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Roli is rebooting as Luminary, following financial struggles

By Brian Heater

I was fascinated by Roli the first time I saw founder/CEO Roland Lamb bending the keys of the Seaboard back at SXSW in 2013. Over the years, the London-based company has continued to offer creative musical solutions, including 2016’s modular Blocks system.

Of course, creativity and runaway startup success don’t go hand in hand as often as we’d like to think. A BI profile on the company notes some of Roli’s recent struggles, referencing a “niche” product set, which is probably fair. In spite of earning some high-profile fans in the music industry and tech press, the company’s devices were seemingly not destined for mainstream success.

That, coupled, with ongoing pandemic struggles, have forced Roli to take somewhat evasive action, filing for administration in the U.K. Lamb and his 70 or so employees will keep the Roli dream alive by way of a spinout called Luminary.

Image Credits: Roli

We’ve reached out to Lamb and company to discuss precisely what that means, though we do know that Luminary will be the new home for both Roli’s intellectual property and its debts. All told, Roli raised north of $75 million.

“Ultimately what happened was the pro-focused products we initially developed, although successful within their marketplace, the marketplace wasn’t big enough given our venture trajectory,” Lamb said in an interview. “We had our eyes set on hypergrowth and that proved to be difficult.”

Most recently, Roli announced Lumi, a more mainstream offering than its predecessors, which aimed to teach users the piano with light-up keys. The product will be a focus for the similarly named Luminary, along with plans to continue to offer its original Seaboard product under the new banner.

Alphabet X’s exosuit

By Brian Heater

Last week, Kathryn Zealand shared some insight on the eve of Women’s Equality Day. The post highlighted an issue that’s been apparent to everyone in and around the robotics industry: there’s a massive gender gap. It’s something we try to be mindful of, particularly when programming events like TC Sessions: Robotics. Zealand cites some pretty staggering figures in the piece.

According to the stats, around 9% of robotics engineers are female. That’s bad. That’s, like, bad even by the standards of STEM fields in general — which is to say, it’s really, really bad. (The ethnic disparities in the same source are worth drawing attention to, as well.)

Zealand’s piece was published on LinkedIn — fitting, given that the overarching focus here is on hiring. Well worth your time, if you’re involved in the hiring process at a robotics firm and are concerned about broader diversity issues (which hopefully go hand in hand for most orgs). Zealand offers some outside of the box thinking in terms of what, precisely, it means to be a roboticist, writing:

We have a huge opportunity here! Women and other under-represented groups are untapped pools of talented people who, despite not thinking of themselves as “roboticists,” could be vital members of a world-changing robotics team.

I’m going to be real with you for a minute, and note what really caught my eye was that above image. See, Zealand is a Project Lead at Alphabet X. And what you have there is a robotic brace — or, rather, what appears to be a component of a soft exosuit.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Exosuits/exoskeletons are a booming category for robotics right now that really run the gamut from Sarcos’ giant James Cameron-esque suit to far subtler, fabric-based systems. Some key names in the space include Ekso Bionics, ReWalk and SuitX. Heck, even Samsung has shown off a solution as part of a robotics department that appears to be largely ornamental at the moment.

Image Credits: Harvard Biodesign Lab

Most of these systems aim to tackle one of two issues: 1) Augmenting workers to assist with difficult or repetitive tasks for work and 2) Provide assistance to those with impaired mobility. Many companies have offers for both. Here’s what Harvard’s Biodesign Lab has to say on the matter:

As compared to a traditional exoskeleton, these systems have several advantages: the wearer’s joints are unconstrained by external rigid structures, and the worn part of the suit is extremely light. These properties minimize the suit’s unintentional interference with the body’s natural biomechanics and allow for more synergistic interaction with the wearer.

Alphabet loves to give the occasional behind-the-scenes peak at some of its X projects, and it turns out we’ve had a couple of glimpses of the Smarty Pants project. Zealand and Smarty Pants make a cameo in a Wired UK piece that ran early last year about the 10th anniversary of Google/Alphabet X. The piece notes that that the project was inspired by her experience with her 92-year-old grandmother’s mobility issues.

Image Credits: Alphabet X

The piece highlights a very early Raspberry Pi-controlled setup created by a team that includes costume designers and deep learning specialists (getting back to that earlier discussion about outside the box thinking when it comes to what constitutes a roboticist). The system is using sensors in an attempt to effectively predict movement in order to anticipate where force needs to be applied for tasks like walking up stairs. The piece ends on a fittingly somber note, “Fewer than half of X’s investigations become Projects. By the time this story is published it will probably have been killed.”

My suspicion is that the team is looking to differentiate itself from other exosuit projects by leveraging Google’s knowledge base of deep learning and AI to build out those predictive algorithms.

Alphabet declined to offer additional information on the project, noting that it likes to give its moonshot teams, “time to learn and iterate out of the spotlight.” But last October, we got what is probably our best look at Smarty Pants, in the form of a video highlighting Design Kitchen, Alphabet X’s lab/design studio.

Image Credits: Alphabet X

The Wired piece mentions a “pearlescent bumbag,” holding the aforementioned Raspberry Pi and additional components. For you yanks, that’s a fanny pack, which are not referred to as such in the U.K., owing to certain regional slang. Said fanny pack also makes an appearance in the video, providing, honestly, a very clever solution to the issue of hanging wires for an early-stage wearable prototype.

“One of the things that’s really helped the team is being really focused on a problem. Even if you spent months on something, if it’s not actually going to achieve that goal, then sometimes you honor the work that’s been done and say, ‘we’ve learned a ton of things during the process, but this is not the one that’s actually going to solve that problem.’ ”

The most notable takeaway from the video is some additional footage of prototypes. One imagines that, by the time Alphabet feels confident sharing that sort of stuff with the world, the team has moved well beyond it. “It doesn’t matter how janky and cardboard-and-duct-tape it is, as long as it helps you learn — and everyone can prototype, even while working from home,” the X team writes in an associated blog post.

The one other bit of information we have at the moment is a granted patent application from last year, which comes with all of the standard patent warnings. Seeing a patent come to fruition is often even more of a longshot (read: moonshot) than betting on an Alphabet X project to graduate. But they can offer some insight into where a team is headed — or at least some of the avenues it has considered.

Image Credits: Alphabet X

The patent highlights similar attempts to anticipate movement as those highlighted above. It effectively uses sensors and machine learning to adjust the tension on regions of the garments designed to assist the wearer.

Image Credits: Alphabet X

The proposed methods and systems provide adaptive support and assistance to users by performing intelligent dynamic adjustment of tension and stiffness in specific areas of fabric or by applying forces to non-stretch elements within a garment that is comfortable enough to be suitable for frequent, everyday usage. The methods include detecting movement of a particular part of a user’s body enclosed within the garment, determining an activity classification for that movement, identifying a support configuration for the garment tailored to the activity classification, and dynamically adjusting a tension and/or a stiffness of one or more controllable regions of the garment or applying force to non-stretch fabric elements in the garment to provide customized support and assistance for the user and the activity the user is performing.

It’s nice seeing Alphabet take a more organic approach to developing robotics startups in-house, rather than the acquisitions and consolidations that occurred several years back that ultimately found Boston Dynamics briefly living under the Google umbrella. Of course, we saw the recent graduation of the Wendy Tan White-led Intrinsic, which builds software for industrial robotics.

All right, so there’s a whole bunch of words about a project we know next to nothing about! Gotta love the startup space, where we’re definitely not spinning wild speculation based on a thin trail of breadcrumbs.

I will say for sure that I definitely know more about Agility Robotics than I did this time last week, after speaking with the Oregon-based company’s CEO and CTO. The conversation was ostensibly about a new video the team released showcasing Digit doing some menial tasks in a warehouse/fulfillment setting.

Some key things I learned:

  1. Agility sold a dozen Cassie robots, largely to researchers.
  2. It’s already sold “substantially more” Digits.
  3. The team includes 56 people, primarily in Oregon (makes sense, as an OSU spinout), with plans to expand operations into Pittsburgh, everyone’s favorite rustbelt robotics hub.
  4. Agility is consulting with “major logistics companies.”
  5. In addition to the Ford delivery deal, the company has its sights set on warehouse tasks in hopes of offering a more adaptable solution than ground-up warehouse automation companies like Berkshire Gray.

Image Credits: Agility Robotics

Oh, and a good quote about job loss from CEO Damion Shelton:

The conversation around automation has shifted a bit. It’s viewed as an enabling technology to allow you to keep the workforce that you have. There are a lot of conversations around the risks of automation and job loss, but the job loss is actually occurring now, in advance of the automated solutions.

Agility hopes to start rolling out its robots to locations in the next year. More immediate than that, however, is this deal between Simbe Robotics and midwestern grocery chain, Schnuks. The food giant will be bringing Simbe’s inventor robots to all of its 111 stores, four years after it began piloting the tech.

Schnuck Markets deploys Tally robot by Simbe Robotics to its stores – bringing shelf insights for better shopping experience. Photographed on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, in Des Peres, Mo.

Simbe says its Tally robot can reduce out of stock items by 20-30% and detect 14x more missing inventor than standard human scanning.

Carbon Robotics (not to be confused with the prosthetic company of the same name that made it onto our Hardware Battlefield a few years back) just raised $27 million. The Series B brings its total funding to around $36 million. The Seattle-based firm builds autonomous robots that zap weeds with lasers. We highlighted their most recent robot in this column back in April.

And seeing how we recently updated you on iRobot’s continued indefinite delay for the Terra, here’s a new robotic mower from Segway-Ninebot.

Image Credits: Segway-Ninebot

Segway’s first robotic lawnmower is designed for a lawn area of up to 3,000 square meters, has several features of a smart helper in the garden and is the quietest mower on the market with only 54 dB. The Frequent Soft Cut System (FSCS) ensures that the lawn is cut from above and the desired height is reached gradually. Offset blades allow cutting as close as possible to edges and corners.

That’s it for the week. Don’t forget to sign up to get the upcoming free newsletter version of Actuator delivered to your inbox.

Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike review: Utility that shreds

By Rebecca Bellan

A recent move to Auckland, New Zealand — a city with lackluster public transit and hills that can turn a quick bike ride to the store into a sweaty workout — piqued my interest in e-bikes. 

Strong demand and skyrocketing prices, however, made it difficult to access these coveted e-bikes here in the Land of the Long White Cloud. That changed after learning about Ubco, the New Zealand-based electric utility bike startup that recently raised $10 million from investors. 

The company provided me with the Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike for nearly a month, which gave me plenty of time to put it to the test. 

I may not be Ubco’s target audience, although I did my best to use the bike as its design suggests, and packed it up with bags of books and other heavy things that might simulate the weight of delivered garlic bread, mail and other packages. The Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike is made for city utility riding, with the option of going off-road, which I would later try with gusto.

The company’s flagship is the Ubco 2X2 Work Bike, an electric dirt bike that was originally designed to help farmers. The fresh capital the company raised in June will be used to expand into existing verticals like food delivery, postal service and last-mile logistics, scale a commercial subscription business and target sales growth in the United States. 

