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Tiny handheld Playdate ships next month for $179, with 24 charming monochrome games to start

By Devin Coldewey

Playdate, app and game designer Panic’s first shot at hardware, finally has a firm price and ship date, as well as a bunch of surprise features cooked up since its announcement in 2019. The tiny handheld gaming console will cost $179, ship next month, and come with a 24-game “season” doled out over 12 weeks. But now it also has a cute speaker dock and low-code game creation platform.

We first heard about Playdate more than two years ago, were charmed by its clean look, funky crank control, and black and white display, and have been waiting for news ever since. Panic’s impeccable design credentials combined with Teenage Engineering’s creative hardware chops? It’s bound to be a joy to use, but there wasn’t much more than that to go on.

Now the company has revealed all the important details we were hoping for, and many more to boot.

The Playdate handheld with a person playing a game on it.

Image Credits: Panic

Originally we were expecting 12 games to be delivered over 12 weeks, but in the intervening period it seems they’ve collected more titles than planned, and that initial “season” of games has expanded to 24. No one knows exactly what to expect from these games except that they’re exclusive to the Playdate and many use the crank mechanic in what appear to be fun and interesting ways: turning a turntable, opening a little door, doing tricks as a surfer, and so on.

The team hasn’t decided how future games will be distributed, though they seem to have some ideas. Another season? One-off releases? Certainly the presence of a new game by one-man indie hit parade Lucas Pope would sell like hotcakes.

Screenshots of the Pulp game creation tool.

Image Credits: Panic

But the debut of a new lo-fi game development platform called Pulp suggests a future where self-publishing may also be an option. This lovely little web-based tool lets anyone put together a game using presets for things like controls and actions, and may prove to be a sort of tiny Twine in time.

A dock accessory was announced as well, something to keep your Playdate front and center on your desk. The speaker-equipped dock, also a lemony yellow, acts as a magnetic charging cradle for the console, activating a sort of stationary mode with a clock and music player (Poolsuite.fm, apparently, with original relaxing tunes). It even has two holes in which to put your pens (and Panic made a special yellow pen just for the purpose as well).

Playdate attached to its little cubical dock.

Image Credits: Panic

The $179 price may cause some to balk — after all, it’s considerably more than a Nintendo 3DS and with the dock probably approaches the price of a Switch. But this isn’t meant to be a competitor with mainstream gaming — instead, it’s a sort of anti-establishment system that embraces weirdness and provides something equally unfamiliar and undeniably fun.

The team says that there will be a week’s warning before orders can be placed, and that they don’t plan to shut orders down if inventory runs out, but simply allow people to preorder and cancel at will until they receive their unit. We hope to get one ourselves to test and review, but since part of the charm of the whole thing is the timed release and social aspect of discovery and sharing, it’s more than likely we’ll be experiencing it along with everyone else.

US PC shipments soar 73% in the first quarter as Apple falls from top spot

By Ron Miller

With increased demand from the pandemic, Canalys reports that U.S. PC shipments were up 73% over the same period last year. That added up to a total of 34 million units sold. While Apple had a good quarter with sales up 36%, it was surpassed by HP, which sold 11 million units in total with annual growth up an astonishing 122.6%.

As Canalys pointed out, the first quarter tends to be a weaker one for Apple hardware following the holiday season, but it’s a big move for HP nonetheless. Other companies boasting big growth numbers include Samsung at 116% and Lenovo at 92.8%. Dell was up 29.2%, fairly modest compared with the rest of the group.

Overall though it was a stunning quarter as units flew off the shelves. Canalys Research Analyst Brian Lynch says some of this can be attributed to the increased demand from 2020 as people moved to work and school from home and needed new machines to get their work done, but regardless the growth was unrivaled historically. ” … Q1 2021 still rates as one of the best first quarters the industry has ever seen. Vendors have prioritized fulfilling U.S. backlogs before supply issues are addressed in other parts of the world,” Lynch said in a statement.

Canalys Q1 2021 PC sales by vendor.

Image Credits: Canalys

Perhaps not surprisingly, low-cost Chromebooks were the most popular item as people looking to refresh their devices, especially for education purposes, turned to the lower end of the PC market, which likely had a negative impact on higher-priced Apple products, as well contributing to its drop from the top spot.

That’s where Samsung and other Chromebook vendors really shined. The firm reports that over the last year Chromebook sales shot up 548% with Samsung leading that growth with an astonishing 1,963% growth rate. Asus, HP and Lenovo all reported Chromebook sales rates up over 900%.

Those numbers include desktops, notebooks, tablets and workstations, but it was the notebook and tablets that get the bulk of the action here with notebooks up a whopping 131% YoY. While tablets didn’t grow at the same rate, sales were still up 51% with 11 million units sold in the quarter.

The company does not expect the market to slow significantly in the coming quarters with continued demand in the education market. While parts shortages, particularly in the chip market, continue to dog the industry, this will only continue to feed demand in the coming quarters, according to the firm.

ISEE brings autonomy to shipping hubs with self-driving yard trucks

By Devin Coldewey

Robotaxis may still be a few years out, but there are other industries that can be transformed by autonomous vehicles as they are today. MIT spin-off ISEE has identified one in the common shipping yard, where containers are sorted and stored — today by a dwindling supply of human drivers, but tomorrow perhaps by the company’s purpose-built robotic yard truck. With new funding and partnerships with major shippers, the company may be about to go big.

Shipping yards are the buffer zone of the logistics industry. When a container is unloaded from a ship full of them, it can’t exactly just sit there on the wharf where the crane dropped it. Maybe it’s time sensitive and has to trucked out right away; maybe it needs to go through customs and inspections and must stay in the facility for a week; maybe it’s refrigerated and needs power and air hookups.

Each of these situations will be handled by a professional driver, hooking the container up to a short-haul truck and driving it the hundred or thousand meters to its proper place, an empty slot with a power hookup, long term storage, ready access for inspection, etc. But like many jobs in logistics, this one is increasingly facing a labor shortage as fewer people sign up for it every year. The work, after all, is fairly repetitive, not particularly easy, and of course heavy equipment can be dangerous.

ISEE’s co-founders Yibiao Zhao and Debbie Yu said they identified the logistics industry as one that needs more automation, and these container yards especially. “Working with customers, it’s surprising how dated their yard operation is — it’s basically just people yelling,” said Zhao.  “There’s a big opportunity to bring this to the next level.”

Two ISEE trucks without containers on the back.

Image Credits: ISEE

The ISEE trucks are not fully custom vehicles but yard trucks of a familiar type, retrofitted with lidar, cameras, and other sensors to give them 360-degree awareness. Their job is to transport containers (unmodified, it is important to note) to and from locations in the yards, backing the 50-foot trailer into a parking spot with as little as a foot of space on either side.

“A customer adopts our solution just as if they’re hiring another driver,” Zhao said. No safe zone is required, no extra considerations need to be made at the yard. The ISEE trucks navigate the yard intelligently, driving around obstacles, slowing for passing workers, and making room for other trucks, whether autonomous or human. Unlike many industrial machines and vehicles, these bring the current state of autonomous driving to bear in order to stay safe and drive as safely as possible among mixed and unpredictable traffic.

