Elon Musk promises to take Tesla Model S to ‘Plaid’ with new powertrain – gpgmail


Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised a more powerful powertrain option in future Model S, Model X and the next-generation Roadster sports car that will push acceleration and speed beyond the current high bar known as Ludicrous mode.

Musk tweeted Wednesday evening “the only thing beyond Ludicrous is Plaid,” a teaser to a higher performing vehicle and a nod to the movie Spaceballs.

 

These new higher performing versions of the Model S, Model X, and Roadster will contain what Musk describes as a Plaid powertrain and is still about a year away from production. This new powertrain will have three motors, one more than the dual motor system found in today’s Model S and X.

This Plaid powertrain has already seen some action. Tesla revealed Wednesday that a Model S equipped with a Plaid powertrain and chassis prototype had lapped Laguna Seca racetrack in 1:36:555, a second faster than the record for a four-door sedan.

 

The “Plaid” powertrain will not be offered in the lower cost Model 3 or Model Y, which isn’t expected to go into production until late 2020. Musk also promised that this plaid powertrain will cost more than “current offerings, but will be less than competitors” without explaining what that means.

Cclose followers of the automaker might recall hints of a three motor powertrain in the past.

When Tesla unveiled a new Roadster prototype in November 2017, Musk said it would have three motors and be able to travel a whopping 0 to 60 miles per hour in 1.9 seconds and a top speed of 250 mph or even more. The Roadster isn’t expected to go into production until 2020.

What is new are Tesla’s plans to make this more powerful three-motor powertrain available in the Model S and Model X. And it stands to be an important option, if it does in fact materialize. The Model S has been around since 2012 and since the introduction the cheaper Model 3, sales have dipped.

And yet, Musk has said the X and S won’t be getting a major refresh. If Tesla hopes to maintain demand for either of its higher margin luxury vehicles, new trims like this plaid powertrain will be essential.

Tesla first announced Ludicrous mode in its Model S vehicles way back in July 2015. As shareholders and customers awaited the Model X to arrive, Musk unveiled several options for the company’s Model S sedan, including a lower priced version, longer battery range and “Ludicrous mode” for even faster acceleration.

Ludicrous mode, which improved acceleration by 10% to let drivers go from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds, came about as a result of an improved battery fuse. This new fuse, Musk explained in a blog post at the time, has its own electronics and a tiny lithium-ion battery that monitors current and protects against excessive current.

Tesla also upgraded the main pack contactor with a high-temperature space-grade superalloy instead of steel. This enabled the battery pack to remain “springy” under the heat of heavy current. In the end, the max pack output increased from 1300 to 1500 Amps.

Ludicrous was a $10,000 add on for new buyers. Tesla did reduce the price for existing Model S P85 owners for the first six months following the announcement and sold them the pack electronics upgrade needed for Ludicrous Mode for $5,000.

Musk joked in this 2015 blog post that there is “one speed faster than ludicrous, but that is reserved for the next generation Roadster in 4 years: maximum plaid.”




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Fairphone 3 is a normal smartphone with ethical shine – gpgmail


How long have you been using your current smartphone? The answer for an increasing number of consumers is years, plural. After all, why upgrade every year when next year’s model is almost exactly the same as the device you’re holding in your hand?

Dutch social enterprise Fairphone sees this as an opportunity to sell sustainability. A chance to turn a conversation about ‘stalled smartphone innovation’ on its head by encouraging consumers to think more critically about the costs involved in pumping out the next shiny thing. And sell them on the savings — individual and collective — of holding their staple gadget steady.

Its latest smartphone, the Fairphone 3 — just released this week in Europe — represents the startup’s best chance yet of shrinking the convenience gap between the next hotly anticipated touchscreen gizmo and a fairer proposition that requires an altogether cooler head to appreciate.

On the surface Fairphone 3 looks like a fairly standard, if slightly thick (1cm), Android smartphone. But that’s essentially the point. This 4G phone could be your smartphone, is the intended message.

