Beats' spin on the new AirPods could debut in April


Beats

Apple at long last has updated its AirPods, and subsidiary Beats may be set to expand its own product lineup with its first true wireless earbuds. CNET reports Beats will announce a fully wireless version of its Powerbeats next month.

They could include the same H1 chip as the latest AirPods and may have handsfree support for Apple’s voice assistant through the “Hey Siri” function. The true wireless Powerbeats may also offer more use out of a single charge than AirPods (which offer about five hours of listening time).

Beats adopted a similar release strategy after Apple announced the first version of AirPods in 2016. Soon after, it revealed several headphones with the same W1 chip as its parent company’s earphones.

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Intel is ending development of its Compute Cards


Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Intel is halting development on its line of Compute Cards, according to a report from Tom’s Hardware. The company will continue to sell its existing line of Compute Cards for the time being and will continue to offer support for the current generation of products through 2019. Beyond that, Intel is essentially leaving behind the modular computing concept.

Compute Cards were first introduced by Intel at Computex in 2017. The concept behind the product was to fit all of the necessary computing power a device may need — CPU, RAM, storage, etc. — onto a single card. Those cards would then be interchangeable, allowing a person to quickly upgrade their desktops, laptops or other devices in a matter of minutes. Rather than swap out the pieces individually or let a machine slowly fall behind modern devices, the Compute Card would make it easy to stay up to date with the latest hardware.

One of Intel’s partners, NexDock, expressed some frustration over the discontinuation of Compute Cards. In a blog post, the company said it took them over a year to develop software that would allow its NexPad computer to work with Intel’s modular devices. With the machine finally ready, Intel is ceasing support for the Compute Cards and taking away the prospect of upgradability that would have been the NexPad’s primary selling point.

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Gates-backed Lumotive upends lidar conventions using metamaterials

Pretty much every self-driving car on the road, not to mention many a robot and drone, uses lidar to sense its surroundings. But useful as lidar is, it also involves physical compromises that limit its capabilities. Lumotive is a new company with funding from Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures that uses metamaterials to exceed those limits, perhaps setting a new standard for the industry.

The company is just now coming out of stealth, but it’s been in the works for a long time. I actually met with them back in 2017 when the project was very hush-hush and operating under a different name at IV’s startup incubator. If the terms “metamaterials” and “Intellectual Ventures” tickle something in your brain, it’s because the company has spawned several startups that use intellectual property developed there, building on the work of materials scientist David Smith.

Metamaterials are essentially specially engineered surfaces with microscopic structures — in this case, tunable antennas — embedded in them, working as a single device.

Echodyne is another company that used metamaterials to great effect, shrinking radar arrays to pocket size by engineering a radar transceiver that’s essentially 2D and can have its beam steered electronically rather than mechanically.

The principle works for pretty much any wavelength of electromagnetic radiation — i.e. you could use X-rays instead of radio waves — but until now no one has made it work with visible light. That’s Lumotive’s advance, and the reason it works so well.

Flash, 2D, and 1D lidar

Lidar basically works by bouncing light off the environment and measuring how and when it returns; This can be accomplished in several ways.

Flash lidar basically sends out a pulse that illuminates the whole scene with near-infrared light (905 nanometers, most likely) at once. This provides a quick measurement of the whole scene, but limited distance as the power of the light being emitted is limited.

2D or raster scan lidar takes a NIR laser and plays it over the scene incredibly quickly, left to right, down a bit, then do it again, again, and again… scores or hundreds of times. Focusing the power into a beam gives these systems excellent range, but similar to a CRT TV with an electron beam tracing out the image, it takes rather a long time to complete the whole scene. Turnaround time is naturally of major importance in driving situations.

1D or line scan lidar strikes a balance between the two, using a vertical line of laser light that only has to go from one side to the other to complete the scene. This sacrifices some range and resolution but significantly improves responsiveness.

Lumotive offered the following diagram, which helps visualize the systems, although obviously “suitability” and “too short” and “too slow” are somewhat subjective:

The main problem with the latter two is that they rely on a mechanical platform to actually move the laser emitter or mirror from place to place. It works fine for the most part, but there are inherent limitations. For instance, it’s difficult to stop, slow, or reverse a beam that’s being moved by a high speed mechanism. If your 2D lidar system sweeps over something that could be worth further inspection, it has to go through the rest of its motions before coming back to it… over and over.

