It’s nearing the end of Bag Week 2019, where we highlight the best receptacles for the tech we cover daily, and we’ve got a few more winners for you. Earlier this week I collected a few excellent waxed canvas laptop bags, a sequel to last year’s round-up, but these messenger-style bags stood out. So I’ve collected them here separately.
As I’ve written before, waxed canvas is a wonderful material. The natural fibers infused with wax provide water resistance, structure, protection and a great look that only gets better with time as you use it. It’s my favorite material and it should be yours too. Only trouble is, it can be expensive. But keep in mind that these bags are the kind that you take with you for a decade or two.
Waterfield’s canvas material was my favorite, with the possible exception, accounting for taste, of the heavy-duty Saddleback bag. While the latter is raw and rugged, this one is more refined and flexible. The canvas is much softer and more pliable than the other bags, but still thick and protective. It isn’t very stiff, though.
The Vitesse is a simple, useful bag. It has plenty of space inside for a day out or even an overnight if you’re careful. There are three simple pockets on the inside for stowing smaller items, and a large laptop compartment that closes with a Velcro strap.
Waterfield recommends a sleeve for your laptop, and I support that, especially considering how nice their sleeves are. The padded waxed canvas sleeve that they sent along has a leather base and magnetic closure that made me feel quite confident in throwing the bag around. I also used it in other bags, like the Joshu+Vela one, which lacked their own padding. There are of course cheaper and thinner sleeves than this, but I felt this one deserved a shout-out.
On the outside, under the flap, is a single large pocket space that can be accessed through zippers on either side of the bag. These are weather-sealed, as well, so if they’re exposed a bit they won’t leak. There’s a leather handle up top that feels well balanced and won’t get in your way. On the front of the flap is a (to me) over-prominent leather logo badge. Maybe I’m over-sensitive to this kind of thing.
The closure method is unique: studs that fit into holes in leather straps attached to the flap. I thought it was weird at first but it’s grown on me: it’s easy to undo in a hurry, and not hard to attach even with one hand.
My main issue is the strap. For a messenger bag the strap is really important, and the truth is Waterfield kind of blew it here. The Vitesse basically just has a plain nylon strap, sewn on at an angle to the corners of the bag. Unlike many laptop bags, the straps can’t swivel, so they’ll get twisted. And unlike the other messengers here, there’s no big obvious pad or quick-adjust capability.
I’m a little sad I can’t recommend the Vitesse more, given its strengths, but this strap really is hard to get over.
This Scottish maker of waxed canvas items has a long history over there, and sources its cloth from one of the original purveyors of waxed canvas in the world. We’re talking 19th century here.
But the design and in fact the cloth itself are distinctly modern. A “dry wax” finish gives the Wee Lug very little of a waxy feel, but it’s definitely in there, you can tell. It’ll just take longer to develop the kind of wear marks you get in a hurry on the more wax-forward bags like the Vitesse above. It’s also a lighter, smoother color in person, compared with the caramel Rummy and more textured Vitesse.
The truth is this finish isn’t for everyone, in that if you really want that old-fashioned waxed look, this isn’t it. But keep in mind that you can (and should) wax or rewax the material on this kind of bag, and you’re free to do so.
Whether the material is to your liking or not, the design is excellent. The exterior has two zip-access side pockets a bit like the Vitesse, but larger and a bit easier to access. The interior has a zipping padded laptop area, smaller zipped pocket, two simple side pockets and a large general-use space. It’s also a bright, citrusy not-quite-safety orange that complements the tan exterior well.
The zippers all have loops, a more practical alternative to ordinary pulls and, in my opinion, more attractive than leather thongs, which seem to me like they’re just a way to use up scraps. There’s a carry handle near the top of the back that feels very strong and despite sticking out a bit hasn’t bothered me while using the bag.
Closure is achieved by slipping a metal clip below through a gap in another metal clip above; it takes a little bit to get used to, but ultimately it’s both simple and robust, and very unlikely to wear out.
The shoulder strap is thick black canvas, with a generous (20-inch) shoulder pad. In the middle is a Cobra buckle for quick donning and removing. The Wee Lug is definitely intended to be worn high across the back, as the padded portion of the strap goes all the way to the edge of the bag. I should say the D-rings and hardware other than the buckle are the weakest parts of the whole bag — just ordinary plastic.
Those straps can be removed and reattached on the opposite sides so it goes from a right- to left-shouldered bag, but this process is a bit cumbersome. If it were too easy it might happen on accident, but slipping the thick canvas strap through the gap in its clip takes a lot of strength — something you might not have when you’re tired from riding and want to switch shoulders.
If I had to recommend one bag out of these three, I think the Trakke would be it.
Mission Workshop puts together bags of obviously high quality, but they tend to have an aspect of cleverness to them that I don’t always find warranted. In the case of the Monty (and its big siblings the Rummy and Shed) they have a great basic setup that feels like there’s just a bit too much going on.
What they get right is the materials and feeling of ruggedness. If I was going into seriously inclement weather, the Monty is the bag I’d take, no question. Waxed canvas is naturally water resistant and it’ll keep your gear safe from spray or limited rain, but torrential downpour or immersion breaks the spell. If you’re going to be riding in the rain regularly and for long periods of time, you need a synthetic, waterproof layer if you don’t want anything getting damp.
That’s what’s inside the Monty: a strong tarp layer lining every pocket and space that pretty much guarantees your gear stays dry. The exterior is a lovely caramel-colored waxed canvas that was extremely eager to pick up marks and impressions (and, as is often the case with wet finishes, dirt and fuzz — Filson’s do this too).
The other thing they get right is the amount of structured and unstructured space. The Monty has a very large main compartment in the back, big enough it’s difficult to photograph (I tried… for some reason this thing is not photogenic, though it looks good in real life). Then there’s a zippered area with two sub-compartments in the front, and two open pockets that close with a single flap in front of that. There’s no shortage of places to put your things, but you’re never at a loss where something should go.
I personally think the front pocket closure is a little much, since you can hardly reach inside them without removing the main flap and undoing this huge Velcro piece, but better too secure than not secure enough. And I would have liked a bit of padding around the larger zip pocket, or a padded sub-area where a laptop could go.
But the main issue I have with the Monty is that it tries to accommodate two styles when really there’s only one. You can close the bag in two ways: by folding the flap over and securing it with the company’s excellent Arkiv closures, or by rolling it down and Velcroing it shut with a different flap.
Rolltop stuff is in MW’s DNA, but it simply doesn’t fit here. If you roll it up, the straps have nothing to do but hang onto the front of the pockets. Meanwhile if you fold it over, you have unused Velcro all over the outside, and a flap on the inside doing nothing. You can’t roll it a little and then fold it over, since it would hide the closure rails.
I feel like MW could have made a strong decision one way or the other here and made the bag either rolltop or flap closure, but instead they did both, and whichever you choose, you still sort of run into the other. And the thing is it doesn’t matter which you choose, since your stuff will be protected fine either way and neither opens up or obscures any extra space.
So the Monty, despite being a very practical bag in some ways, feels like a weird hybrid in others. Whereas the Wee Lug knows exactly what it is and pursues that design exclusively.
These are all three great bags, but they serve very different purposes. The Waterfield is a great all-round casual bag, but the strap really makes it impractical for cycling or long wear. The Trakke is much more suited for athletic activities and has more room and organization, making it something of a perfect weekender or day bag. And the MW is sort of a prepper bag, ready for anything and a bit off-kilter.
If I had to buy a single one of these right now, I’d go with the Trakke — the attention to detail appeals to me. If, on the other hand, I knew I’d be facing lots of rain or the possibility of dropping my bag in the surf, I’d go MW. And if Waterfield gets its strap game together I’d find their bag easy to recommend as a flexible, unfussy hybrid. You can’t go wrong with any of them.
It’s perfectly natural for a red-blooded American to, once they have procured their first real drone, experiment with attaching a flame thrower to it. But it turns out that this harmless hobby is frowned upon by the biggest buzzkills in the world… the feds.
Yes, the FAA has gone and published a notice that drones and weapons are “A Dangerous Mix.” Well, that’s arguable. But they’re the authority here, so we have to hear them out.
“Perhaps you’ve seen online photos and videos of drones with attached guns, bombs, fireworks, flamethrowers, and other dangerous items. Do not consider attaching any items such as these to a drone because operating a drone with such an item may result in significant harm to a person and to your bank account.”
They’re not joking around with the fines, either. You could be hit with one as big as $25,000 for violating the FAA rules. Especially if you put your attack drone on YouTube.
That’s the ThrowFlame TF-19, by the way. TechCrunch in no way recommends or endorses this extremely awesome device.
Of course, you may consider yourself an exception — perhaps you are a defense contractor working on hunter-killers, or a filmmaker who has to simulate a nightmare drone-dominated future. Or maybe you just promise to be extra careful.
If so, you can apply to the FAA through the proper channels to receive authorization for your drone-weaponizing operation. Of course, as with all other victimless crimes, if no one sees it, did a crime really occur? The FAA would no doubt say yes, absolutely, no question. So yeah, probably you shouldn’t do that.