Specs wise, you’re getting mostly middling, rather than stand out stuff. There’s a 5.7in full HD display, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 632 chipset, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage (expandable via microSD), a 12MP rear lens and 8MP front-facing camera. There’s also NFC on board, a fingerprint reader, dual nano-SIM slots and a 3,000mAh battery that can be removed for easy replacement when it wears out.

There’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack: The handy port that’s being erased at the premium smartphone tier,  killing off a bunch of wired accessories with it. So ‘slow replacement’ smartphone hardware demonstrably encourages less waste across the gadget ecosystem too.

But the real difference lies under the surface. Fairer here means supply chain innovation to source conflict-free minerals that go into making the devices; social incentive programs that top up the minimum wages of assembly workers who put the phones together; and repairable, modular handset design that’s intended to reduce environmental impact by supporting a longer lifespan. Repair, don’t replace is the mantra.

All the extra effort that goes into making a smartphone less ethically challenging to own is of course invisible to the naked eye. So the Fairphone 3 buyer largely has to take the company’s word on trust.

The only visual evidence is repairability. Flip the phone over and a semi-opaque plastic backing gives a glimpse of modular guts. A tiny screwdriver included in the box allows you take the phone to pieces so you can swap out individual modules (such as the display) in case they break or fail. Fairphone sells replacements via a spare parts section of its website.

Fp3sc

Despite this radically modular and novel design vs today’s hermetically sealed premium mobiles the Fairphone 3 feels extremely solid to hold.

It’s not designed to pop apart easily. Indeed, there’s a full thirteen screws holding the display module in place. Deconstruction takes work (and care not to lose any of the teeny screws). So this is modularity purely as occasional utility, not flashy party trick — as with Google’s doomed Ara Project.

For some that might be disappointing. Exactly because this modular phone feels so, well, boringly normal.

Visually the most stand out feature at a glance is the Fairphone logo picked out in metallic white lettering on the back. Those taking a second look will also spot a moralizing memo printed on the battery so it’s legible through the matte plastic — which reads: “Change is in your hands”. It may be a bit cringeworthy but if you’ve paid for an ethical premium you might as well flaunt it.

It’s fair to say design fans won’t be going wild over the Fairphone 3. But it feels almost intentionally dull. As if — in addition to shrinking manufacturing costs — the point is to impress on buyers that ethical internals are more than enough of a hipster fashion statement.

It’s also true that most smartphones are now much the same, hardware, features and performance wise. So — at this higher mid-tier price-point (€450/~$500) — why not flip the consumer smartphone sales pitch on its head to make it about shrinking rather than maximizing impact, via a dull but worthy standard?

That then pushes people to ask how sustainable is an expensive but valueless — and so, philosophically speaking, pointless — premium? That’s the question Fairphone 3 seems designed to pose.

Or, to put it another way, if normal can be ethical then shouldn’t ethical electronics be the norm?

Normal is what you get elsewhere with Fairphone 3. Purely judged as a smartphone its performance isn’t anything to write home about. It checks all the usual boxes of messaging, photos, apps and Internet browsing. You can say it gets the job done.

Sure, it’s not buttery smooth at every screen and app transition. And it can feel a little slow on the uptake at times. Notably the camera, while fairly responsive, isn’t lightning quick. Photo quality is not terrible — but not amazing either.

Testing the camera I found images prone to high acutance and over saturated colors. The software also struggles to handle mixed light and shade — meaning you may get a darker and less balanced shot that you hoped for. Low light performance isn’t great either.

That said, in good light the Fairphone 3 can take a perfectly acceptable selfie. Which is what most people will expect to be able to use the phone for.

Fairphone has said it’s done a lot of work to improve the camera vs the predecessor model. And it has succeeded in bringing photo performance up to workable standard — which is a great achievement at what’s also a slightly reduced handset price-point. Though, naturally, there’s still a big gap in photo quality vs the premium end of the smartphone market.

On the OS front, the phone runs a vanilla implementation of Android 9 out of the box — preloaded with the usual bundle of Google services and no added clutter so Android fans should feel right at home. (For those who want a Google-free alternative Fairphone says a future update will allow users to do a wipe and clean install of Android Open Source Project.)

