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Main article: Speaker

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Save over $200 with discounted student tickets to Robotics + AI 2020

01:30 | 16 January

If you’re a current student and you love robots — and the AI that drives them — you do not want to miss out on TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020. Our day-long deep dive into these two life-altering technologies takes place on March 3 at UC Berkeley and features the best and brightest minds, makers and influencers.

We’ve set aside a limited number of deeply discounted tickets for students because, let’s face it, the future of robotics and AI can’t happen without cultivating the next generation. Tickets cost $50, which means you save more than $200. Reserve your student ticket now.

Not a student? No problem, we have a savings deal for you, too. If you register now, you’ll save $150 when you book an early-bird ticket by Feb. 14.

More than 1,000 robotics and AI enthusiasts, experts and visionaries attended last year’s event, and we expect even more this year. Talk about a targeted audience and the perfect place for students to network for an internship, employment or even a future co-founder.

What can you expect this year? For starters, we have an outstanding lineup of speaker and demos — more than 20 presentations — on tap. Let’s take a quick look at just some of the offerings you don’t want to miss.

  • Saving Humanity from AI: Stuart Russell, UC Berkeley professor and AI authority, argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.
  • Opening the Black Box with Explainable A.I: Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UC Berkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs and Karen Myers from SRI International will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.
  • Engineering for the Red Planet: Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades and is about to send its fifth robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian, general manager of robotics at Maxar, will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

That’s just a sample — take a gander at the event agenda to help you plan your time accordingly. We’ll add even more speakers in the coming weeks, so keep checking back.

TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 takes place on March 3 at UC Berkeley. It’s a full day focused on exploring the future of robotics and a great opportunity for students to connect with leading technologists, founders, researchers and investors. Join us in Berkeley. Buy your student ticket today and get ready to build the future.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics & AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

 


0

The robot homecoming is upon us

17:45 | 14 January

Robots were everywhere at CES, as has been the case for at least a decade. But there’s a different tenor to the robots shown off at the recent annual consumer tech event: they’re designed for home use, and they’re shipping products, not just concepts intended strictly for trade show glam.

Home robots have already had a few false starts, including some high-profile flare-outs like Anki and previous CES darling Kuri (despite the backing of global technology giant Bosch) . But other robots, including autonomous vacuums, have already carved out niches for themselves within the domestic milieu. Between slow-burn but now mature categories and the sheer volume of newer products jumping in to establish new beachheads, it now seems certain we’re on a path at the end of which lie hybrid companion and functional robots that will become common household items.

Industrial to residential

One of the biggest signs that home robotics is gaining credibility as a market is the fact that companies which have found success in industrial technology are branching out. At CES, I spoke to Elephant Robotics founder and CEO Joey Song, who was at the show demonstrating MarsCat, a fully developed robotic cat designed to be a companion pet with full autonomous interactivity, similar to Sony’s Aibo.

 


0

Exhibit your startup at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

22:00 | 2 January

Mobility mavericks get ready to strut your stuff at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 on May 14. Don’t miss our second annual day-long conference devoted to technologies that move people and parcels around the world in new, exciting ways.

More than 1,000 of the industry’s mightiest minds, makers, innovators and investors will converge in San Jose for a mobile mind meld. That spells opportunity for early-stage mobility startup founders. Buy an Early-Stage Startup Exhibitor Package and plant your company in front the influencers who can drive your mobility dreams to the next level.

Whether you’re racing to perfect autonomous vehicles or flying cars, developing AI-based applications, focused on improving battery technology — or you want to recruit a few brilliant engineers — exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility offers invaluable exposure and opportunity.

Your exhibitor package includes a 30-inch high-boy table, power, linen and signage. Even better — it includes four tickets to the event. That’s four times the networking power. And it gives you time to take in some of the show’s many panel discussions, fireside chats and workshops.

Because, of course, the day will be loaded with top-notch speakers who, along with TC editors, will discuss the opportunities and challenges — social, economic and regulatory — that come from creating new mobile paradigms.

We’re building our slate of speakers for this year’s event, and we’ll be announcing them on a rolling basis in the coming months. Know someone who should be on stage at this event? You can nominate a speaker here. In the meantime, here are just a couple of examples of what went down at last year’s Session.