The advantage of an automated system over a human driver is especially pronounced in this environment. One rather unusual limitation of yard truck drivers is that, because the driver’s seat is on the left side of the cabin, they can only park the trucks on the left as well since that’s the only side they can see well enough. ISEE trucks have no such limitation, of course, and can park easily in either direction, something that has apparently blown the human drivers’ minds.

Overhead view of autonomous and ordinary trucks moving around a shipping yard.

Image Credits: ISEE

Efficiency is also improved through the infallible machine mind. “There are hundreds, even thousands of containers in the yard. Humans spend a lot of time just going around the yard searching for assets, because they can’t remember what is where,” explained Zhao. But of course a computer never forgets, and so no gas is wasted circling the yard looking for either a container or a spot to put one.

Once it parks, another ISEE tech can make the necessary connections for electricity or air as well, a step that can be hazardous for human drivers in bad conditions.

The robotic platform also offers consistency. Human drivers aren’t so good when they’re trainees, taking a few years to get seasoned, noted Yu. “We’ve learned a lot about efficiency,” she said. “That’s basically what customers care about the most; the supply chain depends on throughput.”

To that end she said that moderating speed has been an interesting challenge — it’s easy for the vehicle to go faster, but it needs the awareness to be able to slow down when necessary, not just when there’s an obstacle, but when there are things like blind corners that must be navigated with care.

It is in fact a perfect training ground for developing autonomy, and that’s kind of the idea.

“Today’s robots work with very predefined rules in very constrained environments, but in the future autonomous cars will drive in open environments. We see this tech gap, how to enable robots or autonomous vehicles do deal with uncertainty,” said Zhao.

ISEE co-founders Yibiao Zhao (top), Debbie Yu (left), and Chris Baker.

ISEE Founders

“We needed a relatively unconstrained environment with complex human behaviors, and we found it’s actually a perfect marriage, the flexible autonomy we’re offering and the yard,” he continued. “It’s a private lot, there’s no regulation, all the vehicles stay in it, there are no kids or random people, no long tail like a public highway or busy street. But it’s not simple, it’s complex like most industrial environments — it’s congested, busy, there are pedestrians and trucks coming in and out.”

Although it’s an MIT spinout with a strong basis in papers and computer vision research, it’s not a theoretical business. ISEE is already working with two major shippers, Lazer Spot and Maersk, which account for hundreds of yards and some 10,000 trucks, many or most of which could potentially be automated by ISEE.

So far the company has progressed past the pilot stage and is working with Maersk to bring several vehicles into active service at a yard. The Maersk Growth Fund has also invested an undisclosed amount in ISEE, and one detects the possibility of an acquisition looming in the near future. But the plan for now is to simply expand and refine the technology and services and widen the lead between ISEE and any would-be competitors.

Sony’s best-in-class noise-cancelling earbuds finally get a pricey upgrade

By Brian Heater

It’s been two years since Sony raised the bar for wireless earbuds. Six months before Apple upped its own game with the AirPods Pro, the WF-1000XM3 set a new standard for sound and active noise cancelation. Since then, few companies have been able to match – let alone surpass – their performance.

After several weeks’ worth of leaks, the electronics giant is back with the WF-1000XM4 – a pair of buds it claims will best both the sound quality and ANC of the originals. It’s a high bar with an equally lofty price tag. The pricing was steep with the originals at $230, and now it seems Sony is really leaning in here at $280.

The wireless earbud category was already feeling crowded in 2019, but that’s nothing compared to where we’re at in 2021. There are also plenty of sub-$50 options out (you can also pick up decent Sony earbuds for under $100). Rather than finding a way to drop the cost, however, Sony is looking to cement a place at the truly premium end of spectrum, at $30 more than even the AirPods Pro.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That said, given how high the company set the bar with the M3s, I’m definitely looking forward to testing these things out (a pair just arrived, so more soon). The M4s could well make a great pair of travel headphones – when we start doing that more regularly. The company says the secret sauce here is the V1, a newly designed processor that both enhances the ANC and the sound quality on the buds.

“Specially developed by Sony, the newly designed Integrated Processor V1 takes the noise canceling performance of Sony’s acclaimed QN1e chip and goes even further,” the company writes. “With two noise sensing microphones on the surface of each earbud – one feed-forward and one feed-back – the headphones analyze ambient noise to provide highly accurate noise cancellation.”

There are beam-forming mics on board, as well, to capture sound directly from the speaker’s mouth and reduce unnecessary ambient noise. Interesting tidbit here, too, “The new bone-conduction sensor only picks up vibrations from the user’s voice, enabling even clearer speech when making calls.”

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There’s automatic wind noise reduction for when you’re outside, coupled with a new 6mm driver. The redesigned system promises richer bass and better sound with less distortion. Naturally, Sony has also brought over its High-Resolution Audio Wireless technology, capable of transmitting 3x the data of standard Bluetooth with up to 990 kbps, according to the company.

The buds support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio – clearly something more manufacturers are looking at for high-end headphones, as they take small steps toward augmented audio. That feature needs to be enabled in the Sony app and naturally only works with select services. Adaptive Sound Control, meanwhile, adjusts playback volume based on ambient noise.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As mentioned above, I’ve got a pair sitting on my desk right now, and right off the bat, the charging case is significantly smaller than the M3, while still boasting a full 24 hours of life on a charge. The buds themselves get up to eight hours, which is around the industry standard for higher-end sets. Five minutes of charging the case should get you an hour of playback.

The shape has changed significantly from the M3. The long wings are now bulbous and sit above the ear canal. Curious to see whether this eases some of the pressure with long term use. The buds are rated IPX4 waterproof and work with both Google Assistant and Alexa. They’ll fast pair to Android devices and Windows 10 machines.

They’re available beginning today for $280.

Croatia’s Gideon Brothers raises $31M for its 3D vision-enabled autonomous warehouse robots

By Mike Butcher

Proving that Central and Eastern Europe remains a powerhouse of hardware engineering matched with software, Gideon Brothers (GB), a Zagreb, Croatia-based robotics and AI startup, has raised a $31 million Series A round led by Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), the venture and growth arm of Koch Industries Inc., with participation from DB Schenker, Prologis Ventures and Rite-Hite.

The round also includes participation from several of Gideon Brothers’ existing backers: Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise), Pentland Ventures, Peaksjah, HCVC (Hardware Club), Ivan Topčić, Nenad Bakić and Luca Ascani.

The investment will be used to accelerate the development and commercialization of GB’s AI and 3D vision-based “autonomous mobile robots” or “AMRs”. These perform simple tasks such as transporting, picking up and dropping off products in order to free up humans to perform more valuable tasks.

The company will also expand its operations in the EU and U.S. by opening offices in Munich, Germany and Boston, Massachusetts, respectively.

