All posts in “Gadgets”

Apple could be announcing a new cheap iPad

According to a new report from Bloomberg, Apple could be unveiling a new version of its entry-level iPad at its event next week. The company is holding a press event on March 27 in Chicago. And the only thing that we know is that the event is going to be focused on the education market.

Apple launched a cheap iPad in March 2017 without any press conference. This iPad looks like the iPad Air 2 with a 9.7-inch retina display and an A9 chip — the chip that first appeared in the iPhone 6S. More importantly, the entry-level iPad that is simply called “iPad” only costs $320 for the 32GB version.

And it sounds like Apple is ready to introduce an updated version of this iPad. Maybe you can expect a True Tone display and faster components for instance. Hardware is just one part as Bloomberg also says that there will be new iOS features for the classroom.

While the iPad seems to be a great device for the classroom, Google has convinced many schools with its Chromebooks. These laptops are cheap, secure and easy to maintain. You can currently buy Lenovo Chromebooks for $179 without taking into account educational discounts.

Even if Apple chooses to reduce its margins with its new entry-level iPad, this could be a smart bet. Tech companies rely more than ever on the ecosystem of services and devices that they created.

Chances are you’ll like Android phones and Google services if you’ve spent years using Google Docs and Gmail on a Chromebook. Students who use an iPad every day could then become loyal Apple customers in the future.

Rumor has it that Apple is also working on an updated MacBook Air with an affordable price. But Bloomberg thinks the new laptop won’t be ready in time for next week’s event.

Hold this beam for me, friend robot, and let us construct a house together

Being a neophyte in the world of woodworking — I’ve made a shabby but sturdy shed — I can appreciate the value of a good partner who can help measure, cut, hold stuff and generally be a second pair of hands. The usual drawback with humans is you have to pay them or feed them in return for this duty. So imagine my delight in finding that ETH Zürich is pioneering the art of robot-assisted woodworking!

The multi-institutional Spatial Timber Assemblies DFAB House project is an effort to increase the efficiency not just of the process of framing a home, but also of the design itself.

The robot part is as you might expect, though more easily said than created. A pair of ceiling-mounted robot arms in the work area pluck and cut beams to length, put them in position and drill holes where they will later be attached.

Most of this can be accomplished without any human intervention, and what’s more, without reinforcement plates or scaffolding. The designs of these modules (room-size variations that can be mixed and matched) are generated specifically to be essentially freestanding; load and rigidity are handled by the arrangement of beams.

The CAD work is done ahead of time and the robots follow the blueprint, carefully avoiding one another and working slowly but efficiently.

“If any change is made to the project overall, the computer model can be constantly adjusted to meet the new requirements,” explained Matthias Kohler, who heads the project, in an ETHZ news release. “This kind of integrated digital architecture is closing the gap between design, planning and execution.”

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Human workers have to do the bolting step, but that step too seems like it could be automated; the robots may not have the sensors or tools available to undertake it at present.

Eventually the beams will also be reinforced by similarly prefabbed concrete posts and slot into a “smart slab,” optimized for exactly these layouts and created by sand-based 3D printing. The full three-story structure should be complete and open to explore this fall. You can learn more at the project’s website.

Water Abundance XPRIZE finalists compete in gathering water from thin air

Despite being a necessity for life, clean, drinkable water can be extremely hard to come by in some places where war has destroyed infrastructure or climate change has dried up rivers and aquifers. The Water Abundance XPRIZE is up for grabs to teams that can suck fresh water straight out of the air, and it just announced its five finalists.

The requirements for the program are steep enough to sound almost like science fiction: the device must extract “a minimum of 2,000 liters of water per day from the atmosphere using 100 percent renewable energy, at a cost of no more than 2 cents per liter.” Is that even possible?!

For a million bucks, people will try anything. But only five teams have made it to the finals, taking equal shares of a $250,000 “milestone prize” to further their work. There isn’t a lot of technical info on them yet, but here they are, in alphabetical order:

Hydro Harvest: This Australian team based out of the University of Newcastle is “going back to basics,” probably smart if you want to keep costs down. The team has worked together before on an emission-free engine that turns waste heat into electricity.

JMCC Wing: This Hawaiian team’s leader has been working on solar and wind power for many years, so it’s no surprise their solution involves the “marriage” of a super-high-efficiency, scalable wind energy harvester with a commercial water condenser. The bigger the generator, the cheaper the energy.

Skydra: Very little information is available for this Chicago team, except that they have created “a hybrid solution that utilizes both natural and engineered systems.”

The Veragon & Thinair: Alphabetically this collaboration comes on both sides of U, but I’m putting it here. U.K. collaboration has developed a material that “rapidly enhances the process of water condensation,” and are planning not only to produce fresh water but also to pack it with minerals.

Uravu: Out of Hyderabad in India, this team is also going back to basics with a solar-powered solution that doesn’t appear to actually use solar cells — the rays of the sun and design of the device do it all. The water probably comes out pretty warm, though.