Alisyn Malek, co-founder and COO of May Mobility, an autonomous transportation startup, talked about making transportation easier and accessible for everyone, and Jesse Levinson, Zoox CTO and co-founder, shared specifics on the company’s autonomous vehicle hardware design.

And here are just a few more of the speakers who graced the TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 stage:

  • Seleta Reynolds, head of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation
  • Caroline Samponaro, Lyft, head of Micromobility Policy
  • Ted Serbinski, Techstars, founder and managing director of The Mobility Program
  • Sarah Smith, Bain Capital Ventures, partner

You get the idea. And you can expect more high-caliber technologists, policy makers and investors to be in the house when TC Sessions: Mobility takes place May 14, 2020.

Plenty of reason to attend and even more reason to exhibit. But don’t wait. Exhibition space is limited, and so are the number of packages available. Reserve your demo table here, and get ready to move your early-stage mobile startup in a whole new direction.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

 


0

Luminary launches its subscription-based podcast network on Alexa devices

18:45 | 17 December

Luminary, a startup building a “Netflix for podcasts,” is now trying a new tack to gain subscribers for its premium service. The company is today launching an Alexa skill that will allow podcast listeners to stream content on Echo speakers and other Alexa-powered devices, using voice commands. In addition, Luminary is also becoming the first podcast service to offer premium subscriptions by way of Alexa voice requests.

Listeners will be able to ask Alexa to “start my free Luminary trial” to gain a month of free access to Luminary Premium, or they can say “Alexa, subscribe to Luminary,” to kick off their $7.99 per month subscription in the U.S.

Despite its messy and controversial launch, which saw a number of podcasters pulling their shows from Luminary’s service, the company has persisted. Today, Luminary has grown its library to include over 40 premium podcasts exclusive to its network, including shows from big names like Trevor Noah, Lena Dunham, Martina McBride, Russell Brand, Team Coco, The Ringer, Roxane Gay + Tressie McMillan Cottom, and others.

To date, Luminary’s efforts have focused on being both a podcast network and an app that plays podcasts, including those outside its network. On Luminary’s iOS, Android and web apps, subscribers can listen to the company’s original programming alongside their other favorite shows. But the new Alexa experience focuses only on paying subscribers — to listen on your Alexa smart speaker, you need to either subscribe or start the free trial.

Once enabled, Luminary subscribers can use the Alexa skill to pick up premium shows where they left off on web or mobile and ask for recommendations, in addition to streaming their favorite shows. On Alexa devices with a screen, like Echo Show, the skill also features a visual experience featuring the show’s artwork and descriptions.

The voice app was designed in partnership with New York-based digital agency RAIN, which specializes in voice and conversational A.I., and is Luminary’s first voice platform launch.

The company debuted in early 2019, backed by nearly $100 million in funding, for its subscription-based business. But many podcasters were upset to find their free, ad-supported, and publicly available shows were being gathered up to help attract users to Luminary’s premium service. In addition, Luminary wasn’t sending complete and accurate analytics back to podcast publishers, they found. (Luminary has since corrected this.) As a result, several larger brands requested their shows pulled, including Spotify’s Gimlet and Parcast, NYT’s The Daily, The Joe Rogan Experience, Endeavour Audio, PodcastOne, Barstool Sports, and others.

It’s not surprising that companies Spotify invested in to grow its own exclusive library of shows would bristle at being distributed ad-free through a third-party app. What Luminary didn’t count on, however, would be the range of podcasters who wouldn’t view its app as just another distribution mechanism for their content — like Overcast, Pocket Casts, or Apple or Google’s podcasts apps, for example.

With the Alexa launch, Luminary is focusing more heavily in its premium service, where it pays creators for their work instead of having podcasters rely on ads. The company said it chose to launch on Alexa because smart speakers are the third most-used devices for listening to podcasts, behind mobile devices and PCs.

The launch arrives at a time when Amazon is also investing more in the podcast listening experience on Alexa devices. Last week, Amazon added support for Apple and Spotify podcasts on Echo devices, and now allows users to set either as their default podcast service.

Luminary users won’t have that same built-in advantage, though. To get started, users will instead need to say “Alexa, open Luminary.”