Gideon Brothers founders

Gideon Brothers founders. Image Credits: Gideon Brothers

Gideon Brothers make robots and the accompanying software platform that specializes in horizontal and vertical handling processes for logistics, warehousing, manufacturing and retail businesses. For obvious reasons, the need to roboticize supply chains has exploded during the pandemic.

Matija Kopić, CEO of Gideon Brothers, said: “The pandemic has greatly accelerated the adoption of smart automation, and we are ready to meet the unprecedented market demand. The best way to do it is by marrying our proprietary solutions with the largest, most demanding customers out there. Our strategic partners have real challenges that our robots are already solving, and, with us, they’re seizing the incredible opportunity right now to effect robotic-powered change to some of the world’s most innovative organizations.”

He added: “Partnering with these forward-thinking industry leaders will help us expand our global footprint, but we will always stay true to our Croatian roots. That is our superpower. The Croatian startup scene is growing exponentially and we want to unlock further opportunities for our country to become a robotics & AI powerhouse.”

Annant Patel, director at Koch Disruptive Technologies, said: “With more than 300 Koch operations and production units globally, KDT recognizes the unique capabilities of and potential for Gideon Brothers’ technology to substantially transform how businesses can approach warehouse and manufacturing processes through cutting edge AI and 3D AMR technology.”

Xavier Garijo, member of the Board of Management for Contract Logistics, DB Schenker, added: “Our partnership with Gideon Brothers secures our access to best in class robotics and intelligent material handling solutions to serve our customers in the most efficient way.”

GB’s competitors include Seegrid, Teradyne (MiR), Vecna Robotics, Fetch Robotics, AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Geek+ and Otto Motors.

Global smartphone market continues rebound with 26% Q1 bump

By Brian Heater

More signs of the global market righting the ship after a disastrous 2020. New figures from Gartner point to 26% increase in global sales year over year for the first quarter of 2021. The overall increase is an impressive one, though it comes after a couple of years of market slow down, followed by a step drop amid the pandemic.

Manufacturers got hit from all sides last year. 2020 kicked things off with a manufacturing slowdown, as China and greater Asia were the first to be impacted by the effects of Covid-19. In the following months, global demand slowed, as shutdowns were instated and job loss and economic issues massively hampered sales.

Image Credits: Gartner

The new Gartner numbers maintain the same global top three manufacturers as this time last year. Samsung’s overall market share grew from 18.4- to 20.3%, courtesy of budget devices, returning to the number one spot.

Apple had managed to push its way to number one in Q4, on the strength of its belated 5G push. The company dropped down to number two for the first quarter – the same position it held this time last year. Overall, its market share is up around 2% y-o-y to 15.5, according to the figures. The top five are rounded out by three Chinese manufacturers — Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo – as Huawei’s struggles continue.

Thus far, global chip shortages appear to have had little impact on shipments.

Live from Apple’s WWDC 2021 keynote

By Brian Heater

And we’re back. Well, not back-back. But we’re here in the San Jose McEnery Convention Center of the mind. The parking is awful and the hotels all got booked up five months ago, so we’re taking the CalTrain in from Redwood City (of the mind).

We’ve got a full house at this morning’s virtual kick-off to Apple’s annual developer conference. And good thing, too. It’s shaping up to be a packed event. You can read more about that here. You can also check out Apple’s own livestream here. And, of course, we’ll be breaking out the biggest news into bite-sized chunks.

As always, the kick-off event is focused on Apple’s (numerous) operating systems: iOS/iPadOS, macOS, watchOS, tvOS and, perhaps, a new homeOS. Oftentimes that also comes with some new hardware. After all, you’ll need something to run those operating systems on.

Matthew will be leading the show, with help from various members of the TC team. Things kick off today at 10AM PT/1PM ET.

 

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

What to expect from WWDC 2021

By Brian Heater

All things considered, Apple put together a pretty slick all-virtual WWDC last year. Where other companies like Microsoft and Google have opted for a more live (or live-style) experience, the company was parading its execs through a series of smooth drone shots and slick transitions. And with the first year under its belt, it will be fun to see how the company outdoes itself.

As far as news goes, the WWDC keynote kickoff is always packed — and this year is no different. In fact, there’s a good chance that we could see even more. In addition to the standard developer-focused updates to iOS/iPadOS, watchOS, macOS, tvOS and the like, we could well see some new hardware dropping at the event.

As ever, we’ll be breaking the news live, and this time out, we’re bringing back the liveblog. So, you know, lots of different ways to follow along live. The event kicks off at 10AM PT/1PM ET on Monday, June 7.

Speaking of, you can also check out the YouTube livestream here:

As usual, iOS is the tentpole attraction here — if nothing else, because Apple sells more iPhones than anything else. That was certainly the case last year, when the company’s latest 5G devices provided much needed relief in an otherwise flagging mobile market.

At least right off the bat, iOS 15 doesn’t look like as radical an update as the latest version of Android. But a lot can happen between today and Monday morning. The top line issue (at least for now) seems to be updates to notifications. According to reports, the new version of the mobile operating system will offer customizable notifications based on status — meaning things like sleeping, working and driving.

The operating system is also believed to be getting a whole slew of new accessibility features.

Apple 2021 iPad Pro overview

Image Credits: Apple

Perhaps even bigger news is a long-awaited update to iPadOS 15. The dated software was a sticking point in our latest iPad Pro review, and it seems the company is finally making some key strides to further distance its tablet operating system from the mobile one. For most intents and purposes, the current execution is effectively a scaled-up version of iOS for the tablet.

Not a ton of details yet, but the home screen is reportedly set to get some major updates, including widgets. One imagines the company will be pushing to make better use of all that added real estate. It should also be getting some of the new iOS updates, including those new notifications and a big overhaul for iMessage.

a new iPhone 12 package on top of a MacBook Pro package.

YOKOHAMA, KANAGAWA, JAPAN – 2020/10/31: In this photo illustration a new iPhone 12 package on top of a MacBook Pro package. (Photo Illustration by Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

After the big overhaul that was Big Sur, we’re expecting smaller waves from macOS 12. The big news here may be hardware. Rumors surround an update to Apple’s blazing-fast M1 chip. The M1X (as it’s currently being called) could well arrive alongside brand new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros, which would finally put a little sunlight between the high and low end of Apple’s laptop line.

Apple Watch Series 5

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Also, watchOS seems due for a big update, even if information is pretty scant so far. New health features are always a sure bet — especially now that Apple is competing with the newly combined Google and Fitbit (not to mention that recently announced assist from Samsung).

Then there’s homeOS, the most intriguing mystery of the bunch. Job listings have pointed to the mysterious operating system — that could have just been a typo (later changed to “HomePod” in the listing).

Image Credits: Apple

This being a rumor roundup, we’ll point the compelling possibility that it might be something larger — perhaps a more unifying home operating system designed to work with existing and forthcoming Apple home products. Perhaps something that integrates a bit more closely with tvOS. A longstanding rumor centers around a new Apple TV device, but so far we’ve not seen a lot of confirmation on that front.