Samsung’s settled into a nice little twice-yearly schedule for releasing flagships. That’s allowed the company double the opportunity to introduce some nice upgrades to their high-end Android handsets. Nearly six months after the release of the S10, the company just dropped the new Note line. Here’s a whole bunch of words I wrote about the 10+, the larger of the devices, which is helping distinguish the two lines with an utterly gigantic 6.8-inch screen.
Interestingly the Note 10 marks a rare (albeit very slight) step down in screen size over the last generation, to a still-large 6.3-inches. The company says it’s hoping that the smaller device will appeal to first-time Note users and maybe even convince Galaxy S buyers to transfer over to S-Pen Station.
The smaller size also helps keep the device just under $1,000, at $949. Which is becoming shockingly rarer amongst flagships these days. Even as fewer people are buying phones, they keep getting more expensive. That certainly applies to the $1,100 Note 10+ and the $1,299 Note 10+ 5G (also available now, as a Verizon exclusive).
The TL;DR of last week’s review is that this is a very good phone that gets even better. Nothing particularly revolutionary, but it’s a nice design, great camera and just generally good stuff all the way around. If big and flashy is your thing, Samsung’s got you covered with the new Note.
Sphero and littleBits have long been kindred spirits in the world of entertaining STEM toys, and soon they’ll be one and the same. Sphero this morning announced plans to buy the New York-based electronic building block company.
Founded in 2010 and 2011 respectively, Sphero (nee Orbotix) and littleBits took separate approaches, but ultimately ended up in similar spaces. Sphero first brought to life a smartphone controlled 3D printed ball that debuted at CES in 2011. That same year, Ayah Bdeir’s electronics kit side project became a serious business under the littleBits banner.
Both companies were alumni of Disney’s accelerator. Sphero leveraged that connection in the break out Star Wars: The Force Awakens toy, a remote control BB-8. Ultimately, however, it flew too close to the sun with its licensed products, creating an R2-D2, Lightning McQueen and talking Spider-Man toys. Early last year, the Colorado-based company ended the Disney deal, laid off dozen and announced that it was moving full time into educational toys.
After several of its own Marvel and Star Wars licensing deals under the Disney IP banner, LittleBits faced similar difficulties earlier this year. In a statement to TechCrunch, the site noted that it, too, would be experiencing layoffs as it shifted its focus to K-12. “As you can imagine, the education market’s needs are vastly different than that of retail,” the company said at the time. Given this, we had to re-shape our internal structure, which ultimately led to a reduction in staff.”
Per Crunchbase, littleBits and Sphero have raised $62.3 million and $120.3 million respectively. LittleBits notably made its own acquisition almost exactly a year ago, bringing DIY.org under its banner to add a subscription-based education element to the company’s offerings. Two months prior, Sphero purchased fellow Colorado startup, Specdrums and has since begun to offer the company’s music educational products under its banner.
“We’re thrilled to bring littleBits into the fold here at Sphero,” CEO Paul Berberian told TechCrunch ahead of the acquisition. “Teachers need proven solutions that enhance learning for their students, and kids want technology that allows them to have epic experiences. Now, Sphero is better poised to introduce the best coding tools and hands-on STEAM tools like littleBits to even more classrooms around the world.”
The deal will help Sphero expand its office footprint into New York. Bdeir, however, will be moving on to other projects after nearly a decade at the helm of littleBits.
“When I studied engineering, it was top down, test-based,” she said in a statement offered to the press. “I hated it and wanted to quit every semester. Then I got exposed to the pedagogy of learning through play and my life changed; no one could peel me away from learning, inventing, creating. Together, littleBits and Sphero are now bringing this experience to kids everywhere.”
No word on how many littleBits employees will remain under the Sphero banner, though the aforementioned layoffs have certainly decreased the likelihood of redundancy between the two companies. With littleBits under its wing, Sphero now holds 140 patents in the fields of robotics, electronics, software and IOT. It remains to be seen how or if the lines will work together, or whether they’ll remain independent under the Sphero banner much as Specdrums has thus far.
Between the two brands, however, there’s some solid classroom outreach and goodwill here. And both despite and because of its own struggles, Sphero makes sense as a home for the company. Both have experienced solid growth into beloved brands in a similar time frame, even while getting ground through the sometimes unforgiving startup grind. Hardware is hard, and both Sphero and littleBits have the war wounds to prove it.
The deal bodes well for the companies in terms of positioning. Sphero has made some serious headway into schools (a notoriously difficult market to crack) and littleBits has been delivering a good and innovative product for a number of years that would fit well alongside it in a STEM curriculum. The combination could prove a solid one-two punch.
Terms for the deal have not been disclosed.
3D printing has become commonplace in the hardware industry, but because few materials can be used for it easily, the process rarely results in final products. A Swiss startup called Spectroplast hopes to change that with a technique for printing using silicone, opening up all kinds of applications in medicine, robotics and beyond.
Silicone is not very bioreactive, and of course can be made into just about any shape while retaining strength and flexibility. But the process for doing so is generally injection molding, great for mass-producing lots of identical items but not so great when you need a custom job.
And it’s custom jobs that ETH Zurich’s Manuel Schaffner and Petar Stefanov have in mind. Hearts, for instance, are largely similar but the details differ, and if you were going to get a valve replaced, you’d probably prefer yours made to order rather than straight off the shelf.
“Replacement valves currently used are circular, but do not exactly match the shape of the aorta, which is different for each patient,” said Schaffner in a university news release. Not only that, but they may be a mixture of materials, some of which the body may reject.
But with a precise MRI the researchers can create a digital model of the heart under consideration and, using their proprietary 3D printing technique, produce a valve that’s exactly tailored to it — all in a couple of hours.
A 3D-printed silicone heart valve from Spectroplast.
Although they have created these valves and done some initial testing, it’ll be years before anyone gets one installed — this is the kind of medical technique that takes a decade to test. So in the meantime they are working on “life-improving” rather than life-saving applications.
One such case is adjacent to perhaps the most well-known surgical application of silicone: breast augmentation. In Spectroplast’s case, however, they’d be working with women who have undergone mastectomies and would like to have a breast prosthesis that matches the other perfectly.
Another possibility would be anything that needs to fit perfectly to a person’s biology, like a custom hearing aid, the end of a prosthetic leg or some other form of reconstructive surgery. And of course, robots and industry could use one-off silicone parts as well.
There’s plenty of room to grow, it seems, and although Spectroplast is just starting out, it already has some 200 customers. The main limitation is the speed at which the products can be printed, a process that has to be overseen by the founders, who work in shifts.
Until very recently Schaffner and Stefanov were working on this under a grant from the ETH Pioneer Fellowship and a Swiss national innovation grant. But in deciding to depart from the ETH umbrella they attracted a 1.5 million Swiss franc (about the same as dollars just now) seed round from AM Ventures Holding in Germany. The founders plan to use the money to hire new staff to crew the printers.
Right now Spectroplast is doing all the printing itself, but in the next couple years it may sell the printers or modifications necessary to adapt existing setups.
You can read the team’s paper showing their process for creating artificial heart valves here.
It’s finally Bag Week again! The most wonderful week of the year at TechCrunch. Just in time for back to school, we’re bringing you reviews of bags of all varieties: from backpacks to rollers to messengers to fanny packs.
I’ve been meaning to check out a Herschel bag for a while now, just to see what all the fuss is about. The Vancouver-based company has really exploded on the scene here in New York City over the past few years. The packs seemed to go from virtually non-existent to every backpack over night.
With Bag Week rapidly approaching, I asked Herschel to send along whichever laptop backpack they recommended, and received the Retreat in the mail. I’ll be honest, the bag is a bit of a 180 from my usual. Doing what I do for a living, I’ve adopted a bit of a more is more approach when it comes to backpacks — more pockets, more slots. I’ve got something for all of them.
The Retreat presents a far more stripped-down approach. There’s the primary compartment with a slightly padded and fleece-lined laptop sleeve, and a medium-sized pocket on the outside with no zipper or snap. I appreciate the stripped-down approach — perhaps loosing some of my cables and gadgets could go a ways toward clearing my head. For now, however, it’s a bit too minimalistic for my day to day commuter backpack needs.
I have, however, found a spot for it in my life as a handy gym bag. There’s not a ton of volume here, but it’s plenty sufficient for gym clothes and a pair of running shoes. It’s solid, too, for those days when you’re feeling liberated enough to leave the house with little more than your laptop. I need to get better than that, and reckon the Retreat could help.
The build is solid. Herschel completely eschews zippers here. Instead, the mountaineering-style pack has a top flap that closes with magnetic snaps at the end of long leather straps. There’s also a drawstring to better close the top compartment. That should keep things in, though I probably wouldn’t recommend getting caught in a downpour with a laptop inside.
It’s nice to look at as well — the only drawback here being that you’re bound to see a lot of fellow travelers sporting the same model. Or heck, maybe that’s even more motivation to pick one up — you do you. The black and brown (though there are a full 38 color options from which to choose) is offset nicely by the red and white interior lining.
At $80 (and less, depending on where you buy), the price is also right for what amounts to a solid — if simple — bag.
TechCrunch has learned of a safety issue and a number of product reliability questions being raised about a modular computer made by a London edtech startup that’s intended for children to learn coding and electronics.