 


0

Amazon Robotics head Tye Brady will be speaking at TC Sessions Robotics+AI 2020 at UC Berkeley

20:15 | 3 December

We’re gearing up for another great TC Sessions Robotics+AI March 3 at UC Berkeley, and we’ve got some big names to announce. Last week, it was AI expert Stuart Russell and today we’re pleased to note that we’ll be joined by Amazon Robotics Chief Technologist, Tye Brady.

A co-founder of MassRobotics, Brady has held a number of high profile positions throughout the robotics and aerospace industries, including positions at Draper Laboratory, the Massachusetts Autonomous Air Vehicle Research and Innovation Consortium and IEEE. It’s at Amazon, however, that he’s had his largest impact on the future of robotics and retail.

Founded in 2012 with the acquisition of Kiva Systems, Amazon Robotics leverages fulfillment center robots to transform warehouses across the nation. Amazon has amassed one of the world’s largest robotic workforces, with more than 100,000 deployed across various warehouses across the U.S. The system all present unique potential to help streamline the company’s massive number of packages.

During Brady’s tenure, the robotics have become an increasingly essential element of Amazon’s day-to-day operations, working alongside human counterparts to increase the efficiency of the company’s already speedy services. The executive will join us to discuss the company’s efforts and the future of the automation-driven workforce.

Join our 4th annual TC Sessions: Robotics & AI on March 3 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall for a remarkable day with the world’s top roboticists, investors, founders, and AI engineers. The day features a full day or programming lead by TechCrunch’s editors on the main stage, a pitch-off competition featuring early-stage startups, numerous breakout and speaker Q&A sessions, and much more.

Get your early bird pass here and save $100 before prices go up. Interested in sponsoring? Please get in touch.

 


0

AI expert Stuart Russell to join TC’s Robotics+AI 2020 at UC Berkeley

01:03 | 26 November

Computer scientists agree that artificial intelligence will have a stunning impact on the future of humanity. And more often than not, futurists depict a dystopian outcome – a world where we are at best subservient to machines and at worst exterminated by them. Computer scientist Stuart Russell, one of the world’s top experts on AI and author of the recently published “Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control,” will join us at TC Sessions: Robotics & AI (March 3 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall) ), to discuss how researchers and founders today will determine AI’s ultimate impact.

At a time when the debate about AI seems to be polarized between the alarmists predicting the imminent “singularity” and those pooh-poohing the advent of human-level AI, Dr. Russell, a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley, cuts through the debate to argue that we still have time to ensure that the doomsayers are proven wrong. As Dr. Russell argues in “Human Compatible,” the key is to ensure that AI designs “will necessarily defer to humans: they will ask permission, they will accept correction, and they will allow themselves to be switched off.”

Dr. Russell believes that super human-level AI is likely a generation or two away, though he allows that unexpected breakthroughs – like Leo Szilard’s totally unexpected breakthrough on nuclear chain reactions in 1933 – could hasten the day. Regardless of the timeline, Dr. Russell argues that the current approach to AI is dangerous to the future of humanity. For his part, Dr. Russell is literally re-writing his textbook on AI to advance what he has described as a Jeeves-like humility in  future AI systems and spurring related research through organizations like The Center for Human Compatible AI (CHAI).

Join our 4th annual TC Sessions: Robotics & AI on March 3 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall for a remarkable day with the world’s top roboticists, investors, founders, and AI engineers. The day features a full day or programming lead by TechCrunch’s editors on the main stage, a pitch-off competition featuring early-stage startups, numerous breakout and speaker Q&A sessions, and much more.

Get your early bird pass here. Interested in sponsoring? Please get in touch.

 


0

Sonos acquires voice assistant startup Snips, potentially to build out on-device voice control

00:36 | 21 November

Sonos revealed during its quarterly earnings report that it has acquired voice assistant startup Snips in a $37 million cash deal, Variety reported on Wednesday. Snips, which had been developing dedicated smart device assistants that can operate primarily locally, instead of relying on consistently round-tripping voice data to the cloud, could help Sonos set up a voice control option for its customers that has “privacy in mind” and is focused more narrowly on music control than on being a general-purpose smart assistant.