Domino’s drivers in Auckland, and I hear in the U.K., can be seen delivering hot pizzas on Ubco bikes, and the company has a range of other national clients, like the New Zealand Post, the Defense Force, the Department of Conservation, and Pāmu, or Landcorp Farming Limited, as well as other local restaurants and stores.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

The handoff

CEO and co-founder Timothy Allan drove out from the company headquarters in Tauranga to hand off the bike personally. It was a sunny day in my neighborhood, and I listened impatiently as he described the various bits and bobs, how to work the machine and how to charge it.

Allan helped me download the Ubco app to pair my phone with the bike, which, among other functionalities, allowed me to select beginner mode, which would cap the vehicle speed at around 20 miles per hour. I made a mental note so that I could write about it here, but was determined to reach the top speed of 30 miles per hour right away. 

I did, and it was … pretty sick. I’m not supposed to gush, but man! It’s a sweet ride. Here’s why:

Appearance

The Adventure Bike comes standard in white and sits on 17X2.75-inch multi-use tires with aluminum rims, both of which are DOT compliant. My version also had Maori decals on the frame, in a nod to the indigenous people of New Zealand.  

The bike’s height is about 41 inches and the seat comes to 32 inches. From wheel to wheel, it’s about 72 inches. The payload, including the rider, is about 330 pounds, so both my partner (6’2” man) and I (5’7” female) rode this bike with ease, needing only to adjust the wide rearview mirrors sticking out of the handlebars. And no, we didn’t ride it together. This bike is designed as a one-seater. 

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

That said, there’s a little cargo rack above the back wheel, which holds the license plate (apparently these are classified as mopeds, which require registration in many places) and any other cargo one might carry. I didn’t try, but I reckon it could hold at least five pizza boxes tied down with a bungee cord. The bike rack also allows for saddlebags to be strapped on. Ubco sells what it calls the Pannier Back Pack, a weather-resistant roll-top cargo bag, for $189 that slots in very nicely and is actually a quality bag with 5.28-gallon capacity. 

Accessories aside, the alloy frame is lightweight and step-through, which I love in a bike — it lets me start to shift myself off before I fully park and I feel super agile and swift. Speaking of parking, the rules are different everywhere, I assume, but here, you park it on the street or in parking spaces, not on the sidewalk. It’s got a kickstand to hold it in place, and you can lock the front wheel so no one can just wheel it away. They could, however, probably chuck it into the back of their pickup truck if they so chose, since it’s only 145 pounds. 

The appearance of the bike stood out, and not just to me. During my multi-week test drive, numerous tradesmen and bike folks went out of their way to compliment its design, the exact demographic that Ubco is aiming for. 

Rideability

The lightness of the bike means that it’s easy to take off and find your balance. The battery is also in the middle of the frame, just near where your feet sit, which anchors the bike and gives you a stable center of gravity.

The lightweight nature of the bike is a blessing and a curse. Cutting a turn is easy, but on a windy day and an open road, there were moments I worried that I’d be knocked off it — but maybe that had more to do with riding next to a 10-wheeler on the street. Because it’s so light, it did feel a bit strange to me to be in the street lane with the other bigger, meaner cars rather than in the bike lanes.

The bike accelerates quickly via the fully electronic throttle control, even up steep hills, due to the high torque geared drivetrain. The drivetrain has two 1kw Flux2 motors with sealed bearings, active heat management and active venting for residual moisture — a necessity in this moistest of cities.

The acceleration sound, which mimics those of a gas-powered dirt bike but with a softer electronic tone, was a surprising plus. I didn’t realize how much I relied on my sense of sound to tell how fast I was going until I rode the Ubco. 

The braking system was a bit touchy. It felt very sensitive to me, probably because hydraulic and regenerative brakes are operating together on the vehicle. There’s also a passive regenerative braking system, which I gather is what put the brakes on for me when I was just trying to coast down one of those mammoth hills.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

Both the front suspension, 130 mm, and rear suspension, 120 mm, have a coil spring with a hydraulic dampener and have preload and rebound adjustment. In other words, the shocks are awesome. Even when I actively drove myself off sidewalks and over speed bumps, I could barely feel a thing. 

To test its off-road capabilities, I took the bike to Cornwall Park, where I ran it at full speed on the grass, swerving between trees, flying over roots and rocks, doing doughnuts in the field. It was good fun and I felt completely in control of the vehicle. I can imagine why farmers have turned to the Work Bike.

When it was time to test out its use as a delivery bike, I packed the two saddlebags with books and groceries and took it for a spin. Still a great ride, although I was a little wobbly turning corners until I got the hang of it.

Value

Since the Ubco Adventure Bike doesn’t neatly fit into a specific bike category, it’s not a simple price comparison. An electric moped, like a Lexmoto Yadea or a Vespa Elettrica, could set you back anywhere from $2,400 or $7,000, respectively. Electric dirt bikes could cost anywhere from $6,000 to $11,000 for something like a KTM or Alta Motors. 

With that in mind, the Ubco Adventure Bike costs $6,999 with a 2.1 kW power supply and $7,499 for a 3.1 kW power supply. Depending on what you want it for, I’d say it’s somewhere around mid-range for a bike like this. Since you’d probably use it for work-related activities, it could get a tax write-off. Plus, you want quality in a bike that’s down to do some heavy lifting, and Ubco has plenty of that. It’s not only a handy utility bike, but it’s also got some excellent tech under the proverbial hood, which we’ll get to later. 

Ubco estimates a 10- to 15-year life expectancy, depending on use. Over-the-air software updates, replacing parts and full refurbishments can help keep the bike going for longer. The company encourages riders to send back the dead bikes because it’s committed to full product stewardship.

That said, if you wanted to buy a bike now, it’d be a preorder (unless your local Ubco dealer had some in stock). Ordering now could get you an Ubco by September if you live in the States. The company says it’s still feeling the effects of COVID, with high demand and a stretched supply chain causing delays. The preorder requires a $1,000 deposit. 

Ubco also has a subscription model, which is mainly available for enterprise customers at the moment and priced on a case-by-case basis. However, it’s piloting subscriptions for individuals in Auckland and Tauranga before rolling the program out globally. Subscriptions will start at around NZD $300 per month for a 36-month term.

Range

The Adventure Bike comes with either the 2.1 kWh battery pack, which has around 40 to 54 miles of range, or the 3.1 kWh, with 60 to 80 miles.

The battery is run off a management system, called “Scotty,” to monitor real-time performance and safety. The battery, which is sealed with alloy and vented during use, is made with 18650 lithium-ion cells, which means it’s a powerful battery that can handle up to 500 charging cycles. Ubco says its batteries are designed to be disassembled at the end of life.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

The 10amp alloy fast charger can fuel the battery fully within four to six hours. You can charge it while it’s still in the vehicle by just connecting it to a power outlet, or you can unlock the battery and yank it out (it’s a little heavy) and charge it inside. Note: Charging is loud. Not sure if this is standard, but probably is. 

I charged it every two to three days, but that will depend on use and where you are. It’s winter in Auckland, so a bit cold, which affects battery life, and the hills are brutal, which also use up a lot of battery life.

I’d ride it downtown and around my neighborhood every day, but I’d wager a delivery driver would need to charge it nightly. As I mentioned earlier, the battery can be removed for charging, so if you take it to work, you can always take it up to the office or wherever to charge while you’re doing other things. 

Tech features

Vehicle management system

The vehicle runs off what Ubco calls its Cerebro vehicle management system, which integrates all electronic and electrical functions of the vehicles and provides control and updates via Bluetooth. Ubco builds with end of life in mind, so the CAN bus is isolated so future CAN devices can be easily integrated. 

Now, one of my first questions, given the heftiness of this bike and the likelihood of gig economy workers who would ride it for work living in urban dwellings, was this: How can I ensure no one will steal this thing when it’s on the street, because there’s no way I’m lugging it up to my fifth-floor walkup?

Like I said, you can lock the wheel in place, which would make it far more difficult for someone to wheel it off. If someone did decide to capture the whole cumbersome vehicle, Ubco would be able to track it for you. Each Ubco bike has telemetry, aka a SIM card, hardwired inside, and that can help provide data that can be used for location, servicing, theft, safety, route planning, etc. 

This VMS architecture is made for handling fleets via Ubco’s enterprise subscription vehicles, but it obviously has other uses, like providing peace of mind (personally, I’d still lock it up with chains, but I’m a New Yorker and trust no one). Obviously, if you think this telemetry is creepy, you can opt out, but it does come standard with subscriptions, allowing subscribers to track their bike’s location on the app.

Display

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

Mounted on the handlebar is an LCD display that shows speed, power levels and more. Also on the handlebars are switch controls for high or low beams, indicators and a horn. I found the indicators to be a bit sticky and sometimes I would slip and hit the horn. What I wish the handlebars also had was a mount for your phone so you could follow directions. I had my headphones in and was listening to Google Maps tell me how to get around, but that felt less safe and efficient. 

Turning it on

You can turn the power on with a keyless fob by either clicking the button on the fob or the button on the handlebars. I will note that the keyless fob button is weirdly sensitive. At multiple points, I had it in my pocket with my phone or other pocket inhabitants and it must have knocked into the button, turning the vehicle off while I was riding it. Thankfully, that never happened anywhere busy, but that’s something to be wary about. 

App

As I mentioned earlier, you could pair your phone, as well as other users’ phones, to the bike using the app. The app allows you to choose learner mode or restricted mode, which controls ride settings; turn the bike and lights on and off; change the metrics; and check the status of things like battery life, speed and motor temperature. It’s basically all the info on the dash, but on an app. I didn’t really feel the need to use it.

Lights

The LED headlights are on at all times when the vehicle is turned on, but there’s also a high and low beam, as well as peripheral parking lights, all of which are designed for disassembly at the end of life. There are also LED rear, brake and number plate lights, as well as DOT-approved indicator lights.

Other stuff

Among the features that don’t fit neatly into the other categories, there’s the field kit, which is fastened to the lift-up seat and contains a user manual and tools to set up and maintain the 2X2, which is really handy. Usually, when people buy an Ubco bike, it comes in a box and there are “a few simple steps to follow to get it ready to ride.” There’s also an UBCO University course that shows how to set it up. If you buy from one of Ubco’s dealers, they’ll unpack it and set it up when you come to collect it. 

Maintenance

Maintenance comes with the cost of a monthly subscription. Ubco has a network of technicians placed wherever the company sells its bikes if they’re in need of fixing. If there’s no authorized mechanic nearby, Ubco’s head office will work with customers to help them fix the bike. Ubco did not respond to information about how many authorized mechanics are in its network.

Again, being from New York, I’ve seen probably thousands of delivery riders on bikes and mopeds, oven mitts covered in a plastic bag taped onto the handlebars so drivers can keep their hands warm during the colder months. This bike can handle a hefty load for delivering goods, it’s quick and agile for weaving in and out of traffic, and it’s easy to ride and use.

The subscription offering, especially for enterprise, makes this a great city utility bike that can probably handle a range of weather conditions. I already know it can handle rain and mud, so all signs point to success in the sloshy, icy hell of a Northern city winter. And for the adventurer — the person who just wants to ride something sweet on- and off-road, out of the city and into the wilderness — this is also a great consumer ride that will last you quite a while.