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In short, purely as a smartphone, the Fairphone 3 offers very little to shout about — so no screaming lack either. Again, if the point is to shrink the size of the compromise Fairphone is asking consumers to make in order to buy an ethically superior brand of electronics they are slowly succeeding in closing the gap.

It’s a project that’s clearly benefiting from the maturity of the smartphone market. While, on the cellular front, the transformative claims being made for 5G are clearly many years out — so there’s no issue with asking buyers to stick with a 4G phone for years to come.

Given where the market has now marched to, a ‘fairer’ smartphone that offers benchmark basics at a perfectly acceptable median but with the promise of reduced costs over the longer term — individual, societal and environmental — does seem like a proposition that could expand from what has so far been an exceptional niche into something rather larger and more mainstream.

Zooming out for a second, the Fairphone certainly makes an interesting contrast with some of the expensive chimeras struggling to be unfolded at the top end of the smartphone market right now.

Foldables like the Samsung Galaxy Fold — which clocks in at around 4x the price of a Fairphone and offers ~2x the screen real estate (when unfolded), plus a power bump. Whether the Fold’s lux package translates into mobile utility squared is a whole other question, though.

And where foldables will need to demonstrate a compelling use-case that goes above and beyond the Swiss Army utility of a normal smartphone to justify such a whopping price bump, Fairphone need only prick the consumer conscience — as it asks you pay a bit more and settle for a little less.

Neither of these sales pitches is challenge free, of course. And, for now, both foldables and fairer electronics remain curious niches.

But with the Fairphone 3 demonstrating that ethical can feel so normal it doesn’t seem beyond the pale to imagine demand for electronics that are average in performance yet pack an ethical punch scaling up to challenge the mainstream parade of copycat gadgets.


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The $399 Sonos Move Is the Company’s First Portable Speaker


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Sonos pioneered multi-room audio long before Chromecast, AirPlay, and the other newer systems arrived on the scene. With all the Sonos speakers over the years, none of them have been portable until now. The aptly named Sonos Move is the first speaker from the company that you can haul around outside the house, but it’ll also work with your existing in-home Sonos system. 

The Sonos MoveSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce is not to be confused with the recently released Sonos One. that smaller speaker supports voice control via Alexa and Google Assistant, and it’s “portable” in that it’s small and light. You can move the One around your house, but it needs an external power source. The Sonos Move is a big, powerful speaker with its own internal battery and Bluetooth support for easy streaming away from Wi-Fi. The Sonos Move also supports Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa when it’s connected to Wi-Fi. 

The Move is almost 10-inches tall, and it weighs more than six pounds (about 3 kilograms). So, it’s not exactly convenient to carry around like a smaller Bluetooth speaker, but you don’t have to take the whole thing with you. The Sonos Move has a handle in the molded plastic shell, and it disconnects from the charging base when you pick it up.

The base has two pogo pins that charge the speaker whenever it’s plugged in, ensuring you’ve got a full battery when you take the speaker on the go. There’s also a USB Type-C port on the back to juice the speaker up when away from the dock. Sonos made the battery replaceable, so you can get a new one if you wear the original out. Although, that’ll take a while; Sonos promises up to 900 charge cycles. 

Sonos has always stressed audio quality in its speakers, which is why the Move is so weighty. It has two class-D amplifiers powering the tweeter and midrange woofer. Sonos claims the system is powerful enough to overcome audio falloff common when using speakers in outdoor spaces. The Move also has an integrated TruePlay tuning, which automatically adjusts the speaker’s output to the space. Previous Sonos speakers required you to set up TrueTone by walking around the room with a phone, but the Move can use its microphones to do that for you. 

The Sonos Move is available for pre-order today at $399, and it will ship at the end of the month.

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WSPR Explained: How to Get Started With One-Way Ham Radio


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Last Tuesday at 1744 UTC (1:44 PM EDT) UR3RM, a ham radio station in Ukraine blindly sent out a message on 7040.138 kHz.  It was automated. It was text. Maybe someone would hear it. Maybe not.

The “maybe not” part is easy to understand because UR3RM’s transmitter was putting out one milliwatt, .01 watts. To put that in perspective, a Class 2 Bluetooth transmitter, the ones good for around 30 feet, run 2.5 milliwatts.