Sonos has worked with both Amazon and Google and their voice assistants, providing support for either on their more recent products, including the Sonos Beam and Sonos One smart speakers. Both of these require an active cloud connection to work, however, and have received scrutiny from consumers and consumer protection groups recently for how they handle the data they collect form users. They’ve introduced additional controls to help users navigate their own data sharing, but Sonos CEO Patrick Spence noted that one of the things the company can do in building its own voice features is developing them “with privacy in mind” in an interview with Variety.

Notably, Sonos has introduced a version of its Sonos One that leave out the microphone hardware altogether – the Sonos One SL introduced earlier this fall. The fact that they saw opportunity in a mic-less second version of the Sonos One suggests it’s likely there are a decent number of customers who like the option of a product that’s not round-tripping any information with a remote server. Spence also seemed quick to point out that Sonos wouldn’t seek to compete with its voice assistant partners, however, since anything they build will be focused much more specifically on music.

You can imagine how local machine learning would be able to handle commands like skipping, pausing playback and adjusting volume (and maybe even more advanced feature like playing back a saved playlist), without having to connect to any kind of cloud service. It seems like what Spence envisions is something like that which can provide basic controls, while still allowing the option for a customer to enable one of the more full-featured voice assistants depending on their preference.

Meanwhile, partnerships continue to prove lucrative for Sonos: Its team-up with Ikea resulted in 30,000 speakers sold on launch day, the company also shared alongside its earnings. That’s a lot to move in one day, especially in this category.

 


0

Spotify’s free music service will now stream on Alexa devices, plus Bose and Sonos smart speakers

18:05 | 20 November

Spotify has worked with Amazon Echo since 2016, but only for premium subscribers. Today, that changes as Spotify says its free tier will now stream across Alexa-powered devices, as well as other smart speakers from Sonos and Bose. The Alexa support will be available for users in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Support for Sonos and Bose is more broadly available to users around the world.

In the case of Alexa devices, like Amazon Echo speakers or the Fire TV, users will be able to ask Alexa to play Spotify’s playlist, like “Today’s Top Hits,” or their personalized playlist, “Discover Weekly,” among others. The service can also be set as the default, so you can use commands like “Play my Discover Weekly,” “Like this song,” or “Pause,” and more, without having to say “on Spotify.”

Meanwhile, on Sonos and Bose speakers, users can set up Spotify Connect from the Spotify app. This works with Bose smart speakers and soundbars, as well as all Sonos smart speakers, including the new indoor/outdoor speaker Sonos Move and the Symfonisk IKEA WiFi Speaker, integrated with the Sonos Home Sound System.

To use Spotify Connect, you’ll tap the “Devices” icon on the screen to select which speaker you want to use. This will also require the Bose and Sonos devices are updated to the latest firmware, the company says.

The expanded support for smart speakers comes only a day after Amazon directly challenged Spotify with a major move of its own. On Tuesday, Amazon announced its own music service would become free across devices, including the web, Fire TV, iOS, and Android. Before, the free, ad-supported music service was only available on Echo devices. While the services is a rival of sorts to other free services, like Spotify and Pandora, it has a more limited catalog of just 2 million tracks. That makes it better for those who only casually listen to music stations and curated playlists.

Spotify’s stock dropped almost 5% on Tuesday after Amazon’s announcement, however.

By now making Spotify’s free tier more accessible, it’s likely that many people will choose Spotify’s free streaming over Amazon’s free streaming, given the larger catalog of over 50 million songs. In addition, Spotify is best known for its personalization capabilities that help introduce users to new music based on their likes and listening history, which continues to be a major draw.

However, Amazon is only one of many challengers Spotify faces these days, with Apple Music, YouTube Music and regional players in big markets like India and China, also vying for users.

In addition, TikTok owner ByteDance is said to be preparing to move into music streaming, aiming for markets like India, Indonesia, and Brazil. That’s a huge threat not only because of the markets it’s targeting but because you can now draw a direct line between TikTlk top tracks and No. 1 tracks and hits on Spotify, which gives it a competitive advantage.

 

 


0

MacBook Pro 16” first impressions: Return of the Mack

16:30 | 13 November

In poker, complacency is a quiet killer. It can steal your forward momentum bit by bit, using the warm glow of a winning hand or two to cover the bets you’re not making until it’s too late and you’re out of leverage. 