The product, called the pi-top 3, is a Raspberry Pi-powered laptop with a keyboard that slides out to access a rail for breadboarding electronics.
A student at a US school had to be attended by a nurse after touching a component in the device which had overheated, leaving them with redness to their finger.
A spokesperson for Cornell Tech confirmed the incident to us — which they said had happened in June. We’ve withheld the name of the school at their request.
In an internal pi-top email regarding this incident, which we’ve also reviewed, it describes the student being left with “a very nasty finger burn”.
Cornell Tech’s spokesperson told us it has stopped using the pi-top 3 — partly in response to this incident but also because of wider reliability issues with the device. They said some of their grad students will be working on a project with the K-12 team next semester with the aim of creating an alternative that’s more reliable, affordable and safe.
We have also been told of concerns about wider reliability issues with the pi-top 3 by a number of other sources.
We asked pi-top for comment on the safety incident at Cornell Tech and for details of how it responded. The company provided us with a statement in which it claims: “pi–top incorporates all possible safeguards into our products to ensure they are safe.”
“As soon as we became aware of this incident we immediately investigated what had happened,” it went on. “We discovered that the incident was a one-in-a-million occurrence. The user dropped a piece of metal, with a specific size and shape, under the unit. This fell in such a way that it touched a particular pin and caused a linear regulator to heat up. They received a small minor burn to the tip of one finger when they tried to recover that piece of metal.”
“This is the only reported incident where a user has been hurt whilst using one of our products,” pi-top added.
It is not clear how many pi-top 3 laptops have been sold to schools at this stage because pi-top does not break out sales per product. Instead it provided us with a figure for the total number of devices sold since it was founded in 2014 — saying this amounts to “more than 200,000 devices in 4 years which have been used by more than half a million people”.
pi-top also says it has sold products to schools in 70 countries, saying “thousands” of schools have engaged with its products. (The bright green color of the laptop is easy to spot in promotional photos for school STEM programs and summer camps.)
The London-based DIY hardware startup began life around five years ago offering a ‘3D-print it yourself‘ laptop for makers via the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform before shifting its focus to the educational market — tapping into the momentum around STEM education that’s seen a plethora of ‘learn to code’ toys unboxed in recent years.
pi-top has raised more than $20M in VC funding to date and now sells a number of learning devices and plug-in components intended for schools to teach STEM — all of which build on the Raspberry Pi microprocessor.
pi-top adds its own layer of software to the Pi as well as hardware additions intended to expand the learning utility (such as a speaker for the pi-top 3 and an “inventors kit” with several electronics projects, including one that lets kids build and program a robot).
The pi-top 3 — its third device — was launched in October 2017, priced between $285-$320 per laptop (without or with a Raspberry Pi 3).
The distinctively bright green laptop is intended for use by students as young as eight years old.
In the internal email discussing the “Cornell failure diagnosis” — which is dated July 16 — pi-top’s head of support and customer success, Preya Wylie, conveys the assessment of its VP of technology, Wil Bennett, that the “unusual failure mode was likely caused by an electrical short on the male 34-pin connector on the underside of the protoboard”.
She goes on to specify that the short would have been caused by the metal SD-card removal tool that’s bundled with the product — noting this was “reported to have been somewhere underneath the protoboard at the time”.
“[Bennett] has recreated the same conditions on his bench in China and has seen the pi-top enter similar failure modes, with an electrical short and subsequent overheating,” she writes.
An additional complication discussed in the email is that the component is designed to stay on at all times in order that the pi-top can respond to the power button being pressed when the unit is off. Wylie writes that this means, if shorted, the component remains “very hot” even when the pi-top has been shut down and unplugged — as heat is generated by the pi-top continuing to draw power from the battery.
Only once the battery has fully depleted will the component be able to cool down.
In the email — which was sent to pi-top’s founder and CEO Jesse Lozano and COO Paul Callaghan — she goes on to include a list of four “initial recommendations to ensure this does not happen again”, including that the company should inform teachers to remove the SD-card removal tool from all pi-top 3 laptops and to remove the SD card themselves rather than letting students do it; as well as advising teachers/users to turn the device off if they suspect something has got lost under the protoboard.
Another recommendation listed in the email is the possibility of creating a “simple plastic cover to go over the hub” to prevent the risk of users’ fingers coming into contact with hot components.
A final suggestion is a small modification to the board to cut off one of the pins to “greatly reduce the chance of this happening again”.
We asked pi-top to confirm what steps it has taken to mitigate the risk of pi–top 3 components overheating and posing a safety risk via the same sort of shorting failure experienced by Cornell Tech — and to confirm whether it has informed existing users of the risk from this failure mode.
An internal pi-top sales document that we’ve also reviewed discusses a ‘back to school’ sales campaign — detailing a plan to use discounts to “dissolve as much pi-top  stock as we can over the next 8 weeks”.
This document says US schools will be targeted from mid August; UK schools/educators from early September; and International Schools Groups from early September. It also includes a strategy to go direct to US Private and Charter Schools — on account of “shorter decision making timelines and less seasonal budgets”.
It’s not clear if the document pre-dates the Cornell incident.
In response to our questions, pi-top told us it is now writing to pi-top 3 customers, suggesting it is acting on some of the initial recommendations set out in Wylie’s July 16 email after we raised concerns.
In a statement the company said: “Whilst it is highly unlikely that this would occur again, we are writing to customers to advise them to take a common-sense approach and switch off the unit if something has got lost inside it. We are also advising customers to remove the SD card tool from the unit. These simple actions will make the remote possibility of a recurrence even less likely.”
In parallel, we have heard additional concerns about the wider reliability of the pi-top 3 product — in addition to the shorting incident experienced by Cornell.
One source, who identified themselves as a former pi-top employee, told us that a number of schools have experienced reliability issues with the device. One of the schools named, East Penn School District in the US, confirmed it had experienced problems with the model — telling us it had to return an entire order of 40 of the pi-top 3 laptops after experiencing “a large volume of issues”.
“We had initially purchased 40 pi-tops for middle level computers classes,” assistant superintendent Laura Witman told us. “I met one of the owners, Jesse, at a STEM conference. Conceptually the devices had promise, but functionally we experienced a large volume of issues. The company tried to remedy the situation and in the end refunded our monies. I would say it was learning experience for both our district and the company, but I appreciate how they handled things in the end.”
Witman did not recall any problems with pi-top 3 components overheating.
A US-based STEM summer camp provider that we also contacted to confirm whether it had experienced issues with the pi-top 3 — a device which features prominently in promotional materials for its program — declined to comment. A spokesman for iD Tech’s program told us he was not allowed to talk about the matter.
A separate source familiar with the pi-top 3 also told us the product has suffered from software reliability issues, including crashes and using a lot of processor power, as well as hardware problems related to its battery losing power quickly and/or not charging. This source, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were not aware of any issues related to overheating.
Asked to respond to wider concerns about the pi-top 3’s reliability, pi-top sent us this statement:
pi–top is a growing and dynamic company developing DIY computing tools which we believe can change the world for the better. In the past four and a half years we have shipped hundreds of thousands of products across our entire product range, and pi–top hardware and software have become trusted assets to teachers and students in classrooms from America to Zimbabwe. pi–top products are hard at work even in challenging environments such as the UN’s Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya.
At the heart of our products is the idea that young makers can get inside our computers, learn how they work and build new and invaluable skills for the future. Part of what makes pi–top special, and why kids who’ve never seen inside a computer before think it’s awesome, is that you have to build it yourself straight out of the box and then design, code and make electronic systems with it. We call this learning.
The nature of DIY computing and electronics means that, very occasionally, things can fail. If they do, pi–top’s modular nature means they can be easily replaced. If customers encounter any issues with any of our products our excellent customer support team are always ready to help.
It is important to say that all electronic systems generate heat and Raspberry Pi is no exception. However, at pi–top we do the very best to mitigate thanks to the cutting-edge design of our hardware. Faults on any of our products fall well below accepted thresholds. Although we are proud of this fact, this doesn’t make us complacent and we continually strive to do things better and provide our customers with world-class products that don’t compromise on safety.
Thousands of schools around the world recognise the fantastic benefits the pi–top , pi–top CEED, and pi–top  brings as a Raspberry Pi-powered device. Our new flagship products, the pi–top  and our learning platform, pi–top Further, take coding education to the next level, as a programmable computing module for makers, creators and innovators everywhere. We are proud of our products and the enormous benefits they bring to schools, students and makers around the world.
We also recently broke the news that pi-top had laid off a number of staff after losing out on a large education contract. Our sources told us the company is restructuring to implement a new strategy. pi-top confirmed 12 job cuts at that stage. Our sources suggest more cuts are pending.
Some notable names departing pi-top’s payroll in recent weeks are its director of learning and research, William Rankin — formerly a director of learning at Apple — who writes on LinkedIn that he joined pi-top in March 2018 to “develop a constructionist learning framework to support pi-top’s maker computing platform”. Rankin left the business this month, per his LinkedIn profile.
pi-top’s chief education and product officer, Graham Brown-Martin — who joined the business in September 2017, with a remit to lead “learning, product design, brand development and communication strategy” to support growth of its “global education business, community and ecosystem” — also exited recently, leaving last month per his LinkedIn.