This is the primary advantage offered by a metamaterial system over existing ones: electronic beam steering. In Echodyne’s case the radar could quickly sweep over its whole range like normal, and upon detecting an object could immediately switch over and focus 90 percent of its cycles tracking it in higher spatial and temporal resolution. The same thing is now possible with lidar.

Imagine a deer jumping out around a blind curve. Every millisecond counts because the earlier a self-driving system knows the situation, the more options it has to accommodate it. All other things being equal, an electronically-steered lidar system would detect the deer at the same time as the mechanically-steered ones, or perhaps a bit sooner; Upon noticing this movement, could not just make more time for evaluating it on the next “pass,” but a microsecond later be backing up the beam and specifically targeting just the deer with the majority of its resolution.

Just for illustration. The beam isn’t some big red thing that comes out.

Targeted illumination would also improve the estimation of direction and speed, further improving the driving system’s knowledge and options — meanwhile the beam can still dedicate a portion of its cycles to watching the road, requiring no complicated mechanical hijinks to do so. Meanwhile it has an enormous aperture, allowing high sensitivity.

In terms of specs, it depends on many things, but if the beam is just sweeping normally across its 120×25 degree field of view, the standard unit will have about a 20Hz frame rate, with a 1000×256 resolution. That’s comparable to competitors, but keep in mind that the advantage is in the ability to change that field of view and frame rate on the fly. In the example of the deer, it may maintain a 20Hz refresh for the scene at large but concentrate more beam time on a 5×5 degree area, giving it a much faster rate.

Meta doesn’t mean mega-expensive

Naturally one would assume that such a system would be considerably more expensive than existing ones. Pricing is still a ways out — Lumotive just wanted to show that its tech exists for now — but this is far from exotic tech.

CG render of a lidar metamaterial chip.The team told me in an interview that their engineering process was tricky specifically because they designed it for fabrication using existing methods. It’s silicon-based, meaning it can use cheap and ubiquitous 905nm lasers rather than the rarer 1550nm, and its fabrication isn’t much more complex than making an ordinary display panel.

CTO and co-founder Gleb Akselrod explained: “Essentially it’s a reflective semiconductor chip, and on the surface we fabricate these tiny antennas to manipulate the light. It’s made using a standard semiconductor process, then we add liquid crystal, then the coating. It’s a lot like an LCD.”

An additional bonus of the metamaterial basis is that it works the same regardless of the size or shape of the chip. While an inch-wide rectangular chip is best for automotive purposes, Akselrod said, they could just as easily make one a quarter the size for robots that don’t need the wider field of view, or an larger or custom-shape one for a specialty vehicle or aircraft.

The details, as I said, are still being worked out. Lumotive has been working on this for years and decided it was time to just get the basic information out there. “We spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the technology to investors,” noted CEO and co-founder Bill Colleran. He, it should be noted, is a veteran innovator in this field, having headed Impinj most recently, and before that was at Broadcom, but is perhaps he is best known for being CEO of Innovent when it created the first CMOS Bluetooth chip.

Right now the company is seeking investment after running on a 2017 seed round funded by Bill Gates and IV, which (as with other metamaterial-based startups it has spun out) is granting Lumotive an exclusive license to the tech. There are partnerships and other things in the offing but the company wasn’t ready to talk about them; the product is currently in prototype but very showable form for the inevitable meetings with automotive and tech firms.

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The Nissan Leaf Plus adds more EV range but not more fun

While other automakers were debating the merits of the electric car, Nissan was already selling the Leaf (the little EV hit the market in 2010, two years before the Model S). The automaker has sold over 400,000 units since then. That’s impressive. But in the past nine years, the EV market has changed, and when the latest version of the vehicle was unveiled, it had a range of 151 miles. That’s clearly not enough for our new over-200-mile-range vehicle world. So in January of this year, the Leaf Plus (starting at $36,550) with 226 miles of range appeared. Problem solved, right? Well, maybe.