Over the past few years, Apple’s MacBook game had begun to suffer from a similar malaise. Most of the company’s product lines were booming, including newer entries like the Apple Watch, AirPods and iPad Pro. But as problems with the models started to mount — unreliable keyboards, low RAM ceilings and anemic graphics offerings — the once insurmountable advantage that the MacBook had compared to the rest of the notebook industry started to show signs of dwindling. 

The new 16” MacBook Pro Apple is announcing today is an attempt to rectify most, if not all, of the major complaints of its most loyal, and vocal, users. It’s a machine that offers a massive amount of upsides for what appears to be a handful of easily justifiable tradeoffs. It’s got better graphics, a bigger display for nearly no extra overall size, a bigger battery with longer life claims and yeah, a completely new keyboard.

I’ve only had a day to use the machine so far, but I did all of my research and writing for this first look piece on the machine, carting it around New York City, through the airport and onto a plane where I’m publishing this now. This isn’t a review, but I can take you through some of the new stuff and give you thoughts based on that chunk of time. 

This is a re-think of the larger MacBook Pro in many large ways. This is a brand new model that will completely replace the 15” MacBook Pro in Apple’s lineup, not an additional model. 

Importantly, the team working on this new MacBook started with no design constraints on weight, noise, size or battery. This is not a thinner machine, it is not a smaller machine, it is not a quieter machine. It is, however, better than the current MacBook Pro in all of the ways that actually count.

Let’s run down some of the most important new things. 

Performance and thermals

The 16” MacBook Pro comes configured with either a 2.6GHz 6-core i7 or a 2.3GHz 8-core i9 from Intel . These are the same processors as the 15” MacBook Pro came with. No advancements here is largely a function of Intel’s chip readiness. 

The i7 model of the 16” MacBook Po will run $2,399 for the base model — the same as the old 15” — and it comes with a 512GB SSD drive and 16GB of RAM. 

Both models can be ordered today and will be in stores at the end of the week.

The standard graphics configuration in the i7 is an AMD Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB of memory and an integrated Intel UHD graphics 630 chip. The system continues to use the dynamic handoff system that trades power for battery life on the fly.  


The i9 model will run $2,699 and comes with a 1TB drive. That’s a nice bump in storage for both models, into the range of very comfortable for most people. It rolls with an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 4GB of memory.

You can configure both models with an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 8GB of GDDR6 memory. Both models can also now get up to 8TB of SSD storage – which Apple says is the most on a notebook ever – and 64GB of 2666 DDR4 RAM but I’d expect those upgrades to be pricey.

The new power supply delivers an additional 12w of power and there is a new thermal system to compensate for that. The heat pipe that carries air in and out has been redesigned, there are more fan blades on 35% larger fans that move 28% more air compared to the 15” model. 

The fans in the MacBook Pro, when active, put out the same decibel level of sound, but push way more air than before. So, not a reduction in sound, but not an increase either — and the trade is better cooling. Another area where the design process for this MacBook focused on performance gains rather than the obvious sticker copy. 

There’s also a new power brick which is the same physical size as the 15” MacBook Pro’s adapter, but which now supplies 96w up from 87w. The brick is still as chunky as ever and feels a tad heavier, but it’s nice to get some additional power out of it. 

Though I haven’t been able to put the MacBook Pro through any video editing or rendering tests I was able to see live demos of it handling several 8K streams concurrently. With the beefiest internal config Apple says it can usually handle as many as 4, perhaps 5 un-rendered Pro Res streams.

A bigger display, a thicker body

The new MacBook Pro has a larger 16” diagonal Retina display that has a 3072×1920 resolution at 226 ppi. The monitor features the same 500 nit maximum brightness, P3 color gamut and True Tone tech as the current 15”. The bezels of the screen are narrower, which makes it feel even larger when you’re sitting in front of it. This also contributes to the fact that the overall size of the new MacBook Pro is just 2% larger in width and height, with a .7mm increase in thickness. 