UR3RM was using a mode called WSPR for Weak Signal Propagation Reporting. Unlike most of ham radio, this is a one-way mode. Not only is there little expectation anyone will be listening, but there’s even less that the signal would make it back. Radio propagation isn’t always a two-way path.

WSPR’s biggest selling point is you can do it on the cheap. It’s easy to set yourself up for not much more than $100 and often a whole lot less. And, though a ham radio license is needed to transmit, anyone can put up a receiver. And the US ham license test is multiple-choice, all published and online.

Most WSPR transmitters run very low power, many well under a watt like UR3RM. And sometimes, like UR3RM that peanut whistle goes far. Tuesday’s 1744 UTC transmission was heard on the Australian island of Tasmania, a distance of 15,140 km. Stated more impressively, the transmission/reception worked out to 9,235,000 miles per watt! This isn’t being done with fancy gear and immense antennas. This particular transmission took place on what we quaintly still call “short wave” radio. WSPR’s greatest accomplishment is it lets this be done on noisy, unreliable, staticky radio bands. And, it lets the receiver know what it’s gotten is good without any confirmation from the sender.

There is a price to pay for making all this reliable: bandwidth. A WSPR signal is 6 Hz wide. A typical voice channel would be around 2,500 Hz. This allows the tiny WSPR of power to be more concentrated and much more effective.

Low bandwidth also limits the signaling rate. In today’s gigaworld, you’ll be shocked to know WSPR runs at 1.4648 baud. No typo. The structured WSPR transmission sends 50 characters in 110.6 seconds, beginning one second after each even minute.

Each message contains the station’s callsign, a grid locator, and transmitter power expressed in dBm. So, when the station in Tasmania picked up the Ukrainian transmission he immediately knew where it was from and how much power got it there.

A map of the Maidenhead Locator System.

Because of their very narrow bandwidth, WSPR signals can often be decoded when human ears can’t detect the signal is even there. It’s claimed a signal 28 dB below the noise in a 2500 Hz bandwidth receiver can be decoded with WSPR. I’ve had the volume turned up and watched stations decoded that were totally indistinguishable from the background noise by my ears.

The narrow bandwidth actually allows a receiver to hear and decode multiple stations at once, often handfuls at a time when the bands are open. Since the receiver has no way to tell the originating stations “job well done,” the reception is reported to a central hub on the Internet. Want to know what ham bands are good for contacting what parts of the world at this moment? Head over to wsprnet.org, where these are plotted out and otherwise quantified.

WSPR was produced by Joe Taylor, a ham operator (K1JT) and Nobel Physics prize winner. In the past, he’s developed other transmission/reception methods to help with moonbounce and meteor scatter radio work.

Like so many other radio advances, this one is really helped by the advent of inexpensive SDR receivers. Though the $20-ish variety sold on Amazon, eBay and others doesn’t do well on these long-distance low frequencies, more sophisticated models are now selling for under $100. The software to decode (and the transmit software too) is free and open source. Prebuilt or mostly built transmitters are also widely available for under $100. Some folks have even figured out how to make a Raspberry Pi act like a 10 milliwatt WSPR transmitter (pictured at top), though some outboard filtering to make sure it only transmits where it’s supposed to is necessary.

Every ham radio band is different, and with the current solar sunspot cycle down near the minimum, conditions are definitely lousy. But WSPR is so vigorous and resilient that even now worldwide communication is possible with flea power. If you’re interested, you can actually dip your toe in the water for free. The dozens of receivers aggregated through http://sdr.hu all have WSPR as an available mode. If you’re like me, you’ll end up spending hours listening to radio signals you actually don’t hear and wouldn’t understand if you did!

Top image credit: Gerolf Ziegenhain/CC BY-SA 3.0

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Filmmakers Declare War on ‘Soap Opera Effect’, Announce New TV Mode


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No one, as far as I can tell, really likes post-processed motion interpolation, also called motion smoothing or the “Soap Opera Effect” (SOE). It can work well for certain kinds of broadcasts, like sports, but its benefits in this arena are outweighed by the generally disliked, overly smooth presentation everywhere else. Unfortunately, modern TVs often ship with motion interpolation enabled, and most consumers aren’t aware of the feature or how to turn it off. If a new push from the UHD Alliance is successful, it’ll be easier to disable the option in the future.

