. Then, with the help of a little water, the researchers can peel up the film and use it as a sticker. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Romain Dillet

It took Sonos more than a month, but its new home theater speaker is now available. You can buy it on Sonos’ official website for $399 (or €449 if you live in Europe). It’s also available on Amazon and other retailers.

The Beam is an affordable soundbar for your TV. This isn’t the company’s first soundbar, but it’s a better one. According to our review, its slimmer design makes it more versatile in many cases. Sometimes your TV is hanging on a wall. Or maybe you want to hide the speaker in a TV shelf.

Just like recent Sonos speakers, it features Amazon Alexa. The company also promises Google Assistant support in the future. It’s a connected speaker for the home assistant generation.

More interestingly, the Beam isn’t just a TV speaker. If you’re not using your TV, you can use it like a normal Sonos. You can pair it with other Sonos speakers, stream music using the Sonos app, Spotify Connect or AirPlay 2. You can now also use the Beam to play Audible audiobooks.

And if you switch on the TV, the speaker automatically stops the music and gives the priority to what’s playing on the TV. It’s a seamless experience that greatly improves the sound quality of your TV.

Gadgets – TechCrunch TC Video

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

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

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

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

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

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

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

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

Gadgets – TechCrunch Brian Heater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keys to quiet

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

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

Old keyboard

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

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

Things got better with gen two, and I’ve certainly become more used to typing on it. I still didn’t love it at first, but I’d say I’m pretty much keyboard-agnostic at this point. I did have an issue with one key not working, but it was nothing a blast of canned air couldn’t fix. Another reason to always keep some lying around.

New keyboard

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

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

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

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

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

About those specs

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

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

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

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

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

As for performance, Apple’s not messing around here. Running Geekbench 4 (a popular PC benchmark), I got an impressive 5540 on the single core and 233345 with the multi core test. Geekbench got similar — if slightly lower — results in its own tests on the high-end. Here’s founder John Poole on the findings:

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

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

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

Hey, Siri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey Siri, a win is a win, okay?

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

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

Toning it down

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

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

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

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

Upgrade time?

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

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

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

Gadgets – TechCrunch Anthony Ha

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

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

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

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

Couple on Couch

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

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

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

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

End of Entertainment Center

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

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

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 Romain Dillet

Apple has announced a new investment fund to foster clean energy usage in China. The company isn’t just trying to switch its own offices and facilities. Apple is also working with its suppliers to expand the use of clean energy across the board.

For this fund in particular, Apple and 10 suppliers will invest $300 million over the next four years. Overall, the company expects to finance multiple clean energy projects to produce 1 gigawatt of renewable energy in China.

Apple isn’t going to manage the fund itself. The company is partnering with DWS Group, a division of Deutsche Bank. DWS will also participate in the fund.

The company started working on renewable energy projects a few years ago. Earlier this year, Apple claimed that 100 percent of its offices, retail stores, data centers and Apple-owned facilities are now powered by renewable energy.

Apple is not there yet when it comes to suppliers. The company has launched the Supplier Clean Energy Program back in 2015 with 23 manufacturing partners, and regularly shares updates — Foxconn seems to be missing so far.

By 2020, Apple and its suppliers hope to generate 4 gigawatts of clean energy. And let’s be honest, this is great news for the planet.

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.