Humane, a stealthy hardware and software startup co-founded by an ex-Apple designer and engineer, raises $100M

By Ingrid Lunden

A stealthy startup co-founded by a former senior designer from Apple and one of its ex-senior software engineers has picked up a significant round funding to build out its business. Humane, which has ambitions to build a new class of consumer devices and technologies that stem from “a genuine collaboration of design and engineering” that will represent “the next shift between humans and computing”, has raised $100 million.

This is a Series B, and it’s coming from some very high profile backers. Tiger Global Management is leading the round, with SoftBank Group, BOND, Forerunner Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures also participating. Other investors in this Series B include Sam Altman, Lachy Groom, Kindred Ventures, Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Valia Ventures, NEXT VENTŪRES, Plexo Capital and the legal firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

Humane has been around actually since 2017, but it closed/filed its Series A only last year: $30 million in September 2020 at a $150 million valuation, according to PitchBook. Previous to that, it had raised just under $12 million, with many of the investors in this current round backing Humane in those earlier fundraises, too.

Valuation with this Series B is not being disclosed, the company confirmed to me.

Given that Humane has not yet released any products, nor has said much at all about what it has up its sleeve; and given that hardware in general presents a lot of unique challenges and therefore is often seen as a risky bet (that old “hardware is hard” chestnut), you might be wondering how Humane, still in stealth, has attracted these backers.

Some of that attention possibly stems from the fact that the two co-founders, husband-and-wife team Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, are something of icons in their own right. Bongiorno, who is Humane’s CEO, had been the software engineering director at Apple. Chaudhri, who is Humane’s chairman and president, is Apple’s former director of design, where he worked for 20 years on some of its most seminal products — the iPhone, the iPad and the Mac. Both have dozens of patents credited to them from their time there, and they have picked up a few since then, too.

Those latest patents — plus the very extensive list of job openings listed on Humane’s otherwise quite sparse site — might be the closest clues we have for what the pair and their startup might be building.

One patent is for a “Wearable multimedia device and cloud computing platform with laser projection system”; another is for a “System and apparatus for fertility and hormonal cycle awareness.”

Meanwhile, the company currently has nearly 50 job openings listed, including engineers with camera and computer vision experience, hardware engineers, designers, and security experts, among many others. (One sign of where all that funding will be going.) There is already an impressive team of about 60 people the company, which is another detail that attracted investors.

“The caliber of individuals working at Humane is incredibly impressive,” said Chase Coleman, Partner, Tiger Global, in a statement. “These are people who have built and shipped transformative products to billions of people around the world. What they are building is groundbreaking with the potential to become a standard for computing going forward.”

I’ve asked for more details on the company’s product roadmap and ethos behind the company, and who its customers might potentially be: other firms for whom it designs products, or end users directly?

For now, Bongiorno and Chaudhri seem to hint that part of what has motivated them to start this business was to reimagine what role technology might play in the next wave of innovation. It’s a question that many ask, but not many try to actually invest in finding the answer. For that alone, it’s worth watching Humane (if Humane lets us, that is: it’s still very much in stealth) to see what it does next.

“Humane is a place where people can truly innovate through a genuine collaboration of design and engineering,” the co-founders said in a joint statement. “We are an experience company that creates products for the benefit of people, crafting technology that puts people first — a more personal technology that goes beyond what we know today. We’re all waiting for something new, something that goes beyond the information age that we have all been living with. At Humane, we’re building the devices and the platform for what we call the intelligence age. We are committed to building a different type of company, founded on our values of trust, truth and joy. With the support of our partners, we will continue to scale the team with individuals who not only share our passion for revolutionizing the way we interact with computing, but also for how we build.”

Update: After publishing, I got a little more from Humane about its plans. Its aim is to build “technology that improves the human experience and is born of good intentions; products that put us back in touch with ourselves, each other, and the world around us; and experiences that are built on trust, with interactions that feel magical and bring joy.” It’s not a whole lot to go on, but more generally it’s an approach that seems to want to step away from the cycle we’re on today, and be more mindful and thoughtful. If they can execute on this, while still building rather than wholesale rejecting technology, they might be on to something.

A popular smart home security system can be remotely disarmed, researchers say

By Zack Whittaker

A cybersecurity company says a popular smart home security system has a pair of vulnerabilities that can be exploited to disarm the system altogether.

Rapid7 found the vulnerabilities in the Fortress S03, a home security system that relies on Wi-Fi to connect cameras, motion sensors and sirens to the internet, allowing owners to remotely monitor their home anywhere with a mobile app. The security system also uses a radio-controlled key fob to let homeowners arm or disarm their house from outside their front door.

But the cybersecurity company said the vulnerabilities include an unauthenticated API and an unencrypted radio signal that can be easily intercepted.

Rapid7 revealed details of the two vulnerabilities on Tuesday after not hearing from Fortress in three months, the standard window of time that security researchers give companies to fix bugs before details are made public. Rapid7 said its only acknowledgment of its email was when Fortress closed its support ticket a week later without commenting.

Fortress owner Michael Hofeditz opened but did not respond to several emails sent by TechCrunch with an email open tracker. An email from Bottone Reiling, a Massachusetts law firm representing Fortress, called the claims “false, purposely misleading and defamatory,” but did not provide specifics that it claims are false, or if Fortress has mitigated the vulnerabilities.

Rapid7 said that Fortress’ unauthenticated API can be remotely queried over the internet without the server checking if the request is legitimate. The researchers said by knowing a homeowner’s email address, the server would return the device’s unique IMEI, which in turn could be used to remotely disarm the system.

The other flaw takes advantage of the unencrypted radio signals sent between the security system and the homeowner’s key fob. That allowed Rapid7 to capture and replay the signals for “arm” and “disarm” because the radio waves weren’t scrambled properly.

Arvind Vishwakarma from Rapid7 said homeowners could add a plus-tagged email address with a long, unique string of letters and numbers in place of a password as a stand-in for a password. But there was little for homeowners to do for the radio signal bug until Fortress addresses it.

Fortress has not said if it has fixed or plans to fix the vulnerabilities. It’s not clear if Fortress is able to fix the vulnerabilities without replacing the hardware. It’s not known if Fortress builds the device itself or buys the hardware from another manufacturer.

Read more:

Whoop raises another $200M for its athlete-focused fitness wearable

By Brian Heater

Founded in 2012, Whoop is far from a household name in the world of fitness trackers. But over the years, the company has attracted its share of converts. It hasn’t had any issue attracting venture capital over the years, either. Last time we checked in on the Boston-based company was in late-2019, when it raised $55 million. Now it’s back with a massive $200 million raise.

The Series F round brings Whoop’s total funding to nearly $405 million — a pretty massive investment for a company of its size. The round, led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2, puts the valuation at a jaw-dropping $3.6 billion valuation.

Additional investors include IVP, Cavu Venture Partners, Thursday Ventures, GP Bullhound, Accomplice, NextView Ventures and Animal Capital. They join a long list of former backers, including the National Football League Players Association, Jack Dorsey and a number of professional athletes.

The company’s targeting of athletes marks a strong contrast with leading consumer wearables like the Apple Watch and Fitbit. In fact, the company has a specific offering for sports teams, as well as solutions for businesses, healthcare and government/defense.

Whoop’s name made the rounds recently when Fitbit announced a “Daily Readiness Score” for the Charge 5, which many likened to the company’s more advanced analytics.

The company cites “rapid growth” in its membership offering over the past year as a motivation behind seeking additional funding. That was likely driven, in part, by the decision in 2019 to make the $500 wearable free, while focusing on a subscription service that starts at $18 a month for an 18-month membership (the shorter the membership, the more the monthly fee).

Whoop is eying international expansion beyond the U.S. and using the massive influx of cash on R&D for its hardware, software and analytics solutions. Money will also go toward expanding headcount, which is currently in excess of 500 (with nearly half of those employees having joined in the past year).

“We are thrilled to deepen our partnership with SoftBank as we grow internationally,” founder and CEO Will Ahmed said in a release. “While we have experienced amazing growth in the past year, the potential of our technology and the vast market for health monitoring remains largely untapped.”

6 tips for establishing your startup’s global supply chain

By Ram Iyer
Jeff Morin Contributor
Jeff Morin is the co-founder and CEO of Liteboxer, an at-home fitness company that creates immersive workouts.

Startups are hard work, but the complexities of global supply chains can make running hardware companies especially difficult. Instead of existing within a codebase behind a screen, the key components of your hardware product can be scattered around the world, subject to the volatility of the global economy.

I’ve spent most of my career establishing global supply chains, setting up manufacturing lines for 3D printers, electric bicycles and home fitness equipment on the ground in Mexico, Hungary, Taiwan and China. I’ve learned the hard way that Murphy’s law is a constant companion in the hardware business.

But after more than a decade of work on three different continents, there are a few lessons I’ve learned that will help you avoid unnecessary mistakes.

Expect cost fluctuations, especially in currency and shipping

Shipping physical products is quite different from “shipping” code — you have to pay a considerable amount of money to transport products around the world. Of course, shipping costs become a line item like any other as they get baked into the overall business plan. The issue is that those costs can change monthly — sometimes drastically.

At this time last year, a shipping container from China cost $3,300. Today, it’s almost $18,000 — a more than fivefold increase in 12 months. It’s safe to assume that most 2020 business plans did not account for such a cost increase for a key line item.

Shipping a buggy hardware product can be exponentially costlier than shipping buggy software. Recalls, angry customers, return shipping and other issues can become existential problems.

Similar issues also arise with currency exchange rates. Contract manufacturers often allow you to maintain cost agreements for any fluctuations below 5%, but the dollar has dropped much more than 5% against the yuan compared to a year ago, and hardware companies have been forced to renegotiate their manufacturing contracts.

As exchange rates become less favorable and shipping costs increase, you have two options: Operate with lower margins, or pass along the cost to the end customer. Neither choice is ideal, but both are better than going bankrupt.

The takeaway is that when you set up your business, you need to prepare for these possibilities. That means operating with enough margin to handle increased costs, or with the confidence that your end customer will be able to handle a higher price.

Overorder critical parts

Over the past year, many businesses have lost billions of dollars in market value because they didn’t order enough semiconductors. As the owner of a hardware company, you will encounter similar risks.

The supply for certain components, like computer chips, can be limited, and shortages can arise quickly if demand increases or supply chains get disrupted. It’s your job to analyze potential choke points in your supply chain and create redundancies around them.

The $150 Million Machine Keeping Moore’s Law Alive

By Will Knight
ASML’s next-generation extreme ultraviolet lithography machines achieve previously unattainable levels of precision, which means chips can keep shrinking for years to come.

OnePlus Buds Pro review: Much better

By Brian Heater

What does a company have to do to differentiate wireless earbuds in 2021? The near ubiquity of good hardware has made this an increasingly difficult question to answer. I’ve probably tested around 10 different sets of buds over the last year or so, and honestly, they were all pretty good.

Companies like Nura and Nothing are taking interesting approaches to the category, but for hardware makers who also sell their own handsets, sometimes being the best pair of headphones for a specific mobile device is enough.