Motion interpolation refers to the process of generating and inserting new frames of animation between the existing frames that were actually captured by the camera. (Interpolation means “to insert into something else.”) While the term “Soap Opera Effect” is often used to describe this type of video, there is a difference: Old-school soap operas were often recorded on videotape at 60 frames per second because their daily broadcast schedules made working on film impossible. Higher frame rates gave these shows a distinct look, but they weren’t creating and inserting new frames in-between existing ones. The difference between actual SOE and motion interpolation is that while interpolation looks like SOE in terms of smoothness and fluidity, it can also introduce artifacts that didn’t exist in the original material.

The following video gives an illustration of the difference between turning motion interpolation on versus off in two different scenarios:

The UHD Alliance has announced plans for a new Filmmaker Mode to be supported on consumer sets in the future. A number of major Hollywood directors weighed in approving the change, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Ryan Coogler, Patty Jenkins, Martin Scorsese, and Christopher Nolan.

One of the problems with motion smoothing is that it’s often implemented in TVs under very different names. For example, LG calls it “TruMotion,” Vizio labels it “Smooth Motion Effect,” and Panasonic calls it “Intelligent Frame Creation.” All three companies are supposedly on board with the Filmmaker Mode option, which would disable these and other post-processing effects to provide a movie-watching experience closer to that intended by the director.

The idea behind Filmmaker Mode is that it will take effect automatically when appropriate content is detected or else be easily accessible as a remote button. Either option would be an improvement over having to dig through a TV’s various menus. In aggregate, Filmmaker Mode is supposed to:

  • Apply a D65 white point to both SDR and HDR content
  • Maintain source content frame rate and aspect ratio
  • Disable motion interpolation
  • Disable overscanning
  • Sharpening and noise reduction are both disabled
  • All other image ‘enhancement’ processes are disabled

“Having a single name,” says Warner Bros Vice President of Technology Michael Zink, “is essential to delivering the message to consumers that if you want to see movies the way they were intended to be seen, you should watch them in Filmmaker Mode. You shouldn’t have this distinction we had before where ‘you should watch it in X mode on this TV, or ‘Y’ mode on that TV’. That dilutes the message. So a single name was really important.”

Some of these features may be important on lower-end TVsSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce to prevent them from showing flaws or defects that manufacturers otherwise hide with post-processing tricks, so it isn’t clear if Filmmaker Mode will be a win for everyone. But provided the feature can be disabled or enabled at will, it should offer a much closer experience to what the filmmaker intended — and the ability to turn specific features back on if needed, if the final product doesn’t look good on your specific display.

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Apple to Allow Indie iPhone Repair Shops to Buy Tools and Parts


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Apple has announced that it will sell more repair tools and supplies to independent third-party repair shops, allowing them to make a wider variety of repairs. According to the company:

Apple will provide more independent repair businesses — large or small — with the same genuine parts, tools, training, repair manuals and diagnostics as its Apple Authorized Service Providers (AASPs). The program is launching in the US with plans to expand to other countries.

The program is free to join and only requires that a repair-person complete an Apple course for certification. This would be a significant change to Apple’s existing repair programs. In the past, as Motherboard has detailed, Apple’s “authorized” repair program was barely a repair program at all. Back in 2017, Apple only allowed authorized shops to complete a few simple fixes. Everything else had to be shipped to Apple for repair, which is part of what drove people away from using these services in the first place.

And, as Kyle Wiens of iFixit points out, there are still some hurdles in place that Apple can use to lock companies out of the program. Apple’s own documentation states that “Meeting program requirements does not guarantee acceptance,” and “Apple reserves the right to reject any application without comment.”

iFixit’s Kevin Purdy points out another concern about Apple’s program — its pricing. When pricing data leaked for a Genius Parts Repair program that Apple was supposedly considering last March, some of the repair costs were significantly higher than Apple charges. iFixit writes:

In those documents, batteries ranged from $16-$33 for the iPhone 6s through the XS Max, which is modest and normal. Screens, however, cost up to $350 for an XS Max, which is $20 more than Apple’s own out-of-warranty repair cost, before the independent shop even factors in their own labor costs and margins.