In another change this summer pi-top appointed a new executive chairman of its board: Stanley Buchesky, the founder of a US edtech seed fund who previously served in the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the US department for education under secretary of state, Betsy DeVos.
Buchesky’s fund, which is called The EdTech Fund, said it had made an investment in pi-top last month. The size of the investment has not been publicly disclosed.
Buchesky took over the chairman role from pi-top board member and investor Eric Wilkinson: A partner at its Series A investor, Hambro Perks. Wilkinson remains on the pi-top board but no longer as exec chairman.
The job cuts and restructuring could be intended to prepare pi-top for a trade sale to another STEM device maker, according to one of our sources.
Meanwhile pi-top’s latest device, the pi-top 4, represents something of a physical restructuring of its core edtech computing proposition which looks intended to expand the suggestive utility it offers teachers via multiple modular use-cases — from building drones and wheeled robots to enabling sensor-based IoT projects which could check science learning criteria, all powered by pi-top’s encased Raspberry Pi 4.
Out of the box, the pi-top 4 is a computer in a box, not a standalone laptop. (Though pi-top does plan to sell a range of accessories enabling it be plugged in to power a touchscreen tablet or a laptop, and more.)
pi-top is in the process of bringing the pi-top 4 to market after raising almost $200,000 on Kickstarter from more than 500 backers. Early backers have been told to expect it to ship in November.
While pi-top’s predecessor product is stuck with the compute power of the last-gen Raspberry Pi 3 (the pi-top 3 cannot be upgraded to the Raspberry Pi 4), the pi-top 4 will have the more powerful Pi 4 as its engine.
However the latter has encountered some heat management issues of its own.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation recently put out a firmware update that’s intended to reduce the microprocessor’s operating temperature after users had complained it ran hot.
Asked whether the Foundation has any advice on encasing the Raspberry Pi 4, in light of the heat issue, founder Eben Upton told us: “Putting the Pi in a case will tend to cause it to idle at a higher temperature than if it is left in the open. This means there’s less temperature ‘in reserve’, so the Pi will throttle more quickly during a period of sustained high-intensity operation.”
“In general, the advice is to choose a case which is appropriate to your use case, and to update firmware frequently to benefit from improvements to idle power consumption as they come through,” he added.
TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear contributed to this report
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Here come the leaks around Apple’s fall hardware event (rumored to be scheduled for September 10). According to Bloomberg, we’ll get new iPhones — including a new Pro model that replaces the XS line and adds a third, wider angle rear camera.
Beyond 2019, Apple also reportedly has plans for iPhones that support 5G in the next year, plus a more affordable HomePod.
Google’s official reasoning is more diplomatic than, “we couldn’t think of anything that started with ‘Q.’ ” Instead, it says that the desserts simply weren’t universal enough for the 2.5 billion active devices it has deployed around the world.
Over the course of two days, the TechCrunch team witnessed more than 160 on-the-record startup pitches, spanning healthcare, B2B services, augmented reality and life extension. (Extra Crunch membership required.)
Image via Working Partnerships USA / Jeff Barrera
Over 200 drivers in more than 75 cars plan to drive south to north — with more drivers joining along the way — to take dramatic action in advocating for California State Legislature bill AB5, and for a drivers’ union.
Eight Mile Style has filed a lawsuit against Spotify, accusing the service of “blatant copyright infringement” in streaming “Lose Yourself” and other Eminem songs.
SignalFx provides real-time cloud monitoring solutions, predictive analytics and more. The acquisition should make Splunk a far stronger player in the cloud space.
If fully realized, this initiative will make it harder for online marketers and advertisers to track you across the web.
I liked the Lenovo Smart Clock when I reviewed it back in June. It’s a pretty minimalist take on the smart screen designed for the very specific purpose of living next to your bed. The streamlined features are very much by design — rather than the kitchen sink approach, the clock is built around a relatively limited number of Assistant functions, coupled with tailored alarm functionality.
Today, Google’s bringing a handful of new features, attempting to walk that line by adding functions without making the bedside product overly distracting. The addition of Google Photos is a no brainer, using the app to double as a small screen digital picture frame while it sits idle. Hey look, a Yorkie.
Google’s also bringing one of the best smart screen features to the small display, with the ability to view video from smart cameras. Not a bed feature to have next to your bed. Interesting, while the product is clearly capable of displaying video, Google still isn’t making YouTube available here, for the aforementioned reason of “limiting distractions.”
It’s a nice sentiment, but YouTube’s always been Google’s biggest and best weapon in smart screen wars. The company really pulled the rug out from under Amazon by blocking access to the service on Echo devices. Google says it may revisit the feature later, however, depending on user feedback.
Also new here is Continued Conversation, which keeps Assistant active for longer, in order to create a more “natural back-and-forth conversation” with the AI. The idea is to lesse the number of times the user has to use the wake word to interact with Assistant.
Those features are starting to roll out this week. The Smart Clock will also be available in additional countries including India soon.
Bose’s portable speaker offerings have tended toward the cheaper end of the spectrum — bringing colorful competition for companies like JBL. With the dryly named Portable Home Speaker, however, the company looks to split the difference between portable and premium. And it’s certainly priced for the latter.
The $349 speaker looks to something of a high end take on the dearly departed Amazon Tap. It’s pretty small for the price, with a large handle up top so it can be moved from room to room, accordingly.
Bose continues to take the diplomatic approach, using built in mics for both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. There’s also AirPlay 2 and Spotify Connect functionality built in, covering pretty much all of its bases outside of Bixby — that means, sadly, that it might not be able to talk to your fridge.
There are a handful of physical buttons up top, as well, including the every important mic-off. The device has an IPX4 water rating, which means it will handle some splashing or light rain, but don’t dunk the thing. It’s also pretty clear from the press materials that the speaker’s not designed to live outdoors, though the occasional picnic table should be fine.
The Portable Home Speaker arrives in stores on September 19. It’s already got plenty of competition, of course, and Sonos is set to add to the list with its own bluetooth speaker rumored to be in the works.
Making the VR experience simple and portable was the main goal of the Oculus Quest, and it definitely accomplishes that. But going from things in the room tracking your headset to your headset tracking things in the room was a complex process. I talked with Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer (“Schrep”) about the journey from “outside-in” to “inside-out.”
When you move your head and hands around with a VR headset and controllers, some part of the system has to track exactly where those things are at all times. There are two ways this is generally attempted.
One approach is to have sensors in the room you’re in, watching the devices and their embedded LEDs closely — looking from the outside in. The other is to have the sensors on the headset itself, which watches for signals in the room — looking from the inside out.
Both have their merits, but if you want a system to be wireless, your best bet is inside-out, since you don’t have to wirelessly send signals between the headset and the computer doing the actual position tracking, which can add hated latency to the experience.
Facebook and Oculus set a goal a few years back to achieve not just inside-out tracking, but make it as good or better than the wired systems that run on high-end PCs. And it would have to run anywhere, not just in a set scene with boundaries set by beacons or something, and do so within seconds of putting it on. The result is the impressive Quest headset, which succeeded with flying colors at this task (though it’s not much of a leap in others).
What’s impressive about it isn’t just that it can track objects around it and translate that to an accurate 3D position of itself, but that it can do so in real time on a chip with a fraction of the power of an ordinary computer.
“I’m unaware of any system that’s anywhere near this level of performance,” said Schroepfer. “In the early days there were a lot of debates about whether it would even work or not.”
Our hope is that for the long run, for most consumer applications, it’s going to all be inside-out tracking.
“In a warehouse, I can make sure my lighting is right, I can put fiducials on the wall, which are markers that can help reset things if I get errors — that’s like a dramatic simplification of the problem, you know?” Schroepfer pointed out. “I’m not asking you to put fiducials up on your walls. We don’t make you put QR codes or precisely positioned GPS coordinates around your house.
“It’s never seen your living room before, and it just has to work. And in a relatively constrained computing environment — we’ve got a mobile CPU in this thing. And most of that mobile CPU is going to the content, too. The robot isn’t playing Beat Saber at the same time it’s cruising though the warehouse.”
It’s a difficult problem in multiple dimensions, then, which is why the team has been working on it for years. Ultimately several factors came together. One was simply that mobile chips became powerful enough that something like this is even possible. But Facebook can’t really take credit for that.
More important was the ongoing work in computer vision that Facebook’s AI division has been doing under the eye of Yann Lecun and others there. Machine learning models frontload a lot of the processing necessary for computer vision problems, and the resulting inference engines are lighter weight, if not necessarily well understood. Putting efficient, edge-oriented machine learning to work inched this problem closer to having a possible solution.
Most of the labor, however, went into the complex interactions of the multiple systems that interact in real time to do the SLAM work.
“I wish I could tell you it’s just this really clever formula, but there’s lots of bits to get this to work,” Schroepfer said. “For example, you have an IMU on the system, an inertial measurement unit, and that runs at a very high frequency, maybe 1000 Hz, much higher than the rest of the system [i.e. the sensors, not the processor]. But it has a lot of error. And then we run the tracker and mapper on separate threads. And actually we multi-threaded the mapper, because it’s the most expensive part [i.e. computationally]. Multi-threaded programming is a pain to begin with, but you do it across these three, and then they share data in interesting ways to make it quick.”