The overall increase in screen size far outstrips the increase in overall body size because of those thinner bezels. And this model is still around the same thickness as the 2015 15” MacBook Pro, an extremely popular model among the kinds of people who are the target market for this machine. It also weighs 4.3 lbs, heavier than the 4.02 lb current 15” model.

The display looks great, extremely crisp due to the increase in pixels and even more in your face because of the very thin bezels. This thing feels like it’s all screen in a way that matches the iPad Pro.

This thick boi also features a bigger battery, a full 100Whr, the most allowable under current FAA limits. Apple says this contributes an extra hour of normal operations in its testing regimen in comparison to the current 15” MacBook Pro. I have not been able to effectively test these claims in the time I’ve had with it so far. 

But it is encouraging that Apple has proven willing to make the iPhone 11 Pro and the new MacBook a bit thicker in order to deliver better performance and battery life. Most of these devices are pretty much thin enough. Performance, please.

Speakers and microphone

One other area where the 16” MacBook Pro has made a huge improvement is the speaker and microphone arrays. I’m not sure I ever honestly expected to give a crap about sound coming out of a laptop. Good enough until I put in a pair of headphones accurately describes my expectations for laptop sound over the years. Imagine my surprise when I first heard the sound coming out of this new MacBook and it was, no crap, incredibly good. 

The new array consists of six speakers arranged so that the subwoofers are positioned in pairs, antipodal to one another (back to back). This has the effect of cancelling out a lot of the vibration that normally contributes to that rattle-prone vibrato that has characterized small laptop speakers pretty much forever.

The speaker setup they have here has crisper highs and deeper bass than you’ve likely ever heard from a portable machine. Movies are really lovely to watch with the built-ins, a sentence I have never once felt comfortable writing about a laptop. 

Apple also vents the speakers through their own chambers, rather than letting sound float out through the keyboard holes. This keeps the sound nice and crisp, with a soundstage that’s wide enough to give the impression of a center channel for voice. One byproduct of this though is that blocking one or another speaker with your hand is definitely more noticeable than before.

The quality of sound here is really very, very good. The HomePod team’s work on sound fields apparently keeps paying dividends. 

That’s not the only audio bit that’s better now though, Apple has also put in a 3-mic array for sound recording that it claims has a high enough signal-to-noise ratio that it can rival standalone microphones. I did some testing here comparing it to the iPhone’s mic and it’s absolutely night and day. There is remarkably little hiss present here and artists that use the MacBook as a sketch pad for vocals and other recording are going to get a really nice little surprise here.

I haven’t been able to test it against external mics myself but I was able to listen to rigs that involved a Blue Yeti and other laptop microphones and the MacBook’s new mic array was clearly better than any of the machines and held its own against the Yeti. 

The directional nature of many podcast mics is going to keep them well in advance of the internal mic on the MacBook for the most part, but for truly mobile recording setups the MacBook mic just went from completely not an option to a very viable fallback in one swoop. It really has to be listened to in order to get it. 

I doubt anyone is going to buy a MacBook Pro for the internal mic, but having a ‘pro level’ device finally come with a pro level mic on board is super choice. 

I think that’s most of it, though I feel like I’m forgetting something…

Oh right, the Keyboard

Ah yes. I don’t really need to belabor the point on the MacBook Pro keyboards just not being up to snuff for some time. Whether you weren’t a fan of the short throw on the new butterfly keyboards or you found yourself one of the many people (

) who ran up against jammed or unresponsive keys on that design — you know that there has been a problem.

The keyboard situation has been written about extensively by Casey Johnston and Joanna Stern and complained about by every writer on Twitter over the past several years. Apple has offered a succession of updates to that keyboard to attempt to make it more reliable and has extended warranty replacements to appease customers. 

But the only real solution was to ditch the design completely and start over. And that’s what this is: a completely new keyboard.

Apple is calling it the Magic Keyboard in homage to the iMac’s Magic Keyboard (but not identically designed). The new keyboard is a scissor mechanism, not butterfly. It has 1mm of key travel (more, a lot more) and an Apple-designed rubber dome under the key that delivers resistance and springback that facilitates a satisfying key action. The new keycaps lock into the keycap at the top of travel to make them more stable when at rest, correcting the MacBook Air-era wobble. 