OnePlus is in something of a void between the two worlds. The company makes its own phones, of course, but doesn’t pull in numbers approaching goliaths like Samsung and Apple. Fittingly, the OnePlus Buds Pro walk that line — serving as a solid pair of buds that play nicely with its own devices, while sprinkling in a few — at the very least — interesting additions that somewhat differentiate them from a crowded field.

OnePlus’s work in the category has been — to this point — unexceptional at best, and downright lackluster at worst. I was very much unimpressed when the company finally entered the fully wireless category last year, after a tethered play in the space. The sub-$100 price point was nice, but they otherwise felt like a set that could have flown maybe three or four years ago, when the pickings were far slimmer.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The Pros are, mercifully, better in practically every respect. That has to be a bit of a relief for the company, as one of its co-founders launched his own new headphones within a month of their product. At $150, the product comes in at a $50 premium over both the Ear (1) and its standard buds. It’s a fair price for what you’re getting here, however, taking a broader look at the current landscape.

I should note, that for this review, I took the headphones for a spin with a non-OnePlus Android phone I had handy, as well as an iPhone. That requires the use of the HeyMelody OnePlus/Oppo app, which is, in a word, lacking. But it gets the job done with some key features. There’s a fit test to ensure that you have a good seal, and OnePlus Audio ID, which helps you create a custom sound profile.

The latter is a rudimentary version of what Nura offers with an old-school sound test that runs you through a number of different tones, asking whether you can hear the playback. It’s a bit of a slog, but it ultimately makes a difference. The result was a fair bit fuller and richer when I finished. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of EQ customization beyond that. That said, I really don’t have a lot to complain about on the sound side of things, beyond an over reliance on bass.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The noise canceling, which can either be controlled on the app or via the headphones’ stems, is also effective. A long (three-second) click of the stems, meanwhile, will pop up one of the buds’ most unique features: Zen Mode Air. It’s a clever if unnecessary addition in an era when every tech company is thinking about mindfulness. The feature pipes white noise into your eyes. The default is “Warm Sunrise” — kind of a meadow soundscape with chirping birds and insects. There are four other preloaded sounds, including campfires and the beach. It’s not a feature I ever thought I’d need, but in year where everything is stressful basically all of the time, I kind of dig it.

On the design side, companies have one of two choices these days. You can either embrace the AirPod or try something defiantly different. It’s pretty clear with a glance which direction OnePlus went. It’s a bit less pronounced on the matte black pair the company sent for review, but the white versions are unmistakable. The metal stems appear to be tossed in so as to not make them infringingly close to the market leaders.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

From a comfort perspective, they’re tough to beat. I’ve had them in for extended periods and gone running with them in and have no complaints. I guess there’s something to the AirPods design, after all. Battery life is pretty stellar, with five to seven hours on the buds (depending on ANC usage) and a combined 28 to 38 (ditto) with the slim case factored in. The case also supports wireless charging — an increasingly ubiquitous feature at this price point.

OnePlus clearly wanted to hew close to its budget roots by launching with the $99 buds first. But I think there’s something to the Google approach of showing what you can do with a more premium model and then dropping the budget take. There’s a strong case to be made that these were the headphones OnePlus should have released a year or two ago. But, hey, better late than never.

The DOJ and DHS subpoenaed Peloton over treadmill injury reporting

By Brian Heater

On Tuesday, Peloton announced the upcoming release of its entry-level Tread device. The news came ahead of a disappointing earnings report and after recalls of both of its treadmill products. Today, the connected fitness company noted in a filing with the SEC that it has been subpoenaed by both the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security.

Both subpoenas are part of  investigations around the way the company reported injuries from its treadmills. It’s seemingly another sign that, in spite of the return of one of its two Tread products to market, the larger implications are far from over for the company.

Peloton writes in the filing:

Injuries sustained by Members or their friends and family members, or others who use or purchase our Connected Fitness Products, could subject us to regulatory proceedings and litigation by governance agencies and private litigants brought against us, that regardless of their merits, could harm our reputation, divert management’s attention from our operations and result in substantial legal fees and other costs. For example, we are presently subject to a CPSC investigation and other litigation related to injuries sustained by Members and others who use or purchase the Tread+, and we have reporting obligations to safety regulators in all jurisdictions where we sell Connected Fitness Products, where reporting may trigger further regulatory investigations.

The company declined to comment further on the investigations.

Peloton was, notably, at odds with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)’s initial warning to stop using its treadmill products after an accident with the Tread+ resulted in a child’s death. At the time, Peloton said it was “troubled” by the reporting and insisted that “there is no reason to stop using the Tread+, as long as all warnings and safety instructions are followed.” In May, CEO John Foley apologized for the pushback and agreed to work with the CPSC on a recall.

The Commission cited more than 70 incidents in all, noting, “a six-year-old child recently died after being pulled under the rear of the treadmill. In addition, Peloton has received 72 reports of adult users, children, pets and/or objects being pulled under the rear of the treadmill, including 29 reports of injuries to children such as second- and third-degree abrasions, broken bones, and lacerations.”

The cheaper Tread model, meanwhile, was at the center of separate issue wherein the product’s touchscreen could detach and cause injury during use. The new version of the device features a reinforced screen. The recalls impacted around 125,000 Tread+ systems and more than 5,500 Treads, which were in early release.

Boox tablets are welcome options in the growing oversize e-reader niche

By Devin Coldewey

When it comes to e-paper devices, the Kindle is of course the first brand people think of, though I’ve done my best to spread the Kobo and reMarkable gospel as well. Chinese e-reader maker Boox is a relatively new entrant to the space, and its devices are experimental but useful options in the niche market of monochrome tablets. In fact, they make my new favorite small device.

A brand from parent company Onyx, Boox has a wide array of devices, some might say too wide, ranging from pocketable to medium-sized e-readers to A4-sized tablets. Its branding is not particularly memorable and slightly updated versions come out quite regularly — one device I hoped to test was actually being replaced by the time I got around to writing this article.

The unifying aspect is the OS, a modified version of Android 10 with a few special-made apps for reading and productivity. Made with Chinese consumers in mind, the services probably aren’t ones you will have heard of.

I tested several devices from Boox, the simplest being the Poke 3 e-reader, then the larger and more complex Note2, followed by the svelte Note Air and enormous Max Lumi. Most recently I have been looking at the Nova3 Color, which uses E Ink’s latest Kaleido Plus color screen.

The truth is if you didn’t turn them on you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that these devices were all from the same company. They have quite different hardware styles, though of course there’s only so much room for expression in a black tablet with a screen in shades of grey.

Little and big

A Boox Poke 3 e-reader in a hand.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Let’s begin with the simplest and most familiar format, the 6-inch e-reader. In this category we have the Kindle Paperwhite and Kobo Clara HD. The former is probably the best one Amazon makes, but I prefer the latter, even though its build quality is, frankly, poor.

Boox in this space has (among others) the Poke 3, not exactly the catchiest name, but it makes up for that with its form factor: pretty much the platonic ideal for a small reader like this. I liked it so much I broke it out into a separate review, but here are the basics.

The 6-inch, 300-PPI screen is of equal quality to the Kindle and Kobo, and like the Clara HD has a temperature-adjustable frontlight. The front of the device is completely flush, just the way I like it, and has just enough bezel to grip without it becoming too much or too little. The seamless design makes it pocketable and resistant to crumbs and spills (though it makes no water resistance claims). There’s a power button up top (thank you) and a single USB-C port at the bottom.

Regarding the hardware, I find it difficult to come up with any criticism at all. It could, I suppose, be lighter, but its dimensions could not be smaller than they are without adversely affecting the ergonomics; a millimeter could conceivably be shaved off the thickness but it would be barely noticeable.

The OS is a highly customized version of Android, with all the pros and cons that comes with. I have always enjoyed the simplicity of Kobo’s interface, though they seem bent on complicating it. Boox’s OS is powerful but busy, uneasy in its decisions of what options to make available and prominent to the user.

Screen of a Boox Poke 3 e-reader

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The reader app, NeoReader, supports tons of file formats and has a huge set of controls for changing your view, highlighting and notating books and PDFs, and so on. This is more for the larger devices than the small ones, which really only need font adjustment and other basic stuff.

If all you want to do is read e-books you already have sitting on your computer, it’s as easy as dragging them into the “Books” folder on the device’s storage. That tab is what you’ll see when you turn on the device, and it’s always easy to get to. There’s a built-in store that takes up a whole tab, though it isn’t available in the U.S. — then a file manager tab for rooting around in directories — and a tab each for your apps and settings.

The apps are another custom situation: This being a Chinese device, it comes without the usual Google-authenticated App Store, whatever it’s called these days. Instead, it has its own store with dozens of the most-used reading apps, from Pocket and GoodReader to the Kobo and Kindle apps. But these are essentially side-loaded: for instance, the Kindle app is a few months old. That’s far from a disaster, but you do need to commit to a certain amount of trust in Boox and its proxy app store in order to use the device as-is.

Of course, you can also enable Google Play services in the settings, which adds the official store into the mix. But for most people this is already far too much work. We are both spoiled and deprived in our e-reader selection in that they are generally simple and extremely straightforward to use. Someone who is not familiar with Android, using this device and a Kobo or Kindle, would probably opt for one of the latter.

Yet the possibilities are many for those who wish to take the plunge. For my part, I like the form factor of the Poke3 so well that I will brave any OS to use it. Besides, you spend 99 percent of your time on these things in a book, so as long as that part works the rest is just icing on the cake.

View of a tablet interface with handwriting on it.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

At the 6-inch scale, this all seems like way too much. But on Boox’s larger devices, the flexibility starts to make more sense. The idea with the Note 2 (now 3), Note Air and Max Lumi is to provide almost all the capabilities of an Android tablet, but with the benefits of an e-paper screen. Admittedly that makes playing racing games something of a non-starter, but it could be very attractive to the types of people for whom their reMarkable is used more than their iPad.

If you read a lot of documents, doing so on a bright tablet screen — or a dim one, for that matter — sucks. An e-paper screen is better for the task, but the best device for that, the reMarkable, is also very deliberately limited in what it can accomplish, since the whole philosophy of the company revolves around focus. So there are definitely people who want the capabilities of an Android device with the readability of an e-paper one. Or at any rate Boox thinks so.

The Note 2 and Max Lumi seem related: They’re unremarkable black tablets of impressive dimensions and, in my limited explorations of their hardware, what seemed to me excellent build quality. The Note Air, it must be said, is the opposite of unremarkable — in fact, when I saw it, I thought it was a clone of the reMarkable 2!

Side view of a tablet showing its thin profile and metal finish.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

This first impression turned out to be less than generous on my part, as while the two share some significant design elements, they are in fact quite different and Boox’s facility in creating other devices has led me to give them the benefit of the doubt here. The blue and orange motif isn’t the greatest, but it does help set it apart, and all the devices (especially the Air) are thin and well designed.

All the tablets feature frontlights, and I’m happy to say that my skepticism that it could be done with such big screens was needless. It works well and like the Poke 3 the light is adjustable in both brightness and temperature (though it’s a bit fiddly).