Gallery: 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus | 11 Photos

At its heart, the Nissan Leaf Plus is a great little electric hatchback. During my tests, I found it to be a capable car that delivers on nearly all of its promises. It’s efficient, full of most of the latest tech with a surprisingly spacious trunk. But it’s missing something: fun. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

First, the good. The actually really good. Nissan introduced ProPilot Assist last year, and it immediately impressed me. Mostly because the first car to get the newest driver’s assistant was the Leaf. It’s one of the best semi-autonomous systems for an electric vehicle in this price range. The lane-keep assist does a great job centering the car in its lane and can handle most highway curves. The adaptive cruise control feature is smooth; it responds when a car merges in front of the Leaf. I’m also a fan of the steering wheel button as the main on/off switch for the system.

Another great driving feature is e-Pedal, which allows for one-pedal driving. The system works like this: Once activated, the vehicle’s regenerative braking power is cranked up to slow the car down to a complete stop whenever you’re not accelerating. It’s a smooth transition from accelerating to stopping so you’re not being jarred around in the car.

When using the e-Pedal — especially in the city and after some practice — a driver could get around without ever having to use the foot brake. It takes a bit to master the system so that when the Leaf comes to a halt at an intersection you’re not too far back or in the crosswalk. But, the added efficiency you get while in this mode makes it worth the effort to learn.

2019 Nissan Leaf Plus review

For EVs, efficiency is the name of the game (aka, battery life). The Leaf Plus’ 62kWh cell delivers up to 226 miles. That’s a solid upgrade from the 151 of the regular Leaf, but short of Hyundai’s 258 mile Kona EV and Kia’s 240 mile Niro EV. Nissan made a smart move with the Plus, but it’ll have to do better next refresh or risk being left behind (again).

Inside, the automaker’s NissanConnect infotainment system sits behind an 8-inch touchscreen, and instead of just copying a tablet, each screen mimics a home screen with one main feature surrounded by other options. The system offers up more information in larger easy-to-glance-at squares.

There was some latency between my taps and something launching, but it wasn’t enough to become a nuisance. The only real issue I had was with the voice assistant clearly not understanding me about 70 percent of the time. Fortunately, CarPlay and Android Auto are supported so you can just yell at those instead, after you get tired of Nissan’s hard-of-hearing in-car assist.

While I was unable to satisfactorily talk to the car, I was impressed by the dash cluster that shares a majority of the important information you want from an EV — including charging progress and real-time efficiency numbers. Throw in the ProPilot Assist driving information and the Leaf’s dash cluster is the most important screen in the car.

Nissan has done a great job infusing tech into its latest Leaf. This is likely thanks to it being one of the only EVs on the market with any sort of history. This vehicle is an evolution of the Leaf brand. I just wish Nissan had added some pizazz to the EV.

2019 Nissan Leaf Plus review

Don’t get me wrong. The Nissan Leaf Plus performs exactly as you would expect. Its 214 horsepower and 250 foot-pounds of torque give it a nice initial burst of speed. But it’s short-lived and for the most part, the acceleration and steering are uninspired. The car is a well-written reference book instead of a piece of great fiction. Some people like reference books and cars that perform as advertised. For those folks, the Nissan Leaf delivers. But I like character and the Leaf Plus is lacking.

At least, while you’re sitting in the car, you’re comfortable. The seats, while situated a little high for my taste, are pleasant. A lot of Leafs will end up as commuter vehicles and having a seat you don’t mind sitting on is important. If you’re someone that hauls a lot of stuff, you’ll be happy to know that the Leaf has 23.5 cubic feet of space. The Kona EV, for comparison, only has 19.2 cubic feet. The Nissan gets all that extra room thanks to a deep trunk well. That space is usually taken up by the battery pack in other cars and it’s nice to reclaim it for groceries, sports gear or furniture from Ikea.

After a long day of driving, the Leaf has the requisite level 2 charging port. But its quick-charging port is the CHAdeMO standard. It can be a bit tougher to find compatible charging stations, but the added benefit is that I was able to use fast-charging stations without waiting in line behind a bunch of Chevy Bolts.