Other rumors involve a new Mac Mini (though we just saw a refresh late last year). Rumors around Beats Studio Buds are enticing as well. After all, when LeBron is seen sporting your unannounced hardware, people are going to talk. Traditionally, however, Apple has opted to let the Beats team do its own announcements, saving these big events for its own self-branded audio products like AirPods.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Google’s Pixel Buds A Series are an exercise in earbud cost cutting

By Brian Heater

Google does a lot of things well. But hardware strategy has never really been among them. The last several years have seen the company at least finding some consistency with its Pixel and Nest devices. But the former, in particular, has continued to struggle as the company has worked to find its footing in an already crowded space.

In 2017, the company entered the wireless earbud space with the first-gen Pixel Buds. The product was certainly an original take on the category, both in terms of design and features. Ultimately, however, it fell flat. But an “A” for effort, I guess. The second-gen product, introduced in April of last year, corrected a lot of their predecessor’s problems, mostly by delivering a more straightforward approach.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Announced today, the Pixel Buds A-Series find the company capitalizing on that success with an approach that has worked well for Google’s smartphone line. The first Pixel A arrived just as the company was dealing with the consequences of poor mobile sales. The low-cost approach to the line sold well (by Google smartphone standards), helping deliver positive news for the beleaguered line.

As with the budget phones, the price is, once again, the thing. Here that means $99. It’s a price point that puts it below the new Echo Buds ($119) and Samsung Galaxy Buds ($110), and well under the AirPods 2 ($159). Essentially it’s the low end of the mid-tier of fully wireless earbud pricing. There is arguably even more competition at the really low end, where you can pick up of a pair of Anker earbuds for around $40. But relative to what we’d generally consider brand names, the pricing is quite aggressive.

It’s also a significant reduction from the standard Pixel Buds, which sport an MSRP of $170 (though you can find them quite a bit cheaper with minimal effort). The Series A aren’t replacing the standard Pixel Buds, so much as augmenting them — similar to what Apple did with AirPods, albeit on the other end of the pricing spectrum. With the new buds on the market, I would anticipate a further narrowing of the price gap between the products on many online retailers. As of this writing, there’s at least one offering the Pixel Buds second gens for $99.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As you’d expect, the lower cost comes with a bit of corner-cutting — or at least the removal of some non-essentials. Ultimately the value for a given user comes down to what you’re willing to lose for the sake of a lower price point. The top-level losses here are:

  • No wireless charging
  • The loss of Attention Alerts (a feature that momentarily reduces volume when things like a siren, baby crying or dog barking are heard), due to lower-cost sensors
  • The loss of noise reduction for calls and wind
  • Limited tap gestures

Otherwise, the Series A are a lot like the Pixel Buds 2, including a similar 12 mm dynamic speaker driver and a nearly identical design. In fact, I was struck by just how similar they were. The size, the shape — really, the only immediate distinction here is coloring. It wasn’t broke, so Google didn’t really fix it. Gone are the bolder matte colors of the predecessors. Now the headphones feature two glossy colors: Clearly White and Dark Olive. Google sent the former, which is a bit more off-white than the AirPods (a bit closer to the Echo Buds coloring), paired with a kind of dull gray. If you want bolder colors, you’re going to have to stick with the standard buds, which also feature a striking orange and mint green colors. I prefer the matte coloring of the original, but the company had to do something to set these apart, I suppose.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is the same vertically oriented oval design as the earlier version. It’s similar in volume to the AirPods Pro — so pretty easy to just pop into a pocket. The USB-C charging port is on the bottom; a light up front tips you off on charging status and the sync button is toward the bottom of the back. Flip up the top and reveal two familiar earbuds.

The size and shape are more or less the same as the Pixel Buds — a good thing, as they’re pretty comfortable over long periods. That’s certainly not something I can say for all of the competition. The silicone tips are user-replaceable for a better fit, but the small silicone ear tip is stuck in there for good. That’s fine for me, but your results may vary.

Like their predecessors, the A Series’ (total side note, but after writing so many funding rounds, I really want to write “Series A”) sound falls in the middle of the pack. You can get better quality from higher-end headphones like the AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM3 (talk about being overdue for a refresh), but these are totally capable for day to day listening and making calls, even if the mic has lost a few of its tricks.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There’s no noise canceling here. That’s to be expected, of course, given that the standard Pixel Buds don’t have the feature either. Given that it’s becoming increasingly standardized, it’s probably a no-brainer that the Pixel Buds 3 will offer the feature to further distinguish them from the budget model.

The buds offer five hours on a charge (2.5 hours of talk time) and 12 hours when the case is factored in — again, same as the Pixel Buds. They also boast the same IPX4 rating for water/sweat resistance. The Bluetooth connectivity is fairly strong. I found I was able to walk over to another room without losing connection, which is often hit or miss on buds.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

They’ll pair to either an Android (6.0+) or iOS device. Naturally, of course, they play nicely with the former, using Fast Pair. On an Apple handset, you’ll have to use the pairing button. Google Assistant — one of the standout features — also only works with Android devices. It’s handiest for enabling notifications, as well as real-time use of Google Translate.

Nothing about the Pixel Buds A Series is going to set the earbud world on fire. And that’s not really the point. More than anything, the product is an exercise in trimming the fat in order to deliver a solid experience at less than $100. And by that standard, they largely succeed.

Tractive raises $35M as it expands GPS pet tracking to the US

By Brian Heater

Another sizable raise for a pet (cats and dogs) tracking company this morning. Austria-based Tractive has announced a $35 million Series A, led by Guidepost Growth Equity. The round is the company’s first since 2013, when its GPS-based tracker first hit the market.

Along with the funding round, the company is also announcing its official push into the U.S. market — though Tractive has had some presence here through a “soft launch” of an LTE tracker over the summer. That product apparently made the States its fastest growing market, in spite of a lack of official presence.

The funding will go toward its expansion into the U.S./North American market, along with additional scaling and headcount. For the latter, the company is already naming a new EVP of North America and a VP of marketing.

“Tractive is like a seatbelt for your dog or cat. It provides coverage when and where they need it,” said co-founder and CEO Michael Hurnaus in a release. “We designed Tractive to deliver the best possible experience, with up-to-the-second information, so that all pet parents can care for their dogs and cats the way they want and deserve — whether that means monitoring activity levels to reduce the risk of obesity or tracking a dog or cat that slipped out of the yard.”

Also new is the arrival of an upgraded tracker from the company, primarily focused on improved battery life. The big change is the use of Wi-Fi to reduce battery strain when a pet is in the home. The company says it’s able to bump up battery life up to 5x. The tracker is available for $50 in the U.S., plus a monthly subscription fee.

In February, smart pet collar maker Fi announced a $30 million Series B.

 

Everything Google announced at I/O today

By Devin Coldewey

This year’s I/O event from Google was heavy on the “we’re building something cool” and light on the “here’s something you can use or buy tomorrow.” But there were also some interesting surprises from the semi-live event held in and around the company’s Mountain View campus. Read on for all the interesting bits.