Color e-paper still isn’t quite there

The Boox Nova3 color e-ink tablet

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey

The Nova3 Color has a 7.8-inch screen with the latest color e-paper tech from E Ink. I’ve always been excited for the possibilities of this side of the technology, but color e-paper screens have always suffered from poor contrast, low refresh speeds, ghosting, and other shortcomings. While this latest iteration does go some way towards amending those (and a software update helped further), it is still unfortunately too much of a compromise.

The hardware is similar to the other Boox devices, solid and unassuming. The difference is all in the screen, which shows in color even when the device is off. Color e-paper works by combining the microscopic black and white beads that form images with a layer of color filters that can be changed. This one, like the others, has a frontlight and it helps a lot with making those colors pop, since without it they’re all rather muted.

There is still the issue of ghosting, though if you’re reading, say, a comic, you can easily set it to refresh every page (it takes only a fraction of a second) and the problem is gone. It’s less easy to do this with more dynamic content like a webpage, though of course navigating the web on an e-reader is already something of a novelty.

The color e-paper display still lacks saturation, if not contrast. Image Credits: Devin Coldewey

More troubling to me is the decrease in contrast and effective decrease in resolution that the color layer brings. When color content is shown, there’s a distinct screen door effect to it, no quite like ordinary LCD aliasing but still visible. And when you have greyscale content you sometimes see moire and other interference patterns in mid-tones.

Books look all right but not nearly as clear as an ordinary monochrome E-Ink display; the screen door effect is always present and reduces contrast. It’s still very readable, but when cheaper devices do the job better, it’s hard to justify.

Text is less clear and high contrast on the color screen than on the monochrome one. Image Credits: Devin Coldewey

I appreciate Boox making the latest screen from E-Ink available, and it may be useful to some who want a little more tablet DNA in their e-reader (at this point the two categories are not very distinct). But for most people the color does not add enough, and subtracts too much.

Does it all, or stretched too thin?

The OS is the same on all of these as far as I can tell, but on the these devices the focus shifts to interactivity rather than simply reading. Boox makes a Wacom-like pen that can be used to write on the surface of these larger tablets, and it serves its purpose fine, though with nowhere near the responsiveness or accuracy of reMarkable’s.

That said, the final result when sketching or writing was a pleasing one, though the OS takes a moment to catch up and anti-alias the marks. I thought the brush in particular had nice gradations.

One thing the Boox tablets have on others like them (that is to say, the reMarkable, the defunct Sony Digital Paper Tablet, and a handful of other niche devices) is in the PDF handling. The Boox devices let you navigate and mark up PDFs with ease, and the original files are simply saved over with your doodles and notes added. Though marking up a document is easy on the reMarkable, its slightly clumsy app makes sharing and sorting them a bit of a chore. I prefer the simple approach: modify the original file (there’s always a copy somewhere) and email it directly from the device. It’s that simple!

Besides the reader and notebook, there are a handful of included apps that any tablet user might find useful. There’s a browser that’s about as functional as you’d expect — it’s Chromium-based and renders well but ghosts terribly; a voice recorder, a music player, a calendar… and of course you could download plenty more from the built-in or Google app stores. If you wanted to, you could make these quite well-rounded devices.

I’m not entirely sure just how large the market is for this kind of e-paper tablet. But I feel these devices offer something interesting and unique, even if they’re also… well, it’s hard to get around the fact that you can get an iPad for half the price of the larger Boox tablets, and then do most of the same stuff and more.

These e-paper devices have a certain draw, though, and if you plan to read and mark up long documents, it’s way better to do so on one of these than on an iPad, for a number of reasons. With Boox’s lineup in the mix there are more options than ever, and that’s definitely a good thing.

Kanye wants to sell you a $200 music gadget

By Brian Heater

Kanye (or “Ye,” as it were) is going all out in the promotion of his upcoming tenth studio album, “Donda” (named for his late-mother, Donda West). In July, there was a massive listening party at New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium (where he also took up residence in a locker room). For an upcoming listening party in his native Chicago, meanwhile, the rapper is rebuilding his childhood home at Soldier Field.

The forthcoming LP also sees West launching a $200 music gadget called, Stem Player, under his Yeezy Tech brand. The product is designed to isolate stems — specific elements like vocals, bass, samples and drums. It can add effects and remix the song elements according to the site.

The device reportedly ships with a copy of the new record pre-loaded. A FAQ on the site helpfully adds, however, while the product is being released in conjunction with “Donda,” it can also be used for other music.

Image Credits: Kanye West

Interestingly, the device was created in tandem with Kano, a London-based startup known for a different kind of STEM product. The company creates educational devices to help children learn things like programming. In 2019, Kano struggled through layoffs, in spite of releasing a number of Disney-branded devices.

It seems the company’s found an interesting new bit of life here, and the product even goes so far as crediting Kano on the back of its silicone skin exterior with a Yeezy Tech x Kano branding on the rear.

West name-checked the device (or its predecessor) during an interview around his previous album, “Jesus Is King” in 2019. At the time, it appeared to be a collaboration with design firm Teenage Engineering. “This portable stem player that we designed with Teenage Engineering for this album and the albums before it, is to spread the gospel,” West told Zane Lowe at the time.

The product is set to ship this summer.

Canalys: US PC sales up 17% YoY for quarter, even as tablet sales stagnate

By Ron Miller

Canalys released its quarterly U.S. PC sales today, and while the news was quite good with sales overall up 17% YoY, the growth slowed significantly from the prior quarter when sales soared to 74% pushed by the pandemic. Perhaps that is also due the widely reported worldwide chip shortage.

HP retained top spot for the second straight quarter with 21.9% of the market, up over 20% from the previous year. Apple remained in second spot with 20.6% share. It’s worth noting, however, that Apple’s growth fell -2.8% for the year.

Dell was in third place with 15.6%, followed by Lenovo with 12.4%. If you’re looking at yearly growth rate, Samsung had the highest with over 50%, but that translated into just over 6% market share.

Canalys Q2 U.S. PC marketshare chart

Image Credits: Canalys

Brian Lynch, Research Analyst at Canalys is optimistic that the pandemic-fueled growth we have been seeing in this market throughout 2020 and 2021 will continue and that consumer refreshes could be on the horizon as the economy continues to rebound.

“The commercial and education segments have exploded, triggering tremendous refresh potential. The US economy has bounced back well from its pandemic woes and small businesses are recovering, which will lead to a wave of purchasing from the segment,” Lynch said in a statement.

Overall there were 36.8 million units sold and that includes notebooks which were up 27%, desktops which were up 23% and tablets, which were basically stagnant with growth actually down 1%. Canalys attributed this drop to the education market moving away from tablets and the fact that many people bought tablets when they were stuck at home, but won’t be refreshing quickly.

In spite of this, Apple remains firmly in charge in the tablet market with 45% share, while Amazon is well back in second place with 22% followed by Samsung with 18%.

It seems clear that even though more people may be returning to in-person learning and in-office work at some point, many schools and businesses will continue to take a hybrid or even fully remote approach and that should bode well for the PC industry, especially whenever the chip shortage finally abates.

Zeit’s early warning wearable for sleep strokes could save hours and lives

By Devin Coldewey

Those at risk are always vigilant for the signs of a stroke in progress, but no one can be vigilant when they’re sleeping, meaning thousands of people suffer “wake-up strokes” that are only identified hours after the fact. Zeit Medical’s brain-monitoring wearable could help raise the alarm and get people to the hospital fast enough to mitigate the stroke’s damage and potentially save lives.

A few decades ago, there wasn’t much anyone could do to help a stroke victim. But an effective medication entered use in the ’90s, and a little later a surgical procedure was also pioneered — but both need to be administered within a few hours of the stroke’s onset.

Orestis Vardoulis and Urs Naber started Zeit (“time”) after seeing the resources being put toward reducing the delay between a 911 call regarding a stroke and the victim getting the therapy needed. The company is part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 cohort.

“It used to be that you couldn’t do anything, but suddenly it really mattered how fast you got to the hospital,” said Naber. “As soon as the stroke hits you, your brain starts dying, so time is the most crucial thing. People have spent millions shrinking the time between the 911 call and transport, and from the hospital door to treatment. but no one is addressing those hours that happen before the 911 call — so we realized that’s where we need to innovate.”

If only the stroke could be identified before the person even realizes it’s happening, they and others could be alerted and off to the hospital long before an ambulance would normally be called. As it turns out, there’s another situation where this needs to happen: in the OR.

For illustrative purposes, an EEG signal that changes its character can be detected quickly by the algorithm. Image Credits: Zeit

Surgeons and nurses performing operations obviously monitor the patient’s vitals closely and have learned to identify the signs of an impending stroke from the EEG monitoring their brainwaves.

“There are specific patterns that people are trained to catch with their eyes. We learned from the best neurologists out there how they process this data visually, and we built a tool to detect that automatically,” said Vardoulis. “This clinical experience really helped, because they assisted in defining features within the signal that helped us accelerate the process of deciding what is important and what is not.”

The team created a soft, wearable headband with a compact EEG built in that monitors the relevant signals from the brain. This data is sent to a smartphone app for analysis by a machine learning model trained on the aforementioned patterns, and if anything is detected, an alarm is sent to the user and pre-specified caregivers. It can also be set to automatically call 911.

“The vast majority of the data we have analyzed comes out of the OR,” said Vardoulis, where it can immediately be checked against the ground truth. “We saw that we have an algorithm that can robustly capture the onset of events in the OR with zero false positives.”

That should translate well to the home, they say, where there are actually fewer complicating variables. To test that, they’re working with a group of high-risk people who have already had one stroke; the months immediately following a stroke or related event (there are various clinically differentiated categories) is a dangerous one when second events are common.

Orestis Vardoulis, left, and Urs Naber, co-founders of Zeit, pose with each other in a courtyard.

Image Credits: Zeit

“Right now we have a research kit that we’re shipping to individuals involved in our studies that has the headband and phone. Users are wearing it every night,” said Vardoulis. “We’re preparing for a path that will allow us to go commercial at some point in 2023. We’re working with he FDA to define the clinical proof needed to get this clear.”

They’ve earned a “Breakthrough Device” classification, which (like stroke rehabilitation company BrainQ) puts them in position to move forward quickly with testing and certification.

“We’re going to start in the U.S., but we see a need globally,” said Naber. “There are countries where aging is even more prevalent and the support structure for disability care is even less.” The device could significantly lower the risk and cost of at-home and disability care for many people who might otherwise have to regularly visit the hospital.

The plan for now is to continue to gather data and partners until they can set up a large-scale study, which will almost certainly be required to move the device from direct-to-consumer to reimbursable (i.e., covered by insurance). And although they are totally focused on strokes for the present, the method could be adapted to watching for other neurological conditions.

“We hope to see a future where everyone with a stroke risk is issued this device,” said Vardoulis. “We really do see this as the missing puzzle piece in the stroke care continuum.”

Wing approaches 100,000 drone deliveries two years after Logan, Australia launch

By Brian Heater

In a blog post this morning, Alphabet drone delivery company Wing announced that it is set to hit 100,000 customer deliveries over the weekend. The news comes on the second anniversary of the service’s pilot launch in Logan, Australia, a city of roughly 300,000 people in the Brisbane metropolitan area.