2019 Nissan Leaf Plus review

The Leaf Plus supports up to 100kW of fast charging. Most stations right now are 50kW. But hopefully, soon we’ll see these quicker stations. Even if CHAdeMO doesn’t catch on like the DC combo charging port, at least Nissan dealerships will be someplace Leaf owners can top off in a jiffy.

The Nissan Leaf is a smart mid-cycle upgrade to the latest Leaf. The car is the best-selling EV ever and Nissan has taken most of what it’s learned over the years to make it better. That includes a first-class driver’s assistance package. But, the market is getting crowded, and when it comes to range and fun behind the wheel, the Leaf falls short of its competitors.

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The Morning After: Trying out Nintendo's Labo VR goggles

Hey, good morning! You look fabulous.

After a week full of reveals and announcements, we’re taking a closer look at Google’s Stadia promises and everything Apple’s updated iPads have to offer. Also, Nintendo is getting (back) into VR, and Comcast has an internet TV box.


Can a game platform for everyone work well for anyone?Google is convinced it can get game streaming right

Aside from 4K, HDR and 60 fps, as well as game-loading times as short as three seconds (all from a link, no less), Google is already talking about one day streaming games in 8K and 120 fps on Stadia. In an interview with Engadget, exec Phil Harrison explains why we should believe any of it is going to be possible.


Wait, what?Microsoft Defender is jumping from Windows to Mac

Just days after launching Windows Defender extensions for Chrome and Firefox, Microsoft is bringing its anti-malware package to more platforms, starting with the Mac. Of course, it no longer makes sense to call it Windows Defender, so now it’s Microsoft Defender.


Just Pro enough.Apple iPad Air hands-on (2019)

We don’t have a full review ready for you yet, but after a few days, we already have some opinions to share about the updated iPad Air (and, of course, an iPad mini that’s getting its first refresh in three years). When it comes to the Air, Chris Velazco says that “there’s little new ground broken here — you’ll mostly find a bunch of very practical refinements and choices made to manage costs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.”


$5 per month for Comcast’s X1-powered take on Roku and Fire TV.Comcast launches Xfinity Flex internet streaming TV

The latest option for cord cutters is coming from… a cable company? Xfinity Flex will launch next week, with streaming set-top boxes powered by the same X1 interface seen on Comcast’s latest cable boxes. Offered only to people with Comcast internet, it pulls in both free internet video options like YouTube and Cheddar TV, in addition to popular pay services from Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime and Showtime.

So why pay a monthly fee to Comcast instead of using built-in TV apps or something like an Apple TV, Roku or Fire TV? For people who need a little more help making the shift away from cable, easy access to customer support and a familiar grid guide might help — and for Comcast, provide the chance for an easy cable TV upsell. Or you could save a few bucks and cut Comcast out entirely.


It’s not another Virtual Boy.Nintendo’s Labo turns the Switch into a perfect VR gateway

The handful of experiences included in Nintendo’s latest Labo kit for the Switch were enough to convince Devindra Hardawar that the company knows what it’s doing. Despite the limitations of the cardboard setup and a 720P Switch display, it’s “centered around accessibility and brief moments of surprise and delight.” The complete kit ships for $80 on April 12th, but take a look at our hands-on video before diving in.


Don’t call it a discount.Tesla’s ‘sustainable’ referral program limits free Supercharging

When Tesla axed its original referral program because it was getting too expensive to keep up, Elon Musk said the company isn’t replacing it with a new one. Just a few weeks later, it has been replaced, and when someone purchases a Tesla using a friend’s referral code, both of them will get 1,000 miles of Supercharging for free.

They’ll also get one chance to win a Founder’s Series Model Y, monthly, and a Founder’s series Roadster supercar, quarterly. Both cars will be signed by Musk and Tesla chief designer Franz von Holzhausen. If the referrer already has unlimited Supercharging, they’ll get two chances to win per referral instead.


Get ready for ‘show time.’What to expect from Apple’s streaming-video event

After high-profile flops like Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke, it’s a bit tough to feel that excited about whatever Apple is cooking up — but there’s always the chance it could offer something truly unique. Beyond its TV service, we could see even more TV partnerships announced at the media event, as well as a release date for iOS 12.2. We might also get a peek at Apple’s subscription news service, though it doesn’t quite fit in with the entertainment tone of the event.

But wait, there’s more…


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