Android 12 gets a fresh new look and some quality of life features

We’ve known Android 12 was on its way for months, but today was our first real look at the next big change for the world’s most popular operating system. A new look, called Material You (yes), focuses on users, apps, and things like time of day or weather to change the UI’s colors and other aspects dynamically. Some security features like new camera and microphone use indicators are coming, as well as some “private compute core” features that use AI processes on your phone to customize replies and notifications. There’s a beta out today for the adventurous!

Wow, Android powers 3 billion devices now

Subhed says it all (but read more here). Up from 2 billion in 2017.

Smart Canvas smushes Docs, productivity, and video calls together

Millions of people and businesses use Google’s suite of productivity and collaboration tools, but the company felt it would be better if they weren’t so isolated. Now with Smart Canvas you can have a video call as you work on a shared doc together and bring in information and content from your Drive and elsewhere. Looks complicated, but potentially convenient.

AI conversations get more conversational with LaMDA

It’s a little too easy to stump AIs if you go off script, asking something in a way that to you seems normal but to the language model is totally incomprehensible. Google’s LaMDA is a new natural language processing technique that makes conversations with AI models more resilient to unusual or unexpected queries, making it more like a real person and less like a voice interface for a search function. They demonstrated it by showing conversations with anthropomorphized versions of Pluto and a paper airplane. And yes, it was exactly as weird as it sounds.

Google built a futuristic 3D video calling booth

One of the most surprising things at the keynote had to be Project Starline, a high-tech 3D video call setup that uses Google’s previous research and Lytro DNA to show realistic 3D avatars of people on both sides of the system. It’s still experimental but looks very promising.

Wear OS gets a revamp and lots of health-focused apps

Image Credits: Google

Few people want to watch a movie on their smartwatch, but lots of people like to use it to track their steps, meditation, and other health-related practices. Wear OS is getting a bunch of Fitbit DNA infused, with integrated health tracking stuff and a lot of third party apps like Calm and Flo.

Samsung and Google announce a unified smartwatch platform

These two mobile giants have been fast friends in the phone world for years, but when it comes to wearables, they’ve remained rivals. In the face of Apple’s utter dominance in the smartwatch space, however, the two have put aside their differences and announced they’ll work on a “unified platform” so developers can make apps that work on both Tizen and Wear OS.

And they’re working together on foldables too

Apparently Google and Samsung realized that no one is going to buy foldable devices unless they do some really cool things, and that collaboration is the best way forward there. So the two companies will also be working together to improve how folding screens interact with Android.

Android TV hits 80 million devices and adds phone remote

Image Credits: Google

The smart TV space is a competitive one, and after a few starts Google has really made it happen with Android TV, which the company announced had reached 80 million monthly active devices — putting it, Roku, and Amazon (the latter two with around 50 million monthly active accounts) all in the same league. The company also showed off a powerful new phone-based remote app that will (among other things) make putting in passwords way better than using the d-pad on the clicker. Developers will be glad to hear there’s a new Google TV emulator and Firebase Test Lab will have Android TV support.

Your Android phone is now (also) your car key

Well, assuming you have a really new Android device with a UWB chip in it. Google is working with BMW first, and other automakers soon most likely, to make a new method for unlocking the car when you get near it, or exchanging basic commands without the use of a fob or Bluetooth. Why not Bluetooth you ask? Well, Bluetooth is old. UWB is new.

Vertex collects machine learning development tools in one place

Google and its sibling companies are both leaders in AI research and popular platforms for others to do their own AI work. But its machine learning development tools have been a bit scattershot — useful but disconnected. Vertex is a new development platform for enterprise AI that puts many of these tools in one place and integrates closely with optional services and standards.

There’s a new generation of Google’s custom AI chips

Google does a lot of machine learning stuff. Like, a LOT a lot. So they are constantly working to make better, more efficient computing hardware to handle the massive processing load these AI systems create. TPUv4 is the latest, twice as fast as the old ones, and will soon be packaged into 4,096-strong pods. Why 4,096 and not an even 4,000? The same reason any other number exists in computing: powers of 2.

And they’re powering some new Photos features including one that’s horrifying

cinematic google photo

NO THANK YOU

Google Photos is a great service, and the company is trying to leverage the huge library of shots most users have to find patterns like “selfies with the family on the couch” and “traveling with my lucky hat” as fun ways to dive back into the archives. Great! But they’re also taking two photos taken a second apart and having an AI hallucinate what comes between them, leading to a truly weird looking form of motion that shoots deep, deep into the uncanny valley, from which hopefully it shall never emerge.

Forget your password? Googlebot to the rescue

Google’s “AI makes a hair appointment for you” service Duplex didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but the company has found a new way to apply it. If you forget your password, Duplex will automatically fill in your old password, pick a new one and let you copy it before submitting it to the site, all by interacting with the website’s normal reset interface. It’s only going to work on Twitter and a handful of other sites via Chrome for now, but hey, if it happens to you a lot, maybe it’ll save you some trouble.

Enter the Shopping Graph

Image Credits: Google I/O 2021

The aged among our readers may remember Froogle, Google’s ill-fated shopping interface. Well, it’s back… kind of. The plan is to include lots of product information, from price to star rating, availability and other info, right in the Google interface when you search for something. It sucks up this information from retail sites, including whether you have something in your cart there. How all this benefits anyone more than Google is hard to imagine, but naturally they’re positioning it as wins all around. Especially for new partner Shopify. (Me, I use DuckDuckGo.)

Flutter cross-platform devkit gets an update

A lot of developers have embraced Google’s Flutter cross-platform UI toolkit. The latest version, announced today, adds some safety settings, performance improvements, and workflow updates. There’s lots more coming, too.

Firebase gets an update too

Popular developer platform Firebase got a bunch of new and updated features as well. Remote Config gets a nice update allowing developers to customize the app experience to individual user types, and App Check provides a basic level of security against external threats. There’s plenty here for devs to chew on.

The next version of Android Studio is Arctic Fox

Image Credits: Google

The beta for the next version of Google’s Android Studio environment is coming soon, and it’s called Arctic Fox. It’s got a brand new UI building toolkit called Jetpack Compose, and a bunch of accessibility testing built in to help developers make their apps more accessible to people with disabilities. Connecting to devices to test on them should be way easier now too. Oh, and there’s going to be a version of Android Studio for Apple Silicon.

Google adds foldable-focused Android developer updates

By Brian Heater

Things have been a bit quiet on the foldables front of late, but plenty of parties are still bullish about the form factor’s future. Ahead of today’s big I/O kickoff, Samsung (undoubtedly the most bullish of the bunch) posted a bunch of metrics this morning, noting,

The global outlook is just as impressive. This year alone, the foldables market is expected to triple over last year — a year in which Samsung accounted for three out of every four foldable smartphones shipped worldwide.