It’s unclear from today’s release whether offering genuine parts for sale to this larger network will increase the range of repairs that shops can provide. In those leaked documents, we saw parts for screens, batteries, cameras, speakers, receivers, and vibration (aka the Taptic Engine). Some of those related repairs would typically require a phone to be sent into Apple, rather than repaired on-premises in a store or Authorized Service Provider.

There’s also the question of whether Apple is taking these steps in an attempt to decrease user interest in robust Right to Repair legislation programs. Many companies have strenuously lobbied against allowing customers to repair their own hardware, claiming variously that disallowing customers from fixing their own equipment is either a security issue or a product quality problem. Manufacturers have always made such claims to lock up valuable after-market repair services, and Apple is no different. Even as the company has supposedly been working on expanding its authorized repair program, it’s also been working to make it more difficult for people to fix iPhones by locking out third-party batteries so they refuse to report their own health.

We’ll wait and see what actual prices and services look like before drawing a conclusion, but Apple hasn’t exactly earned a reputation for looking out for the best interests of its customers as far as repairs are concerned. Issues like ‘Error 53‘ and the iPhone 6 Plus’ bending problem — which Apple knew about in advance and simply lied about — have harmed the company’s reputation.

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Ring Confirms It Works With More Than 400 Police Departments


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Ring has come under fire in recent months for the way it partners with law enforcement and helps them obtain camera footage from customers without a warrant. Ring frames this as an initiative to keep neighborhoods safe, but privacy advocates worry about the development of a corporate-controlled surveillance state. The scale of Ring’s police partnership has only now become clear. It’s not a handful of police departments or even a few dozen — Ring works with more than 400 departments around the US. 

You can buy and use Ring cameras anyplace without interacting with law enforcement, but Ring is working hard to get people under the jurisdiction of partnered police departments to use its “Neighbors” app. That’s what connects your cameras to other nearby Ring cameras, allowing you to share video with neighbors. 

Ring’s contracts with police call for the direct promotion of Ring devices and services with the aim of increasing downloads of the Neighbors app. Police departments working with Ring get access to the Neighbors online community portal where they too can request footage. When investigating a crime, police can ask residents in Neighbors to share their video — Ring will even help police craft effective messages to get more footage. Ring (which is owned by Amazon) even provides police with credits toward free Ring cameras they can provide to residents. 

It’s not hard to see why police would like this. Officers can set up a Neighbors request and get access to video much more quickly than if they had to go through the legal system. On the flip side, they are getting access to a great deal of video that has little or nothing to do with investigating a crime. 

Ring stresses that police can’t see live feeds from cameras, and they don’t technically know who is and is not providing video footage. Although, it’s not hard to figure out which houses with Ring doorbells aren’t supplying video as requested. Ring seems conscious of how uncomfortable this could make people, so it’s trying to get ahead of the critics by making its full list of law enforcement partners public. The map above shows all 405 departments that work with Ring. The company promises to update the map regularly, too. 

The map probably won’t do much to calm those who are already concerned — it really drives home the incredible scale of the program. Almost all the departments listed joined the program in just the last few months. Still, the map is a step in the right direction. It will allow at least some public accountability going forward.

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Fitbit Announces Versa 2 Smartwatch With Alexa


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Fitbit scooped up the remains of fan-favorite smartwatch maker Pebble several years ago, using that expertise to launch its own line of smartwatches. The Ionic came first, and then the smaller, cheaper Versa. Now, Fitbit is back with a second-gen smartwatch, a followup to the Versa predictably called Versa 2. The design is cleaner and more refined, and there’s support for voice commands via Amazon Alexa. It’ll also support Fitbit’s new paid subscription fitness service. 

The Ionic and Versa both focused on fitness and health tracking functionality, as you’d expect from a company like Fitbit. However, they brought some enhanced features that set them apart from the company’s watch-like fitness trackers including apps, custom clock faces, and smartphone notification management. 