Schroepfer caught himself here; “I’d have to spend like three hours to take you through all the grungy bits.”
Part of the process was also extensive testing, for which they used a commercial motion tracking rig as ground truth. They’d track a user playing with the headset and controllers, and using the OptiTrack setup measure the precise motions made.
Testing with the OptiTrack system.
To see how the algorithms and sensing system performed, they’d basically play back the data from that session to a simulated version of it: video of what the camera saw, data from the IMU, and any other relevant metrics. If the simulation was close to the ground truth they’d collected externally, good. If it wasn’t, the machine learning system would adjust its parameters and they’d run the simulation again. Over time the smaller, more efficient system drew closer and closer to producing the same tracking data the OptiTrack rig had recorded.
Ultimately it needed to be as good or better than the standard Rift headset. Years after the original, no one would buy a headset that was a step down in any way, no matter how much cheaper it was.
“It’s one thing to say, well my error rate compared to ground truth is whatever, but how does it actually manifest in terms of the whole experience?” said Schroepfer. “As we got towards the end of development, we actually had a couple passionate Beat Saber players on the team, and they would play on the Rift and on the Quest. And the goal was, the same person should be able to get the same high score or better. That was a good way to reset our micro-metrics and say, well this is what we actually need to achieve the end experience that people want.”
the computer vision team here, they’re pretty bullish on cameras with really powerful algorithms behind them being the solution to many problems.
“What we said was, can we get just as good without that? Because it will dramatically reduce the long term cost of this product,” he said. “When you’re talking to the computer vision team here, they’re pretty bullish on cameras with really powerful algorithms behind them being the solution to many problems. So our hope is that for the long run, for most consumer applications, it’s going to all be inside-out tracking.”
I pointed out that VR is not considered by all to be a healthy industry, and that technological solutions may not do much to solve a more multi-layered problem.
Schroepfer replied that there are basically three problems facing VR adoption: cost, friction, and content. Cost is self-explanatory, but it would be wrong to say it’s gotten a lot cheaper over the years. Playstation VR established a low-cost entry early on but “real” VR has remained expensive. Friction is how difficult it is to get from “open the box” to “play a game,” and historically has been a sticking point for VR. Oculus Quest addresses both these issues quite well, being at $400 and as our review noted very easy to just pick up and use. All that computer vision work wasn’t for nothing.
Content is still thin on the ground, though. There have been some hits, like Superhot and Beat Saber, but nothing to really draw crowds to the platform (if it can be called that).
“What we’re seeing is, as we get these headsets out, and in developers hands that people come up with all sorts of creative ideas. I think we’re in the early stages — these platforms take some time to marinate,” Schroepfer admitted. “I think everyone should be patient, it’s going to take a while. But this is the way we’re approaching it, we’re just going to keep plugging away, building better content, better experiences, better headsets as fast as we can.”
Apple is getting ready for its usual fall iPhone launch event, which is rumored to be happening September 10, though the event hasn’t been officially confirmed this year. A new report from Bloomberg offers a preview of the lineup of hardware products Apple is looking to debut this year. There are new iPhones, of course, including a new iPhone Pro model that replaces the XS line and adds a third, wider angle rear camera (which has been rumored previously), and a refreshed iPhone XR at the entry level that will also get a second, optical zoom camera.
These new iPhone Pros would pack a lot of other updates besides, though they’ll look visually similar beyond the changed camera module. They’ll offer wireless charging for AirPods with the Qi-enabled wireless charging case, for instance, for a quick top-up when you’re the road, and they’ll also get new matte finishes on some models versus the glossy look common to all iPhone models today. Updated Face ID will offer unlocking at more angles, and they’ll pack “dramatically” better water resistance, as well as improved shatter resistance to shrive drops.
Also new this year, though not necessarily debuting at the same event, will be a new MacBook Pro with a display size somewhere over 16 inches, which Bloomberg reports will still manage to be similar overall in physical footprint to the current 15-inch MacBook Pros, thanks to a new bezel. There are also plans to roll out new AirPods, with a higher price tag but also added water-resistance and noise-canceling features that the current AirPods lack.
On the iPad side, Apple will refresh its iPad Pro this year, with updated versions of the 11-inch and 12.9-inch models that will get spec bumps, plus better cameras, but otherwise remain the same in terms of form factor. The entry-level iPad will also get an update, with a screen size increase from 9.7 inches to 10.2 inches, which could mean that it also slims down its bezel and does away with the dedicated Home button, though Bloomberg doesn’t make mention of how it will actually change to accommodate the larger display size.
Apple Watch will also be updated, with the same case design introduced last year, but with at least new case finishes, which have leaked via the watchOS 6 update as coming in titanium and ceramic.
Other planned updates in the report include details about the iPhone to follow in 2020, which it says will offer a rear-facing 3D camera, as well as 5G network support. The HomePod will also apparently get a sequel next year — a smaller version that will likely be a lot more affordable versus the current $300 speaker.
Superlatives abound at Cerebras, the until-today stealthy next-generation silicon chip company looking to make training a deep learning model as quick as buying toothpaste from Amazon. Launching after almost three years of quiet development, Cerebras introduced its new chip today — and it is a doozy. The “Wafer Scale Engine” is 1.2 trillion transistors (the most ever), 46,225 square millimeters (the largest ever), and includes 18 gigabytes of on-chip memory (the most of any chip on the market today) and 400,000 processing cores (guess the superlative).
Cerebras’ Wafer Scale Engine is larger than a typical Mac keyboard (via Cerebras Systems)
It’s made a big splash here at Stanford University at the Hot Chips conference, one of the silicon industry’s big confabs for product introductions and roadmaps, with various levels of oohs and aahs among attendees. You can read more about the chip from Tiernan Ray at Fortune and read the white paper from Cerebras itself.
Superlatives aside though, the technical challenges that Cerebras had to overcome to reach this milestone I think is the more interesting story here. I sat down with founder and CEO Andrew Feldman this afternoon to discuss what his 173 engineers have been building quietly just down the street here these past few years with $112 million in venture capital funding from Benchmark and others.
First, a quick background on how the chips that power your phones and computers get made. Fabs like TSMC take standard-sized silicon wafers and divide them into individual chips by using light to etch the transistors into the chip. Wafers are circles and chips are squares, and so there is some basic geometry involved in subdividing that circle into a clear array of individual chips.
One big challenge in this lithography process is that errors can creep into the manufacturing process, requiring extensive testing to verify quality and forcing fabs to throw away poorly performing chips. The smaller and more compact the chip, the less likely any individual chip will be inoperative, and the higher the yield for the fab. Higher yield equals higher profits.
Cerebras throws out the idea of etching a bunch of individual chips onto a single wafer in lieu of just using the whole wafer itself as one gigantic chip. That allows all of those individual cores to connect with one another directly — vastly speeding up the critical feedback loops used in deep learning algorithms — but comes at the cost of huge manufacturing and design challenges to create and manage these chips.
Cerebras’ technical architecture and design was led by co-founder Sean Lie. Feldman and Lie worked together on a previous startup called SeaMicro, which sold to AMD in 2012 for $334 million. (Via Cerebras Systems)
The first challenge the team ran into according to Feldman was handling communication across the “scribe lines.” While Cerebras chip encompasses a full wafer, today’s lithography equipment still has to act like there are individual chips being etched into the silicon wafer. So the company had to invent new techniques to allow each of those individual chips to communicate with each other across the whole wafer. Working with TSMC, they not only invented new channels for communication, but also had to write new software to handle chips with trillion plus transistors.
The second challenge was yield. With a chip covering an entire silicon wafer, a single imperfection in the etching of that wafer could render the entire chip inoperative. This has been the block for decades on whole wafer technology: due to the laws of physics, it is essentially impossible to etch a trillion transistors with perfect accuracy repeatedly.
Cerebras approached the problem using redundancy by adding extra cores throughout the chip that would be used as backup in the event that an error appeared in that core’s neighborhood on the wafer. “You have to hold only 1%, 1.5% of these guys aside,” Feldman explained to me. Leaving extra cores allows the chip to essentially self-heal, routing around the lithography error and making a whole wafer silicon chip viable.
Those first two challenges — communicating across the scribe lines between chips and handling yield — have flummoxed chip designers studying whole wafer chips for decades. But they were known problems, and Feldman said that they were actually easier to solve that expected by re-approaching them using modern tools.
He likens the challenge though to climbing Mount Everest. “It’s like the first set of guys failed to climb Mount Everest, they said, ‘Shit, that first part is really hard.’ And then the next set came along and said ‘That shit was nothing. That last hundred yards, that’s a problem.’”
And indeed, the toughest challenges according to Feldman for Cerebras were the next three, since no other chip designer had gotten past the scribe line communication and yield challenges to actually find what happened next.
The third challenge Cerebras confronted was handling thermal expansion. Chips get extremely hot in operation, but different materials expand at different rates. That means the connectors tethering a chip to its motherboard also need to thermally expand at precisely the same rate lest cracks develop between the two.