Part of anticipating growth in the category is ensuring that the software is ready it. Samsung has been tweaking things for a while now on its end, and at I/O in 2018, Google announced that it would be adding support for foldable screens. Recent rumors have suggested that the company is working on its own foldable Pixel, but even beyond that, it’s probably in the company’s best interest to ensure that Android plays nicely with the form factor.

“We studied how people interact with large screens,” the company said in today’s developer keynote. This includes a variety of different aspects, including where users place their hands while using the device — which can be a bit all over the place when dealing with different applications in different orientations and form factors. Essentially, you don’t want to, say, put buttons where people generally place your hands.

The list of upgrades includes the ability to resize content automatically, without overly stretching it out to fit multiple panels. All of this is no doubt going to be a learning curve as foldables end up in the hands of more users. But at very least, it signals Google’s continued view of foldables as a growing category. It’s also one of multiple updates today that involve the company working more closely with Samsung.

The two tech giants also announced a joint Wear OS/Tizen play early today.

Google is making a 3D, life-size video calling booth

By Devin Coldewey

Google is working on a video calling booth that uses 3D imagery on a 3D display to create a lifelike image of the people on both sides. While it’s still experimental, “Project Starline” builds on years of research and acquisitions, and could be the core of a more personal-feeling video meeting in the near future.

The system was only shown via video of unsuspecting participants, who were asked to enter a room with a heavily obscured screen and camera setup. Then the screen lit up with a video feed of a loved one, but in a way none of them expected:

“I could feel her and see her, it was like this 3D experience. It was like she was here.”

“I felt like I could really touch him!”

“It really, really felt like she and I were in the same room.”

CEO Sundar Pichai explained that this “experience” was made possible with high-resolution cameras and custom depth sensors, almost certainly related to these Google research projects into essentially converting videos of people and locations into interactive 3D scenes:

The cameras and sensors — probably a dozen or more hidden around the display — capture the person from multiple angles and figure out their exact shape, creating a live 3D model of them. This model and all the color and lighting information is then (after a lot of compression and processing) sent to the other person’s setup, which shows it in convincing 3D. It even tracks their heads and bodies to adjust the image to their perspective.

But 3D TVs have more or less fallen by the wayside; turns out no one wants to wear special glasses for hours at a time, and the quality on glasses-free 3D was generally pretty bad. So what’s making this special 3D image?

Pichai said “we have developed a breakthrough light field display,” probably with the help of the people and IP it scooped up from Lytro, the light field camera company that didn’t manage to get its own tech off the ground and dissolved in 2018.

Light field cameras and displays create and show 3D imagery using a variety of techniques that are very difficult to explain or show in 2D. The startup Looking Glass has made several that are extremely arresting to view in person, showing 3D models and photographic scenes that truly look like tiny holograms.

Whether Google’s approach is similar or different, the effect appears to be equally impressive, as the participants indicate. They’ve been testing this internally and are getting ready to send out units to partners in various industries (such as medicine) where the feeling of a person’s presence makes a big difference.

At this point Project Starline is still very much a prototype, and probably a ridiculously expensive one — so don’t expect to get one in your home any time soon. But it’s not wild to think that a consumer version of this light field setup may be available down the line. Google promises to share more later this year.

After closing Fitbit acquisition, Google is going big with Wear OS

By Brian Heater

For years, Wear OS has been, at best, something of a dark horse among Google operating systems. It’s certainly not for lack of partnership or investment, but for whatever reason, the company has never really stuck the landing with its wearable operating system.

It’s a category in which Apple has been utterly dominant for some time. Google has largely failed to chip away at that market, in spite of enlisting some of the biggest names in consumer electronics as partners. Figures from Strategy Analytics classify Wear OS among the “others” category.

Google’s strategy is, once again, the result of partnerships – or, more precisely, partnerships combined with acquisitions. At the top of the list is an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join em’” approach to Samsung’s longstanding preference for open-source Tizen. It seemed like one of the stranger plays in the category, but building out its own version of Tizen has proven a winning strategy for the company, which trails only Apple in the category.

We’re making the biggest update ever to @wearosbygoogle, including new capabilities for Google apps — like turn-by-turn navigation in Google Maps, or downloading songs from YouTube Music for offline listening… even if you leave your phone behind. #GoogleIO pic.twitter.com/vOnxnWl0MA

— Google (@Google) May 18, 2021

During today’s I/O keynote, the company company revealed a new partnership with Samsung, “combining the best of Wear OS and Tizen.” We’re still waiting to see how that will play out, but it will be fascinating watching two big players combine forces to take on Apple. You come at the king, you best not miss, to quote a popular prestige television program. On the developer side, this seems to allude to the ability to create joint apps for both platforms, as third-party app selection has been a sticking point for both.

The other big change sheds some more light on precisely why the company was interested in Fitbit. Sure the company was a wearables leader that dominated fitness bands and eventually created its own solid smartwatches (courtesy of, among other things, its own acquisition of Pebble), but health is really the key here.

Health monitoring has become the dominant conversation around wearables in recent years, and Google’s acquisition seems to be, above all, about integrating that information. “[A] world-class health and fitness service from Fitbit is coming to the platform,” the company noted. Beyond adding Fitbit’s well-loved tracking features, the company will also be integrated Wear features into Google’s hardware, working to blur the line between the two companies.

Developing…

Apple 24-inch M1 iMac review

By Brian Heater

Last September we concluded our 27-inch iMac review thusly,

The big open question mark here is what the future looks like for the iMac — and how long we’ll have to wait to see it. That is, of course, the perennial question for hardware upgrades, but it’s exacerbated by the knowledge of imminent ARM-based systems and rumors surrounding a redesign.

It was, as these things go, less than a full-throated endorsement of Apple’s latest all-in-one. We certainly weren’t alone in the assessment. It was a weird liminal zone for the computer — and Macs in general. At WWDC in June, the company had taken the unusual step of announcing its move from Intel to its own in-house chips without any hardware to show for it.

The reasoning was sound. The company was looking to help developers get out ahead of launch. It was going to be a heavy lift — the first time the Mac line had seen such a seismic shift since 2005. Fifteen years is a long time, and that’s a lot of legacy software to contend with. While the move wouldn’t outright break every piece of MacOS software, it was certainly in devs’ best interest to optimize for the new hardware, by way of the Mac Mini developer kit the company was offering. The full transition to the new silicon, Apple noted, would take two years.

Apple M1 chip

Image Credits: Apple

In November, the company debuted the first M1 Macs: a new Mac Mini, MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. We spent several thousand words reviewing all three systems, but ultimately Matthew put it pretty succinctly, “Apple’s new M1-powered MacBook shows impressive performance gains that make Intel’s chips obsolete overnight.”