The Versa 2SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce looks similar to the first-gen Versa, but there’s only one physical button on the side — the shortcut keys on the right edge are gone. The shape of the watch is also a bit more round and similar to the Apple Watch. The original Versa was already very similar to the Apple Watch, so the Versa 2 might be completely indistinguishable from a distance. 

Instead of the shortcut buttons, the right edge of the Versa 2 has a microphone. You can launch Alexa on the watch by pressing and holding the remaining side button. After linking your Alexa profile, you can get basic search results, control smart home devices, manage timers, and more. However, you won’t hear Alexa reply to your commands — the Versa 2 doesn’t have a speaker. That would have made it harder to water-proof. With the new microphone, the watch maintains its 50m submersion rating. 

All versions of the Versa 2 will have NFC for Fitbit Pay; only special edition versions of the original Versa had that. It will also support Fitbit’s new Sleep Score feature, which uses your activity throughout the day to determine how much sleep you need. It’s sort of like grading your sleep on a curve. However, the watch still lacks GPS, just like the previous Versa. 

The Versa 2 is available for pre-order today, starting at $200. That might be just a drop in the bucket if you also buy into Fitbit’s new monthly service. The Fitbit Premium service costs $10 per month and launches in 2020. Fitbit Premium features personalized health coaching, one-on-one training guidance, premium challenges, and more. If you buy the $230 special edition Versa 2, it comes with a 90-day trial of Fitbit Premium.

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Google Falls to Third in Smart Speakers Behind Baidu and Amazon


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Amazon’s original Echo speaker seemed like something no one would want when it launched in 2014. That feels like ages ago because consumers are now happily gobbling up smart speakers with always-on voice assistant features. After rising to the number two spot behind Amazon, Google has now seen its market share drop as China’s Baidu grows by leaps and bounds. Meanwhile, Amazon has continued advancing. 

The smart speaker market is potentially worth billions of dollars, but it also pumps up interest in other smart home devices like cameras, locks, and sensors with which the speakers can communicate. Amazon has moved aggressively to acquire smart home companies like Eero, Ring, Blink, and more. As for Google, it has a full lineup of Nest thermostats, cameras, and other devices that play nicely with Google Home speakers out of the box. Plus, everyone using an Android phone already has Assistant. 

In the most recent quarter, Amazon saw sales of smart speakers with Alexa grow by 61.1 percent. That leaves Amazon with 25.4 percent of the market. Google is down almost 20 percent year-over-year, leaving it with 16.7 percent of the smart speaker market. That’s just low enough that Baidu managed to slide into second place with 17.3 percent. It had barely started selling speakersSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce in 2018, so its Q2 2019 growth is an incredible 3,700 percent. 

The Amazon Echo Plus.

Baidu sells speakers in China where Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa do not operate, and there’s clearly pent-up demand. Baidu’s speakers run the company’s DuerOS assistant that is geared toward Chinese users. It has also worked to get DuerOS into as many form factors as possible. There are Echo-like speakers, ceiling-mounted lights, displays, and more. Amazon has also been cranking out new speakers — it released updated versions of the Echo Show smart display and several Echo speakers in the last year. 

Google has been chugging along with the same Home-branded speakers for a few years now. The original 2016 Google Home is still the heart of Google’s product lineup along with the budget Home Mini and premium Home Max. However, the Home doesn’t have as much power as newer Amazon devices like the Echo Plus. It’s probably time for Google to refresh its speaker lineup if it wants to stay competitive with Amazon.

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Reliability concerns raised over pi-top’s STEM learning laptop – gpgmail


gpgmail 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: “pitop 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.

Unusual failure mode

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 pitop 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 [3] 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:

pitop 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 pitop hardware and software have become trusted assets to teachers and students in classrooms from America to Zimbabwe. pitop 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 pitop 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, pitop’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 pitop 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 pitop [3], pitop CEED, and pitop [1] brings as a Raspberry Pi-powered device. Our new flagship products, the pitop [4] and our learning platform, pitop 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.

Internal restructuring

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 4 4

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.

gpgmail’s Steve O’Hear contributed to this report


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