Feldman said that “How do you get a connector that can withstand [that]? Nobody had ever done that before, [and so] we had to invent a material. So we have PhDs in material science, [and] we had to invent a material that could absorb some of that difference.”
Once a chip is manufactured, it needs to be tested and packaged for shipment to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) who add the chips into the products used by end customers (whether data centers or consumer laptops). There is a challenge though: absolutely nothing on the market is designed to handle a whole-wafer chip.
Cerebras designed its own testing and packaging system to handle its chip (Via Cerebras Systems)
“How on earth do you package it? Well, the answer is you invent a lot of shit. That is the truth. Nobody had a printed circuit board this size. Nobody had connectors. Nobody had a cold plate. Nobody had tools. Nobody had tools to align them. Nobody had tools to handle them. Nobody had any software to test,” Feldman explained. “And so we have designed this whole manufacturing flow, because nobody has ever done it.” Cerebras’ technology is much more than just the chip it sells — it also includes all of the associated machinery required to actually manufacture and package those chips.
Finally, all that processing power in one chip requires immense power and cooling. Cerebras’ chip uses 15 kilowatts of power to operate — a prodigious amount of power for an individual chip, although relatively comparable to a modern-sized AI cluster. All that power also needs to be cooled, and Cerebras had to design a new way to deliver both for such a large chip.
It essentially approached the problem by turning the chip on its side, in what Feldman called “using the Z-dimension.” The idea was that rather than trying to move power and cooling horizontally across the chip as is traditional, power and cooling are delivered vertically at all points across the chip, ensuring even and consistent access to both.
And so, those were the next three challenges — thermal expansion, packaging, and power/cooling — that the company has worked around-the-clock to deliver these past few years.
Cerebras has a demo chip (I saw one, and yes, it is roughly the size of my head), and it has started to deliver prototypes to customers according to reports. The big challenge though as with all new chips is scaling production to meet customer demand.
For Cerebras, the situation is a bit unusual. Since it places so much computing power on one wafer, customers don’t necessarily need to buy dozens or hundreds of chips and stitch them together to create a compute cluster. Instead, they may only need a handful of Cerebras chips for their deep-learning needs. The company’s next major phase is to reach scale and ensure a steady delivery of its chips, which it packages as a whole system “appliance” that also includes its proprietary cooling technology.
Expect to hear more details of Cerebras technology in the coming months, particularly as the fight over the future of deep learning processing workflows continues to heat up.
The United States Department of Commerce announced this morning the addition of 46 Huawei affiliates to its Entity List. Effective today, the companies join more than 100 entries added to the list over connections to the embattled Chinese consumer electronics giant.
The DoC also used this morning’s news to announce an extension of its Temporary General License (TGL), which affords people and companies a limited time use of goods from Huawei and affiliate companies in order to essentially wean them off of Huawei networking equipment. The license, which offers “narrow exceptions” is set to expire 90 days from today.
In a statement provided to the press, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross stated, “As we continue to urge consumers to transition away from Huawei’s products, we recognize that more time is necessary to prevent any disruption. Simultaneously, we are constantly working at the Department to ensure that any exports to Huawei and its affiliates do not violate the terms of the Entity Listing or Temporary General License.”
Huawei has, of course, long denied any ties to security or spying accusations from the U.S. government. Recently, stories, including alleged ties to African government spying, have continued to shine a light on concerns about the company’s ties to the Chinese government. Those concerns have led to Huawei’s addition to the entities list, along with U.S. government bans on buying equipment.
Per the DoC:
Huawei was added to the Entity List after the Department concluded that the company is engaged in activities that are contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, including alleged violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), conspiracy to violate IEEPA by providing prohibited financial services to Iran, and obstruction of justice in connection with the investigation of those alleged violations of U.S. sanctions, among other illicit activities.
Losing access to American software and hardware could, in turn, have a devastating impact on the company. Notably, Huawei recently unveiled HarmonyOS. The new mobile operating system is not yet an Android replacement, but is believed by many to be part of a long-term strategy to wean itself off of dependence on Google.
We have reached out to Huawei for comment.
Sonos has an event coming up at the end of the month to reveal something new, but leaks have pretty much given away what’s likely to be the highlight announcement at the event: A new, Bluetooth-enabled speaker that has a built-in battery for portable power.
The speaker originally leaked earlier this month, with Dave Zatz showing off a very official-looking image, and The Verge reporting some additional details, including a toggle switch for moving between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modes, and a USB-C port for charging, along with rough dimensions that peg it as a little bit bigger than the existing Sonos One.
Now, another leak from Win Future has revealed yet more official-looking images, including a photo of the device with its apparent dock, which provides contact charging. The site also says the new speaker will be called the Sonos Move, which makes a lot of sense, given it’ll be the only one that can actually move around and still maintain functionality while portable.
Here’s the TL;DR of what we know so far, across all the existing leaks:
No word yet on official availability or pricing, but it’s reasonable to expect that it’ll arrive sometime this fall, following that late August announcement.
Ikea’s smart home investments to date have been smart but scattered – now the Swedish home goods brand says it’s going to amp up its smart home bets with a brand new dedicated business unit.
The company’s smart home endeavors began in 2012, and focused on wireless charging and smart lighting. It’s iterated in both areas since, developing self-installed integrated wireless chargers for its furniture, as well as light/charger combos, and finally with a new partnership with Sonos that produced the Symfonisk line of wireless smart speakers.
Ikea also has its own ambitions in terms of being the hub for future smart home products, not only from a hardware perspective, but also via its Home smart app, which it rebranded from being more strictly focused on its Tradfri line of connected bulbs in June. During the Symfonisk launch, Ikea told me it has broader ambitions for the Home smart app as a central hub for connected home control for its customers.
“At IKEA we want to continue to offer products for a better life at home for the many people going forward. In order to do so we need to explore products and solutions beyond conventional home furnishing,” said Björn Block, Head of the new IKEA Home smart Business Unit at IKEA of Sweden, in a press release from the company.
Ikea also characterized this as its biggest new focus area in terms of the overall business and brand since it introduced its Children’s Ikea line.
The partnership between Sonos and Ikea that produced the Symfonisk line is a long-term one, and both companies told me to expect more products to come out of that team-up in future. But it sounds like Ikea intends to explore how smart home tech might touch all aspects of its business, so it’s fair to anticipate more partnerships and product categories to follow as a result of this new investment focus, too.
Apple’s next Apple Watch revision could include new materials for the case, including titanium and ceramic. That’s according to new assets pulled form the latest watchOS beta release, as uncovered by Brazilian site iHelp.br (via 9to5Mac). The new screens discovered in the beta show graphics used to pair the Apple Watch during setup, and list “Titanium Case” and “Ceramic Case” alongside model size identification info.
Apple has previously offered a ceramic Apple Watch, alongside its Series 2 and Series 3 models, with a premium price and white and black case options. The company hasn’t previously used titanium, but the lightweight, durable metal is popular among traditional watchmakers because it can really significantly reduce the heft of a watch case, while still providing a premium look and feel.
Last year’s Apple Watch Series 4 was the first significant change in body design for the wearable since its introduction in 2015, so it seems unlikely that Apple will change that this year again. The new physical design includes larger case sizes (40mm and 44mm, respectively, vs. 38mm and 42mm for previous generations), a thinner profile and a display with rounded corners and slimmer bezels.
Offering new materials is a way for Apple to deliver new hardware that is observably new on the outside, in addition to whatever processor and component improvements they make on the inside. Apple will likely also offer these alongside their stainless steel and aluminum models, should they actually be released this fall, and would probably charge a premium for these material options, too.
The Series 4 Apple Watch proved a serious improvement in terms of performance, and added features like the onboard ECG. Splashy new looks likely won’t be the extent of what Apple has planned for Series 5, however, especially since the company is revamping watchOS to be much more independent of the phone, which would benefit from more capable processors.
It’s true, you’ve got the Galaxy Note to thank for your big phone. When the device hit the scene at IFA 2011, large screens were still a punchline. That same year, Steve Jobs famously joked about phones with screens larger than four inches, telling a crowd of reporters, “nobody’s going to buy that.”
In 2019, the average screen size hovers around 5.5 inches. That’s a touch larger than the original Note’s 5.3 inches — a size that was pretty widely mocked by much of the industry press at the time. Of course, much of the mainstreaming of larger phones comes courtesy of a much improved screen to body ratio, another place where Samsung has continued to lead the way.
In some sense, the Note has been doomed by its own success. As the rest of the industry caught up, the line blended into the background. Samsung didn’t do the product any favors by dropping the pretense of distinction between the Note and its Galaxy S line.
Ultimately, the two products served as an opportunity to have a six-month refresh cycle for its flagships. Samsung, of course, has been hit with the same sort of malaise as the rest of the industry. The smartphone market isn’t the unstoppable machine it appeared to be two or three years back.
Like the rest of the industry, the company painted itself into a corner with the smartphone race, creating flagships good enough to convince users to hold onto them for an extra year or two, greatly slowing the upgrade cycle in the process. Ever-inflating prices have also been a part of smartphone sales stagnation — something Samsung and the Note are as guilty of as any.