Which is, you know, a rough look for an all-in-one launched a mere two months before. That goes double for a system that hadn’t seen a fundamental redesign in some time. Two months after launch, the 2020 iMac was already starting to feel old.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Fast-forward to last month, when Apple announced the new iMac amid a flurry of hardware news. This, it seems, was the iMac we’d been waiting for. The new system brought the most fundamental redesign in a decade, with an ultra-compact new form factor, improvements to audio and video (a big sticking point in the remote work era) and, perhaps most importantly, the new M1 chip.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The biggest thing the 2020 system has going for it is that it’s, well, big. Having used a 27-inch iMac for much of my day-to-day work throughout the pandemic, I’m honestly surprised by how much I miss those extra three inches. I’d initially assumed that added bit of screen real estate was going to be fairly negligible once you’ve passed the 20-inch threshold, but turns out, like anything else, it takes some getting used to.

There’s an immediate upside, too, of course. I was genuinely surprised by how compact the new design is, compared to past iMacs. In spite of adding 2.5 inches to the display size over the 21.5-inch, the new system is an extremely thin 11.5 mm (or 14.7 when the stand is factored in).

The overarching theme for the system is “cute.” This is not a word I often apply to technology. Words like “cool” or “sleek” are generally go-tos here. But I’m at a loss for a better word to describe what feels like a true spiritual successor to the iMac G3. The colorful line of all-in-ones ushered in Steve Jobs’ second triumphant stint with the company, arriving at the tail end of a decade in a year personified by the Volkswagen’s New Beetle.

Of course, the design language has evolved dramatically in the nearly quarter-century since the first iMac arrived, owing to changing styles and, of course, ever-reducing component sizes. The flat-panel design arrived early this century and settled into the most recent design around 2012. Sure, there have been plenty of updates since then, but nine years is a long time for an Apple design to go without a major refresh.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It finds the company moving from what was ostensibly an industrial design to something more warm and welcoming. The color is the thing here. It was the most frequently discussed question around the TechCrunch (virtual) offices. Everyone wants to know which we’d be getting. Mine landed with a yellow hue — something nice, light and spring. Honestly, it’s more of a gold than I expected, with a bright and shiny glean to it. I will advise that anyone who plans to buy one of these systems visit an Apple Store if there’s one nearby if you’re comfortable doing so. It’s really the sort of thing that really benefits from being seen in person, if possible.

That goes double here — since, boy howdy, is Apple on theme. The keyboard matches, the cables match, the desktop wallpaper matches, the adorable packaging matches (it’s a fun unboxing experience, as those things go) and even little touches like the OS buttons match. The latter two, obviously, are something you’re able to futz around with a bit. But the system and even the keyboard is a bit more of a commitment, really. After all, this is probably the kind of thing you’re going to want to hold onto for a number of years, so lighting and interior decorating are both worth considering before you make your decision. I recognize this is an odd thing to think about when talking about a desktop computer, but, well, it’s the iMac.

The company is offering an AR iOS app for seeing how the new iMac will fit in with its surroundings, which is a clever — and probably useful — touch. The system also weighs in at less than 10 pounds. This is admittedly not something I’ve given much thought to with desktops. “Portable” is a weird way to describe the form factor, but particularly compared to other desktop systems, it kind of fits? At the very least, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that you can occasionally move the thing from room to room, as needed.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

In broad strokes, the front of the system is similar to that of the past iMacs, though the bottom panel and its large Apple logo have been swapped out of a streak of color. The pane of glass lies flush with the screen and a not insignificant white bezel that frames it. The bezel, combined with the panel, comprises a not insignificant amount of real estate below the display, likely owing to the placement of components and the downward-firing speaker grille that runs the full length of the computer’s bottom. Up top is the newly upgraded 1080p HD Webcam — the first on any Mac.

As with past iMacs, the system sits atop a stand. In the case of the yellow model, at least, the stand is a notably darker hue than the front of the system. There’s a VESA mount option configurable upon purchase, but the stand itself is very much not designed to be user replaceable. The hinge’s action is smooth. I found myself pivoting the system up and down semi-regularly to better frame myself in the webcam, and did so with ease.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There’s a 3.5 mm headphone jack on the left — hello, old friend. I much prefer this placement to the rear of the device, which requires the cable to wrap around the side or bottom.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

A hole inside the stand is designed for cables to be run through — specifically power. Magsafe — er, the magnetic charging connector — really popped up unexpectedly here. It’s less about the quick release that you would find on the old MacBooks and more about the ease of simply snapping the cable in place. I suspect that people are less likely to trip over a desktop cable that never (or at least rarely) moves.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The big update to the power cable situation is, of course, the addition of ethernet to the brick. The brick is quite a bit larger — especially if you’re accustomed to dealing with MacBooks. But likely it will be out of the way. What it does bring is the removal of some additional clutter on the back of the system and helps keep the computer itself that much thinner. For most people in most cases that can access a hardwired connection, it’s a nice addition.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The port situation, on the other hand, is decidedly less so. I like ports. I have lots of stuff that need plugging in to the back of the computer and ports are probably the best case to plug ’em. The entry-level system has two Thunderbolt/USB ports. You can upgrade that to four. Definitely do this. Seriously. You’re not going to regret it.

I’m someone who keeps the wireless keyboard and trackpad/mouse plugged in most of the time. I know, it kind of defeats the purpose, but worrying about charging accessories is not another stress I need in my life right now. So that’s two ports right there. I also have some AV accessories and suddenly, boom, you’re out of ports.

The $1,299 version of the system ships with the Magic Keyboard. It’s pretty much the same as other Magic Keyboards of recent vintage. It’s not for everyone, I know. Those who love mechanical keyboards will find something to be desired in the tactility, but it’s a step up from MacBooks and I’ve certainly grown accustomed to using it. There’s no number pad on the base model, but the coloring coordinates with the Mac.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

With the $1,699 model, you get upgraded to a version with Touch ID — something that’s been a long time coming on the desktop system. Like other Macs (and older iPhones), the fingerprint scanning login is nearly instantaneous. As has been the case for a while, if you’re an Apple Watch wearer, that will log you in as well, but the addition of Touch ID on the desktop is great. The base version comes with the Magic Mouse. It’s $50 to upgrade to a Trackpad and $129 for a combo. I’ve grown fond of the Trackpad, so that’s where I’d probably land here (I doubt many people will have a need for both).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As ever, I understand the many reasons the company has pushed its line to USB-C — it’s especially obvious when you see how much room has been freed up on the rear of the device. But man, I miss having those legacy USB-A ports on the 2020 iMac. Meantime, you might want to toss a couple of A to C USB adapters into your basket before check out. That’s kind of just life with Apple, though. Courage, and all that.