It also, notably, arrives a few weeks after Wired reported that Amazon’s own drone delivery efforts are “collapsing inwards.” Wing comms head Jonathan Bass told TechCrunch that the service is set to enter additional markets in the coming months.

“I think we’ll expand quite a bit,” Bass told TechCrunch. “I think we’ll launch new services in Australia, Finland and the United States in the next six months. The capabilities of the technology are probably ahead of the regulatory permissions right now.”

Of the existing deliveries, more than half were completed in Logan over the course of the last eight months. The first week of August, for instance, found customers place orders for 4,500 deliveries, which works out to one every 30 seconds during Wing’s delivery window.

The numbers include:

  • 10,000 cups of coffee
  • 1,700 children’s snack packs
  • 1,200 hot chooks (roasted chicken, in Australian)
  • 2,700 sushi rolls
  • 1,000 loaves of bread

Image Credits: Wing

The drones have a range of six miles — limited by their battery life. That means the trips are fairly short, so there’s not a lot of issue with foodstuffs staying hot or cold, in spite of the package (which resembles a Happy Meal) being transported outside the drone. The primarily limitation, the company says, is weight, with capacity to carry up to three pounds. Apparently the system has had no issues carrying extremely fragile objects like eggs.

The drones cruise at around 100 to 150 feet in the air and lower down to about 23 feet when they reach their destination. From there, a tether lowers the package to the ground and unhooks it. No one is required to receive the package.

Image Credits: Wing

“If you combine the test flights with deliveries, it’s close to half-a-million flights over the past four or five years,” says Bass. “We’ve gradually moved into dense environments and listen to communities.” That last bit includes community feedback to reduce the drone’s noise levels.

Fitbit adds ECG and stress-level scanning to its Charge fitness tracker

By Brian Heater

Fitness band market share is undoubtedly contracting, thanks in no small part to the massive popularity of smartwatches. But 13.1 million overall shipments in Q1 2021 is nothing to sneeze at. People are still buying non-watch fitness trackers, due to their lower price and non-invasiveness.

Announced this morning via the Google Keyword blog, the latest version of Fitbit’s Charge line looks to further blur the line line between the categories. The latest version of the premium fitness band adds a color touchscreen, along with ECG (heart) and EDA (stress) sensors.

Naturally those sorts of smartwatch-level features also come with a $30 price increase, up to $180 — putting it at the same price point as 2019’s Versa 2 and $50 less than the Versa 3. Like I said, the lines have blurred. Fitbit also offers a number of cheaper trackers, including the $100 Inspire 2, though the company is well aware that it can’t really compete on the super low end of the market.

The addition of ECG monitoring brings a feature to the band that has largely been the realm of pricier smartwatches. It’s been popular with both users and doctors, who often recommend it for day to day monitoring of conditions like a-fib. That’s in addition to heart rate monitoring, which can be used around the clock, courtesy of a battery that’s rated at a full week (though the always-on option for the full-color AMOLED touchscreen will undoubtedly eat into that).

Still photography of Fitbit Charge 5. Image Credits: Fitbit

EDA monitoring, which Fitbit first offered on the Sense last fall, is designed to detect a wearer’s stress levels by way of their finger sweat glands. That’s coupled with a “Stress Management Score” available through the Fitbit app, “so you can see each morning if you’re mentally ready to take on more challenges, or if you need to recharge.” The idea of viewing my own stress numbers over the past year is likely enough to drive them up even higher.

All of that feeds into the larger Health Metrics dashboard, which the company is setting up as a kind of one-stop shop that also includes sleep and standard fitness. The Charge also offers integration with third-party mindfulness apps like Ten Percent Happier and Calm, the latter of which is a part of a new partnership that brings the wildly popular meditation app’s content to Fitbit Premium members.

Premium also gets a new feature called Daily Readiness Score, which Fitbit describes thusly:

Coming soon to Premium is our new Daily Readiness Score, which will use insights from your body via your Fitbit device, including your activity, heart rate variability (HRV) and recent sleep, to help you assess when you’re ready to push yourself physically — in other words, if you should workout or prioritize recovery. By wearing your Fitbit device daily (including while you sleep), you’ll receive a personalized score each morning along with details on what impacted it, with suggestions like a recommended activity level and Premium content to help you make the best decisions for your body and make your workouts more efficient.

Oh, and here’s a picture of Fitbit’s new brand ambassador, for good measure. Looks familiar:

Image Credits: Fitbit

The Charge 5 is the first major release since Fitbit officially became a part of Google. We haven’t seen a lot of major changes yet (though CEO James Park is now officially “VP, GM & Co-founder,” per his billing). Expect to see something more significant on that front when the company unveils its next smartwatch.

Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip 3 is the foldable to beat

By Brian Heater

I took a long walk on Saturday. It’s become a routine during the pandemic, a chance to unwind after too many hours indoors, while seeing parts of the city that would otherwise be lost to subway rides in normal years. Saturday was more purpose-driven, heading to a newly opened Trader Joe’s before Henri unleashed itself on the Eastern Seaboard.

Taking respite from the early rain, I found a food court in Long Island City, ordered a shawarma and pulled the Galaxy Z Flip from my pocket. I unfolded the phone, popped the new Galaxy Buds in my ears and watched a baseball game on the MLB.TV app. The Flip really made sense in that moment, open in landscape mode at a 135-degree angle to keep the 6.7-inch screen upright. When the game ended (spoiler, it didn’t end well), I snapped the phone shut, stuck it in my pocket and went on my way.

It doesn’t always come with a piece of new technology, but sometimes you get lucky and have an experience where it just clicks. There were plenty of jokes about the long-ago death of the clamshell when the first Flip arrived. Those won’t be going away anytime soon, of course, but the phone also offered the first sense for many that maybe Samsung was heading in the right direction with its foldable ambitions.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Setting aside the early flaws with the first Galaxy Fold (we’ve covered them ad nauseum elsewhere), the device is also unwieldy. While it’s true the foldable screen affords you the ability to carry around a screen that might otherwise be impossible, it’s a large device when folded, and the opportunities to unfold don’t readily present themselves. The Flip splits the difference nicely between screen size and portability. In terms of display size, it’s effectively a Galaxy Note that snaps in two and fits nicely in your pocket.

Most of the talk of Samsung mainstreaming foldables has centered on the Galaxy Z Fold — mostly from the company itself. Samsung has made a big to-do about positioning the Fold as its latest flagship — augmenting or, perhaps replacing, the Note in its lineup. The Fold 3 certainly blurs the lines with the addition of S Pen functionality, but the Flip is the much clearer bridge between Samsung’s existing flagships and the foldable future it envisions.

Mainstreaming foldables was always going to be a tricky proposition. Right out of the gate, they were hit with negative coverage over production issues and prices; $2,000 is a lot to pay for a product you essentially have to handle with kid gloves. You shouldn’t have to worry about accidentally damaging your daily driver through normal use. The Flip benefits from the mistakes of earlier fold generations, getting a more robust design and water resistance as a result.

Perhaps even more importantly, however, is pricing. The Galaxy Z Flip is Samsung’s first foldable under $1,000. Now, granted, it’s literally one penny under that threshold — a price point that puts it in line with expensive premium phones from the likes of Samsung and Apple. But in the world of foldables, that’s a really big win. The first couple of generations could — to some degree — survive on novelty alone.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As more of these devices make their way into the world, utility supersedes novelty. But growing popularity also means scale — and, as a result, price drops. For the first time, buying a Samsung foldable is not the financial equivalent of buying two phones. That’s a much more significant threshold than the Galaxy Fold dropping $200 over its previous generation.

The company noted this week, that “in just 10 days since announcement pre-orders for the Galaxy Z Fold3 and Galaxy Z Flip3 have already surpassed total global Samsung foldables sales in all of 2021, also making it the strongest pre-order for Samsung foldables ever.” There are a lot of factors here, including a lower price, more robust design, the absence of a new Note and an aggressive push to get consumers to preorder. But it’s safe to say the line is, at the very least, trending the right way.

Expectedly, the company’s numbers don’t break down sales in terms of Fold versus Flip. Admittedly, the Fold is more fully featured, and 7.6 inches of screen is better than 6.7 inches of screen, when it comes, to, say, watching a full movie. But for most people in most instances, the Galaxy Flip is a better choice. I can say with no hesitation: The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip is the most mainstream foldable on the market.

If you’re not sold on the importance of foldables, such a statement understandably doesn’t mean much. But for a vast majority of people looking to make the leap to what is increasingly looking like a key part of the mobile future, the Flip is an obvious choice. And while it’s easy to make fun of the clamshell design as a relic of a bygone era, there’s a reason phones went that way in the first place. One assumes a big part of the reason they largely went away is that — until now — smartphones weren’t foldable.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Samsung gets the design language right here. The Flip 3 is easily the company’s best-looking foldable to date. The dual-color shell is striking. The company sent along a cream color, which I’m not particularly fond of, but the green, lavender and even plain black or white are quite striking. It pairs well with the strip of black that houses the exterior display, which has been bumped from 1.1 to 1.9 inches. It doesn’t sound like a lot, sure, but that’s a healthy increase on a screen this size.

Of course, you’re losing the full exterior screen functionality you get on the Fold. The Flip’s display is effectively a quick-glance secondary screen for notifications. Pull it out, and it shows you the time, date and how much battery you’ve got left. Swipe right and you’ll see your notifications.

Swipe left and you get an alarm or timer, with the option of adding more widgets to the screen, including weather, media playback (effectively audio play/pause) and Samsung Health Metrics. It’s a small list, but one that will no doubt increase if more people pick up the Flip. Swipe down for some quick settings and Swipe up for Samsung Pause.

In a time when many of us are trying to make a concerted effort to minimize our phone use, I appreciate the dichotomy between the two screens. It’s a much clearer line in the sand than the one separating the Fold’s 6.2- and 7.6-inch screens. Phone closed = checking my notifications. Phone open = engagement. When the time comes to open the phone, the Flip is a much easier proposition than the phones. I haven’t quite mastered the art of the one-handed open just yet, but it’s much easier to execute on the fly than the Fold, which is effectively like opening a book. The biggest downside to the form factor in terms of speed is there’s no quick way to fire off a photo.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Taking photos is far more deliberate, requiring one to open the phone to see the internal view finder. You can, however, snap off some selfies by double-pressing the power button, with the small front-facing screen doubling as a small viewfinder. Swiping to the left toggles between still, while swiping up and down changes the level of zoom. It’s a bit awkward and clunky, but the pair of 12-megapixel cameras (wide and ultra-wide) will get you a much better selfie than most pinhole cameras (including the Flip’s 10 megapixel lens).

Like the Fold, the rear cameras (which are also the front-facing cameras, depending on how you look at it) are largely unchanged since the Flip 2. A dual-camera system can feel almost antiquated in 2021, but for most intents and purposes, they do the trick, coupled with Samsung’s many years of camera software experience. The 22:9 aspect ratio means more than a quarter of the screen is occupied by the controls out of necessity.