And yes, the keycaps can be removed individually to gain access to the mechanism underneath. And yes, there is an inverted-T arrangement for the arrow keys. And yes, there is a dedicated escape key.

Apple did extensive physiological research when building out this new keyboard. One test was measuring the effect of a keypress on a human finger. Specifically, they measured the effect of a key on the pacinian corpuscles at the tips of your fingers. These are onion-esque structures in your skin that house nerve endings and they are most sensitive to mechanical and vibratory pressure. 

Apple then created this specialized plastic dome that sends a specific vibration to this receptor making your finger send a signal to your brain that says ‘hey you pressed that key.’ This led to a design that gives off the correct vibration wavelength to return a satisfying ‘stroke completed’ message to the brain.

There is also more space between the keys, allowing for more definitive strokes. This is because the keycaps themselves are slightly smaller. The spacing does take some adjustment, but by this point in the article I am already getting pretty proficient and am having more grief from the autocorrect feature of Catalina than anything else. 

Notably, this keyboard is not in the warranty extension program that Apple is applying to its older keyboard designs. There is a standard 1 year warranty on this model, a statement by the company that they believe in the durability of this new design? Perhaps. It has to get out there and get bashed on by more violent keyboard jockeys than I for a while before we can tell whether it’s truly more resilient. 

But does this all come together to make a more usable keyboard? In short, yes. The best way to describe it in my opinion is a blend between the easy cushion of the old MacBook Air and the low profile stability of the Magic Keyboard for iMac. It’s truly one of the best feeling keyboards they’ve made in years and perhaps ever in the modern era. I reserve the right to be nostalgic about deep throw mechanical keyboards in this regard, but this is the next best thing. 

Pro, or Pro

In my brief and admittedly limited testing so far, the 16” MacBook Pro ends up looking like it really delivers on the Pro premise of this kind of machine in ways that have been lacking for a while in Apple’s laptop lineup. The increased storage caps, bigger screen, bigger battery and redesigned keyboard should make this an insta-buy for anyone upgrading from a 2015 MacBook Pro and a very tempting upgrade for even people on newer models that have just never been happy with the typing experience. 

Many of Apple’s devices with the label Pro lately have fallen into the bucket of ‘the best’ rather than ‘for professionals’. This isn’t strictly a new phenomenon for Apple, but more consumer centric devices like the AirPods Pro and the iPhone Pro get the label now than ever before. 

But the 16” MacBook Pro is going to alleviate a lot of the pressure Apple has been under to provide an unabashedly Pro product for Pro Pros. It’s a real return to form for the real Mack Daddy of the laptop category. As long as this new keyboard design proves resilient and repairable I think this is going to kick off a solid new era for Apple portables.

 


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A browser bug was enough to hack an Amazon Echo

20:24 | 9 November

Two security researchers have been crowned the top hackers in this year’s Pwn2Own hacking contest after developing and testing several high profile exploits, including an attack against an Amazon Echo.

Amat Cama and Richard Zhu, who make up Team Fluoroacetate, scored $60,000 in bug bounties for their integer overflow exploit against the latest Amazon Echo Show 5, an Alexa-powered smart display.

The researchers found that the device uses an older version of Chromium, Google’s open-source browser projects, which had been forked some time during its development. The bug allowed them to take “full control” of the device if connected to a malicious Wi-Fi hotspot, said Brian Gorenc, director of Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative, which put on the Pwn2Own contest.

The researchers tested their exploits in a radio-frequency shielding enclosure to prevent any outside interference.

“This patch gap was a common factor in many of the IoT devices compromised during the contest,” Gorenc told TechCrunch.

Amat Cama (left) and Richard Zhu (right), who make up Team Fluoroacetate. (Image: ZDI)

An integer overflow bug happens when a mathematical operation tries to create a number but has no space for it in its memory, causing the number to overflow outside of its allotted memory. That can have security implications for the device.

When reached, Amazon said it was “investigating this research and will be taking appropriate steps to protect our devices based on our investigation,” but did not say what measures it would take to fix the vulnerabilities — or when.

The Echo wasn’t the only internet-connected device at the show. Earlier this year the contest said hackers would have an opportunity to hack into a Facebook Portal, the social media giant’s video calling-enabled smart display. The hackers, however, could not exploit the Portal.

 


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