I do wonder if this means the company is positioning the M1 line for the return of an iMac Pro. Stranger things have happened. For now, of course, the company is more focused on the Mac Pro at the much higher end.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

As expected, the new M1 chip breathes new life into the system. Take our Geekbench 5 scores: 1,720 Single and 7,606 multi-core. That blows the average of 1,200 and 6,400 for the 21.5-inch system out of the water. Things understandably take a dip with the Rosetta (Intel) version at 1,230 and 5,601, respectively, but it’s still solid performance running through a translation layer. But it also points to why Apple was so proactive about getting developers on-board with the new silicon. On the whole, the gains are in-line with the the other new M1 systems we’ve seen — which is to say a nice, healthy leap forward into the future of the Mac.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

If you want to know how much of your workflow will be impacted, this resource is a good place to start. On the whole, I found that most of my day to day apps were fine. There are outliers, of course. Spotify and Audacity are right there. Performance is impacted in both case, but on a whole, they worked okay through Rosetta. Usage is more resource-intensive, though.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Spotify is probably a question of how many resources the Apple Music competitor wants to put into a new version, while Audacity is likely more of an issue of how many resources the organization has at its disposal. The further you move away from big names like Microsoft and Adobe, the more of a crapshoot it is. But there are some support issues with bigger names still, as well. For instance, I upgraded to the Apple silicon version of Zoom, but downgraded when I discovered it doesn’t work with the Intel-only version of the Canon EOS webcam software I use.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

I recognize this is an extremely specific issue, but, then, workflows are extremely specific. As M1 systems become the mainstream of Macs, however, developers ultimately won’t really have much of a choice. Support Apple Silicon or risk becoming obsolete. Growing pains are essentially unavoidable with this sort of shift, but the results really speak for themselves. Apple Silicon is the future of Macs and it’s a fast-booting, smooth-moving future, indeed.

I can practically see the Apple team shouting at me when I mention the external mics and cameras I use to record video for work. After all, the new iMac sees the biggest upgrade to these things in some time. The best time for a new microphone system and the first 1080p HD camera on a Mac would have been last year, as the pandemic was beginning to transform the way we work and meet. The second best time, of course, is now.

Apple did tout an improved camera system on last year’s MacBook, but that was more to do with the image signal processing on the chips. That goes a ways toward improving things like white balance, but a truly meaningful improvement to imaging generally also requires new camera hardware. Take a look at the below images.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That’s the 2020 iMac on the left and new M1 iMac on the right. Forgetting (hopefully) for a moment my droopy, partially paralyzed face (2020, am I right?), the image is night and day here — and not just because I’m slightly better put together all of these pandemic months later. The change that comes from upgrading from 720p to 1080p is just immediately apparent in term of image quality. I anticipate Apple upgrading its systems across the board, because teleconferencing is just life now.

iMac 2020:

iMac 2021:

Along with camera, the mic system got a nice upgrade. I’ve re-recorded the same audio that I did back in November on the old system. The three microphone array is crisper and much clearer, eliminating much of the background noise hiss. The six-speaker audio system is an improvement, as well. I found it worked well with music and movies, but could be less clear for teleconferencing, depending on the quality of the other attendee’s mic. The audio could be a bit bass-heavy for my taste.

On the whole, for most people, day to day, I think the audio and video upgrades are plenty. If you use your system for the occasional Zoom calls and some music listening, you should be fine. Depending on what you’re looking to get out of these things, though, a decent external camera, mic or speaker is never a bad investment.

The new iMac represents a nice leap forward for the desktop all-in-one in some key fundamental ways, breathing new life into one of the company’s most popular systems that’s long been in need need of a makeover. I miss some ports and now feel spoiled having had an SD reader on the 2020 model. I would also love to see a 27-inch version of the system on the market at some point (iMac Pro reboot, anyone?). On the whole the system is less targeted at creative pros than other models have been in the past — though the M1 and its on-board ML are still capable of impressive audio, video and still image editing.

But a cute, color coordinated design and some long overdue upgrades to teleconferencing elements aside, Apple Silicon is rightfully taking centerstage here as it did with the MacBooks and Mac Mini before it. The pricing on the systems was a source of some confusion around these parts when first announced. The very base-level version runs $1,299, while the tip-top level goes up to $2,628 with all the bells and whistles.

At the most basic level, there are three main configurations:

  • $1,299 gets you an 8-core CPU and 7-Core GPU, 8GB RAM, 256GB storage, two USB ports, standard Magic Keyboard
  • $1,499 upgrades the GPU to eight cores, adds ethernet and two USB ports and brings Touch ID to the keyboard
  • $1,699 upgrades storage to 512GB (Our configuration as tested)

The systems are available for pre-order now and will start arriving in customers’ homes this Friday.

Industrial automation startup Bright Machines hauls in $435M by going public via SPAC

By Ron Miller

Bright Machines is going public via a SPAC-led combination, it announced this morning. The transaction will see the 3-year-old company merge with SCVX, raising gross cash proceeds of $435 million in the process.

After the transaction is consummated, the startup will sport an anticipated equity valuation of $1.6 billion.

The Bright Machines news indicates that the great SPAC chill was not a deep freeze. And the transaction itself, in conjunction with the previously announced Desktop Metal blank-check deal, implies that there is space in the market for hardware startup liquidity via SPACs. Perhaps that will unlock more late-stage capital for hardware-focused upstarts.

Today we’re first looking at what Bright Machines does, and then the financial details that it shared as part of its news.

What’s Bright Machines?

Bright Machines is trying to solve a hard problem related to industrial automation by creating microfactories. This involves a complex mix of hardware, software and artificial intelligence. While robotics has been around in one form or another since the 1970s, for the most part, it has lacked real intelligence. Bright Machines wants to change that.

The company emerged in 2018 with a $179 million Series A, a hefty amount of cash for a young startup, but the company has a bold vision and such a vision takes extensive funding. What it’s trying to do is completely transform manufacturing using machine learning.

At the time of that funding, the company brought in former Autodesk co-CEO Amar Hanspal as CEO and former Autodesk founder and CEO Carl Bass to sit on the company board of directors. AutoDesk itself has been trying to transform design and manufacturing in recent years, so it was logical to bring these two experienced leaders into the fold.

The startup’s thesis is that instead of having what are essentially “unintelligent” robots, it wants to add computer vision and a heavy dose of sensors to bring a data-driven automation approach to the factory floor.

Discuss the future of connected fitness with Mirror’s Brynn Putnam at Disrupt 2021

By Brian Heater

The global pandemic made some industries and utterly decimated others. The world of connected fitness falls firmly into the former. Along with top names like Peloton, Mirror had a banner year, including, most notably, sportwear company Lululemon’s acquisition of the brand for $500 million in June.

It’s an impressive number for the five-year-old company, which came out of stealth at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2018. Three years later, CEO Brynn Putnam will return to the Disrupt stage on September 21-23 to chart how the company grew from a small-scale startup to one of the leading names in a home fitness industry that saw a massive surge over the past year and a half.

A former ballerina and founder of New York fitness chain Refine Method, Putnam’s career has been a fascinating one — up to and including her time at Mirror. We’ll discuss how the company embraced a boom in connected fitness, why the time was right for acquisition and what the landscape for the industry will look like going forward.

Stay at home orders have had a profound impact on the way we get fit, leading many frequent gym goers to embrace high-tech, at-home methods. Is this the beginning of a sea change for the way the world works out? Or will a return to normal lead buyers to dust off their gym memberships? Find out at TC Disrupt his September and grab your tickets for under $99 for a limited time!

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