[gallery ids="2192880,2192883,2192882,2192881,2192879,2192874,2192873,2192872,2192871,2192870"]

The aspect ratio in general merits comment. It’s, like, really, really tall when open. It’s a nice amount of real estate to have when, say, scrolling through Gmail or Twitter. But when watching video, you’ll often encounter pillarboxing — letterboxing on the sides of the screen. The video world simply isn’t ready for 22:9, and quite frankly, it probably won’t ever be.

And then, of course, there’s the seam. It’s right there in the center of the lovely 2640 x 1080, 425 ppi screen. And barring some unforeseen breakthrough in foldable tech, I frankly don’t see it disappearing any time soon. I understand why that might be a deal breaker, though I’ve largely gotten used to it after spending time with these devices.

Like the Fold, the Flip runs on the Snapdragon 888 processor. Predictably, the lower cost comes with less in the way of RAM and storage, at 8 and 128GB on the Flip, to the Fold’s 12 and 256GB. Another $150 will upgrade the storage 256GB here. While Samsung mostly hasn’t skimped much on the internals, the 3,300 mAh battery does fall short.

Battery life is an issue with the Fold and an even bigger problem on the Flip — in fact, it’s the biggest complaint here. Moderate to heavy use is going to require getting near a charging cable before the day is over. Maybe not a huge deal in these pandemic days, but something to consider as we re-enter the world. Certainly long, unplugged plane rides are out of the question.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Again, I can totally sympathize with that being a deal breaker. You pay $1,000 for a phone, you want a battery that’s going to get you through a day of use, worry-free. And certainly it’s something for Samsung to focus on in gen four.

As it stands, the Galaxy Z Flip 3 has the benefit of previous generations, with a stronger aluminum frame, improved screen protector and IPX8 water resistance (no dust resistance rating, for reasons outlined in the Fold review). It’s not a perfect phone, but it’s a strong sign of how far Samsung’s foldables have come in three generations, coupled with a sub-$1,000 price point.

The device is likely to be second fiddle as the company continues to push the Fold as its flagship foldable. But for most people looking to enter the world of foldable phones, the Flip is the easy choice.

Samsung’s refined Galaxy Fold

By Brian Heater

Samsung wasn’t quite ready to declare the Galaxy Note dead. Not just yet. When we put the question to the company again after this month’s Unpacked event, a rep told us:

Samsung is constantly evaluating its product lineup to ensure we meet the needs of consumers, while introducing technology that enhances users’ mobile experiences. We will not be launching new Galaxy Note devices in 2021. Instead, Samsung plans to continue to expand the Note experience and bring many of its popular productivity and creativity features, including the S Pen, across our Galaxy ecosystem with products like the Galaxy S21 Ultra and including to other categories like tablets and laptops. We will share more details on our future portfolio once we’re ready to announce.

It’s not an answer, exactly, so much as a reiteration of its earlier announcement that there will be no new Note for 2021. Asked whether it was simply a matter of chip shortages, Samsung sent us a similarly non-committal response:

The current volatility of the semiconductor market is being felt across the entire technology industry and beyond. At Samsung, we are making our best efforts to mitigate the impact, and will continue to work diligently with our partners to overcome supply challenges.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It’s too early to declare the Galaxy Fold 3 the heir to the Note’s decade-long phablet throne. What is for certain, however, is that new features introduced for the Galaxy S line and the company’s high-end foldable have rendered the device fairly redundant. What seems most likely, meanwhile, is Samsung’s wait and see approach. A good selling Fold 3 is as compelling an argument for the Note’s redundancy as any. But that continues to be a big “if.”

Samsung was smart to position early Folds as exciting experiments. It’s never easy to be among the first to market with a new technology, especially with the sorts of scales Samsung tends to trade in. The original Fold brought with it some major questions, both in terms of reliability and adoption. Without retreading the former too much here (we’ve written plenty about it), let’s just say the company went back to the drawing board a couple of times with that first round.

As for the latter, the company revealed back in 2019 that it sold one million units that first year. It was a surprising — and impressive — figure. Obviously it can’t hold a candle to the sorts of numbers the company puts up with the S and Note Series, but for an unproven $2,000 device a few months after launch, it was certainly a positive sign that — at the very least — early adopters were along for the ride.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The Fold 2 found the company more directly addressing some of the biggest issues that arrived with its predecessor, making for a more robust and well-rounded device. The Fold 3 isn’t a radical departure by any stretch, but there are some key updates and refinements on board here. Top-level, here’s what’s new:

  • S-Pen support
  • IPX8 water resistance
  • Slightly larger external display
  • Under-display camera
  • Strengthened interior screen protector, frame and front glass

So what, precisely, does all of that add up to? For Samsung, the answer is simple: a new flagship. It’s one of those words in the mobile world with a bit of a floating definition. Samsung, after all, previously had two flagships, in the form of the S and Note series. Whether this a tech passing moment for the Note or a declaration of a third flagship for the Galaxy line is dependent on the words written above. What it does signal, however, is Samsung’s stated confidence that this is the moment its high-end foldable goes mainstream.

The first step toward mainstreaming the product is a no brainer. Price. The Fold 3 is still not, by any stretch of the imagination, an affordable device. At $1,800, it’s fittingly still the price of two flagship phones put together. But a $200 drop from its predecessor marks a considerable step in the right direction. One imagines/hopes things will continue to go down as Samsung is able to scale the tech further. Those seeking an “affordable” foldable should be taking a closer look at the new Flip, which actually ducks below the $1,000 price point. More on that in a later review.

There are bound to be issues with any new form factor — even one from a company with Samsung’s know how. I have this visceral memory of walking around gingerly with the original Fold for fear of breaking the thing. There’s a certain expectation of usage during the review process — that you’ll effectively treat the device as you would your own, but the earliest Fold didn’t afford that opportunity, leaving me a bit tense throughout that I might inadvertently damage the $2,000 phone.

And, well, I did. And I certainly wasn’t the first. There were enough issues to warrant reinforcing the device before sending it out into the broader world. It was the right move, to be sure. I don’t think anyone was expecting the Fold would be indestructible, but, again, there’s that expectation of standard usage that the earliest unit didn’t live up to.

The primary fix was two-fold: extending the protective film to the edges after the first looked far too similar to the removable screen protectors Samsung (and other) phones ship with, and second, the company added a brush mechanism to the interior of the hinge mechanism that would still allow some debris in, but would sweep it away through the process of opening the product. That would remove it before it had an opportunity to damage the screen.

The second generation upgraded to a more durable foldable glass. The new version extends those protections further. It is, notably, the first version of the Fold that doesn’t greet you with a laundry list of restrictions the moment you open the box. That’s a good sign. As a rule, I’d say users should probably adhere to a similar “normal usage.” And probably invest in one of those cases. It’s an $1,800 phone, after all.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The most notable addition on the durability front is the IPX8 rating. That’s water resistance for up to 1.5 meters for as long as 30 minutes. The company’s foldables line was a little slow on the uptake in terms of the sort of waterproofing/water resistance that has become nearly standard for premium phones — and understandably so, given the complex mechanisms required. The “X” in the rating, however, indicates that there’s no dustproofing here, for the simple reason that the hinge is actually designed to let particles in (as noted above).

The front and back of the device are now covered with Gorilla Glass Victus — Corning’s latest. Per Corning, “In our lab tests, Gorilla Glass Victus survived drops onto hard, rough surfaces from up to 2 meters. Competitive aluminosilicate glasses, from other manufacturers, typically fail when dropped from 0.8 meters. Additionally, the scratch resistance of Gorilla Glass Victus is up to 4x better than competitive aluminosilicate.” The phone’s body and hinge, meanwhile, are built out of alloy Samsung calls “Armor aluminum, which it claims is “the strongest aluminum used in modern smartphones.”

Perhaps most important of all is the inclusion of a stronger reinforced screen protector that extends further to the sides, making it a lot more difficult and less tempting to try to peel it off. The added protection is necessary both for standard usage (you really don’t want a phone that’s going to get damaged from too much tapping) and opens it up for S Pen functionality. The company now has three lines that utilize its stylus and all of the productivity features contained therein.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

In addition to the S Pen Pro, the company introduced a Fold-specific model. The $50 stylus is smaller and features a retractable tip, specifically designed to lessen the pressure on the screen. I played around with both styli and didn’t notice a dramatic difference between the two, and while Samsung doesn’t explicitly warn against using the Pro, I’d go for the Fold Edition out of an abundance of caution. (The system also issues a warning if you attempt to use an older version of the S-Pen.)

The company offered TechCrunch the following statement on stylus compatibility:

Only the latest S Pen Fold Edition and S Pen Pro are compatible as they are set to a different frequency than standard S Pens. However, S Pen Pro is compatible with other S Pen-enabled devices—such as Samsung Galaxy tablets, Chromebooks, and smartphones. Users can switch the frequency of the S Pen Pro using the switch at the top.

The 7.6-inch canvas lends itself well to S-Pen functionality. Of course, the Fold — like other foldables — still has a visible crease in the center. That takes some getting used to, compared to the Note. But if you’re a stylus devotee, the functionality fits in well with a growing suite of productivity tools like multiple active windows and app split view. Samsung has compiled quite a productivity workhouse here.

Of course, unlike the Note (and like the S line), the Fold doesn’t feature a built-in slot for the S Pen. It seems likely there may have been some structural integrity issues barring its inclusion — or, at the very least, it probably would have added even more thickness to what is already a fairly thin device when folded up. Samsung does offer up an S Pen case for those serious about taking their stylus with them — and are otherwise worried about losing it.

The primary display hasn’t changed much since last year. It’s still 7.6 inches with a 120Hz refresh rate and a 2208 x 1768 resolution, with support for HDR10+. The 6.2-inch front screen doesn’t have the high dynamic range format, though it has been bumped up to 120Hz from 60Hz. The Fold 2 upgraded the exterior screen size last year, and it makes a big difference. There are plenty of times you just don’t want to deal with unfolding the thing. The aspect ratio is still much to skinny to rely on it most of the time, but App Continuity is a nice feature that lets you seamlessly jump between screens on enabled apps.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The biggest addition on the screen front is more of a subtraction, really. The pinhole camera is gone from the main screen. In its place is an under-display camera — the first on a Samsung device. The technology has been a longstanding holy grail for companies. Samsung’s not the first to offer the feature — companies like Oppo and ZTE have sported the feature for a little while now. The Fold uses similar technology, applying a thin layer of pixels above the hole punch. The spot is still visible, particularly when there’s a white image on the screen, but at first blush, it does offer something more contiguous.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

If you follow the space at all, you know that the image performance of these cameras have been less than ideal thus far. And Samsung suffers the same fate. The above shots were taken on the front 10-megapixel and under-display four-megapixels cameras respectively. There’s a haze or blur on the under-screen camera — really not up to the standards we expect from a premium smartphone in 2021.