The first round of testing took place in January, and round 2 comes in July, at which point the teams’ business plans are also due. In August there should be an announcement of the $1 million grand prize winner. Good luck to all involved and regardless of who takes home the prize, here’s hoping this tech gets deployed to good purpose where it’s needed.

Bell & Ross creates a transparent tourbillon

It’s spring and that means it’s time for Basel, the definitive international watch show. Around this time every year all of your favorite brands – and brands you’ve never heard of – launch unique timepieces that cost more than a few dozen Honda Accords and look like something made by Doctor Manhattan during one of his less melancholy moments.

Today’s wild timepiece comes to use from Bell & Ross, makers of big square watches that look like aircraft dials. This new piece, called the BR-X1-Skeleton-Tourbillon-Sapphire, maintains the traditional B&R shape but is almost completely clear with a case made of sapphire and held together by pins and screws. The movement, which comes in three colors, is a complete hand-wound tourbillon system and is beautifully visible from all angles.

A tourbillon, for the uninitiated, is a system for rotating the watch’s balance wheel 360 degrees. This system, originally created by Breguet, ensured that a watch didn’t slow down when subjected to odd gravitational forces. Now, however, it’s a wildly expensive conversation starter.

This is a beautiful update to B&R’s original see-through watch and, while the vast majority of us will never own something like this, it’s nice to know that someone still cares about horological complexity paired with wild design. How much does it cost to own the watch equivalent of Wonder Woman’s Invisible Jet? About $500,000. The piece, for those interested in picking one up, will be available online.

Samsung’s Galaxy S9 is the way to wean yourself off of DSLRs

Samsung has a new smartphone out, the Galaxy S9 (and S9+). It’s the latest flagship from one of the top smartphone makers in the world, but this year’s version has a lot in common with last year’s model, at least on the surface. The big focus (lol) this year was on the camera, and for good reason: Samsung stepped up its game significantly in this department with this update, and it comes closest to any smartphone camera I’ve tried yet to replicating some of the aspects of traditional photography that I love.

Arguably, other smartphone cameras, and the Pixel 2 in particular, can produce better photos. The Samsung Galaxy S9 is basically on par with that industry leader when it comes to quality of photos when shot in automatic mode – in some situations, including a lot of low-light scenarios, the S9 is better, but in others, like when there are big lightning differences across the scene, Google’s smartphone edges the Samsung. But either device (and the latest iPhones, if you’re going beyond Android) is going to be a fantastic photographic choice for most smartphone buyers, and that shouldn’t be a major concern when making a buying decision.

Where the Samsung Galaxy S9 really takes a leap forward is in bringing some of what has been so appealing about manual-friendly retro camera designs like those favoured by Fujifilm to the mobile realm. There are plenty of manual photography apps that do similar things, but the Galaxy S9 has its crucial dual aperture camera lens, which can manually switch from F/1.5 to F/2.4 in pro shooting mode. This gives you a noticeable degree of control over depth of field, or the effect of subtly blurring either background or foreground details depending on where you want to draw attention in the frame.

It’s this small, but crucial detail that really drives the appeal of the S9 for me. Without it, it’d be difficult to roundly recommend it as a major upgrade from last year’s model, and hard to say that it can stand apart from the rest of the crowd, most of which now feature magnificent cameras.

The Galaxy S9 also produces pretty fantastic results with full-light photos outdoors, as you can see from the gallery, with vibrant, rich color that might be a bit artificial, but ultimately comes off looking like it includes the kind of minor boosts and tweaks I’d do while editing in post anyway. The video shooting is good, as well, though it lacks the degree of stabilization that Google’s Pixel 2 can provide when filming while in motion.

On the Galaxy S9+ (which I didn’t test, but spent a bit of time with ahead of launch), the dual-camera design provides even more balm for DSLR and mirrorless addicts, since it gives you access to that 2x manual zoom. But the standard S9 strikes a great balance in terms of portability, design and features, and honestly most people won’t often use the zoom lens anyway.

Another key feature of the S9 is its new super slow motion mode, which captures brief clips at 960 fps at 720p resolution. I had fun with this, but found its automatic mode frustrating (it rarely detected motion when I wanted it to, and often went either too early or too late to get the moment). Turning that to manual was again more fun, for many of the reasons described above, and more interesting in terms of results produced, like the clip below.

Other new features, including the AR Emoji, are less well-executed and will probably enter the dustbin of history with a lot of other Samsung exclusive features. That’s not necessarily a criticism however: Samsung trying a bunch of stuff and then introducing it into the wild for hundreds of millions of customers isn’t hurting anyone (though mode switching on the S9 is super sensitive to casual left and right swipes, meaning AR emoji could come up accidentally) and sometimes crazy stuff they try actually works. AR emojis is not one of those.