So what’s a poor smartphone manufacturer to do? The Note 10 represents baby steps. As it did with the S line recently, Samsung is now offering two models. The base Note 10 represents a rare step backward in terms of screen size, shrinking down slightly from 6.4 to 6.3 inches, while reducing resolution from Quad HD to Full HD.
The seemingly regressive step lets Samsung come in a bit under last year’s jaw dropping $1,000. The new Note is only $50 cheaper, but moving from four to three figures may have a positive psychological effect for wary buyers. While the slightly smaller screen coupled with a better screen to body ratio means a device that’s surprisingly slim.
If anything, the Note 10+ feels like the true successor to the Note line. The baseline device could have just as well been labeled the Note 10 Lite. That’s something Samsung is keenly aware of, as it targets first-time Note users with the 10 and true believers with the 10+. In both cases, Samsung is faced with the same task as the rest of the industry: offering a compelling reason for users to upgrade.
Earlier this week, a Note 9 owner asked me whether the new device warrants an upgrade. The answer is, of course, no. The pace of smartphone innovation has slowed, even as prices have risen. Honestly, the 10 doesn’t really offer that many compelling reasons to upgrade from the Note 8.
That’s not a slight against Samsung or the Note, per se. If anything, it’s a reflection on the fact that these phones are quite good — and have been for a while. Anecdotally, industry excitement around these devices has been tapering for a while now, and the device’s launch in the midst of the doldrums of August likely didn’t help much.
The past few years have seen smartphones transform from coveted, bleeding-edge luxury to necessity. The good news to that end, however, is that the Note continues to be among the best devices out there.
The common refrain in the earliest days of the phablet was the inability to wrap one’s fingers around the device. It’s a pragmatic issue. Certainly you don’t want to use a phone day to day that’s impossible to hold. But Samsung’s remarkable job of improving screen to body ratio continues here. In fact, the 6.8-inch Note 10+ has roughly the same footprint as the 6.4-inch Note 9.
The issue will still persist for those with smaller hands — though thankfully Samsung’s got a solution for them in the Note 10. For the rest of us, the Note 10+ is easily held in one hand and slipped in and out of pants pockets. I realize these seem like weird things to say at this point, but I assure you they were legitimate concerns in the earliest days of the phablet, when these things were giant hunks of plastic and glass.
Samsung’s curved display once again does much of the heavy lifting here, allowing the screen to stretch nearly from side to side with only a little bezel at the edge. Up top is a hole-punch camera — that’s “Infinity O” to you. Those with keen eyes no doubt immediately noticed that Samsung has dropped the dual selfie camera here, moving toward the more popular hole-punch camera.
The company’s reasoning for this was both aesthetic and, apparently, practical. The company moved back down to a single camera for the front (10 megapixel), using similar reasoning as Google’s single rear-facing camera on the Pixel: software has greatly improved what companies can do with a single lens. That’s certainly the case to a degree, and a strong case can be made for the selfie camera, which we generally require less of than the rear-facing array.
The company’s gone increasingly minimalist with the design language — something I appreciate. Over the years, as the smartphone has increasingly become a day to day utility, the product’s design has increasingly gotten out of its own way. The front and back are both made of a curved Gorilla Glass that butts up against a thin metal form with a total thickness of 7.9 millimeters.
On certain smooth surfaces like glass, you’ll occasionally find the device gliding slightly. I’d say the chances of dropping it are pretty decent with its frictionless design language, so you’re going to want to get a case for your $1,000 phone. Before you do, admire that color scheme on the back. There are four choices in all. Like the rest of the press, we ended up with Aura Glow.
It features a lovely, prismatic effect when light hits it. It’s proven a bit tricky to photograph, honestly. It’s also a fingerprint magnet, but these are the prices we pay to have the prettiest phone on the block.
One of the interesting footnotes here is how much the design of the 10 will be defined by what the device lost. There are two missing pieces here — both of which are a kind of concession from Samsung for different reasons. And for different reasons, both feel inevitable.
The headphone jack is, of course, the biggie. Samsung kicked and screamed on that one, holding onto the 3.5mm with dear life and roundly mocking the competition (read: Apple) at every turn. The company must have known it was a matter of time, even before the iPhone dropped the port three years ago.
Samsung glossed over the end of the jack (and apparently unlisted its Apple-mocking ads in the process) during the Note’s launch event. It was a stark contrast from a briefing we got around the device’s announcement, where the company’s reps spent significantly more time justifying the move. They know us well enough to know that we’d spend a little time taking the piss out of the company after three years of it making the once ubiquitous port a feature. All’s fair in love and port. And honestly, it was mostly just some good-natured ribbing. Welcome to the club, Samsung.
As for why Samsung did it now, the answer seems to be two-fold. The first is a kind of critical mass in Bluetooth headset usage. Allow me to quote myself from a few weeks back:
The tipping point, it says, came when its internal metrics showed that a majority of users on its flagship devices (the S and Note lines) moved to Bluetooth streaming. The company says the number is now in excess of 70% of users.
Also, as we’re all abundantly aware, the company put its big battery ambitions on hold for a bit, as it dealt with…more burning problems. A couple of recalls, a humble press release and an eight-point battery check later, and batteries are getting bigger again. There’s a 3,500mAh on the Note 10 and a 4,300mAh on the 10+. I’m happy to report that the latter got me through a full day plus three hours on a charge. Not bad, given all of the music and videos I subjected it to in that time.
There’s no USB-C dongle in-box. The rumors got that one wrong. You can pick up a Samsung-branded adapter for $15, or get one for much cheaper elsewhere. There is, however, a pair of AKG USB-C headphones in-box. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Samsung doesn’t get enough credit for its free headphones. I’ve been known to use the pairs with other devices. They’re not the greatest the world, but they’re better sounding and more comfortable than what a lot of other companies offer in-box.
Obviously the standard no headphone jack things apply here. You can’t use the wired headphones and charge at the same time (unless you go wireless). You know the deal.
The other missing piece here is the Bixby button. I’m sure there are a handful of folks out there who will bemoan its loss, but that’s almost certainly a minority of the minority here. Since the button was first introduced, folks were asking for the ability to remap it. Samsung finally relented on that front, and with the Note 10, it drops the button altogether.
Thus far the smart assistant has been a disappointment. That’s due in no small part to a late launch compared to the likes of Siri, Alexa and Assistant, coupled with a general lack of capability at launch. In Samsung’s defense, the company’s been working to fix that with some pretty massive investment and a big push to court developers. There’s hope for Bixby yet, but a majority of users weren’t eager to have the assistant thrust upon them.
Instead, the power button has been shifted to the left of the device, just under the volume rocker. I preferred having it on the other side, especially for certain functions like screenshotting (something, granted, I do much more than the average user when reviewing a phone). That’s a pretty small quibble, of course.
Bixby can now be quickly accessed by holding down the power button. Handily, Samsung still lets you reassign the function there, if you really want Bixby out of your life. You can also hold down to get the power off menu or double press to launch Bixby or a third-party app (I opted for Spotify, probably my most used these days), though not a different assistant.
Imaging, meanwhile, is something Samsung’s been doing for a long time. The past several generations of S and Note devices have had great camera systems, and it continues to be the main point of improvement. It’s also one of few points of distinction between the 10 and 10+, aside from size.
The Note 10+ has four, count ’em, four rear-facing cameras. They are as follows:
That last one is only on the plus. It’s comprised of two little circles to the right of the primary camera array and just below the flash. We’ll get to that in a second.
The main camera array continues to be one of the best in mobile. The inclusion of telephoto and ultra-wide lenses allow for a wide range of different shots, and the hardware coupled with machine learning makes it a lot more difficult to take a bad photo (though believe me, it’s still possible).
The live focus feature (Portrait mode, essentially) comes to video, with four different filters, including Color Point, which makes everything but the subject black and white.
Samsung’s also brought a very simple video editor into the mix here, which is nice on the fly. You can edit the length of clips, splice in other clips, add subtitles and captions and add filters and music. It’s pretty beefy for something baked directly into the camera app, and one of the better uses I’ve found for the S Pen.
Note 10+ with Super Steady (left), iPhone XS (right)
Ditto for the improved Super Steady offering, which smooths out shaky video, including Hyperlapse mode, where handshakes are a big issue. It works well, but you do lose access to other features, including zoom. For that reason, it’s off by default and should be used relatively sparingly.
Note 10+ (left), iPhone XS (right)
Zoom-on Mic is a clever addition, as well. While shooting video, pinch-zooming on something will amplify the noise from that area. I’ve been playing around with it in this cafe. It’s interesting, but less than perfect.
Zooming into something doesn’t exactly cancel out ambient noise from outside of the frame. Everything still gets amplified in the process and, like digital picture zoom, a lot of noise gets added in the process. Those hoping for a kind of spy microphone, I’m sorry/happy to report that this definitely is not that.
The DepthVision Camera is also pretty limited as I write this. If anything, it’s Samsung’s attempt to brace for a future when things like augmented reality will (theoretically) play a much larger role in our mobile computing. In a conversation I had with the company ahead of launch, they suggested that a lot of the camera’s AR functions will fall in the hands of developers.