In an earlier conversation with Samsung, the company was pretty candid about this — and the reason the Fold is the first of its phones to sport the tech. It’s here because you’ve got the additional option of the front-facing camera for selfies, so you’re not reliant on a, frankly, subpar camera. Certainly I wouldn’t rely on it for shooting photos — which is already admittedly awkward with the large form factor. I suppose it can work for teleconferencing in a pinch, but even then, you’re probably better off with the front one. File it as something Samsung can improve on in future updates, as the underlying tech improves.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The main camera system, meanwhile, is largely unchanged since the last version at:

  • 12MP Ultra Wide. F2.2, Pixel size: 1.12μm, FOV: 123-degree
  • 12MP Wide-angle. Dual Pixel AF, OIS, F1.8, Pixel size: 1.8μm, FOV: 83-degree
  • 12MP Telephoto. PDAF, F2.4, OIS, Pixel size: 1.0μm, FOV: 45-degree

It’s a great camera setup that shoots excellent photos, with the added bonus of being able to switch between a 7.6 and 6.2 inch viewfinder (honestly, again, the full screen is kind of awkward for shooting in most scenarios, so I largely stuck with the smaller one).

[gallery ids="2192373,2192378,2192379,2192377,2192376,2192375,2192374,2192372"]

The battery meanwhile, takes a small hit, down from 4,500mAh to 4,400mAh, split between two modules behind the display halves. It’s a step in the wrong direction, if only a small one. A big device like this tends to be power hungry. Depending on your usage, you should be able to get through a day. That’s not going to be huge problem so long as many of us are still largely stuck at home, but probably not something you’re going to sit around and binge videos on all day without plugging it in.

Naturally, the Fold sports the latest Snapdragon — the 888. That’s coupled with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage on the model Samsung sent us. Doubling the storage will bring the price tag up to $1,900.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It’s been impressive to watch Samsung take the Fold from troubled early adopter tech to something far more stable in the course of two generations. But while the company is ready to toss around words like mainstream in the context of its foldables, it’s hard to shake the feeling that such goals are still a long ways away.

The price is heading in the right direction, but the product is still prohibitively expensive for most. I certainly can’t answer the question of why you need such a product, though the advantages of a larger screen make themselves known pretty quickly. In many instances, the form factor is still a bit cumbersome.

If the Galaxy Note is suddenly redundant, the fault lays more with the Galaxy S series than the Fold. And if Samsung is looking for a truly mainstream foldable experience, it may want to take a longer look at the Galaxy Z Flip. In terms of size, price, flexibility and good looks, that’s looking like the one to beat. Review coming soon.

Bird shows improving scooter economics, long march to profitability

By Alex Wilhelm

Newly reported financial data from Bird, an American scooter sharing service, shows a company with an improving economic model, and a multi-year path to profitability. However, that path is fraught unless a number of scenarios all work out, in concert and without a glitch.

Bird, well-known for its early battles with domestic rival Lime, is pursuing a SPAC-led deal that will see it go public and raise fresh capital. The former startup is merging with Switchback II Corporation in a deal that values it at around $2.3 billion, including a $160 million PIPE (private investment in public equity) component. (Note: The group purchasing TechCrunch’s parent company from its own parent company, is part of the Bird PIPE.)


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COVID-19 hasn’t been kind to Bird and similar companies around the world. As many around the world stayed home, usage of shared-asset services and ride-hail applications fell sharply. Bird saw rides decline. Airbnb took a temporary hit. Uber and Lyft saw ride demand fall.

Responses to the crisis were varied. Airbnb cut costs, and raised external capital. Lyft cut expenses and focused on its core model, while Uber grew its food delivery business, which saw transaction volume soar as demand fell for its traditional business.

Meanwhile, Bird flipped its entire business model. That decision has helped the scooter outfit improve its economics markedly, giving it a shot at generating profit in the future — provided its forecasts prove achievable.

This morning, let’s talk about how Bird has changed its business, their impacts on its operating results, and how long the company thinks its climb to profitability is.

Fleet management → Fleet managers

In their initial forms, Bird and Lime bought and deployed large fleets of electric scooters. Not only was this capital intensive, the companies also wound up with costs that were more than sticky — charging wasn’t simple or cheap, moving scooters around to balance demand took both human capital and vehicles, and the list went on.

Throw in vehicle depreciation — the pace at which scooters in the wild degraded from use or abuse — and the businesses proved excellent vehicles for raising capital and throwing that money at more scooters, costs, and, as it turned out, losses.

Results improved somewhat over time, though. As scooter-share companies increasingly built their own hardware, their economics improved. Sturdier scooters meant lower depreciation, and better battery tech could allow for more rides per charge. That sort of thing.

But the model wasn’t incredibly lucrative even before COVID-19 hit. Costs were high, and the model did not break even even on a gross margin basis, let alone when considering all corporate expenses. You can see the financial mess from that period of operations in historical Bird results.

Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Classic: A well-rounded smartwatch

By Brian Heater

For smartwatches, it’s Apple against the world. Per recent numbers from CounterPoint, the Apple Watch commanded more than one-third of global shipments in Q1. Samsung/Tizen’s own market share is a distant — but respectable — second place, with 8%. With Google’s Wear OS at fifth place at just under 4%, it’s easy to see both companies — utterly dominant in other categories — are itching for competitive advantages.

For Google, the answer is two-fold. First, the Fitbit acquisition effectively doubles its existing market. Convincing Samsung to return to Wear OS after a long time in the Tizen woods. For Samsung, a return to the Google operating system made sense from the standpoint of developer access — and the resulting apps. And hey, if it means Google gets to deal with the underlying support issues, that’s all the better.

From a pure market share standpoint, Samsung has the clear upper hand here. And while building out its own version of Tizen hasn’t necessarily caught the world on fire, it has helped the electronic giant secure a solid second place. Clearly if the company was going to return to Google, it would need to do so on its own terms.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Following an announcement at Google I/O that the two companies were once again working together in the smartwatch category, Samsung finally unveiled the first fruit of that labor last week, in the form of the Galaxy Watch 4. The new wearable, available in both the standard and Classic form, runs “Wear OS Powered by Samsung.” What that means in practical terms is that Samsung worked closely with Google to build out a customized version of Wear OS — one that, effectively, looks, swims and quacks like Tizen.

It’s an effort to make a leap to a robust — if struggling — wearable OS ecosystem, without losing the familiarity of the experience Samsung spent years building out. And honestly, I’m here for it. The Samsung/Google team-up has done a fine job determining what works about their respective ecosystems and building out an experience that pulls from the best of both. It’s an ideal situation for Google, certainly, and one the company would no doubt benefit from by recruiting other big hardware makers — though none has anywhere near Samsung’s momentum in the category.

That’s coupled with several generations of hardware iteration and health improvements that go a long way toward making the Galaxy Watch 4 one of the few smartwatches that can truly go head to head with Apple. And like Apple, the new wearable is explicitly tied to the Samsung ecosystem — after all, even the other week was nothing if not an ecosystem play.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The new Galaxy Buds are arguably the best earbuds for a Samsung user, and the same can be said for the company’s solid new smartwatch. As much as the company is opening things up to third parties by way of Wear OS (fewer than Apple, but a step in the right direction), this is still decidedly a Samsung smartwatch that works best with first-party Samsung apps on Samsung’s mobile hardware. It’s the sort of gamble you can take when you’re the No. 1 smartphone maker in the world. Let the Huaweis, Garmins and Fitbits fight for the rest of the non-iOS market.

As with its smartphones and earbuds, the Galaxy Watch line hasn’t always been the most straightforward, in terms of how things break down. The company has flirted with different models and SKUs over the years, but I think it’s finally hit on a setup that makes sense. Effectively, the lower-end, haptic bezeled Galaxy Watch Active is now the standard Galaxy Watch, and the standard Galaxy Watch is now the Galaxy Watch Classic.

Now that I’ve typed that, I recognize that it’s not as straightforward as it sounded in my head. Basically it breaks down thusly: Galaxy Watch 4 = thinner, lighter, sportier. Galaxy Watch 4 Classic is a bit classier looking, trading the digital bezel for Samsung’s trademark rotating hardware bezel.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I’ve said it before and I’ll say again: The spinning bezel is Samsung’s ace in the hole. It’s the place where the company unequivocally has Apple beat in the smartwatch category. Apple’s crown is fine, but the bezel is currently the best way to navigate a smartwatch interface. I was, frankly, baffled when the company ditched it for the Galaxy Watch 2 in favor of a digital version. The company clearly thought better of it, bringing it back for the 3.

If you read my earlier review, you know my biggest sticking point with earlier Samsung watches was size. The things were giant. I’m not a small man, nor do I possess an abnormally small wrist, but even I had issues walking around with them on. Some people like big, clunky watches, but only making these devices available in the one size is severely limiting your potential audience right out of the gate.

Thankfully, you’ve got a number of choices here. The Galaxy Watch is available in 40mm and 44mm versions ($250 and $300, respectively), while the Classic comes in 42mm and 46mm ($350 and $380, respectively). You’re already talking about a pretty sizable premium for what mostly amounts to design differences. Add LTE onto the classic and you’re talking $379 and $429. Of course, that still compares favorably to the Apple Watch Series 6’s $399 starting price.

I opted to go somewhere in the middle, with the 42mm Galaxy Watch Classic. Having worn the device for several days now, I’m feeling pretty good about the choice. Given the design, I’m fairly certain the 46mm would have been too much watch for my day to day use. And certainly it would have been too large to attempt to sleep in.

I’m still curious how the 44mm version of the standard Watch would have fit, but if you’ve got the choice of rotating bezel, go for rotating bezel. A 40mm version of the Classic would be a nice option for users with smaller wrists looking for that functionality, but Samsung’s heading in the right direction here, with four distinct sizes.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Like much of the competition, Samsung is leading with health offerings here. I’ve been trying to up my exercise game, a year and half into the pandemic, and the watch does a solid job with workout detection. It’s about on par with the Apple Watch, in terms of auto detecting walks and runs. I’ve gotten into the rowing machine at the gym of late, and it does a solid job there, as well. It understandably is considerably more difficult with my morning HIIT routines, and yoga was a wash, so you’re best starting those manually, unless you’re using one of the company’s connected routines.

There’s an ECG on-board to detect heart irregularities. It’s a quickly standardizing tool that many medical professionals have begun to recommend for detecting early heart issues. Body Composition is a standout new feature here that offers key health metrics like skeletal muscle, body water, metabolic rate and body fat percentage by placing two fingers on the device.

Sleep tracking offers solid insight, including blood oxygen, light/deep/rem and total sleep score (hint, mine is low). If you’re able/willing to sleep with your phone near you, the app will also let you know how much time you’ve been snoring during the night. Taken together, the numbers can offer some good, actionable insight into your sleeping patterns.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Of course, wearing a watch to sleep is not only a matter of comfort — it’s also a matter of battery life. The life on the Watch Classic is okay — I was able to go a day and a half of standard to light usage. That’s enough to do fitness and sleep tracking, assuming you can find some time in the morning or around lunch to charge it up again. Perfectly acceptable for most usage, but not really anything to write home about.

All of these elements add up to a solid smartwatch experience. The Galaxy Watch 4 is the best smartwatch for Samsung users, and there’s a strong case to be made for it being the best Android-compatible smartwatch, period.

 

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