For now, Quick Measure is the one practical use. The app is a lot like Apple’s more simply titled Measure. Fire it up, move the camera around to get a lay of the land and it will measure nearby objects for you. An interesting showcase for AR potential? Sure. Earth shattering? Naw. It also seems to be a bit of a battery drain, sucking up the last few bits of juice as I was running it down.
3D Scanner, on the other hand, got by far the biggest applause line of the Note event. And, indeed, it’s impressive. In the stage demo, a Samsung employee scanned a stuffed pink beaver (I’m not making this up), created a 3D image and animated it using an associate’ movements. Practical? Not really. Cool? Definitely.
It was, however, not available at press time. Hopefully it proves to be more than vaporware, especially if that demo helped push some viewers over to the 10+. Without it, there’s just not a lot of use for the depth camera at the moment.
There’s also AR Doodle, which fills a similar spot as much of the company’s AR offerings. It’s kind of fun, but again, not particularly useful. You’ll likely end up playing with it for a few minutes and forget about it entirely. Such is life.
The feature is built into the camera app, using depth sensing to orient live drawings. With the stylus you can draw in space or doodle on people’s faces. It’s neat, the AR works okay and I was bored with it in about three minutes. Like Quick Measure, the feature is as much a proof of concept as anything. But that’s always been a part of Samsung’s kitchen-sink approach — some combination of useful and silly.
That said, points to Samsung for continuing to de-creepify AR Emojis. Those have moved firmly away from the uncanny valley into something more cartoony/adorable. Less ironic usage will surely follow.
Asked about the key differences between the S and Note lines, Samsung’s response was simple: the S Pen. Otherwise, the lines are relatively interchangeable.
Samsung’s return of the stylus didn’t catch on for handsets quite like the phablet form factor. They’ve made a pretty significant comeback for tablets, but the Note remains fairly singular when it comes to the S Pen. I’ve never been a big user myself, but those who like it swear by it. It’s one of those things like the ThinkPad pointing stick or BlackBerry scroll wheel.
Like the phone itself, the peripheral has been streamlined with a unibody design. Samsung also continues to add capabilities. It can be used to control music, advance slideshows and snap photos. None of that is likely to convince S Pen skeptics (I prefer using the buttons on the included headphones for music control, for example), but more versatility is generally a good thing.
If anything is going to convince people to pick up the S Pen this time out, it’s the improved handwriting recognition. That’s pretty impressive. It was even able to decipher my awful chicken scratch.
You get the same sort of bleeding-edge specs here you’ve come to expect from Samsung’s flagships. The 10+ gets you a baseline 256GB of storage (upgradable to 512), coupled with a beefy 12GB of RAM (the regular Note is a still good 8GB/256GB). The 5G version sports the same numbers and battery (likely making its total life a bit shorter per charge). That’s a shift from the S10, whose 5G version was specced out like crazy. Likely Samsung is bracing for 5G to become less of a novelty in the next year or so.
The new Note also benefits from other recent additions, like the in-display fingerprint reader and wireless power sharing. Both are nice additions, but neither is likely enough to warrant an immediate upgrade.
Once again, that’s not an indictment of Samsung, so much as a reflection of where we are in the life cycle of a mature smartphone industry. The Note 10+ is another good addition to one of the leading smartphone lines. It succeeds as both a productivity device (thanks to additions like DeX and added cross-platform functionality with Windows 10) and an everyday handset.
There’s not enough on-board to really recommend an upgrade from the Note 8 or 9 — especially at that $1,099 price. People are holding onto their devices for longer, and for good reason (as detailed above). But if you need a new phone, are looking for something big and flashy and are willing to splurge, the Note continues to be the one to beat.
As people strive ever harder to minutely quantify every action they do, the sensors that monitor those actions are growing lighter and less invasive. Two prototype sensors from crosstown rivals Stanford and Berkeley stick right to the skin and provide a wealth of phsyiological data.
Stanford’s stretchy wireless “BodyNet” isn’t just flexible in order to survive being worn on the shifting surface of the body; that flexing is where its data comes from.
The sensor is made of metallic ink laid on top of a flexible material like that in an adhesive bandage. But unlike phones and smart watches, which use tiny accelerometers or optical tricks to track the body, this system relies on how it is itself stretched and compressed. These movements cause tiny changes in how electricity passes through the ink, changes that are relayed to a processor nearby.
Naturally if one is placed on a joint, as some of these electronic stickers were, it can report back whether and how much that joint has been flexed. But the system is sensitive enough that it can also detect the slight changes the skin experiences during each heartbeat, or the broader changes that accompany breathing.
The problem comes when you have to get that signal off the skin. Using a wire is annoying and definitely very ’90s. But antennas don’t work well when they’re flexed in weird directions — efficiency drops off a cliff, and there’s very little power to begin with — the skin sensor is powered by harvesting RFID signals, a technique that renders very little in the way of voltage.
The second part of their work, then, and the part that is clearly most in need of further improvement and miniaturization, is the receiver, which collects and re-transmits the sensor’s signal to a phone or other device. Although they managed to create a unit that’s light enough to be clipped to clothes, it’s still not the kind of thing you’d want to wear to the gym.
The good news is that’s an engineering and design limitation, not a theoretical one — so a couple years of work and progress on the electronics front and they could have a much more attractive system.
“We think one day it will be possible to create a full-body skin-sensor array to collect physiological data without interfering with a person’s normal behavior,” Stanford professor Zhenan Bao in a news release.
Over at Cal is a project in a similar domain that’s working to get from prototype to production. Researchers there have been working on a sweat monitor for a few years that could detect a number of physiological factors.
Normally you’d just collect sweat every 15 minutes or so and analyze each batch separately. But that doesn’t really give you very good temporal resolution — what if you want to know how the sweat changes minute by minute or less? By putting the sweat collection and analysis systems together right on the skin, you can do just that.
While the sensor has been in the works for a while, it’s only recently that the team has started moving towards user testing at scale to see what exactly sweat measurements have to offer.
“The goal of the project is not just to make the sensors but start to do many subject studies and see what sweat tells us — I always say ‘decoding’ sweat composition. For that we need sensors that are reliable, reproducible, and that we can fabricate to scale so that we can put multiple sensors in different spots of the body and put them on many subjects,” explained Ali Javey, Berkeley professor and head of the project.
As anyone who’s working in hardware will tell you, going from a hand-built prototype to a mass-produced model is a huge challenge. So the Berkeley team tapped their Finnish friends at VTT Technical Research Center, who make a specialty of roll-to-roll printing.
For flat, relatively simple electronics, roll-to-roll is a great technique, essentially printing the sensors right onto a flexible plastic substrate that can then simply be cut to size. This way they can make hundreds or thousands of the sensors quickly and cheaply, making them much simpler to deploy at arbitrary scales.
These are far from the only flexible or skin-mounted electronics projects out there, but it’s clear that we’re approaching the point when they begin to leave the lab and head out to hospitals, gyms, and homes.
Any first responder knows that situational awareness is key. In domestic violence disputes, hostage rescue, or human trafficking situations, first responders often need help determining where humans are behind closed doors.
That’s why Megan Lacy, Corbin Hennen and Rob Kleffner developed Lumineye, a 3D printed radar device that uses signal analysis software to differentiate moving and breathing humans from other objects, through walls.
Lumineye uses pulse radar technology that works like echolocation (how bats and dolphins communicate). It sends signals and listens for how long it takes for a pulse to bounce back. The software analyzes these pulses to determine the approximate size, range and movement characteristics of a signal.
On the software side, Lumineye’s app that will tell a user how far away a person is when they’re moving and breathing. It’s one dimensional, so it doesn’t tell the user whether the subject is to the right or left. But the device can detect humans out to 50 feet in open air, and that range decreases depending upon the materials placed in between like drywall, brick or concrete.
One scenario the team gave to describe the advantages of using Lumineye was the instance of hostage rescue. In this type of situation, it’s crucial for first responders to know how many people are in a room and how far away they are from one another. That’s where the use of multiple devices and triangulation from something like Lumineye could change a responding team’s tactical rescue approach.
Machines that currently exist to make these kind of detections are heavy and cumbersome. The team behind Lumineye was inspired to manufacture a more portable option that won’t weigh teams down during longer emergency response situations that can sometimes last for up to 12 hours or overnight. The prototype combines the detection hardware with an ordinary smartphone. It’s about 10 x 5 inches and weighs 1.5 pounds.
Lumineye wants to grow out its functionality to become more of a ubiquitous device. The team of four is planning to continue manufacturing the device and selling it directly to customers.
Lumineye’s device can detect humans through walls using radio frequencies
Lumineye has just started its pilot programs, and recently spent a Saturday at a FEMA event testing out the the device’s ability to detect people covered in rubble piles. The company was born out of the Boise Idaho cohort of Stanford’s Hacking4Defense program, a course meant to connect Silicon Valley innovations with the U.S. Department of Defense and Intelligence Community. The Idaho-based startup is graduating from Y Combinator’s Summer 2019 class.
Megan Lacy, Corbin Hennen and Rob Kleffner